New Urdu Writings from India and Pakistan is an interesting collection of some remarkable stories by Indian and Pakistani contemporary Urdu writers, all translated into English. Edited by Rakhshanda Jalil, the collection covers a wide range of subjects and the common inspirations shared by authors of both countries, even after more than six decades of separation, is intriguing. In fact, in most cases it would be difficult to segregate the stories by their content if the reader is not informed about the writer’s country of origin.
There are stories that you forget as soon as you have read them and those that stick in your mind. This enduring quality of a work of fiction determines the merit of a creation, irrespective of the structural components like the plot, characters, setting and theme, or even the language of a story, or a novel for that matter. Most of the stories in this collection possess, to varying degree, that enduring quality.
The first section of the book consists of writings from India. The story ‘Empty Bottles’ by Jeelani Bano is about a young woman from an affluent family waiting at a bus stop for her lover. He comes from a poor background and she is waiting for him to join her so that they can then proceed for a court marriage against her family’s wishes. ‘The Gun’ by Tariq Chhatari is an emotional tale of suspense about the hostility and compassion between Hindu and Muslim communities during riots. The story titled ‘The Biggest Sin’ is a profound social portrayal of the discrimination women suffer in the subcontinent and has been powerfully portrayed by Noor Zaheer.
In the second part consisting of Pakistani writers, Neelam Ahmed Basheer tackles the subject of the feudal practice of marrying women with the Quran, in a bold and powerful story ‘Lest My Breath Disturb Thy Peace’. ‘Vanilla Crumble’ by Asif Farrukhi is a sad narrative about a sense of loss — with a tinge of guilt — shared by many natives at the flight of ethnic minorities from Pakistan due to the threat of intolerance in society. A delicate issue is subtly handled by Hasan Manzar in ‘Revulsion’. Its translation is more literal than idiomatic. Although it does not hamper the flow of the narrative, somehow “Collector sahib” has been translated as “Kolkar sahib”.
Fahmida Riaz’s ‘Did the Pink Pigeon Win?’ sheds light on the effects of social and political changes transforming the lives and values of ordinary people, in this case a Pakhtun woman, a Tatar woman and the family of a religious leader. ‘Jabala’s Son’ by Intizar Husain is a compelling tale of wisdom and a thought-provoking comment on the universal human condition. ‘Coffin’ by the remarkable writer Ali Akbar Natiq shows through a potent plot the contrast between how Western and subcontinental societies value individuals.
Translating literature can be as challenging as writing stories or a novels. One reason is that the literal and implied meaning of a piece can be totally different at times, even conflicting. To bridge that perception gap the translator needs to exercise the same level of discernment and sensitivity as the author, which is easier said than done. The general level of translations in this book — done by the editor, Rakhshanda Jalil, as well as Saba Ansari and Asif Farrukhi — is good. Jalil also provides the introduction and gives a fairly comprehensive roundup of the selected works, as well as the Urdu literary scene in the subcontinent today. The glossary and the notes on contributors and translators at the end of the book are useful supplements. It is commendable to collect and make available a sampling of the literary trends in Urdu in the English language. However, the small font size used for the text in this paperback edition can be a discouraging feature for many readers.
While there is, indeed, proximity between the stories from the two countries, I am unable to ignore the feeling that the stories selected from Pakistan in this collection seem to have a little more diversity and a notch higher intensity. Could that be due to a more traumatic history of the past few decades in Pakistan? I guess the reader would be the best judge of that.
New Urdu Writings from India & Pakistan
Edited by Rakhshanda Jalil
Tranquebar Press, India