TRUE to its title, Glimpses of Urdu Literature by Zahida Zaidi, former professor of English at the Aligarh Muslim University, offers a peep into the fabulous wealth of Urdu literature through critical essays on select works of “representative” Urdu poets, fiction writers and dramatists, past and present. The study is, however, limited to Indian literary figures.

The author attributes this deficiency to space constraints. The book, she states, is meant to test the waters and if well-received, she would undertake a project revolving around Urdu literature from the entire world, she says.

Glimpses of Urdu Literature is divided into three parts: poetry, fiction and drama. Zaidi breaks new ground with a searching inquiry into the “secular and humanistic traditions of Urdu poetry”. She traces these traditions from trendsetter Kabir Das to the present. Kabir, she claims, became the “living voice of the downtrodden,” because of his emphasis on the “purity and depth of human relations,” dignity of labour and “a simple way of life and the common essence of all religions.”

According to Zaidi, Mir “added a significant dimension to the humanistic tradition of Urdu literature by exploring the hidden depth of human personality and its creative potential.” Ghalib’s poetry, on the other hand, reflects the disintegration of a social and cultural order and its moral values in the post-Mutiny era, besides embodying the theme of humanism, such as, Azad rau hoon aur mera maslak hai sulhe kul (I pursue a free way of life and my faith is universal amity).

For Zaidi, Hali captured the decadence of the Muslim society, while Iqbal not only emphasised religious tolerance (mazhab nahin sikhata apas mein baer rakhna) but went farther by striving “to raise man to the highest level of perfection.”

With the freedom struggle gaining momentum in the early part of the 20th century, social and political themes became a dominant trend in Urdu poetry. Among the more powerful exponents of the nationalist theme were Hasrat Mohani and Josh. Other poets of the time, by projecting the problems of the “society as a whole,” promoted a secular approach. This trend reached its apogee with the rise of the progressive movement with poets such as Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, et al.

In the essay titled “Nature in Iqbal’s poetry,” the author analyses many of his poems in which nature is the central theme. She refutes the argument that his poetry is “devoid of human love,” quoting verses that are full of romantic and sexual imagery, faithfully translated to retain their charm.

The critical analysis of K.G. Saiyidain’s thesis, “Iqbal’s Educational Philosophy,” is another fascinating piece that reveals his concept of culture, religion, society and the individual.

Among the progressives poets, Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Akhtarul Iman and Munibur Rahman are discussed individually with an illuminating analysis of their poetry to show how they promoted a populist and secular outlook.

The second part of the book deals with Premchand, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Anwar Azeem, Qurratulain Hyder and Paigham Afaqi, writers whose novels portray the contemporary socio-political conditions.

Premchand was a nationalist; Maidan-i-Amal therefore portrays the spirit of the freedom movement.

The novel devles into social injustices, expounding on the evils of caste system, religious bigotry, hypocrisy, money-lending, trading in stolen jewellery, rape, exploitation of the poor, especially farmers, the cruelty of tax collectors, the lavish lifestyles of landlords shielded by the “mask of religion” and, above all, the system of education “based on suppression and high-handedness.”

Zaidi says that Inquilab, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’ best known fictional work, apart from depicting the rise of the freedom struggle, shows how humanism can transcend the barriers of religion and social status as in the case of the novel’s principal character, Anwar.

Anwar Azeem’s Jhulaste Jangal is touted by Zaidi as a “social document and a work of art” that principally exposes the evils of the jagirdari system. In the forest fire the author discovers a “metaphor for the fire of corruption and cruelty” burning in the depth of the system that has consumed “all the fine people and fine values.”

The essay on Qurratulain Hyder’s Chandni Begum is a thorough analysis and dissection of the characters of this “multi-dimensional” novel, with a fascinating discussion on the novel’s title. Zaidi also discusses women in Hyder’s fiction through two of her novellas, Agle Janam and Sita Haran.

In the discussion of Paigham Afaqi’s Makan some of its parts are compared to Kafka, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Sartre and Wordsworth. Zaidi also exposes some of its faults, labellng it as “too ambitious”.

In the third part of the book, after an

introduction to the “Father of Urdu drama” Agha Hasher Kashmiri, Zaidi discusses the plays of modern dramatists from Imtiaz Ali Taj’s Anarkali through Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Saadat Hasan Manto, and many others, concluding with a candid discussion of her own plays, their plots and techniques.

With a faint echo of Matthew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism, this book seeks to rediscover the literary heritage for those whose mother tongue is Urdu as well as kindle the interest of students of literature in exploring Urdu literature.

Glimpses of Urdu Literature: Select writings (LITERARY CRITICISM) By Zahida Zaidi Promilla & Co., India ISBN 978-81-80188-04-1 280pp. Indian Rs550

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