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COLUMN: Forgotten literary past

December 29, 2013

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Last year, when I took up a non-stipendiary research fellowship at the School of Oriental and African Studies, I had the opportunity to spend several days among the shelves of the Urdu section, where many years ago I’d done much of my research for the book that became Hoops of Fire: Fifty Years of Fiction by Pakistani Women. The original plan for the book had been to collect enough pieces for a representative anthology of Urdu short fiction. This soon proved an overly ambitious project; my commissioning editor at Saqi Books, the late Mai Ghoussoub, soon managed to persuade me to restrict myself to selecting stories by Pakistani women.

One of the greatest discoveries of that period, exactly two decades ago, was a number of novels by women published in the early part of the 20th century. Many of these would have been completely forgotten if it hadn’t been for the pioneering work of Shaista Ikramullah. She wrote her thesis on modern Urdu literature here at SOAS in the 1930s and published it as a book in 1945. That book, too, had been long out of print when I found it on a shelf. I spent many hours tracing several of the books she wrote about, and discovering a world of women’s writing I may never otherwise have known existed.

Begum Ikramullah was a family friend. I had read her memoirs at the age of about 13, but I can’t remember if I knew she was a scholar of Urdu. I certainly wasn’t aware of her remarkable talent as a short story writer until I found a rare copy of her only collection, Koshish-e-Natamaam (1950), in the library. I was impressed by how finely-crafted these stories were, particularly ‘Azad Chiriya,’ which was about a bored and neglected young woman in Calcutta who divorces her husband. I thought I’d translate that for my anthology, but it proved to be outside my remit as I’d been advised to focus on the post-Partition stories. Shaista Ikramullah’s book was introduced by the eminent Ahmed Ali, who mentioned the narrow frame within which the author worked. I noticed, however, that the stories were very different from each other in structure, setting and subject. The only thread that bound them together was the careful simplicity of the author’s style, which her critical readings of Urdu fiction had honed and polished so that message and medium were inseparable. As a whole, the collection offers a gallery of pictures of a world in transition between feudalism and modernity: the old is not yet dead and, to extend Gramsci’s metaphor, the new is in the throes of the most painful birth pangs.

One of the short story writers of the ’30s Shaista Ikramullah praised highly was Rashid Jahan, the radical doctor who had been a part of the group that wrote and produced the trailblazing anthology Angaare, which many critics consider the first and seminal work of modernist literature in Urdu. Rashid went on to write other stories and plays. I read more of her stories in the only volume she published in her lifetime, Aurat, and then in a posthumous volume. I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with the programmatic agenda of some of the progressives, but even when I put Rashid’s work aside as it wasn’t from the post-Partition period, scenes from it continued to haunt me: a man watching a donkey dying outside a Hindu temple; a young woman looking from the back of a car at a man in a remote spot by a river, who grabs a burqa from a prostitute to hide his face, leaving her naked in a flashlight; a veiled woman guarding her luggage in Delhi’s central station while her husband wanders off with a friend; a blind beggar scrabbling in the dust for the jalebis that an alms giver has thrown at him for his iftari. Many years later, on a book-buying trip to Delhi, I looked for a definitive edition of Rashid’s stories in the Jamia Millia bookshop, with no success, and was again reminded of how good we are at forgetting our literary past.

Now both Shaista Ikramullah and Rashid Jahan are back in print. It was with great pleasure that I received, in 2006, Oxford University Press’ reprint of Shaista Ikramullah’s study of Urdu fiction, and about two years ago, a copy of her stories from the same publisher, both with new introductions. Several of Rashid Jahan’s stories and plays, along with some rediscovered journalistic pieces, are now available in Nasr-e-Rashid Jahan (Sang-e-Meel). The volume is edited by Humaira Ashfaq, who feels that the work of this important writer has been has been neglected by critics, possibly because she didn’t move to Pakistan after the Partition. We might not agree with this statement, though it’s true that Rashid, who was busy with her political activism and her medical career, didn’t cultivate the image of a dedicated writer. However, we must not forget that her apparently effortless craftsmanship influenced several other writers, notably Ismat Chughtai. Her career was multifaceted; she may, if she hadn’t died of cancer in her 40s, have entered another phase of writing (as Shaista Ikramullah successfully did, later in life, when she moved with confidence between genres and language).

I wondered, when I finally read her work last year, whether Amina Nazli, one of the few women writers who wrote short plays, was influenced by Rashid Jahan, not only in her choice of genres but in the concision of her language and brevity of her fictions, many of which are only a page or two long. Beginning in the women’s quarters of Delhi and Agra, these stories move across the border and take their protagonists to the crowded lanes of Bohri Bazar and Saddar in Karachi. Nazli deals obliquely with the trauma of displacement, but once her characters settle into their new environment, they replay the preoccupations of their past: food, money, marriage and power. Nazli deliberately restricts her frame to the domestic, neither seeking to make obvious sociopolitical points like Rashid, nor chafing to escape the confines of her frame and reach the avenues of modernity as Ikramullah’s characters often do.

But when, rarely, she ventures out of her self-imposed confinement, as in a sequence of stories set in Kashmir where we see the beleaguered inhabitants of the earthly paradise through the eyes of tourists, she’s extremely successful at the effort. A tour de force in her collection is a brief, haunting story about the Partition in which an abducted woman learns to respect her Sikh captor just before she leaves him for Pakistan, her new and unwelcoming ‘homeland’.

Nazli was one of the few writers I hadn’t been able to locate in the SOAS archives or the British Library, which also has a cache of lost Urdu fiction. The only work of hers I ever came across was Ismati Dastarkhwan, a book of recipes my mother keeps on her kitchen shelf and regularly consults. But her son Haziqul Khairi’s selection, Amina Nazli ke Muntakhib Afsane Aur Drame, is a valuable addition to the canon of writings we’ve unfairly forgotten.

Is it nostalgia, then, that makes us turn to these fictions of the past, or a desire to learn more about a history we haven’t experienced? The stories of Rashid Jahan, Shaista Ikramullah or Amina Nazli hardly make us long to return to our ancestral homes or a more gracious mode of living: they often dwell on the darker aspects of the society that formed them. Understandably, there’s been an emphasis, in the past decade, on translating and reprinting autobiographies and memoirs, particularly by women. Shaista Ikramullah, for example, is still probably best known to readers as a social historian, who preserved some of the more gracious aspects of our heritage in her non-fiction, including her collection of Urdu proverbs, and her perennially popular, lavishly illustrated Behind the Veil.

When, some years ago, the posthumous first collection of an unknown poet, Nafisa Itaat Husain, was published with opening remarks by her two daughters, Naushaba Burney and Ameena Saiyid, as well as by the renowned poets Zehra Nigah and Fahmida Riaz, more attention was paid to the long introduction by the great Qurratulain Hyder — who placed the author’s life in the context of the colonial period and the slow emergence of women into the light of education and emancipation — than to the poems in the collection.

We may well expect these poems to be nostalgic and slight; they’re graceful verses written for family occasions and reunions, firmly rooted in traditional forms and prosody, bringing back the gentler cadences of the past. Rather than attempting to reclaim what’s lost, they transport the leisurely gestures of a disappearing and almost forgotten world into the fast, tumultuous world of late 20th century Karachi; instead of lamenting the past, they offer moments of respite from the noise and the chaos. Yet they remain aware of the present. In the opening poems, the writer observes a world turning on itself, a city in mourning, a bitter wind blowing. She concludes with a prayer for reform and peace.