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SHORT STORY: Krishan Chander’s art & politics

December 28, 2014
RAZA NAEEM is a critic and translator.
RAZA NAEEM is a critic and translator.

By Raza Naeem

THE year 2014 has been one of literary anniversaries. In Pakistan, it is the birth centenary year of Urdu poet Majeed Amjad as well as the working-class poet Ehsan Danish, the great Pakhtun poet Ghani Khan, and the celebrated Balochi poet Mir Gul Khan Nasir.

Among them is also Krishan Chander (1914-1977), one of the great pillars of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) and one of the leading short story writers of the Indian subcontinent in the second half of the 20th century, along with his comrades Rajendra Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Saadat Hasan Manto, and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi.

Krishan Chander was born in 1914 in a family originally hailing from Wazirabad, now in Pakistani Punjab, and later settled in Lahore. This enabled the young Chander to partake of the cos-mopolitan culture prevalent in the city, to which he would return repeatedly in his short stories and nostalgically remember till the end of his life. He obtained his Masters’ degree in English from the city’s Forman Christian College and some of his lifelong affiliations with fellow comrades of the PWA were initiated in Lahore.

Krishan Chander not only produced an astonishing oeuvre of about 30 collections of short stories and 20 novels, but was also a brilliant essayist and involved in the film industry. Moreover, unlike many of his fellow comrades, he was actively involved in practical socialist politics, like his presidency of the ‘bhangis’ union and his membership of the Socialist Party.

Chander was also the closest among all the PWA stalwarts to realising the progressive ideals in literature. He believed in the ascendancy of a socialist society and throughout his life dedi-cated his efforts to helping the marginalised, the peasants and the workers, as well as writers and artists; in fact, his house often served as a home to the latter.

Most of the heroes and heroines of Chander’s stories are from the oppressed sections of society. He also comes out forcefully against communalism of every variety, and not only as it was reflected in the rioting and communal carnage following Partition. Two of his best-known stories ‘Kachra Baba’ (Old Man Rubbish) and ‘Kalu Bhangi’ (Kalu the Addict) starkly bring out, in an unsentimental and unvarnished way, the humanity and the pathos of the lives of rubbish collectors, and the scorn they face.

At the same time, there’s much, much more to Krishan Chander’s varied oeuvre. While he has been accused by his critics of devoting his literary talents exclusively to the pursuit of socialism, revolution and class struggle at the cost of his art, this is unfair criticism.

Krishan Chander’s creative life can be understood as having passed through three phases. In 1939 he was in the grip of romantic ideas; from 1940 onwards he makes it a priority to encap-sulate the realities of life in his work (this is also the phase that his fictional work is losing its previous abstraction, perhaps due to the influence of James Joyce, Ezra Pound and D.H. Law-rence); and from 1945, he begins to be influenced by the great wars of national liberation against colonialism in India and across the world, and dreams avidly of socialist revolution.

There is thus remarkable variety in Krishan Chander’s creative output, even when one takes into account his dedication to socialist realism. My own introduction to his work came as a teen-ager when one of the short stories we were required to read as part of the Urdu syllabus was ‘Maha Laxmi ka Pull’ (The Bridge of Maha Laxmi):

“The Prime Minister’s car did not stop here and he cannot see those six saris; he proceeded to Chowpati for his speech. That’s why I now want to say to you: If your car ever crosses this side, please do see these six saris which are hanging on the left side of the Maha Laxmi Bridge; and then see those bright silk saris too which the dhobis have hung up to dry on the right side of the same bridge, and which belong to houses where the owners of factories with high chimneys and those with high salaries live. Do see to the right and left sides of the bridge and then ask your-selves which way is it you want to go? Note that I’m not asking you to become a socialist, neither am I advising you on the need for a class war, I just want to know if you are on the right or left side of the Maha Laxmi Bridge.”

Another remarkable story by Krishan Chander, and one of the first examples of stream-of-consciousness writing in Urdu literature, is ‘Do Farlaang Lambi Sarak’ (The Two-Furlong Long Road). It is a sharp comment on the injustices ordinary people have to face on a daily basis:

“No one pities anybody. The road is silent and desolate. It sees everything, hears everything, but remains unmoved, merciless, insensitive and savage like the human heart. In my angriest moments, I often think about what will happen if I have a chance to blow the road up with dynamite. Its pieces will be seen floating in the air with a high explosion. No one would be able to imagine my happiness. Sometimes I wish to dance naked on the road and shout at the top of my voice that I am not human, am mad, that I hate humans. Grant me the servitude of the asylum, I don’t desire the freedom of these roads. The road is silent and desolate.”

As we celebrate Krishan Chander’s works, we need to remind ourselves of the continuing relevance of this master story-teller and humanist par excellence whose presence in our midst is perhaps more needed than ever before. 

— Translations by Raza Naeem