One of the great mysteries of modern Urdu literature has been the slender output of the Urdu novelist—slender, that is, compared to the prodigious number of Urdu short stories. Starting with Premchand and his first collection of stories, Soz-e-Watan, in the early 20th century, to the socially-engaged and purposive writing of the progressives, moving on to the individualistic and often idiosyncratic offerings of the modernists and then the meta-fiction of the post-modernists, they range from the good, bad and indifferent, thus allowing a cottage industry of sorts to flourish—that of publishing short story collections. While many editors of such volumes fall back on the best-known and most anthologised stories, some seek out lesser-known stories of well-known writers, thus allowing us to read lesser-known but by no means lesser works in translation.
Amina Azfar, having already edited a volume of ‘most outstanding stories in Urdu’ in a collection called The Oxford Book of Urdu Short Stories, has now taken upon herself the task of looking for less famous works of famous writers. What is more, unlike her previous anthology, she has set herself geographical boundaries: hence the title, Modern Urdu Short Stories From Pakistan. In her Introduction, she makes a casual reference to an ‘Indian style’, which she claims is distinct from a ‘Pakistani style’ of writing, but omits to elaborate upon it. I wish she had, for while I can understand different concerns and topics among Urdu writers of the two nations, I am curious as to what Azfar sees as distinct styles of writing. How does one develop a manifestly ‘Pakistani’ style? Small matter of language chauvinism aside, Azfar has done a commendable job of finding not merely seldom read stories of well-known writers, but also introducing Indian readers to established Urdu writers who have not been translated into English. This, along with a felicitous translation, makes her collection worth reading.
To begin with, there’s Ghulam Abbas’s fabulous Dhanak (rather inexplicably translated as ‘What the Moon Saw’); written in 1967, it’s a prophetic tale of the rise of Islamist forces in Pakistan and its effect upon state and society, that is, what happens when “the image of God’s kingdom on earth invoked by the mullahs” becomes a reality. Then there’s Saadat Hasan Manto’s Jhoothi Kahani (A Fake Story); reading this rapier sharp story with its pungent wit and biting satire makes one wonder why it has been overlooked by most editors and translators. Very different from Manto’s early stories, it makes a clear political statement and, like the first story, it too contains an indictment of the state of the nation. Fahmida Riaz, Hajra Masroor, Zahida Hina, Mohammad Mansh Yad, Intizar Husain are known to readers of Urdu fiction in translation, but their stories chosen here are likely to be unfamiliar to most. Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and his invocations of rural Punjab are known to many, but here, in Lawrence of Thalabia, the story of a pet falcon named Lawrence, he brings alive the predator that dwells in the guise of a human. Muhammad Hasan Askari, the patron saint of modernism in Urdu, is better known as a literary critic; in his hard-hitting Haramjadi (The Bastard) he writes of the plight of Emily, a Christian midwife in a village, and how, while her services are needed, she is an object of derision in her sari, high heels and umbrella despite being called ‘mem sahib’.
Some writers who are unfamiliar to Indian readers but whose work is interesting and unusual include Agha Babar Ali, whose Karvi Bail (The Bitter Vine) is about the jealousy that eats away at the relationship between a husband and a wife and the consequences of such toxic distrust; Shershah Syed’s Memar-e Sheher (The Builder), about the havoc of an earthquake upon a city like Karachi, when a natural calamity is compounded by human greed and corruption; Mirza Adeeb’s Sarma Ki Aik Raat (One Night in Winter), about the poignancy of old age and the bitter-sweet end to a marriage filled with silence and anger; Asif Farrukhi’s Shehr Mein Awara (Strays), about a husband and wife but, equally, also about the way men view women; and Ali Akbar Natiq’s Shah Muhammad ka Tanga (The Tanga Driver), about a garrulous horse-cart driver brought low by fate and a changing world order.
Read Modern Urdu Short Stories from Pakistan to find vignettes of a life and a people no different from our own. Read it also to gain a sense of the diverse themes and styles that comprise contemporary Urdu fiction.