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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Development of the Urdu Novel & Short Story -- book review

By the early nineteenth century the Urdu language had perfected and polished itself to such a sheen that it shone like burnished gold. It had honed its vocabulary to express the noblest emotions and refined its syntax to convey the most complicated expressions with ease and finesse. As a language, it had come of age. The ghazal, the qasida and the marsiya -- each an exquisite literary genre, each capable of surpassing the other, each the cause of much astonishment and delight -- were the most glittering jewels in its crown. But the novel and the short story were still waiting to be born. At a time when some fairly sophisticated fiction was being written in English, French and Russian, the Urdu fasana-go was producing what could, at best, be described as a picaresque novel. Slowly, almost imperceptibly things began to change as realism began to creep in and some semblance of plot and characterization began to emerge. Slow to gather literary force, the Urdu novel and the short story gradually began to overshadow the other far more stylised genres proving to be not just more malleable but also more ‘open’ to the needs of modern literary sensibilities.

The story of the development of the Urdu novel and short story deserves to be told not partly or insubstantially but in whole and in a book by itself. A Critical Survey of the Development of the Urdu Novel and Short Story by Shaista Akhtar Banu Suhrawardy was written as a Ph. D thesis in 1939. First published in London in 1945, it covers a broad canvas and packs a punch in less than 250 pages. While it merely acknowledges writers such as Ismat Chughtai, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Upendranath Ashk and Krishan Chander who were beginning to make their presence felt when this thesis was being written, it does a fairly thorough job of setting the stage for the ‘modernists’ and ‘progressives’ who were to follow immediately after the cut-off date the author had set for herself. Beginning with the conditions that led to the birth of the novel, the first appearance of the rudimentary novel or romance to the evolution of the short stories, satirical sketches, humorous essays, this is a slim but ambitious book. A first comprehensive survey in the English language of its kind, it has been re-published by Oxford University Press, Karachi given its meticulous scholarship and its readability.

Suhrawardy (1915-2000) has several “firsts” to her credit: the first Muslim to graduate from Calcutta University with Honours in English literature; the first Muslim woman to receive a Ph. D from London University; the first woman Representative of the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. Better known as Begum Ikramullah in her political career, she was the official Pakistani delegate to various international conferences, once famously locking horns with the inimitable Krishna Menon in a UN debate on Kashmir. She served as the Ambassador to Morocco and wrote a biography of her famous uncle Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Her other literary works include: Letters to Neena; Behind the Veil: Ceremonies, Customs and Colour, a collection of essays on Muslim society from a woman’s perspective; a collection of popular idiomatic sayings by the ladies of Delhi called Dilli ki Khwatein ki Kahawatein aur Muhawarey, and her much-feted autobiography From Purdah to Parliament.

It is important to re-visit A Critical Survey... for several reasons. Apart from T. Graham Bailey’s and Ram Babu Saxena’s History of Urdu Literature (both by the same name, the former from Calcutta in 1932 and the latter from Allahabad in 1927) for a long time it was the only teaching aid available in English to a student of Urdu literature. (The other two offended some scholars to such an extent that Ralph Russell was compelled to write his famous treatise “How Not to Write the History of Urdu Literature” in the Annual of Urdu Studies!)

Suhrawardy’s book is important also because it brings to mind many, many names that have been erased from the present canon. Her keen impartial eye is quick to spot the lesser-known writers whom she unerringly picks and places alongside the ‘greats’ in her survey. In the section on modern novelists, when she talks of Mirza Rusva and his classic Umrao Jan, she also talks of his other works such as Zat i Sharif, its sequel Sharifzada, Akhtari Begum, and the ‘analytical’ novels of Mirza Muhammad Said such as Khab i Hasti and Yasmin and Nyaz Fatehpuri’s Shahab ki Sarguzasht. Other writers almost lost to us are Azim Beg Chughtai, Saiyid Imtiaz Ali Taj, Shaukat Thanvi, M. Aslam whom she describes as “humorous rather than witty”, singling out Mirza Farhatullah Beg alone as “truly witty. His work has that quality of humour which is to be found in Nazir Ahmad and Nasir Nazir Firaq. It is created by the appropriate choice of words and clever phrases. It is the manner in which an incident or a person is described that causes the amusement. The incident or person per se has none or little of the element of fun.”

Two particularly engrossing chapter are called ‘The Imitators of the Pioneers’ and ‘Premchand and His Imitators’. Having launched the novel in Urdu, Sarshar, Sharar and Nazir Ahmad also spawned an entire generation of wannabes. Suhrawardy attributes this “sterility of literary activity” in the years following the death of these groundbreaking masters to the ascendancy of English. While some of the imitators chose translations or adaptations of the English classics as an easy route to instant success, a practice Suhrawardy deplores, others chose emulation as the best form of addressing social evils in a conscious and acknowledged manner. Similarly, Premchand inspired every young writer from Sudarshan to Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi to Ali Abbas Husaini to write about village life and the simple joys and sorrows of the peasant in a straightforward down-to-earth style. Qasimi’s stories set in rural Punjab “show the romance and poetry that are hidden in the ragged and rugged existence of the peasant.”

However, Suhrawardy’s most penetrating insights are reserved for women writers. Here, too, she picks on many that others would overlook, such as Khatun i Akram, Baghdadi Begum, Amtul Vahi. She notes:
“As during the intermediate period in the development of the novel the best works were by women writers, so in the intermediate period in the development of the short story also some excellent work was done by women. Abbasi Begum and Nazr i Sajjad Zaheer were the best-known journalists and novelists amongst the women between the years 1900 and 1925. No collection has been published of their works, but they are to be found in the pages of the old issues of Tahzib, Ismat and Tamaddun and other magazines as well… In the old numbers of Tahzib one finds many short stories written by women who did not write enough to gain individual recognition, but these solitary or rare efforts by unknown writers are extremely good.”
She devotes an entire chapter each to women novelists and short story writers. Influenced by Nazir Ahmad, Sharar and Sarshar, women began to write prodigously from roughly 1919 onwards, producing not just fluffy romances but also serious novels extolling the virtues of education, liberty for women, the importance of marriage by mutual consent as also the merits of being a good housekeeper and dutiful wife.

Suhrawardy certainly doesn’t hold her punches when she talks of the romantic short stories by the much-loved Hijab Imtiaz Ali, calling them “pure and simple, they do not show life as it is, in its true colours.” While calling Hijab Imtiaz Ali first-rate in her style, she does not rate her work as being as good as the young socialists (writers like Dr Rashid Jahan, for example) for as Suhrawardy notes with commendable perspicacity “though escapist literature has its uses, literature that has a criticism of life and which tries to deal with its complexities and problems is the better and more enduring.”

Shaista Akhtar Bano Suhrawardy’s treatise, slimmer and shorter than other surveys is, in many ways, better and more enduring precisely because of her clear-eyed vision and unsentimental assessment of a literature that she had studied closely and well.

Rakhshanda Jalil
A Critical Survey of the Development of the Urdu Novel and Short Story by Shaista Akhtar Bano Suhrawardy. With an Introduction by Asif Farrukhi, OUP, Karachi, 2006, pp 250, Rs 495.

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