The power of literature and stories in creating the world we have today cannot be emphasised enough. While it is generally believed that art imitates life, it is interesting to note that stories do more for us than merely imitating life. Stories are born not only out of our lived experience, but — more importantly — out of our desire to respond to the deepest questions of existence through imagination.
Of course, the written word, or literature as we know it, has not been the only form of storytelling throughout human history. There has been folklore, myth and orature in ancient and pre-modern cultures and civilisations that tries to respond to life and engage with it. While stories have been used for moral education, nationalist propaganda, realist mirroring of life and political protests, the achievement of literature is the landscaping of our emotional worlds and what it ‘feels’ to be human, rather than what it ‘is’ to be human.
We know from Scheherazade of the Thousand and One Nights that the function of storytelling is not the mirroring of life, but the inexhaustible potential of imagination to stand face to face with death and defer its arrival. Scheherazade creates frames within frames that generate stories into stories which, on the one hand, defer the moment of her death and, on the other, expand the universe with numerous characters and plots that continue to astonish us even centuries after their conception in her mind. The cosmic nature of stories, which ends up in the multidimensional potential of narrativity — such that we have seen in the case of Scheherazade — gives us a sense of what stories can do for us and what we have accomplished through them.
Despite some omissions, Muhammad Umar Memon’s new anthology of translations provides an exemplary introduction for non-Urdu speakers to some of its best short stories
The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told, Muhammad Umar Memon’s new anthology, speaks to such concerns of stories and their cosmic potential. Memon has selected and translated 25 short stories by writers such as Munshi Premchand, Saadat Hasan Manto, Intizar Husain and Naiyer Masud to name a few, that he considers the best in the history of Urdu literature. Memon needs no introduction as a translator, writer and editor who has devoted a lifetime to bringing Urdu literature to international attention and has carved a niche for it to be discussed as a literary phenomenon in its own right. While we have all benefited and learned from his brilliant insights and translations, this publication provides us another occasion to engage with what stands out in a rather short history of modern Urdu fiction.
Like most anthologies that do not rely on scholarly annotations and a heavy glossary, it is only the translator’s introduction that speaks to us about the process, poetics and politics of anthologising and translating. In his introduction, Memon walks us through a rather brief history of modern Urdu fiction — and the Urdu short story in particular — which he believes to have been an imported phenomenon: “Fiction in its limited Western sense and in two of its major forms — the novel and short story — is only a recent and borrowed phenomenon in Urdu. Exceptionally rich in poetic creation, the pre-modern Urdu literary tradition offers few works of belles-lettres in prose that can compare favourably with modern notions of short story or novel.”
“It is not exactly that Urdu lacked fiction of any kind. There was always the daastaan (romance) to be sure. But the daastaan, until it was finally written down and printed in the 19th century, was an oral and anonymous composition, narrated by the professional daastaango (storytellers) for the entertainment of feudal or metropolitan aristocracy, though it didn’t preclude public recitals for the amusement of the masses. More significantly, the daastaan, because of its flair for exuberant fantasy and the supernatural, used plot and character in fundamentally disparate ways from Western fiction. Here the intent and design was to prove or disprove, rather than to reveal, some established or pre-ordained truth about life. It referred all causality to supernatural rather than to human or natural agencies, offered a different notion of time and its characters were unavoidably two dimensional. Stripped of individuality, they were commissioned to personify abstract ideas. The daastaan was thus a different — but by no means inferior — fictional possibility from the Western novel and short story.”
It is interesting to note that the discussion of form in relation to Urdu literature (let’s say from daastaan to modern novel) in Memon’s introduction relies on an uncomfortable comparison with Western literary forms. While many modern Urdu short story writers admired and read their Western literary and philosophical counterparts, it is still a question for me as to whether or not the older, prosaic form of daastaan had any possibility of materialising in novel or short story-like form independent of Western literary influence as we now know it.
In other words, while the daastaan might not have had rounded characters and individuality as its defining literary characteristic, it definitely provided a dazzling mode of narrativity, which was equally embraced and employed by several European novelists. And I believe that this rather familiar narrative mode within the Islamic literary imagination had every potential to redefine its form in the modern era.
However, the introduction builds up its momentum and gives us a glimpse into the central concerns of modern Urdu fiction. Having mentioned Ratan Nath Dhar Sarshar’s Fasaana-i-Aazad and Mir Aman Dehlvi's Baagh-o-Bahaar, Memon takes us through the didactic novels of Deputy Nazir Ahmad to the first introspective novel of its kind in Urdu, Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s classic Umraao Jaan Adaa: “… the first true novel in Urdu, more in the sense of fundamentals than in refinements… What Ruswa had managed to achieve was considerable: a sense of character with distinct selfhood; a keen understanding of the mechanics of good fiction. He told his story skilfully; he gave it a well-constructed and coherent plot which developed according to believable causality; and he also knew how to enliven the work with dialogue full of subtlety, wit and humour.”
From this distinct sense of selfhood that finds its way in Urdu literary topography, Memon takes us into the historical development of the Urdu short story, which has its recognisable start in Premchand’s work. However, in Premchand’s work the fiction as, what Memon calls, “autonomous realm” was still subordinate to the impulses of protest, reform and redress. For Memon, Premchand’s chief contribution lies in helping the short story emerge as a “distinct and freestanding narrative genre” and its break with the “cloying romanticism of his time.”
Memon continues to expand on the development of the Urdu short story and brings us to the publication of Angaare [Embers], a 1933 collection written by authors belonging to the controversial Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM). At this point in the history of the Urdu short story, we see an uncompromising alignment of literature with the contemporary socio-political conditions of India on the verge of defining historical transition, which materialised 14 years later in Partition. Although, as Memon explains eruditely, the PWM was the single-most powerful literary force in India at that point, it soon fell prey to its own ideological rigidity and dogmatism. Memon’s introduction to this anthology is especially a treat for anyone who wants to know more about the PWM and its role in pushing the boundaries of literary writing in the subcontinent.
However, while Memon gives us an exciting account of the changing trends in the modern and contemporary Urdu short story — leading us through the moralism of earlier writers to the socio-political forces as engaged with by the Progressives to the individual’s psychological being and his/her anxieties in the works of Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Hasan Askari and Mumtaz Mufti — he fails to engage with the subjects of some very important women writers. Writers such as Qurratulain Hyder, Ismat Chughtai, Rashid Jahan and Khalida Hussain played a central role in expanding the range of Urdu fiction. While I don’t mention it here as a feminist protest — for one knows Memon’s appreciation of all these writers in his previous works — it is still important to raise this point because any historiographical account (as this introduction fashions itself) is bound to be ‘political’ when it assumes — for one reason or the other — silence on the individual histories of certain writers for whom femininity and their gendered social position played a crucial role in their decision to write fiction as a response to life.
Memon states: “And yes, there has been a deliberate attempt throughout not to talk of women writers as a distinct group. In this age of rampant discussions, partisan or otherwise, of divisions and subdivisions, of cultures and subcultures, of liberation and identity, the only decent way to show respect to half of humankind seemed to lie in not identifying it as a marked species.”
While I agree that identifying women writers as a marked species plays out in the taxonomical politics of singling them out into a category, I still believe that there is more to these writers’ experiences and their writings than their being women. Memon’s deliberate silence on what he calls the “single continuum of imagination” speaks to a certain trend in our literary and social discourse where not mentioning certain writers in an attempt to write a historiographical account of Urdu literature is considered respecting them. One wonders if the very act of not including these writers’ achievements as part of the discussion of human emotions and drives, as well as existential struggles that defined the trajectory of modern Urdu fiction, is actually an act of ‘representation’ that opens up an ‘uncomfortable’ debate?
Aside from the subject of certain deliberately-not-talked-about and hence ‘respected’ writers, by operating under the self-assuming and authoritative title of The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told, the anthology leaves me, as a reader and as a literary scholar, unable to overlook certain exclusions from this superlative title of Urdu literary history. For example, it doesn’t say a word about the brilliant short stories of Mirza Athar Baig, published under the title Be Afsana [The Non-Story], a few of which I have translated and published. Baig’s stories are important because his characters deal not only with the world around them, but the world inside them, too. The themes of writing, madness, meta-narrative, love and death happen to be only a few of Baig’s subjects that give us an expansive range of hyper-conscious characters and their individual possibilities.
While Memon admits to his own passion and prejudice in anthologising and translating certain writers/stories, it is important to note that anything coming from his pen — especially what fashions itself as a historiographical study — holds a certain authority, which provides an occasion to reflect on the politics of canonisation within the Urdu literary world. Yet, despite all the unavoidable issues of anthologising and history writing, the stories included in his book are exemplary and provide an excellent substitute for the non-Urdu readership.
The reviewer is a PhD student at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University, Canada
The Greatest Urdu Stories
Selected and Translated by
Muhammad Umar Memon
Rupa Publications, India
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 11th, 2018