An often used analogy for anthologies is the one about the gardener who plucks the choicest blooms from his garden and puts together the loveliest of bouquets. Since he knows his garden so well, he is seen as the best judge of what should go into the making of the guldasta; yet he is not expected to be objective and his choice is governed as much by personal liking as availability. So it is with editors of anthologies. But when the editor is Muhammad Umar Memon, veteran critic, translator and academic, you know that his selection is likely to be the best. And when he selects and translates a collection called The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told, you take him for his word. And you will not be disappointed.
For, found within the pages of this aqua-covered, beautifully-produced volume are some old favourites and several new and amazing discoveries. There are the stories many of us have read: Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Lajwanti, Ahsfaq Ahmad’s The Shepherd, Premchand’s The Shroud, Ghulam Abbas’s Aanandi. Then there are writers whose names are familiar to anyone who has done even a cursory reading of Urdu fiction: Qurratulain Hyder, Intizar Husain, Ismat Chughtai, Abdullah Hussein, Naiyer Masud; though here too Memon’s selection of stories from their vast and varied ouvre makes for interesting reading. Others such as Zakia Mashhadi, Syed Muhammad Ashraf, Jamila Hashmi, Salam Bin Razzaq, Ali Imam Naqvi, while by no means new or emerging writers, are familiar through some recent translations. But where this volume really scores is in its introduction to relatively new voices, new that is to the English reader. Some such as Tassaduq Sohail, Anwer Khan, Khalida Asghar, Siddiq Aalam, Sajid Rashid and others are new even to seasoned Urdu readers. Taken together, the 25 stories trace the chronological development of the Urdu short story from its earliest proponents to its current practitioners, providing an excellent sampler of the many voices and concerns, not to mention styles and techniques, of the Urdu afsana and a measure of the distance it has travelled from the romantic dastaan and fantastic fasana of yore.