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Updated May 13, 2017


Zaheda Hina is a leading light of Urdu literature — a celebrated writer of short stories, a dramatist, columnist and a known peace activist. The House of Loneliness is a compendium of 14 of her short stories, translated from Urdu by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Shahbano Alvi, Samina Rahman and Muhammad Umar Memon amongst others. The book was launched recently in Karachi and has evoked interest from a generation of young readers as well as those whose exposure to Urdu literature is limited.

The short story is a difficult genre to work with, not least because the writer has limited space for character or plot development, and yet has to make a lasting impression. Some short story writers do this by using the device of the plot twist — the story meanders along and then ends on an unexpected note. American author O. Henry was well-known for using this device. Others, such as Somerset Maugham, concentrated on developing an atmosphere or conveying a mood, and did not worry about plot devices or structure. Hina belongs to the second category. Her stories do not hit the reader with any surprises (except in some rare cases), but they set a tone and come with a clear message that leaves no doubt about the author’s ideological stance and her views on socio-political issues.

For those of us who grew up during a time of great repression in the 1980s, and who have witnessed the subsequent deterioration of the social fabric of Pakistan and growing intolerance in society, Hina’s stories are particularly evocative. The collection begins with a story translated by Faiz, ‘The Torture of To Be or Not To Be’, that brilliantly evokes an era of brutal repression: a woman overhears her husband’s friends talking about how they participated in the torture of a prisoner, and her agony is doubled by the fact that the person concerned is someone she particularly admires. The story does not attempt to reach a conclusion; it simply ends with the protagonist standing in a dark room, listening to the conversation, and therein lies the skill of the writer as she manages to convey anguish from which there appears to be no escape.

English translations of short stories by a leading light of Urdu literature opens up her writing to the world

The same sense of entrapment or foreboding pervades other stories also. In ‘Shahinshah Bano’, which seems to take inspiration from a famous case of Muslim family law in India some 30 years ago, a woman who has been divorced by her husband after bearing years of abuse attempts to get alimony, but is defeated by society. In ‘An Olive Branch’, a young woman strikes up a friendship with a young American, but before their attraction can develop into something deeper, he is killed in a war that she despises. One of the more tragic stories, ‘Whither Lies Your Destination’, starts off with the depiction of an inter-religious couple, an Indian Hindu man and a Pakistani Muslim woman, living in the United States, but continues to the woman’s family in Karachi and their experience with a Hindu retainer and his daughter. The story shows how the violence of Partition has carried on into contemporary times, and how the sense of otherness persists and has, in fact, solidified. The same theme continues in ‘Kumkum is Fine’, that explores how the once multi-cultural Kabul, with a thriving Hindu community, has been destroyed by a vicious conflict that has changed the social fabric of the city.

The translation of Hina’s stories has opened up a world of contemporary Urdu literature to those who read primarily in English, whether in Pakistan or overseas. Translating an author’s work is not only a compliment to the author, but also helps universalise literature and drive home how writers across the globe essentially depict human nature in all its manifestations. The settings and cultural contexts change, but fundamental human nature does not. Thus the pathos of Hina’s work has parallels in Russian literature, in Scandinavian plays, in Latin American novels, and in the literature of South Asia in general. Her themes of the effects of repression, the descent into chaos that results from prolonged conflict, the consequences of harbouring hatred and prejudice, and man’s essential inhumanity towards other men are universal and should be accessible beyond the subcontinent.

Having said that, and while acknowledging the benefit of translations, it is also true that translation does take away from the original work to some extent. Urdu, for example, is a florid language, and many feel that its idiom conveys depths of emotion and feeling in a way the more prosaic English expression does not. This is one reason why poetry is often considered the high point of Urdu literature. When Urdu prose is translated into English, it can sound a trifle over-embellished unless the translator is very skilled.

The one slightly jarring note in the volume under review is that the quality of translation varies from story to story, and some translators are clearly more at home in both languages than others. A few translations are somewhat clumsy, such as “why do you want me to open my mouth?” (a literal translation of “mera moun kyun khulwana chahtay ho”), as are references to “eyes full of dreams” (in English, one would normally associate dreaming with the mind or head). Other translations flow effortlessly and seem to fully capture the spirit of the original language.

Suddenly, I felt sick and vomited what was inside me, all that had been purchased from the proceeds of these tortures. [...] Then I remembered the fingers I had seen years before, strong masculine fingers with clean manicured nails pulsating with the pink blood underneath with nicotine stains on the second and third one. I had seen those fingers turning over the pages of an article and those lips reading those pages. That was the last time I saw those fingers in motion and heard a voice from those lips. Today I came to know for the first time that when those strong hands bid farewell they had been reduced to wooden splinters and those sensitive fingers and pink fingernails had been crushed into nail-less pulp.Those hands that wrote poetry, and authored a book on the dialectic interpretation of history and the social evils of our times, had been swallowed up by dust.— Excerpt from the book

On the whole, though, The House of Loneliness makes for interesting reading and whets the appetite for more English translations of contemporary Urdu writers, to introduce Urdu literature to a wider audience. Hina has a large following in India thanks to her status as a regular columnist for a Hindi newspaper, and while her work may very well be available there in the Devanagari script, the English translation will probably also have a significant market. In fact, the preface to this volume, written by feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia, includes an anecdote about how the author’s session at the Jaipur Literature Festival was filled to overflowing. And there is no reason why the work should not go further afield — with more consistent translation quality, such endeavours should do even better.

The reviewer is a research and policy analyst

The House of Loneliness
By Zaheda Hina
Ushba Publishing, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9699154317

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 14th, 2017