A short history of greatest Urdu short stories ever told

[Book extract] Not until Premchand did it develop into a discrete genre and a major landmark of literary topography.

 |  -minute read |   10-08-2017
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Fiction in its limited Western sense and in two of its major forms — the novel and short story — is only a recent and borrowed phenomenon in Urdu. Exceptionally rich in poetic creation, the pre-modern Urdu literary tradition offers few works of belles-lettres in prose that can compare favourably with modern notions of the short story or novel.

It isn’t exactly that Urdu lacked fiction of any kind. There was always the dastan, to be sure. But the dastan, until it was finally written down and printed in the nineteenth century, was an oral and anonymous composition, narrated by professional dastan-gos or story-tellers for the entertainment of feudal or metropolitan aristocracy, though it didn’t preclude public recitals for the amusement of the masses.

More significantly, the dastan, because of its flair for exuberant fantasy and the supernatural, used plot and character in fundamentally disparate ways from Western fiction. Here, the intent and design was to prove or disprove, rather than to reveal, some established or preordained truth about life.

It referred all causality to supernatural rather than to human or natural agencies, offered a different notion of time, and its characters were unavoidably two-dimensional. Stripped of individuality, they were commissioned to personify abstract ideas. The dastan was thus a different — but by no means inferior — fictional possibility from the Western novel and short story.

Although artistically more refined works of fiction were still roughly a hundred years in the future, some transitional work had already begun to appear in the early nineteenth century, as in Mir Amman’s Baagh-o-Bahaar (1801) and Rajab Ali Beg Surur’s Fasaana-ye ‘Ajaa’ib (1834).

However, they did not depart in any significant way from the long-standing tradition of the dastan, except perhaps in length. And while its setting was contemporary, its contents in some respects new, and its dependence on supernatural incident practically non-existent, Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar’s Fasaana-ye Aazaad (serialised between 1878 and 1879 in Avadh Akhbaar) too, did not manage to break away entirely from the style of the dastan.

Not until the novels of Deputy Nazir Ahmad (d. 1912) would the prolonged courtship with the dastan finally appear to break off, only to be resumed briefly in the works of his younger contemporary, Abdul Halim Sharar. Nazir Ahmad was motivated less by a creative impulse than by a concern for the moral education of his own children. For greater effect, he turned to the form of the novel: a story with a plot — but nonetheless a story to teach, yoked inexorably in the service of moral instruction.

manto_081017075422.jpgThe most sustained and masterly treatment of Partition came from Manto.

He wrote several novels. All shared his unfailing touch for realism. The idiom was unpretentious, crisp, and close to everyday speech. Often his prose managed to achieve great evocative power. But ultimately, Nazir Ahmad’s transparent didacticism only managed to subvert the notion of fiction as an autonomous realm.

With Abdul Halim Sharar (d. 1926), a journalist and pioneer of historical romance in Urdu, the world of Urdu letters began to harken back to the dastan, or so it seems. He wrote out of a desire to rehabilitate Islam and sing its bygone glory at a time when Muslims were on the retreat in practically all areas of their political life. Their pride had been badly hurt in the 1857 War of Independence, which they had lost.

Sharar’s romances, of which he wrote many, flouted every law of probability and played fast and loose with history. But this didn’t deter the Muslims from loving them, mostly for their balmy effect; their immense therapeutic potential. It was this fictional background against which Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa wrote his Umraao Jaan Adaa (1899) — the first true novel in Urdu, more in the sense of fundamentals than in refinements. For Ruswa hadn’t fully managed to suppress the didactic element, yet this element was least intrusive or jarring.

What Ruswa had managed to achieve was considerable: a sense of character with distinct selfhood; a keen understanding of the mechanics of good fiction. He told his story skilfully; he gave it a wellconstructed and coherent plot which developed according to believable causality; and he also knew how to enliven the work with dialogue full of subtlety, wit and humour. Although the short story had made its hesitant appearance during this period, its employment by the Urdu writer was both sporadic and tentative.

Not until Munshi Premchand (1880–1936), the first professional short story writer in Urdu, did it develop into a discrete genre and a major landmark of literary topography. But even in Premchand, the notion of fiction as an autonomous realm was relentlessly subordinated to a notion of fiction as an instrument of protest, reform, and redress. As much was already clear in his very first short story, World’s Priceless Gem (1905). In the pervasive, gushy and oversweet romanticism of the period, it set the tone for a new kind of literature — at once socially more aware and aggressively patriotic.

However, there is enough evidence to suggest that in his later work, as in the short story, "The Shroud" (1936) — a masterpiece of wry humour and clawing irony subsumed by a dispassionate, objective narrative style — he was slowly edging towards some notion of fiction’s autonomy. His limitations aside, Premchand’s chief contribution lay in helping the short story emerge as a distinct, freestanding narrative genre. He was also able to give it a more expansive range of topics and, more importantly, finalise its inevitable and long-pending break with the cloying romanticism of his time, best exemplified by such writers as Sajjad Hyder Yildirum and Niaz Fatehpuri.

Premchand’s discovery of rural life and its conflicts as potential fictional subject matter opened new possibilities for many of his contemporaries. Under his influence, Pandit Sudershan, Ali Abbas Husaini, Akhtar Orainvi, Suhail Azimabadi, Lam Ahmad, Upendra Nath Ashk, and Hayatullah Ansari produced many short stories focusing on life in rural India.

The joint legacy of Ruswa and Premchand was enriched by the publication, in 1933, of Angaare (Embers), a collection of ten short stories by a group of four young writers: Ahmed Ali (d. 1994) — the future author of the celebrated English novel Twilight in Delhi, Sajjad Zaheer (d. 1973), Rashid Jahan (d. 1951), and Mahmuduzzafar (d. 1954) — all from the urban upper-middle class, and all highly educated.

Embers strove for an alignment of literature with the contemporary socio-political reality of India. At a deeper level, however, because the writers were well read in Western fiction, the work introduced a more varied and relatively more complex treatment of the form of the short story, under what appeared to be unmistakable Marxist and Freudian influences. Naive and simplistic from today’s perspective, these stories nonetheless carried within them the embryo of some of the future developments in the form.

They didn’t renounce Premchand’s socio-political concerns; rather, they expanded the thematic parameters of those concerns. For instance, sex was added as a valid subject for fiction. A corresponding expansion in the range of devices closely followed the widening of the thematic range. Five years later, the foursome, along with a few like-minded intellectuals, launched the Progressive Writers’ Movement in Urdu, as an offshoot of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association, founded two years earlier in London.

The Progressive Movement — a literary arm of the Communist Party of India — took over Premchand’s legacy of socially aware writing and built on it further by incorporating literary assumptions drawn from several Russian writers, among them Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky.

It strove, on the one hand, to expose the plight and struggle of the economically depressed classes in rural and urban settings (such as the peasantry and the proletariat) and, on the other, to articulate the political and nationalistic aspirations of a disenfranchised people seeking liberation from the British Raj.

book_081017075514.jpgThe Greatest Urdu Short Stories Ever Told, Selected and translated by Muhammad Umar Menon; Aleph.

In its time, the Progressive Movement represented the single most formidable literary force throughout India. A whole generation of the brightest minds of the period had been attracted by it. What especially drew these people to the Progressive Movement was its passionate commitment to Indian independence and religious harmony. This aspect of the Progressive mandate — its "anti-imperialist slant", in Rajinder Singh Bedi’s (d. 1984) characterisation — continued to fascinate even those writers who found little else to agree with in the literary mindset of the Progressives. It also kept them glued to the movement.

But not for long. Ideological rigidity lurked just around the corner. As the movement became dogmatic and doctrinaire, it arrogated to itself — and itself alone — the right to expound on the essence of "progressivism" in literature. Sex, which even Sajjad Zaheer had earlier admitted as a valid fictional subject, came to be played down and was disowned as being downright reactionary.

While writers such as Krishan Chandar (d. 1977) clung unquestioningly to the movement’s distinct Marxist rhetoric, a few bold and independent-minded spirits, including Ahmed Ali and Akhtar Husain Raepuri (d. 1992), who had been at the cutting edge of the Progressive Movement, eventually broke away from it. Not that they didn’t believe in the socio-political reality of their times; rather they found it irrelevant or inadequate as the final arbiter of the value of their creative work.

The 11 years between the founding of the Progressive Movement in 1936 and the Partition of India in 1947 are remarkably intriguing from the perspective of Urdu literary history. The short story proper, born with  Premchand, grew to relative maturity in that brief period, in both thematic range and technical skill. The bulk of the writing of the period, however — which was made up of the "utilitarian" fiction of the Progressives — continued to be traditional in its main technical attributes.

It was marked, above all, by a pronounced emphasis on linear development and sequential plot. The narrative mode was still largely naturalistic, hesitant to turn inward, unaware — or perhaps uncertain — of the potential of devices such as the deliberate scrambling of temporality, interior monologue, subtle interplay of consciousness and its free associations, exploited with such surety of touch by James Joyce and introduced by his forerunner, the French Symbolist, Edouard Dujardin.

While incipient stream of consciousness and flashback could be detected even in some of the works of the writers of the Angaare group, a more skilful, though by no means widespread, treatment of these devices, as well as surrealism, was to be found in some of the short stories of Ahmed Ali, Saadat Hasan Manto (d. 1955), Muhammad Hasan Askari (d. 1978), and Qurratulain Hyder (d. 2007). Major strides in the short story of this period were generally made by those writers who stood outside the Progressive fold or belonged to it only nominally or, as in some cases, had split from it.

Among the so-called renegades, Akhtar Husain Raepuri, Saadat Hasan Manto, Muhammad Hasan Askari, Ahmed Ali, and Mumtaz Mufti (d. 1995) came in for the worst kind of verbal attacks by the Progressives, as their fiction was declared to be without any redeeming social value and therefore plainly decadent.

In their patriotic and humanitarian zeal, the Progressives took a minimalist view of contemporary man: a victim of socio-economic forces. That such a man could also be a psychological being with memory, desire, and history, be a part of a cultural continuum, have an inner life, a distinct personality — these questions were ignored as irrelevant.

A part of the failure of the Progressives was inevitably due to their overbearing concern with society at the expense of the individual, but a part was also due to their relatively less secure grasp of the poetics of fiction. The treatment of the inner life cannot, almost of necessity, avoid a thorough familiarity with a wider range of narrative devices, especially suited to plumb the individual consciousness. These devices might place less emphasis on plot and even replace linear order with psychic associations.

Eventually, all such discussions must be predicated upon a premise which recognises the inherently autonomous status of literature, something the Progressives rejected out of hand. Manto, working under Gorky and Guy de Maupassant’s influences, Bedi and Askari under Anton Chekhov’s, Ahmed Ali under Joyce and Kafka’s, and Mumtaz Mufti under Freud’s, were thus better equipped to map the inner topography of man. All of them dealt with the theme of human alienation, but the feeling produced a distinctive shade of colouration in each.

The Partition of India in 1947 amidst bloodshed and gross human misery generated by communal riots handed an unprecedented thematic boon to Progressive and non-Progressive writers alike. The former seized the opportunity to denounce the riots for their unmitigated violence. Most of their writing on the subject, however, tended to be rather facile and effusive, the worst offender being Krishan Chandar, one of the most ardent and die-hard Progressives of his time.

Tragically he limited, as only he could, the scope of the meaning of Partition to inter-religious riots, a case, merely, of some Hindus killing Muslims, some Muslims killing Hindus, quite failing to exploit the event’s tremendous potential for a fresh, if painful, exploration of human possibility, and its meaning against the wider backdrop of subcontinental history.

The best writing on the theme of Partition, again, came from the "independents". In a single brilliant piece, "Laajwanti"— (written in the early 1950s) — for instance, Bedi portrayed the devastating effects of Partition on individual lives more powerfully than Krishan Chandar in his half-a-dozen pyrotechnical conflagrations, of which "Peshawar Express" (1947), "Amritsar before Independence" (1947), "Amritsar after Independence" (1947) and "The Blind" (1947) were by no means the only examples.

However, according to common consensus, the most sustained and masterly treatment of Partition came from Manto, who dominated the literary scene as the master craftsman of the short story right up to his death in 1955 and continues to guide and inspire even such modernists as Balraj Manra (d. 2017). His unforgettable "Toba Tek Singh" (1949), "Cold Meat" (1949), and "Khol Do" (1949) have lost none of their poignancy even today, more than six decades after the division of India.

(Reprinted with the publisher's permission.)

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Muhammad Umar Memon Muhammad Umar Memon

The writer is Professor Emeritus of Urdu Literature and Arabic Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is an accomplished scholar, translator, poet and Urdu short story writer.

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