“AN oft-repeated lament is that in Urdu, short story is not being written anymore”, said Muhammad Hameed Shahid, a well-known critic and writer of modern Urdu fiction, during a session at last year’s Islamabad Literature Festival. He said that the impression was false and informed the audience that over 100 short story writers were penning Urdu short stories. The problem, as Mr Shahid put it, was that no one was critically evaluating the Urdu short story.

Critic and short story writer Asif Farrukhi was of the view that the academics responsible for teaching Urdu did not show any enthusiasm for modern Urdu fiction. They were, said Mr Farrukhi, teaching classical texts only and modern Urdu fiction was yet to make space in curricula. This writer would like to say that Mr Farrukhi got it right but only partially: I have met some teachers of Urdu who are not interested in reading anything, whether classical or modern. They are content with whatever little they studied during their student days, most of which they have forgotten, and are sick and tired of those who discuss new books. Although there are some teachers who keep up with new developments in their field and even write about it, they are few and far between.

What made me recall and quote the words of these writers about a year later is the comment that A. Khayyaam has given in the introduction to the book Ham asr Urdu afsana: asr-i-haazir ke 50 numainda Urdu afsane (Contemporary Urdu short story: 50 representative short stories of the present age). Mr Khayyaam’s words sound like an echo of what Hameed Shahid had said a year ago: “A simplistic view is that the Urdu short story is not being written these days. ... But only those critics who do not read short stories can dare utter such words. To discuss short stories, one has to read them and reading short stories cursorily does not make you understand them. The attitude of the critics shows that reading, understanding and analysing short story is beyond their abilities.”

These words may sound harsh, but Mr Khayyaam sounds equally unkind to those who try to compare modern Urdu short story with world literature and try to prove that Urdu short story is much superior. He thinks both the views betray opposite extremes and we can safely say that just like in any other language of the world, in Urdu, too, good short stories are being written and they conform to the high standards set elsewhere. To prove his point, Mr Khayyaam advised Zahid Rasheed to publish a collection of contemporary Urdu short stories that could represent the modern-day Urdu short story. The book, published by Zafar Academy, Karachi, declares on the title that the collection is compiled by A. Khayyaam and Zahid Rasheed, while Mr Khayyaam in his foreword has given the credit to Zahid Rasheed.

Zahid Rasheed in his preface says: “Today there are at least 400 writers who are writing Urdu short stories and it includes writers from India, Pakistan and elsewhere in the world. ... This selection is based on standard, theme, language, style and depiction of life and these stories represent, as Mubeen Mirza has put it, the contemporary social, political and moral values and the individual as well as collective attitudes of society”.

The 555-page book includes 50 short stories written by as many writers. Some of the writers whose short stories have been included alphabetically in the selection are: Agha Gul, Asad Muhammad Khan, Amjad Tufail, Anwaar Ahmed (Dr), A. Khayyaam, Jeelani Bano, Hasan Manzar, Sher Shah Syed, Razia Fasih Ahmed, Zahida Hina, Sultan Jameel Naseem, Shahida Tabassum, Shamshad Ahmed, Tahir Masood, Abbas Rizvi, Azra Abbas, Ali Hyder Malik, Faisal Ajami, Qaiser Tamkeen, Mubeen Mirza, Muhammad Ameenuddin, Muhammad Hameed Shahid, Muhammad Asim Butt, Mirza Hamid Baig, Masood Ash’ar, Musharraf Alam Zauqi, Mustafa Kareem, Mansoor Qaiser, Najmul Hasan Rizvi, Nayyar Masood and Neelam Ahmed Basheer.

One has to admit that the variety and scope of the selected works show that it has been carried with objectivity and impartiality. Unlike other similar selections, the work does not seem to be overawed by the established and big names of Urdu literature and only the pieces that merit inclusion have been selected. Although such selections are based, primarily, on personal likes and dislikes, objectivity makes them representative and worthwhile. Keeping in view the large number of contemporary Urdu short story writers, one can imagine the huge body of Urdu short stories through which the compiler/s must have had to sift through. It proves at least one thing: there are people who read modern Urdu fiction. And some of them can compile a good, representative selection, too.

Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2014