A few weeks ago, in a class on Urdu poetry in translation, I was asked a disconcerting question about the status of Urdu as a language. In light of the frequent controversies generated around the usage of the language, it should, perhaps, not have been surprising. A short detour into the history of Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani in India provided the answer. But the incident, baffling as it was, was also an insightful commentary on the deplorable rhetoric that has, by turns, exoticised and alienated Urdu from the socio-cultural milieu where it used to thrive not too long ago. This is exactly what makes Rakhshanda Jalil’s new anthology, Urdu: The Best Stories of Our Times, a crucial volume.

In her “Introduction”, Jalil writes of the odds stacked against the language – few(er) people read it in its script, it is not marketed as a vehicle for employment generation, and the government has done no more than lip service towards safeguarding its interests. It has often been given a religious identity and has been read, reductively, as associated with abstractions – either the sentimentality of love- ishq/mohabbat – or a Sufi spirituality. The 14 short stories in this selection, “mostly from the 1990s onwards”, mark three decades of social and political upheaval and showcase the relevance of Urdu fiction to contemporary crises, conflicts, and the everydayness of life.

Caught in the cross-currents

The first story in this collection, Surendra Prakash’s “Scarecrow”, sets itself up in dialogue with Premchand’s Godan. Premchand’s protagonist, the impoverished farmer Hori, returns in this short story as an old man, a grandfather who has lost one of his sons to an accident and the other to a police encounter and must now take care of five grandchildren and a family that is exactly like all those others who work hard, work tirelessly, and barely manage to keep afloat in a world that rewards them with nothing except indifference. Prakash belongs to an older generation of Urdu writers but the politics his story emerges from, its awareness of independence only having replaced one oppressor with another for those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, and its scaffolding of Premchand’s realism with startling surrealism keeps it tautly relevant.

Zakia Mashhadi’s “A Rat’s Death” is the other narrative set in rural India. The Musahar community, deriving its name from eating rats owing to socio-economic marginalisation and extreme poverty, has not witnessed much representation in literature. The title is scathing in its reverse anthropomorphisation of a man into a rodent-like creature that evokes disgust and whose life carries no intrinsic value. It also becomes an exposition of the politics of food – the aggressive distinctions drawn between people based on what they eat, and, more importantly, what they deem unclean, impure, or too sanctified to be consumed.

The last three decades, the timeframe for the bulk of the stories in this anthology, have been a time of cross currents. While there has been rapid urbanisation consequent on liberalisation and subsequent economic policies, there has also been a widening gulf between political ideologies, both drawing on and intensifying communal tensions. Faiyaz Riffat’s “A Night’s Paradise”, Khalid Jawed’s “A Letter of Condolence for the Living”, and Khurshid Akram’s “Suffocation” are three very different perspectives on urban complexities and the interconnectedness of class, privilege, and power.

In “Paradise” three young men of different but undisclosed religious-geographical identities are united by their “relentless unemployment” and find a novel (if tragic) way of making money out of their destitute condition. In “Suffocation” an overcrowded bus becomes a microcosm of aspirational India with its insular attitudes, its hunger to get ahead by beating everyone else back, and its refusal to shed privilege. Jawed, in his story that is entirely too apposite in this post-pandemic, germophobic world, writes a city that has outlawed filth, and in its mission to sanitise everything and stop the spread of disease and pestilence, has also outlawed “repulsive and disgusting things” like urination and defecation. His protagonist, suffering from a medical condition, is on a desperate quest to find a toilet, but finds himself threatened with incarceration and punishment instead. The human body itself has become an abomination in a world where “everything has been rendered clean and pure”. The city remains hostile to all those who fail to conform, each of these stories affirms.

Fear and violence

“The Circumcision of Khalid” by Ghazanfar, “The Stone Age” by Gulzar, “The Halted Train” by Abdus Samad, “What Happened on the Ship” by Anwar Qamar, “The Line” by Tariq Chhatari, and “The Vultures of Doongerwadi” by Ali Imam Naqvi take note of that other unfortunate marker of our times – fear. Fear resides in a little boy who has to undergo a ritual circumcision but has heard too many tales of men being killed for their circumcised genitals. Fear grips by the throat dozens of passengers on a train that stops in the middle of nowhere, plunging them into darkness and uncertainty. In the nation’s turbulent history, trains have often been sites of violence and Samad captures the terror of average, everyday people, who are made acutely aware of their inability to control whatever might happen to them.

Violence becomes a thread running through the fibre of many of these stories. It haunts stowaways on a ship headed from Kandla to Kolkata, forcing the reader to confront ethical questions about refugees and what makes people flee their homes at significant risk to their lives. Violence taints the childhood of a little boy in Afghanistan whose first memory is of a bombing that killed his sister and destroyed their home. Gulzar raises questions of complicity and the loss of innocence, as does Chhatari in his story of a young Muslim boy who plays the flute and loves to participate in the rituals of Janmashtami and whose great dream of dressing up like Kanhaiya and participating in the celebratory procession ends in gut-wrenching tragedy. Violence, in the shared universe of these stories, is inevitable.

There is no levity here. These narratives are not buoyed by any effervescence of romance. The only ishq/mohabbat referenced in the anthology is in Qurratulain Hyder’s “The Halfway View”, where love is too fragile to survive the covetousness of a newly emerging capitalist order. Decidedly older than the other stories in the anthology, is also its most dated, its complex balance of relationships now having turned into a much-rehashed romance trope. The writing, of course, remains impeccable. Most of these 14 stories engage with very extant issues – crises of humanity, communal riots, patriarchal, class and caste oppression, loss in various hues – and do not settle for easy solutions. There are also nods to the greats, for instance, Premchand in “Scarecrow” and Krishan Chander in “What Happened on the Ship”.

The one thing that would have elevated the selection for me would be the inclusion of more women’s voices. As it stands, there are only two women writers in this anthology of 14 and the perspectives are overwhelmingly male. It is, however, a valuable volume, and helps answer that banal question about the “status”/relevance of Urdu with far more aplomb and skill than the question deserves.

Urdu: The Best Stories of Our Times, edited and translated by Rakhshanda Jalil, HarperCollins India.