COLUMN:Urdu short story: the modernist phase (1950s and after)

Published May 25, 2014
Muhammad Umar Memon is a writer, translator and editor of The Annual of Urdu Studies. He was Professor of Urdu Literature and Islamic Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is an Emeritus Professor now.
Muhammad Umar Memon is a writer, translator and editor of The Annual of Urdu Studies. He was Professor of Urdu Literature and Islamic Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is an Emeritus Professor now.

The Progressives were more or less a spent force by the mid-1950s, or at least had lost their earlier chokehold on the writer’s imagination. Half of their ideological battle had been won: the British had departed and the country was free, even if the freedom had come in the wake of much carnage and dislocation. The other half, the dream of a just, equitable and secular society, however noble, properly belonged — as a generation of artistically better-informed writers was soon to find out — to the realm of political and social action. For this generation, brought up on Dostoyevsky and Joyce, existentialists Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and such anti-novelists as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor, sincerity and nobility and social usefulness had little place in a narrative art whose basic building block was ‘fabrication’.

Partition was thus perhaps the only major theme that inspired a sizable corpus of writing dealing starkly and unabashedly with a political issue. Few Urdu writers in India or Pakistan have since ventured to step into that domain so demonstratively and persistently. And where they have — such as the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971, and in more recent times the rise of Hindu nationalism in India and of regionalism and sectarianism in Pakistan — their writing has invariably suffered from overtness and overstatement, but gained through indirection, inwardness, suggestion, and a sense of distance.

A few exceptions notwithstanding, the Urdu short story up to the mid-1950s is structurally quite simple. Causality, seriality, the tripartite formula of beginning, middle, and end as popularised by E. M. Forster, an almost fanatical insistence on what is often termed “unity of expression and effect,” the surprise ending à la Maupassant and O. Henry — here the repertoire more or less runs out. Social reality, not the character’s psychology, provides the inspiration for the writer and defines his calling. But in exposing contemporary social reality the writer almost always taints the fictional event and character with his own prejudices. There is little evidence as yet of a move toward either suppressing the writer’s point of view or cancelling the narrator altogether.

However, in at least one story by Manto, ‘Phundne’ (Tassels; 1954), the narrator’s identity is wholly suspended. Using absolutely incredible events and characterisation that relentlessly shun the factual, ‘Tassels’ at no point allows the writer to become the narrator. Thus both the character and events remain free from the writer’s intruding persona. The resulting reality exists in an eccentric and autonomous domain, and even though its elements could be recognised as social, their meaning is not necessarily socially determined.

The next logical step was to develop further the expressive possibilities inherent in both ‘Tassels’ and a few other short stories by Askari and Ahmed Ali. This step was taken by what is called jadeed afsaana (the new short story).

Periodisation has never proved satisfactory in either literary history or in literary taxonomies. While a precise date for the emergence of the new short story cannot be given, as some of its elements sporadically show up in Manto and others, it can nonetheless be said that the new short story as a more pervasive genre is a phenomenon dating from the 1960s only. Although Intizar Husain, Enver Sajjad (Pakistan), Surendar Parkash, and Balraj Manra (India) are generally credited with ushering in the modernist phase of the Urdu short story, none except Manra actually started out with a recognisably ‘modernist’ fiction. The other three came to it after a prolonged apprenticeship in the traditional mechanics of the craft.

The word ‘modern’ might be best understood in this context as a synonym for ‘post-realism’. It undergirds a set of literary assumptions, viz., that there is an internal structure to reality beyond what meets the eye, and human nature is infinitely more complex than was assumed by Progressive writing. Realistic, thematic paradigms employed hitherto were equipped to deal with external reality only. A more flexible and inclusive paradigm is called for, if it is man in his infinite mystery that one wants to fathom. This new paradigm cannot put its trust unquestioningly in the techniques of realism; rather it must freely revise old notions of linearity, plot and character.

In Dujardin’s novel Les Lauriers Sont Coupés (1887) Western fiction had found the narrative technique to plumb the depths of individual consciousness in the most spontaneous way yet: to let the consciousness narrate itself. The very first sentence lands the reader, directly and ineluctably, in the mind of Daniel Prince, the novel’s dandy protagonist.

If Dujardin was unknown to the Urdu writer, his successor James Joyce was not. He influenced some of the Progressives themselves. Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali and Askari had already employed interior monologue and stream of consciousness, though somewhat tentatively; however, in Urdu their use has become more or less synonymous with Qurratulain Hyder. Hyder, whose literary career dates from Partition or thereabouts, turned decisively towards a focused use of stream of consciousness only in the late 1950s, with her novel Aag ka Darya (River of Fire; 1959), which she wrote, as some Urdu critics believe, under influences absorbed from Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Other narrative devices, too, make their appearance at about the same time. Intizar Husain experimented more or less successfully with collapsing the seriality of time and staggering the linear chronology of events, to articulate, on the one hand, the powerful inner tensions of his protagonist, and to capture, on the other, the precise texture of the enchanted world of his childhood. His novel Basti (Town; 1979) offers a more refined treatment of this technique, already anticipated in a number of previous short stories, among them ‘Dehliz’ (The Threshold; 1955), ‘Sirhiyaan’ (The Stairs; 1955), and ‘Kataa Hua Dibba’ (A Stranded Railroad Car; 1954).

With Enver Sajjad, Balraj Manra, Surendar Parkash and Ahmad Hamesh fictional narrative turns further inward. The traditional notion of causality gives way to an abstract principle of causality. Narrative foreground is deliberately muted or flattened, and the form is taxed with the entire burden of creating meaning. Enver Sajjad, for instance, does away with all but the most crucial particularising detail, to penetrate, seemingly, down to the essence of experience with relentless immediacy and directness. The highly textured narrative surface of his work strives, quite self-consciously, for a fusion between fictional form and content. He expresses his subject through short stories that are stripped down to the bare minimum. The attenuated form inevitably packs his prose to the breaking point, but gives it a brutal directness and poignancy. His subject — as he has so often delineated it for the reader, and of which ‘The Bird’ and ‘The Cow’ are good examples — is essentially the same: protest against all forms of oppression.

Preoccupation with tyranny and oppression might suggest topicality and even appear modish, reducing the piece to a mere tract for the times. Indeed some ideological critics, and certainly the remnants of the Progressives, have rushed to anoint Sajjad as the saviour of the Third World. But some astute critics, among them Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, have also noted that the expected reduction or degeneration just does not occur, precisely because the integrity of the objective distance between the writer and his subject is scrupulously maintained in the greater, and certainly the better, part of his work. The resulting elusiveness (in the best meaning of the word), heightened by the desire not to pin down, fix, determine or otherwise explain, leaves the experience intact, untrammelled by spatial or temporal specificity. His stories therefore refuse to be read as social documents.

Other writers have mobilised similar modern techniques to achieve the effect of simultaneity through linguistic manipulation, juxtaposition, and superimposition — all in the effort to develop a model more organically suited to fathom the nature of experience. Their fiction is not one of verisimilitude. It studies, if anything at all, ‘itself’, its own processes. It is self-referential or non-referential, which makes it all the more difficult to determine the fictional subject with precision.

Indeed it is not easy to determine the fictional subject of Surendar Parkash. His stories, because they do not replicate familiar reality but create a new one, are by and large experiments in ‘spatial form’. In other words, their different constituent elements — rather units — do not “unroll in time,” but are “juxtaposed in space.” His characters often appear to be pristine essences unlikely to receive palpable existence or personality — consciousnesses caught in the moment of self-reflection at a pre-verbal and pre-existential level — frozen in an instant of time, as in a snapshot; and if they move at all, as Faruqi has elaborated, they do so only within the confines of their minds.

‘Jippizan’ (name of the awaited patriarch; 1969) and even more, the nightmarish ‘Jangal se Kaati Hu’i Lakriyaan’ (Wood Chopped in the Jungle; 1969), like a painting by Dali, bring forth characters and events that cannot be located in a familiar time and space. The surface unreality is reinforced by names that do not ring a bell. Jippizan not only has no identifiable personal attributes, he also is non-existent as a personal name. When faces pale, they pale “like the blossoms of zorfanki,” and earlobes burn a flaming red “like the tender new shoots of qartuni”. So how is one to imagine the precise shade of ‘pale’ and ‘flaming red’ when zarfanki and qartuni are names of no known plants and have a purely imaginary existence? It is a fiction that compares itself to itself and stands familiar reality on its head. Debunks and defamiliarises it! It depicts a city — as in ‘Wood Chopped in the Jungle’ — “where they sell melons halved like human heads.” And insists that even if we don’t know who Jippizan is, or whether indeed he ever existed, we must still find his image — sprouting “a khaitri (a mini grainfield) in his right palm and holding a shankh (a conch-shell) in his left hand” — breathtaking in its beauty. The suppression of the familiar, of the temporal / causal connectives could not be more relentless.

The unique incorporeality of Parkash’s fiction therefore evokes shock and wonder, but authenticates, however dimly, some of the writer’s own subliminal fears and anxieties. He achieves this effect, as Faruqi has aptly observed, “by keeping close to the quintessential experience, so that it could be exposed in all its stark horror, awesome beauty, and spellbinding freshness.” Unlike Premchand and most of the Progressives, the writer in his work is, to borrow a phrase from James Joyce, “refined out of existence.”

The writer also disappears in some of Khalida Husain’s work. Take, for instance, the all-time favourite ‘Savaari’ (The Wagon; 1963). Told in a straightforward linear manner by a first-person narrator, the writer-narrator is held hostage to a montage of insane, causally incomprehensible events, which he doesn’t editorialise, but which, nonetheless, immediately take hold of the reader and draw him / her into the midst of a horrific experience using the writer-narrator as little more than a conducting medium. Similar self-control and self-denial is evident in the narrator of her ‘Hazaarpaaya’ (The Millipede; 1964). Never for a moment here or elsewhere in her work do we feel manipulated, nor is our sense of discovery undercut.

These stories can scarcely offer an apprehension of reality, though they do invite the reader to reflect and feel with the writer what must inevitably remain quite elusive — the experience not in retrospect or tamed or vanquished — vanquished, that is, by a mediating point of view — but unfolding, out there, before the eye in its pristine, unreferenced uniqueness. More importantly, being experiments in ‘spatial form,’ they undermine, with varying degrees of intensity “the inherent consecutiveness of language” and thus “place a greater burden on the reader’s synthesising power than do more conventional temporal narratives” (Jeffrey R. Smitten).

Yet the modernist artifice and the new poetics of fiction have not dislodged the traditional short story and its conventional architectonics. The traditional form still continues, with greater subtlety, technical virtuosity, and artistic finesse in, among others, Abdullah Hussein, Hasan Manzar, Zamiruddin Ahmad, Muhammad Salim-ur-Rahman, and Iqbal Majeed.

Alienation as a fictional subject assumes in Balraj Manra, working under Camus’ influence, a different shade of colouration — metaphysical absurdity that drove man to radical estrangement, captured hauntingly and with rare economy of words in his memorable piece ‘Voh’ (He; 1964). With Abdullah Hussein, however, it shades off into powerful feelings of guilt and exile (see my essay on him in Dawn, April 6, 2014).

Like Hussein, Zamiruddin Ahmad, Hasan Manzar, and Salim-ur-Rahman too prefer a relatively simple and direct narrative style over one riddled with technical gyrations, although in Rahman one does notice a measure of very subtle technical innovation, where the surface simplicity hides a more textured art, and one no less complex. Take, for instance his futuristic ‘Raakh’ (Ashes; 1981) or the down-to-earth ‘Siberia’ (1979). Neither story depends on rhetoric or outlandish technical experimentation for effect. Yet only with intense reflection could the reader hope to intuit, falteringly, some of their elusive content. Here complexity results from introducing a more fantastic event (ashes falling from the sky and enveloping the entire landscape in one case; the illusion of snow, taken as real by the protagonist, in a city where it never snows, in the other) in the otherwise perfectly normal structure of the stories. In ‘Siberia’ the writer’s point of view is so scrupulously withheld that the slightest clue to the meaning of the central event is denied to the reader, who nevertheless comes away with a visceral experience of the protagonist’s ambivalence about its ultimate meaning. In time the experience generates in the reader his / her own confused responses vis-à-vis his or her own events. The truth — and precisely therefore, the meaning — of the story lies in making palpable the atmosphere of troubled anticipation without resorting to any of the conventional methods of evoking fear and anxiety. ‘Waqt Pighalne ki Raat’ (The Night Time Melted; 1967), written two decades earlier than ‘Ashes’ and ‘Siberia,’ on the other hand, does show a minor technical innovation. The narrative is temporally staggered, in perfect consonance with the mental state of the protagonist, for whom time has come to a standstill. The story is a stunning masterpiece of the unity of form and content.

The experience of disharmony is more down-to-earth and varied in Hasan Manzar. It stems, as Salim-ur-Rahman has pointed out, when his characters, mostly ordinary men and women, find themselves “in conflict either with the norms of their society, which is to a large extent exploitative, or with the secret and confused promptings of their own psyche.” Conflict, however, does not always and necessarily bring forth destruction. Manzar’s fundamental humanity shines through in the bleakest moment; his healthy scepticism, in the end, becomes a source of self-discovery, of gentle, confident wisdom.

A master of understatement, Zamiruddin Ahmad excels in squeezing out the last suggestion and nuance from the expressive powers of the language. In his earlier stories he has dealt masterfully with the themes of duplicity in interpersonal relationships, of moral death, and of the suppressed sexuality of middle-class women of eastern U.P., often married and Muslim. But ‘Purvaa’i’ (The Easterly Wind; 1987) and ‘Sukhe Saawan’ (Dry Rains; 1987) remain unsurpassed in Urdu fiction for their controlled eroticism and sensuality.

The work of Naiyer Masud, who has so far written some three dozen stories, defies any attempt at classification. His fictional world is quite simply unrivalled. It has the cushy softness of dreams, where the shadowy wistfulness coveys a sense of queer foreboding, where an otherwise artless surface hides a troubled and troubling vision. He reminds one of Kafka, whom he has creatively assimilated, not slavishly imitated. The stories of his collections Seemiya (The Occult; 1984) and Itr-e Kaafur (Essence of Camphor; 1990) strike one as remarkably and ingeniously interconnected — something like Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (a novel in five stories). His theme, which can only be sensed dimly, is truly colossal: the whole problem of Being. But he deals with it in the most unpretentious way. The stories linger on in the mind, they haunt the reader, and eventually succeed in shattering our notion of the world, and the self.

The legacy of the modernists such as Surendar Parkash and Enver Sajjad, on the other hand, still awaits fulfillment. There is no dearth of followers. Indeed a whole generation of younger avant-garde writers in India and Pakistan has been experimenting most assiduously with collapsing the traditional instruments of fictional production, but its impatience with time, character, and plot, and its passionate human concern still remain to be gelled into a definite artistic expression. So far Syed Muhammad Ashraf in India and Mansha Yaad in Pakistan have consistently produced good fiction.



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