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IN Urdu Ki Nasri Dastanain, a detailed description of prose fiction in the classical period, Gyan Chand Jain discusses the various shapes different stories took from their origins in Sanskrit classics like the Panchatantra, but is unimpressed by the wisdom or moral reasoning contained in them. One wonders if he is writing about the same stories which were so admired by a modern writer like Doris Lessing, who penned an admiring introduction to a contemporary retelling of the Kalila and Damna, the tales of the two clever jackals with all the wisdom in the world at their disposal.

Jain’s seminal work was based on research he completed in 1949 and published soon after. A revised and updated version was published by the Anjuman Tarraqi-e-Urdu in 1967 and quickly established itself as a standard work on the subject. This was much before Jain became known for the controversial book, Aik Bhasha, Do Likhawat before his death a few years ago. Urdu Ki Nasri Dastanain retains its value for its detailed descriptions and listings rather than the critical apparatus Jain uses. It begins with a rather ponderous account of storytelling as an ancient art. Many of the references as well as the concepts now seem dated. This is followed by an interesting chapter on the popularity and the eventual decline of dastan literature, including the need for “escapism” which these stories catered to.

Jain begins a historical account of these tales with details from the Deccani period followed by North Indian sources and the classics from Fort William College. There is a useful chapter on tales derived from ancient Indian sources as well as a fascinating account of the various versions of Alf Laila written in Urdu with an invaluable comparative analysis, updated to the version prepared by Mansur Ahmed in the first half of the 20th century.

Among the different versions, Jain singles out the unpublished version by Dwarka Prashad Ufq as the best and goes on to say that its publication would have made Urdu sources equal to the other languages’, but offers no information about the manuscript and its location. He appends details of different collections of fables, or hikayat, to give the form its proper name. The book goes on to examine the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza and Bostan-e-Khayal in considerable detail, as these are the best known works in this form. In the latter, he finds portions which he considers obscene and also points out instances of prejudices in which non-believers are painted in an unfavourable light. As far as I know, no other critic has examined classical texts from this point of view.

Earlier critics treated the dastan as a rudimentary form which had no value except for being the precursor of the modern-day novel. Their point of view was obviously limited and limiting. One still wonders about the significance of the great bulky tomes of many dastans, which seem to be blubbering and mammoth hybrids.

Nobody raises such questions more forcefully than the worthy Professor Jain himself. In the first edition of his book he had wistfully suggested that these volumes will do nothing better than gather dust in some forgotten library because who, he argued, has the time and patience to plod through the endless pages. I remember reading such statements and thinking that at least there was one person who went through these volumes, even if it were for his research. Later, other scholars researched the various aspects of the dastans, such as the work of Ibne Kanwal on Bostan-e-Khayaal. The great scholarly work of Shamsur Rehman Faruqi, who re-established the “poetics” of the dastan, was game-changing and transformed the entire field of study while Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s translation introduced the dastan to a large reading public the world over. The situation has changed drastically from the position Jain initially took. In later editions, though, he showers praise on the dastan, eulogising its unique position unlike other riches and treasures Urdu literature has to offer.

Summarising the status of the genre in the Urdu literary tradition, Jain pays a tribute to its bewitching nature and pronounces it “sab say mohni” among the many genres in Urdu, going on to remark that even the ghazal form cannot compete with the breadth and the vision of the dastaan which tops the list of those forms of writing which can truly be considered “raaton ko neend haraam karnay wali.” The wheel seems to have come full circle for the dastan and the new, expanded version of this valuable book is a sure indicator of this change.

This new edition is part of the publication programme of the Anjuman Tarraqi-e-Urdu, but the introductory note offers no explanation about why it was delayed by several years and makes its appearance now, a few years after the author’s death. In any case, it deserves to be welcomed.

The reviewer is a fiction writer and critic

Urdu Ki Nasri Daastanain


By Gyan Chand Jain

Anjuman Tarraqi-e-Urdu, Karachi