When it was published in 1932, Angaaray (literally, ‘burning coals’, but also carries the same sense as ‘firebrands’) produced a firestorm. Its contributors  – Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmuduz Zafar – had, of course, intentionally penned it as a provocation against religious and social orthodoxies among north Indian Muslims as well as literary conventions pervasive in Urdu letters. But they were, most likely, unprepared for the volume and pitch of the response that attacked their short-story collection as ‘filthy’, ‘piety destroying’, ‘a bold and shameless display of every kind of foul language’.

It immediately set off a wave of protest, especially from Muslim circles, where the short-story collection was seen to be particularly insulting to Islam and Muslim sensibilities. Excoriating editorials in the Urdu press were followed by a debate about proscribing the volume on the floor of the assembly of the United Provinces. Various entities collected funds to prosecute the authors, though no charges were ever filed against them. Maulvis issued fatwas against them, while others openly called for their execution. Some of the protests were gendered, as Rashid Jahan, the only woman to publish in the collection, was routinely singled out for censure and threatened with an acid attack on her face if she were ever seen in public. In February 1933, the Central Standing Committee of the All India Shia Conference demanded that the British immediately ban the book:

The Central Standing Committee...at this meeting strongly condemns the heart-rending and filthy pamphlet called Aangarey [sic] compiled by Sajjad Zahir, Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jehan, Mahmudul Zafar which has wounded the feelings of the entire Muslim community by ridiculing God and his Prophet and which is extremely objectionable from the standpoints of both religion and morality. The committee further strongly urges upon the attention of the U.P. [United Provinces] Government that the book be at once proscribed.

On 15 March 1933, the book was banned by the government of the United Provinces under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which allowed the government to ban books that had a ‘deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feeling of any class of His Majesty’s subjects’. The controversy, it bears underscoring, was inflamed because of a series of colonial laws passed by the British which sought to protect religious feeling, but which only really managed to give state sanction to religiously endorsed censorship. All but five copies were destroyed by the police, two of which were sent to London where they were held in the British Library’s Oriental and India Office Collections. This translation was made possible by the efforts of two scholars who tracked down those remaining copies and published them more than fifty years later (Shabana Mahmud in London in 1988 and Khalid Alavi in Delhi in 1995); the long gap between rediscovery and publication is at least one indication that the stories still retain their significance and an aura of their erstwhile scandal.

The scandal also provoked a gathering of the forces, as the short-story collection became the rallying point for the organisation of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association (called the Akhil Bharatiya Pragatisheel Lekhak Sangh in Hindi and the Anjuman Taraqqi Pasand Mussanafin-e-Hind in Urdu), whose manifesto launched one of the largest literary movements in South Asia, representing dozens of languages and including scores of famous writers in its ranks. These writers all came together in the hope of challenging censorship in its conjoined twin form: censorship as a symbol of both colonial repression, and religious conservatism and orthodoxy. Here is how their manifesto in part read:

1) It is the duty of Indian writers to give expression to the changes in Indian life and to assist the spirit of progress in the country by introducing scientific rationalism in literature. They should undertake to develop an attitude of literary criticism which will discourage the general reactionary and revivalist tendencies on questions like family, religion, sex, war and society, and to combat literary trends reflecting communalism, racial antagonism, sexual libertinism, and exploitation of man by man.

2) It is the object of our association to rescue literature from the conservative classes – to bring the arts into the closest touch with the people...

3) We believe that the new literature of India must deal with the basic problems of our existence today – the problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness and political subjection.

4) All that arouses in us the critical spirit, which examines customs and institutions in the light of reason, which helps us to act, to organize ourselves, to transform, we accept as progressive.

But it was this double phenomenon – censorship coupled with literary protest – that cemented Angaaray’s career in Urdu letters. So important was the phenomenon of Angaaray’s publication and censorship that it has variously been understood to inaugurate two different literary movements (which later were in opposition to one another): progressivism (which later became the banner of a more doctrinaire Socialist Realism) and modernism (whose later practitioners found themselves in conflict and tension with some of the stalwarts of the Progressives). This is all the more interesting because very few copies of the book were available, few people record having read the book, and the literary tradition makes mention of the short stories as an event, but there is very little critical attention paid to the stories themselves. Angaaray, then, is usually either lionised as a harbinger of new innovations in Urdu letters or is seen, unfortunately, as a literary failure. In fact, the farther the critic is removed from the 1930s, the simpler it becomes to view the polemics of the collection as crass and blunt:

Some critics have identified Angare, a collection of short stories, as the earliest specimen of progressive writing. There is no doubt that it burst on our literary scene in 1932 like a big explosion and annoyed the orthodox sections considerably. They mounted a powerful protest and succeeded in getting it banned. The stories were not technically of a very high calibre but sent the message home that nothing was taboo in literature. With all this, it came before the birth of the movement and must be treated as a freak and not the beginning of the movement.

But such a view of the book – as a failed early experiment – does little justice to either the art or the ambition of the short-story collection. The authors of the stories had hoped, as they argued in their ‘In Defence of “Angarey”: Shall We Submit to Gagging?’ – printed soon after the controversy around the book was unleashed – that they could reveal the problems extant in Muslim communities and begin a long-overdue conversation about them with an eye towards substantive reforms. They wrote in reply to their critics:

The authors of this book do not wish to make any apology for it. They leave it to float or sink of itself. They are not afraid of the consequences of having launched it. They only wish to defend ‘the right of launching it and all other vessels like it’...they stand for the right of free criticism and free expression in all matters of the highest importance to the human race in general and the Indian people in particular. They have chosen the particular field of Islam, not because they bear any ‘special’ malice, but because, being born into that particular society, they felt themselves better qualified to speak for that alone. They were more sure of their ground there.

Excerpted with permission from Angaaray by Penguin Books India. Translated by Snehal Shingavi.