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History of Urdu fiction

January 06, 2008

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Urdu Fiction Ki Mukhtasar Tareekh
By Dr Farman Fatehpuri
Beacon Books, Multan
ISBN 969-534-091-1
256pp. Rs220
Reviewed byDr Rauf Parekh

'Fiction' is among the words that have been borrowed by Urdu from the English language but this loan word has very much become part of the Urdu vocabulary.

The word fiction is often used as a synonym for novel. Sometimes the term fiction denotes prose narratives, that is, novel and short story. But literary critics usually agree that fiction is a more general term and it includes any literary narrative that is imaginative and does not claim to be true. This extension in the definition of the term implies that the works of poetry also fall in the category of fiction.

There are many forms of fiction. The earliest Urdu fiction appeared in the form of dastans. A dastan is an enormously long tale that has many stories within the story. There are love affairs, mishaps and battles — with supernatural factors helping the story to lengthen further — and some buffoons to provide readers with comic relief. In many early works of Urdu fiction, lovers get separated, usually owing to the evil designs of a genie that happens to like the princess, but overcome all the adversaries and get reunited and (as we all know) live happily ever after.

The early works of Urdu literature, as mentions Dr Farman Fatehpuri in the book under review, have a form very close to dastan, whether it is prose or poetry, be it a romance or a fable, a parable or an allegory.

The book has five sections. In the first section the author describes at length the elements and the history of Urdu dastan, something he is at home with as his doctoral dissertation was on the versified dastans of Urdu. A researcher to the core, Farman Sahib traces the history and origin of Urdu's famous tale Gul Bakowly and after examining its various editions and manuscripts skilfully separates the truth form the myths.

The second and third sections of the book delve into the history of Urdu drama and novel. It is generally believed that the transition from dastan to novel in Urdu was not swift and a few dastan-like works of fiction were written before switching over to novel. Pandit Ratan Natth Sarshar's famous work Fasana-i-Azad, spreading over four volumes and consisting of about 3000 pages, is usually cited as an example of the link or bridge that conjoins Urdu's old and modern fiction. Some critics believe that most of Nazeer Ahmed's novels too were not novels in strict sense of the term and it was Mirza Hadi Ruswa's Umrao Jan Ada that qualifies as Urdu's first novel.

But Dr Farman thinks a touch differently. In his opinion drama is a genre that came from the west along with novel and Wajid Ali Shah's Lucknow had the atmosphere that was conducive to drama's growth. In fact some of the Urdu plays were written much before any Urdu novel was inked. He says Inder Sabha is Urdu's first play written by Agha Hasan Amant in or around 1853. And, as we know, Urdu's first novel Mirat-ul-Uroos was written by Nazeer Ahmed in 1869. Though some critics, including Farman Sahib, belive Khata-i-Taqdeer by Kareemuddin is Urdu's first novel, what we gather from this brief history of Urdu fiction is that while dramatists like Aaram, Raunaq Banarsi and Hafiz Abdullah helped popularise drama, Urdu novel was passing through its early phase. So drama appeared in Urdu fiction a bit earlier than the novel.

Allegory is a genre that has been given different names in Urdu. And, as Dr Farman mentions in the fourth portion of this book, Mulla Wajhi's Sabras is Urdu's first allegorical work. Muhammad Hussain Azad's Nairang-i-Khayal is an anthology of his allegorical essays. One feels that this section of the book lacks in details and leaves the reader desiring for more.

Short story, Urdu fiction's most popular form, entered the literary arena in the early 20th century and stood head and shoulder above the rest. The book justifiably discusses Urdu short story in detail. The fifth section describes Urdu short story's history, evolution and its contemporary trends.

Dr Farman Fatehpuri, being a veteran scholar and researcher not only has a command over the language but also knows how to present the gist of his research enriching the readers while at the same time they enjoy a flowing prose. Students and scholars of Urdu alike will cherish the book.