It is 1879 and, in the highly cultured and sophisticated city of Lucknow, an inquisitive and rather eager young man by the name of Azad – enigmatic but appropriate – is sauntering through the streets and localities taking note of how the rituals of Muharram are practised.

As he records his sharp and humorous observations, he opens the door to a new mode of publication and gives shape to a new form of writing. The satirical vignettes penned by the character Azad’s creator Ratan Nath Sarshar, appearing in the newly founded newspaper Oudh (Awadh) Akhbar, developed into the picaresque Fasana-i-Azad (The Tale of Azad). Published alongside the news and evolving its own technique, the novel “subjected its own positions to debate and criticism, opening up a space for self-reflection and self-critique” in the words of the fascinating new study by scholar Jennifer Dubrow titled Cosmopolitan Dreams: The Making of Modern Urdu Literary Culture in Colonial South Asia.

Title page of the newspaper 'Oudh (Awadh) Akhbar' where Ratan Nath Sarshar’s writings first appeared. The vignettes evolved through comments and letters from readers to become the novel Fasana-i-Azad. Image credit: The British Library

Fasana-i-Azad not only “participated in literary modernity”, but “the novel became the space in which the protocols of modernity were worked out. Literature unpacked and interrogated colonial modernity, allowing new imaginations of personhood and subjectivity to occur.”

While Sarshar is not a figure who needs to be brought out from the shadows of oblivion, one can say that he is quoted more than he is read, and that too in a linear fashion. In Cosmopolitan Dreams, Dubrow not only breaks new ground by presenting a thoroughly researched background, but develops and applies a highly plausible new framework for looking at the interlocked development of the vernacular newspaper and the novel in the colonial era.

It is the strength of her argument that rather than being restricted to the groves of academia, it is relevant largely to what she calls “the community of the language”, wider than any particular region or ethnic group and largely accessible through popular television dramas.

Through the broad range of its scope and the depth of its scholarship, Cosmopolitan Dreams can easily be regarded as one of the most significant publications related to Urdu’s literary culture, which forces us to redefine previously held notions.

It goes to Dubrow’s credit that she presents Fasana-i-Azad as a non-static book, which was undergoing substantive changes as she goes back to the newspaper files and analyses how it evolved through comments from the letters from its readers. One can easily imagine how difficult and arduous this task must have been, but it puts the novel into an entirely new light. This is fascinating, as it presents the norms of the times and the expectations in the readers’ minds, making “possible a dynamic play between anonymity and personal relationships among authors and readers” and, at the same time, putting readers in “new roles as patrons and critics”.

Although she comes up with references from Mikhail Bakhtin to scholars of the 19th century novel in Japan, and refers to the explosion of the novel in this period in India, she leaves Sarshar with his career launched and does not extend the argument to consider his subsequent books or the further development of the novel, leading to the appearance of Mirza Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada within a space of 20 years. This, too, is a story worth pursuing further.

In the fascinating chapter titled “Experiments with Form”, the author studies the Avadh [Awadh] Punch and the rise of satirical journalism, especially as a critique of colonial rule and culture. There were more than 70 Urdu periodicals using the name “Punch” in that period, she records. This is even more remarkable when set against the particularly obtuse comment by no less a person than Charles Dickens, who goes on to say in 1862 that “Punch in India. The idea seems unpromising. A professed jest must surely be out of place among people who have little turn for comedy.”

Dubrow lists a number of such periodicals in several Indian languages. Here Dickens has been rendered insensitive by an excess of colonialism.

But I wonder if he would have been equally surprised to learn that an Indian language novelist called Sarshar followed a trajectory similar to him, by beginning with newspaper sketches not unlike the Sketches by Boz which paved the way for Dickens to come up with The Pickwick Papers and its remarkable pair of master and servant – reflected in the pair of Azad and Khoji.

The campaign which Avadh Punch mounted against Sarshar as he wrote for a rival concern was broadly with reference of values such as the respectability of women, language registers, the suitability of a non-Muslim writer to depict life in a Muslim household and others. From this point, Dubrow goes on to dwell on the emergent Hindi-Urdu divide, but this is a large issue in itself, and here it is reduced to a diversion in the flow of the main argument of the book.

The title of the book – and the concept of what is called here “the Urdu Cosmopolis” – opened up by easily accessible and affordable newsprint, is formulated as “a transnational language community that eschewed identities of religion, caste and even class.” At the risk of “being fractured and broken by the forces of nationalism and communalism,” as we have witnessed repeatedly, Dubrow sees this cosmopolis as sustained from the colonial period to “the post-colonial present, but in different forms. Although it originated in the publishing centres and railway cities and towns of British India, today the Urdu cosmopolis flourishes in film, television and online.” Its centres have “shifted and expanded to Pakistan, the Middle East and the global Urdu-speaking diaspora.” Dubrow refuses to read it simply as a narrative of the decline of Urdu in India and finds Urdu flourishing in “spaces and media outside its core.”

Challenging some commonly held assumptions, this concept is, I find, more rewarding and thought-provoking than the rather romanticised notion of Urdu Ki Nai Bastian for diasporic literature – which is self-assertive, but simplistic compared to Dubrow’s argument. Dubrow takes this concept further and goes on to study the emergence of the Progressive writers and, later on, the digital present. In spite of the interesting analysis of Rajinder Singh Bedi’s masterly short story “Lajwanti” as replete with a humanistic vision, I find this portion to be the weakest part of the book. Not because there is any fault in the argument, but because of it not having been developed at sufficient length.

More space is granted to Dubrow’s analyses of popular television serials from Pakistan. “The resurgence of the Urdu cosmopolis in the digital and visual realms” appears ironical to Dubrow, but she finds evidence of this in the recent revival of daastaangoi and television serials and she relates these with “Urdu’s fluidity that allows it to transition easily into the cross-regional space of electronic media.” She ends on a powerful note to recognise “the power of literature – to allow us to dream and think anew.” I hope that Dubrow is able to explore this further. Her insights are innovative and invaluable, particularly since such phenomena of popular culture have largely been ignored by scholars of Urdu literature.

The reviewer is a critic and fiction writer and teaches literature and the humanities at Habib University, Karachi

This article first appeared on Dawn.