The unanimous choice for the 2020 winner of the Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-English Translation is “The Sea” by Khalida Hussain, translated by Haider Shahbaz.
Haider Shahbaz’s translation of Khalida Hussain’s “Samundar” was chosen primarily for the quality of translation and secondarily on account of what the story has to offer in its English rendering. The selection of the Urdu text, the urgency of its translation, its flow – all were praiseworthy.
“The Sea” succeeds in capturing the poignancy of the original text, communicating it to the reader so that she can feel the wind in her face, smell the fresh sea breeze, touch the gritty sand beneath her feet, and share in the pain of displacement that underpins Hussain’s short story. This is a difficult task for any writer, and especially for one who works between languages as disparate as English and Urdu in their tonal register and literary sensibility.
Both judges have added a note encouraging the winner to work towards a collection of Khalida Hussain’s stories in English translation.
The jury has not picked a runner-up for the prize. However, there is a special mention and jury commendation for “Tiffin Carrier” by Muneera Surati, translated by the author.
This year’s jury comprised of Mehr Afshan Farooqi and Rakhshanda Jalil. All submissions were read blind, that is, the judges did not know who the translators were.
The Winning Story: ‘The Sea’
Mother said: “Geckos are everywhere these days. What is the use of your air gun? Look! Anywhere you go, these striped, fat-fat globs go scurrying across the walls. It makes my hair stand on end!”
Then the kids started bothering me about it too. Those days people used to tie balloons on cardboard, hand out air guns, and, in this way, set up a make-shift shooting range on the street. I used to like taking shots at the balloons when I was walking to the market. All my shots would hit the mark. I would burst all the colourful balloons, then hand back the air gun, hand two rupees, and keep walking. It was just a hobby, a time-pass.
But there’s a difference between taking aim at a balloon and a living being. I didn’t realise this. I took out my air gun. All the kids gathered around me. It was glued to the pale yellow wall, close to the bend where the wall and the ceiling met. Small, little feet. Fat, swollen stomach. A long, tapering, striped tail. It made my flesh crawl.
The awareness of death’s arrival penetrates the atmosphere before death comes. I was taking aim when it slowly moved a few inches forward. I was very surprised. I took aim again. Pulled the trigger. And the next moment, it was without a tail.
“Ufff! The tail!” Everyone screamed. There was no sign of it anywhere on the floor. Otherwise the kids were prepared; they were standing around with salt, ready to sprinkle it on the tail and watch it squirm. The part of the body that keeps writhing and thrashing after being severed from the whole, from the mind. I thought: Is the feeling of suffering in the severed part or in the rest of the body? Or in both of them simultaneously?
“How stubborn,” mother said. I saw that the gecko was still stuck to the wall like before. Holding its head high in an arrogant way. I warily put the air gun on the floor and came outside.
Right then my friend, Masood, arrived out of nowhere. He had a bundle of towels fastened to the backseat of his scooter. I remembered, when I saw him, that we had planned to go to the beach. The tide was going to be too high soon, so we wanted to visit now. I took my swimming trunks and got on the scooter.
The wind was strong and Masood was used to riding his scooter very fast. He had tied a colourful bandana on his head to keep his hair from blowing in the wind. He was wearing large, black sunglasses. But I didn’t have any of this protection.
“How long have you lived in this city?” I asked in a loud voice.
“Man, you can’t ask some other time?” He laughed.
“No! Tell me now.”
“I was born here.”
“Okay.” I felt my own exile intensely. I could never get used to the wind, sand, and dampness of this city. I had left behind many winds and scents, streets and houses, but they still breathed inside me, and the streets and winds I found myself in now, I did not breathe in them.
More than anything, I could never get used to the beach. The sea was odd to me. Strange, impersonal. I often told Masood: “This is your sea. I have no relation to it. I don’t even get wet when the water touches me. There, in my city, there was a canal. I used to live far from its banks, but its cold, sweet water still touched me.”
“Man, do you even have a city? Is there any city you haven’t spent one, two years in? Forget it.”
He was right. All cities were mine and no city was mine. I felt my exile so intensely that its pain was like bodily torture. My neck was being strangled by iron-clad claws.
“Why are you taking me to the sea?”
We were now at the beach. The scooter’s tyres were getting caught in the wet sand.
“Look! The whole city has landed here today. Don’t be a bore.”
I looked. There was a carnival-like scene on the beach. No colour you couldn’t see there. Girls and boys, women and men, wearing all kinds of clothes, some of them with their trousers pulled up, some in swimming trunks. I was amazed by the people of this city.
This sea belongs to them, I thought.
But suddenly a quick wave came and drenched my ankles and then went back. Like someone had replied to someone. The strange sensation of water and sand inside my shoes felt new to me. We parked the scooter.
“Look!” Masood pointed at the people entering the ocean as far as the eye could see. I looked in front of me. The sea was deep-green. Far away, near the boundary of the sky, there was a large vessel on the water, absolutely still. The waves came attacking from the ends of the sea, rapidly, spraying foam everywhere, then returned after touching the beach. Like a living being pretending to walk forward and backwards. I was astonished by the relentlessness of the waves.
“Do they ever stop?”
“They are not dying of grumpiness like you. They go all the time. You should sit and watch them sometimes. They will talk to you. I watch them for hours on end. I never get bored of them.”
“Because these waves belong to you.” The words escaped my mouth spontaneously.
“You’re just bitter,” he said, annoyed, and started taking off his clothes. “C’mon, get in the water.” He was standing in his swimming trunks. He wrapped his clothes in a towel and put them to one side. “Where should we put these clothes and the scooter’s keys?” He looked here and there.
Then we saw her sitting away from the beach, turning the pages of a colourful magazine. There were a bunch of clothes, baskets, and water coolers lying around her.
“Man, we can leave them with her.”
“Will she let us?”
“Why not! It’s not like we’re asking her to do some hard labor. We’ll just put our bundle with all the rest of the bundles and hand her the keys.”
Masood was good at such things. I slowly walked into the water. Then I thought that it must still be glued to the wall, and where did its tail go? A strange terror stifled my breath. Could it be that it was dead? In the same state, in the same pose, right there. A chill went down my spine.
A big wave crashed into my chest. As it retreated, it took a lot of the soil and sand from under my feet. I stumbled. Then I balanced and collected myself. Masood was returning triumphantly after dropping his belongings.
“Man, she didn’t even say anything. She seems very serious, silent.”
“That’s why she’s sitting so far away from the water,” I said. Then I reminded him that I had left a living being half-alive, half-dead. Would it have been better to shoot another pellet at it?
“Shut up – look there. Mermaid, total mermaid.”
Masood dived into the water. I looked to my right. Further, where the water was much deeper, a light-skinned girl in an all-black swimsuit was bouncing and bobbing, shouting and screaming, floating on the waves. Then she started moving her long, light-skinned arms very skilfully. Her swimming was no less than an art form.
“Mermaid,” I repeated. Masood was now approaching the girl. I went back to the beach. I looked at my feet. Lots of small, little plants were sticking to them. The sun’s rays were very warm. My mouth was drying up. What a strange thing. I left it half-alive. I wanted to go back home. But my mouth was dry as a thorn and my feet were sinking into the sand like I was walking in a dream. I looked – the bright light blinded my eyes – she was sitting surrounded by heaps of things.
Water, she has water, I thought, and started walking towards her. I was now right next to her. But she didn’t look up from her magazine. Half her face was hidden behind her hair, which was blowing in the wind. I stood there for a while, wondering if I should say something.
“Water! Do you have any?”
She pushed the water cooler towards me without looking up from the magazine. There was a glass next to the cooler. I washed the glass and filled it with water. She declared as soon as I took the first sip: “Jellyfish!”
I froze. She was pointing at my feet. I looked down. A colorless, shapeless matter stuck to my right foot.
“Jellyfish,” I hopelessly stared at it.
“Maybe alive, maybe dead.” She said, and continued to look at the magazine.
Now I was angry. “This sea doesn’t belong to me. I don’t know anything about it. So this jellyfish. What do I do about it?” I stared at my right leg.
“What’s there to do,” she replied carelessly. “What did you do about all the little plants sticking to your feet. They are alive too. They breathe too. They become happy. They become frightened.” She didn’t look up from the magazine. “And how can you say that the sea doesn’t belong to you?” I put the glass on the sand without drinking the rest of the water. Today, I was caught in half-alive things. Beads of sweat appeared on my forehead.
“So it’s my fault. This jellyfish, these plants.”
“It’s nobody’s fault. All these cliffs, this beach, they are all made up of living beings.” She turned the page of the magazine.
My friend, Masood, was far away now, swimming with the mermaid.
“The sea belongs to everyone.” She suddenly started talking again.
“Then why don’t you go in it.? Why are you sitting here and looking after other people’s stuff?”
I couldn’t hide my anger. She laughed lightly. But she still didn’t look away from the magazine. Half her face was hidden by her hair. Black, soft, shining hair. They were the most beautiful part of her body.
“How do you know I didn’t go in the sea?” She laughed again. “Now use this twig to brush away the jellyfish and the little plants.”
“But it – it is still half-cut, sticking to the wall,” I said.
“At that time, you hadn’t even gone in the sea yet. Then how did it all happen?” She replied sarcastically. I didn’t say anything. Instead, I started brushing the little plants off my feet and legs with the dry twig.
The sun was about to set. Most of the people were heading back. Some had got up and gone inside their beach huts. I kept silently sitting next to her. There were lots of shells and conches at my feet. I started scraping the sand with my toes.
“The sea comes all the way up here during high tide. It can even go all the way up to the huts. All these living beings come flowing with it. The sea leaves them here on its way back. Cliffs and beaches are made from them.” She looked up from the magazine for the first time.
“Do you study biology or something?” I asked her.
“No – I just think the sea belongs to me.”
Certainly bigheaded, I thought, she’ll surely destroy someone’s life. But I didn’t say anything. The beach was nearly empty now. I didn’t want to talk to her at all.
Many people came and picked their stuff up and left. Only our bundle and scooter were left now.
“Are you the security guard here?” I laughed.
“You can say that.” She completely disregarded my laughter.
I was waiting for Masood. But he was still following the mermaid, and the mermaid had booked a hut for the night. I had dug up a lot of the soft, damp sand of the beach with my toes and heels without realising. A wet cold was rising from underneath the ground.
“So the sea comes all the way up here.”
“No – it goes even further. And it’s almost time for many living beings to start their winter hibernation.”
“Winter hibernation?” I looked at her.
The sun was setting. It was near the immobile vessel at the end of the water. The shining orange platter was half-submerged in the sea.
“The sun also goes to sleep in the sea. How can you say the sea doesn’t belong to you…”
“What…” I was absolutely stunned. This girl is mad, I decided. And started waiting for Masood, waiting intensely for him to come back. Then I became annoyed and loudly called for him. She laughed at this.
“He’s not coming back today. The mermaid has booked that red hut over there.”
“Ridiculous,” I growled. The last, little bit of the sun disappeared inside the green sea. The wind was picking up. The waves were becoming louder with the wind. They came like a living being from far away – from where the immobile vessel was standing – row upon row, swaying, spraying foam. They were coming further and further up the beach. Almost as far as us.
“Now the moon will rise from the sea and the waves will be as tall as mountains. Many living things will enter the sea for their winter hibernation, and after a long time, they will come out again from this sea – this sand, this soil – they will come out new.” She said in a dream-like voice. The way she spoke was inexplicably bewitching, entrancing. A strange terror suddenly engulfed me. Lots of jellyfish, shells, conches, weeds, and plants were lying motionless next to my feet. I had dug a deep hole in the soft, damp sand without realising.
“Masood…” I called again.
“No use calling him.” She presented her full face for the first time. Her pale face looked spectral in the faint light. Dark circles under her big-big eyes.
“Keys – give me the scooter’s keys. I think I’ll head back.”
“Tonight is the highest tide. You don’t want to see it?” She quickly gathered her hair and tied it in a bun on top of her head.
“And look – you have dug so deep. The sea will rise from underneath.”
“No…” I suddenly felt extremely helpless, alone, threatened. The waves were very high now. The vessel at the end of the sea was murky. The scent of living beings filled everything. A living lava was flowing all around me.
“Whatever is half-alive is also half-dead.” She said and picked a starfish with a twig. My whole body trembled at the sound of her bewitching voice.
“Stop it. The sea is very close now.” She commanded me to stop digging the sand. Her command woke me from a deep dream. I noticed a gaping hole in the ground in front of me.
“Masood!” I tried to call, but my voice was buried in my throat. I felt like I was fixed to my place. In the air, I could sense the arrival of a strange moment. Please! I wish I could move, stir, shift. She was approaching me.
“Some people enter the sea for a long time.” She sat down next to me, her body touching my body.
“Masood!” I tried to call, but I couldn’t see him or the mermaid. Maybe they had gone inside the hut.
“This is called winter hibernation.” She touched me and my body became still. A deep sleep wrapped around me like a large scarf.
“Lie down here. Rest peacefully, calmly. The sea belongs to you and me.” That’s all I heard. The waves of the highest tide – tall as mountains – were rushing towards me.
Haider Shahbaz has a BA from Yale University and an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the translator of Mirza Athar Baig’s Hassan’s State of Affairs and the guest editor of Words Without Border’s March 2020 issue, “Against the Canon: Urdu Feminist Writing”. He was the 2016-17 Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia, and received an ALTA (American Literary Translators Association) Travel Fellowship in 2016. He lives in Lahore.