A treatise on contemporary Urdu short story

October 12, 2009


SOME critics draw parallels between Urdu ghazal and Urdu short story. Ghazal, the most popular genre of Urdu poetry, is known for its brevity, compactness and crispness. It is this quality that has given a proverb-like status to many couplets and lines of Urdu ghazals and they are often quoted to spice up an argument.

Short story is the most popular prose form in Urdu literature and its practitioners display the same craftsmanship as ghazal writers do when it comes to creating moving images in minimum words. Both have a limited canvas and a large following. As was the case with ghazal, this popularity resulted in a proliferation of short-story writers, and the fall in the standards was inevitable. Just like the anthologies of ghazals, collections of short stories began to pour in and at a stage it seemed that there were more writers of ghazals and short stories than there were readers.

Then came the outcry about the so-called fall of short story from grace. On the other hand, there was an incessant flow of critical writings and research papers on Urdu short story. Both in India and Pakistan critics and researchers such as Gopi Chand Narang, Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi, Nayyar Masood, Waris Alvi, Fateh Muhammad Malik, Jameel Jalibi, Intizar Hussain, Wazeer Agha, Saleem Akhter, Farman Fatehpuri, Rasheed Amjad, Mazhar Jameel, Shahzad Manzar and many others kept writing on short story, not to mention the rising number of dissertations written on the subject to earn a university degree. A great many number of books published during the last five years or so, analysing Urdu short story from a critical and research point of view, was yet another testimony that the interest in short story -- and its evaluation -- was not waning, though there was a clamour that Urdu short story was all but dead.

These contradictory voices puzzled Mubeen Mirza as it did many others. Mubeen Mirza, editor of Mukalma, a literary magazine from Karachi, decided to thrash out the topic and -- after a long-drawn battle against odds, as mentioned by him in his editorial note -- came out with a gigantic two-volume special issue of Mukalma on the topic of Hum-asr Urdu afsana, or contemporary Urdu short story.

“During the last few years,” he says in the editorial, “the opinion that echoed in literary circles said that Urdu short story was on the decline ... The gist of what was being said on the decadence of Urdu short story was that Urdu short story had lost its readership, it had only limited themes, writers were merely publishing their journals depicting only city life, the language of Urdu short story was no longer creative, short story no more reflected society, it was cut off from life and could not depict the changing milieu -- and other such things. It struck me why not to ask the contemporary Urdu short story some relevant questions and try to get some objective answers. Hence, the special issue on contemporary Urdu short story.”

And then Mirza sahib becomes quite humble and submits that “though these two volumes comprise over 100 short stories and some 70 articles, I do not have any claim that whatever is included here should rank among great belles-lettres. But I can assure you that no article or story published here was written cursorily or chosen for publication without being given a proper thought.” A choosy man, as he is, anyone who goes through these two volumes would agree with him that, except for a story or a couple of articles, the contents were meticulously chosen.

But the conclusion he draws from the large number of stories and articles he received for inclusion in the special issue is an eye-opener for the prophets of doom “What a prolific genre short story is. It has been constantly producing buds and flowers all along. And if quantity is any measure to go by, one can say that at least on that account Urdu short story is beyond any shadow of decadence.” And then he goes on to add “The conclusions drawn by the naysayer are perhaps based on no or little study of contemporary Urdu short story. In my humble opinion, in spite of all the reservations on the issue, contemporary Urdu short story has surpassed all its previous eras in style, expression, narrative and experimentation. I have a feeling, which these two volumes testify, that the present-day Urdu short story fully and capably reflects our contemporary society and its various trends”.

You may or may not agree with the noted editor, but it is true that since its inception, Mukalma has maintained a certain standard for its contents. Its current special issue on short story reminds one of Nuqoosh, a literary magazine published from Lahore that is rightly considered the great-grandfather of all Urdu literary magazines subsequently published in Pakistan. Nuqoosh was not only the standard many could only strive for, but it used to create ripples throughout the literary world by publishing one special issue after another. Some of the special issues published by Nuqoosh have truly become treasured documents and a historical record that let you enter the magic world of the 1950s and '60s to see for yourself what the literary environ was like then. One of such valued issues of Nuqoosh was 'Afsana Number'. Published in 1955 in two volumes, Nuqoosh's special issue on Urdu short story included, among other memorable articles and stories, Angare, the proscribed collection of short stories.

After Nuqoosh, many other literary journals brought out their 'Afsana Number'. To name a few, Tameer (Haryana) published 'Sham-i-Afsana Number' in 1978, Alfaaz (Aligarh) brought out 'Afsana Number' in 1981 and then again in 1988, Aligarh Magazine published a special issue in 1990 on Urdu fiction mein Aligarh. Refraining from any exaggeration, Mukalma's special issue on Hum-asr Urdu Afsana will remain a much sought-after document in the years to come as the two-volume treatise, spread over 1,900 pages, includes works of some popular short-story writers and well-known critics such as Gopi Chand Narang, Jameel Jalibi, Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi, Intizar Hussain, Ashfaq Ahmed, Nayyar Masood, Waris Alvi, Razia Fasih Ahmed, Wazeer Agha, Fateh Muhammad Malik, Sahazad Manzar, Farman Fatehpuri, Mazhar Jameel, Rasheed Amjad, Nasir Abbas Nayyar, Mansha Yaad, Asad Muhammad Khan, Saleeem Akhter, Haneef Fauq, Ali Hyder Malik, Sahar Ansari, Zahida Hina, Jeelani Bano, Saleem Agah Qazilbash, Shamshad Ahmed, Asif Farrukhi, Hameed Shahid, Mumtaz Shireen, Ali Ahmed Fatimi, Baqar Mehdi, Saba Ikram, Firdous Hyder, Amjad Tufail, Nighat Saleem, A Khayyam and many many more. I might have missed out some prominent names as there are so many of them. No offence intended.