24 Dec, 2017


By the grace of God and the miracles of science, surely a baby can be borne in a vase — Chughtai’s demonstration of rebellion against a self-assertive patriarchy and its superstitions. ─ Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed
By the grace of God and the miracles of science, surely a baby can be borne in a vase — Chughtai’s demonstration of rebellion against a self-assertive patriarchy and its superstitions. ─ Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed

It has never been easy to define how writers judge their own writings. Sometimes they show unconditional — in some cases, even devotional — love for all that they create, perceiving the writings as their scions. At times they disapprove ruthlessly of the entire or a major part of their writings. Occasionally they edit their works before getting them published. Interestingly, both love and critique of one’s own writings has usually not been endorsed by literary critics. Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib offers a classic example in this regard; he discarded a good number of his couplets while compiling his Divan. “Hai kahaan tamanna ka doosra qadam ya Rab/ Hum ne dasht-i-imkaan ko aik naqsh-i-pa paya [What is the second step of desire O Lord / I found the expanse of possibility only one footstep to be]” — a couplet frequently quoted to describe Ghalib’s azmat [greatness] in Urdu poetry — was among the abandoned couplets.

Jamil Akhtar, an Indian Urdu author and scholar, has compiled those short stories of Ismat Chughtai and Balwant Singh which couldn’t find place in the collections compiled by the authors themselves and published in their lifetimes. He has added detailed introductions to the collections, describing the lives and works of the fiction writers and evaluating their literary merits. However, he has not ventured to raise the question of why these stories were discarded by the authors in the first place; were they judged to be not at par with their other works, or did they simply forget, because both Chughtai and Singh were prolific writers. Anyhow, these stories were buried in Urdu magazines and Akhtar had to fish around in dozens of magazines of the second half of the 20th century to make them available. He claims with justice, therefore, that Guldaan [Vase] by Chughtai and Aabgeena [Wine Cup] by Singh are their ‘new’ collections of stories.

Chughtai and Singh were contemporaries sharing some interesting similarities and had some remarkable peculiarities, too. First, similarities: both witnessed the colonial and post-colonial eras of the subcontinent, enduring their atrocities and reaping their benefits by acquiring modern educations. Both started writing fiction in the late 1930s for almost the same Urdu magazines — Saqi, Adabi Dunya, etc. Both followed the canon of realism that was adopted by Urdu fiction to ingenuously conceive and narrate the new socio-political realities and which worked swiftly to fight against the horrors caused by societal orthodoxies and colonial encroachments on the economic and political life of Indian people. To a great extent, the canon of realism soaked in a peculiar response to colonialism can be credited for the golden period of the Urdu short story. Saadat Hasan Manto, Munshi Premchand, Krishan Chander, Rajinder Bedi, Chughtai and Singh are the few big names in a galaxy of writers that emerged in this golden period.

Two collections of writing by towering figures of Urdu literature bring to light mostly forgotten short stories

Now a few words about the peculiarities of Chughtai and Singh: Chughtai was ideologically associated with the Progressive Movement and her gutsy depiction of feminine sexuality seems inspired by the overall rebellious attitude embraced by Progressive writers to voice marginalised themes and the low strata of Indian society then. Singh didn’t show any interest in the Progressive Movement, although his realist depiction of characters seems not altogether detached from the Progressive writers’ style. Chughtai’s peculiar themes were chosen from middle-class Muslim families of north India, while Singh’s stories revolved around Punjabi Sikh families.

Chughtai was a prolific writer. To her credit are seven collections of short stories, seven novels including Ziddi [Stubborn] and Terrhi Lakeer [Crooked Line], three novelettes, two collections of dramas and an autobiographical novel. She is rightly regarded as one of the few most powerful feminist voices in Urdu fiction. Qurratulain Hyder used to call her Lady Changez Khan, ascribing her bebaaki [dauntlessness] to her Genghis lineage. Chughtai not only exposed fearlessly the contradictions lying beneath the stereotypical image of north Indian Muslim women, but courageously unearthed the psyche of the women forced to live with the stereotype. Lihaf [Quilt], a story of lesbian love, gave her an eternal place in the world of Urdu fiction, but she used to get riled at mentions of this story and protested against the conventional reading habits of people which made them oblivious to her other works. ‘Allah Ka Fazal’ [Blessings of God] and ‘Guldaan’ [Vase] included in the collection under review, tell the stories of women who fought against patriarchal superstitions, expectations and beliefs: the protagonist of ‘Guldaan’ gives birth to an ‘illegitimate’ child, but succeeds in assuring her impotent husband — who lacks the moral courage to admit his shortcoming — that by the grace of God and the miracles of science, a child might be borne in a vase lying in their home. In effect, Chughtai demonstrates her rebellion by contriving a ‘make-believe story’ out of the ‘capital’ of superstitions inculcated into her psyche by a self-assertive patriarchy.

Singh was a prolific writer as well: in the Urdu language he has six collections of short stories, three novels and three novelettes to his credit. His writings in Hindi, which served as his bread and butter, include 10 collections of short stories, 21 novels and three books of stories for children. His book Chak Peeran Da Jassa [Jassa from Chak Peeran] is regarded as one of the finest novels in Urdu literature. Singh was noted for his stories of rural Punjab, and although Chander, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Jamila Hashmi, Ghulam-us-Saqlain Naqvi, Abdullah Hussain and Mustansar Hussain Tarar have also depicted the rural life of Punjab in their Urdu stories, they all have very few similarities where characters, the social milieu, landscape and style of narration are concerned — there are as many Punjabs as there are writers. Singh’s Punjab is essentially a Sikh Punjab. In Aabgeena, almost all the stories, written between 1960 and 1984, revolve around the lives of Punjabi Sikhs.

Both Chughtai and Singh also seem to have maintained their distance from the post-colonial, symbolic trends in Urdu short stories that emerged in the ’60s in India and Pakistan. They kept narrating their stories in the same realist style that they espoused in their early writings, though they did experiment with social realism in a bid to take it to its limits. ‘Kaku Aur Uss Ke Premi’[Kaku and His Lovers], ‘Rukhsati’[Departure], ‘Makhan Singh Ka Aghwa’[The Kidnapping by Makhan Singh], ‘Naag Phuni’ [The Cactus] and ‘Daku Bakar Singh’ [Dacoit Bakar Singh] are the best stories of the collection under review. While the narrator of Singh’s stories seems to avoid giving any moral verdict on the characters’ actions, he weaves the tales so skilfully that a sort of moral and practical wisdom is either ultimately revealed or ensues through the action of characters. For instance, in ‘Makhan Singh Ka Aghwa’, the father of the titular character evades a sanguinary battle by initiating a dialogue with the hostile crowd of the other village whose girl was kidnapped by Makhan Singh. He actually orchestrates an account that makes the crowd believe that the kidnapped girl was Makhan’s fiancée and this account was created out of things that surfaced during an intelligently contrived informal chitchat that the father had with the villagers. Negotiations end in peace!

The reviewer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Mabad Nau Abadiat: Urdu Ke Tanazur Mein and Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadeed

By Ismat Chughtai
Edited by Jameel Akhtar
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693530659

By Balwant Singh
Edited by Jameel Akhtar
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693530643

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 24th, 2017