Book review

‘What lies beyond the fog?’ A variety never seen before in a collection of Urdu stories

‘The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told’ is an extraordinary collection, translated by a master.

“What lies beyond the fog?” is a question that the characters in Qurattulain Haider’s short story in Muhammad Umar Memon’s lovingly selected volume of Urdu stories ask more than once. The answer to that question, when applied to all the stories here, must be considered a baolia handia, Haider’s “crazy dish,” which in turn is a metaphor for a mixture of such intensity that it often reaches levels of Dionysian madness. Except that here, the madness is more of the majzub or the one called by god into abstraction, or mania.

So what does lie beyond the pleasant ferozi or turquoise of the book cover, so aptly created by Aleph designer Bena Sareen using the miniature by Muhammad Khan in the Darah Shikoh Album? Stories, of course, that conceal behind the fog of words under translation a variety that is perhaps heretofore unseen in a single book of Urdu short stories.

To go sequentially, and precisely: 25 stories of fear and desire; old-world loyalty, learning, and new-world bigotry; the despicability of the absolute lack of means imposed on the lowest castes; the mental-halving of partition; its deification; the opulence of desire to generate new worlds; the vagaries of love and its fight with identity; abjad – the science of naming; the cruel, self-harming fists of the abjectly poor; of lost rains; of acceptance of terrible fates; of quests for identity; of pollution; stories of stories that sustain us; voices that keep whispering; lost memories regained; honour, serving, and dying; rootless immigrants; idiosyncratic septuagenarians; the talking dead; and walking mannequins; friends turned foes; charity for the dead; internecine Indian wars; and, finally, the Mona-Lisa-smile tree.

Showcasing this wide variety is the work of the Urdu editor and translator par excellence, Muhammad Umar Memon. But Memon is also a scholar, and, in between the ferozi cover and the stories, he gives us an immensely informative history of the Urdu short story as a modern genre by way of an introduction, discussing writers and trends spread over the last two centuries.

Geography and history

Ruswa (of Umaro Jan Ada fame) and Premchand inaugurate Urdu prose and seem to pass on the mantle to the Progressives. With Manto, Ismat, and Bedi, the Urdu story flowers, to be honed into the jadeed afsana, or the modern story of Intizar Husain, Enver Sajjad, Surendra Prakash, and Balraj Manra. Memon further tells us of the development of a post-realist narrative through authors such as Zamiruddin Ahmad, Naiyar Masud, Abdullah Hussein and others. Altogether, he identifies the two tendencies, of the didactic-social impulse and the individualist impulse, that the short story form attains in Urdu.

Memon’s pickings of the stories, on the other hand, do not seek to be necessarily representative of each period or trend. He admits: “The stories offered here are, quite simply, the stories I personally have enjoyed reading.” The only balance Memon seeks to attain is between the traditional and the modern short story.

Still, by provenance, the stories cover the subcontinental domain between the Indus and the Padma, and do not travel south of Bombay. The selection reflects the politics of Urdu in the subcontinent insofar as the writers assembled all largely come from Muslim backgrounds post-partition, after the early dominance of a Premchand and a Bedi. The concerns too reflect this, in representing the tumultuous period of the partition, the fragile lives of migrants, the violence of subsequent riots, the draws of terrorism and the response to it.

Characters reflect the bonhomie of Muslims and Hindus in good times, sometimes in the face of bad times too, but also how it turns abruptly in the worst of moments. Sajid Rashid’s talking severed head of a suicide bomber realises its mistakes. The clannish Mai’ Dada takes pride in being considered a part of the pathan family when he comes by birth from the Teli community. Such are the vicissitudes of Muslim lives in The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told.

Myriad themes

And yet, to say that the collection is caught up with merely Muslims would be quite wrong. The collection begins with Naiyer Masud’s protagonist seeking domains of fear and desire in each house that he visits. Desire continues intermittently as a trope when in stories such as Ghulam Abbas’s “Aanandi”, townships come up at the husnbazars or neighbourhoods of prostitutes to ultimately condemn them to wilderness to scourge those very towns. And Zamiruddin Ahmad’s “Sukhe Saawan” laments the dry rains of a woman’s youth.

Memory plays a dominant role in the ubiquitous “Toba Tek Singh” by Manto, Altaf Fatima’s “Do You Suppose It’s the East Wind?”, and Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s “The Man”. Metaphor and meaning lie like condensed cocoons in many stories such Intizar Husain’s “The Black Room”, that different narrators seek to unravel. And still, there is the intoxication and vivacity of the mystery and power of family tales, like heirlooms, which when unraveled leave life banal.

The abject poverty in Premchand’s “Shroud” and Ismat Chagtai’s “Of Fists and Rubs” leaves the reader jolted by the ineffable, as death lurks around the corner here all the time. The collection heads towards its conclusion, like life, with scenes of death. A glimpse of the last rites is offered when Salam Bin Razzaq’s common people only show generosity in offering shrouds, not saving lives. Ali Imam Naqvi’s “The Vultures of the Parsi Cemetery” disappear to feast on other bodies, as, finally, Tasadduq Sohail’s “The Tree,” which talks, only smiles cryptically at afterlife.

“Beyond the Fog,” Qurratulain Haider’s powerful story placed at number 12, bang in the middle of the collection, seems to form a pivot of sorts on which the collection hangs. Reading the book in Delhi today carries so many other resonances, when the memory of before and the expectation of after the smog get hazy. Still, Urdu in these stories – and their flowing translations undertaken by a maestro – seems to go on incessantly, despite its many historical curbs, just like the three poor muhajirs or migrants of Ikramullah’s “The Old Mansion”. And these Urdu stories seem to reach out beyond the veil to touch upon something that lies just beyond the everyday grasp of all South Asians.

The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told: Selected and Translated by Muhammad Umar Memon, Aleph Book Company.

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