Preeto & Other Stories: The Male Gaze In Urdu, edited and introduced by Rakhshanda Jalil, is a rather unexpected collection of translated short stories that offers a variety of approaches to modern womanhood and various themes of femininity in modern society. The collection puts together writers who captured the contemporary ethos in which women from different classes functioned within social and inter-personal relationships.

In this, the editor takes a risk in omitting various canonised Urdu writers, but the lucid introduction to the collection adequately explains the significance of such an editorial approach towards Urdu writing by men on and about women, where Jalil categorically says, “for the purpose of this study, I wanted to make a selection from modern writers”.

Indeed, the stories are an amalgamation of writings by modern Indian male writers who imagine women’s voices, their subjectivities, and the contexts within which they operate, with a fresh, counter-conservative, and often radical approach. The editor does include a few stories by senior writers of Urdu, intelligently picking those who discarded the model of unrealistic and idealised women portrayed by previous generations and instead had a more frank approach to depicting themes of femininity.

This enables a much needed de-mythification of women who were earlier trapped in restrictive moulds that suited patriarchal systems of society. For instance, Jalil talks at length about Manto, whose stories, although not included in the collection, are significant in the process of de-mystification. In her introduction, she explains how Manto managed to get “under the skin of a woman, and describe the very physical changes that take place in a woman’s body as it prepared to nurture life...” Indeed, these writers brought a change in perspective by openly discussing women’s physical and emotional experiences and granting them a kind of naturalness ,which was hitherto either tabooed or fetishised.

Narratives of inner struggle

Jalil’s collection of translated short stories works well to demonstrate how various Urdu writers demolished conventional images of femininity and portrayed the very enactment of modernity by the given female characters. The writers were at the time faced with a changing cultural climate where gender dynamics were evolving and women were finding ways to give voice to their desires and ambitions. The stories in Jalil’s collection capture these moments in history when women were negotiating this change in order to gain liberation and find a sense of individuality.

The stories, I will then say, are not celebratory of women gaining independence. They are not about mythical victories against patriarchal orders and do not always contain ideal scenarios of women finding a voice or resisting oppression. They are instead narratives about women’s psychological and physical struggles as a result of working within patriarchal paradigms that systematically and variously oppress them, and due to which they may or may not gain empowerment.

Themes of love, sexuality, women’s bodies and autonomy over one’s biology are some of the themes that therefore emerge. Krishan Chandar’s story “Preeto”, for instance, is about a woman who tries to avenge her lover’s death at the hands of her husband many years later, only to be killed by him. Baig Hayas’s “The Heavy Stone” presents a woman’s decision to abort her child because of social and financial constraints, and the resultant trauma because of it.

“Man” by Gulzar talks about how women are always answerable to the male figures, especially in matters relating to her sexuality and biology. And in “Asexual”, Rahman Abbas delves into asexuality in a woman and how the male gaze operates in a case where the woman is unaffected by it.

Not feminist fiction

The promised insight into the male gaze allows for a deeper understanding of the tradition of narratives about women that informed later writings. And while the collection does not attempt to record an evolution of the male gaze in any way, and does not try to trace a trajectory or development of the way it imagines or represents womanhood, it does showcase the variety of ways women have been constructed in fiction by men. The social milieu within which these women negotiated their power and position is brought out well through these stories.

Indeed, the text is an interesting mix of writers located at exciting literary junctures in history. The progressivism of Krishan Chandar and Rajinder Bedi are reflected well in the short stories chosen for this collection. Jalil is clearly fascinated by the ways in which these male writers, new to modern womanhood themselves at the time, chose to represent women or sketch female characters. Jalil says in her introduction that a tendency to idealise women may be traced in some of the narratives, along with hints of sentimentalism.

However, Jalil does not claim to demonstrate Urdu male writers’ liberating writing about women. She does not necessarily aim to show these writers’ feminist politics that challenged orthodox customs that suppressed women. Instead, she simply traces how modernity slowly gets reflected in Urdu writing; she is interested in locating the moments in these narratives where women really emerge, in all their strengths and weaknesses – as real women – fallible as any other individual.

Preeto and Other Stories will offer a few surprises even to readers who are familiar with fiction in Urdu. The editor declares that her primary interest was to counter the male gaze – to look back or return the gaze as a political act of gazing back, so as to challenge or simply show awareness of the gaze that in different ways surveys and surveils women and womanhood. And as a reader of these stories, it becomes evident why that may be necessary.

Preeto and Other Stories: The Male Gaze In Urdu, edited and introduced by Rakhshanda Jalil.