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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Urdu Short Stories -- Review

Editing a substantial collection of short stories is a daunting task; it becomes especially so when the editor also doubles up as the translator – that too of not one or two stories in the collection but all 22 of them. That Amina Azfar is a prolific translator is apparent from a quick look at the fly leaf of her new book; she has previously translated Akhtar Husain Raipuri’s Gard-e-Raah (Dust of the Road, for which she was given the Hasan Askari Award for the best work of translation for the year 2007 by the Pakistan Academy of Letters); Humsafar, an excellent biography of Akhtar Husain Raipuri by his wife and comrade Hameeda; The Penitence of Nasooh and the Story of Maulvi Nazir Ahmed in His Words and Mine by Mirza Farhatullah Baig; Roshnai (The Light: A History of the Movement for Progressive Literature in the Indo-Pakistan Sub-continent by Sajjad Zaheer, a most useful book for the student of the Progressive Writers’ Movement sadly unavailable in India; and Bazar-e-Husn (The Courtesan’s Quarter by Premchand). Of these I am familiar with the last two, having read and enjoyed the translations for their easy felicity.

That Amina Azfar is indefatigable in her literary endeavors is clear from this impressive body of work, incidentally all of which is published by Oxford University Press, Karachi; she is also one not content to rest on her laurels. With this book, Azfar dons the mantle of both editor and translator. Unfortunately, to an Indian reader her selection seems a trifle predictable at first glance since there are many of the ‘usual suspects’ that is, those stories most often picked up and anthologized in such collections. But keeping in mind the fact that the book, published as it is in Karachi, was primarily meant for a Pakistani readership, her task as an editor was clearly to introduce some of the great stories written in Urdu over the last 70-odd years. There are some stories here – like ‘The Chess Players’ and ‘The Shroud’ by Premchand, ‘Toba Tek Singh’ and ‘Open’ by Saadat Hasan Manto, ‘Kalu Bhangi’ by Krishan Chander, ‘Lajvanti’ by Rajinder Singh Bedi, and ‘The Shepherd’ by Ashfaq Ahmed -- that appear like tired ghosts familiar as we are with their de rigueur presence in almost all collections of Urdu short stories. While these stories are indeed good, even great by most standards, there unfailing appearance is tiresome. Given the sheer number of collections of Urdu short stories now available, the reader could do with a different set of sampler’s menu.  While no collection of Urdu stories can do without Premchand, Manto, Bedi and Krishan Chander, surely an editor can choose something else from the vast oeuvre of these very prolific writers.

I am also a bit mystified by Azfar’s predilection for choosing more than one story by a writer; that, if one might say, is a bit unorthodox for any such collection. She has chosen to do so with Premchand, Hayatullah Ansari, Manto, Hasan Manzar and Khalida Husain. I would have been happier with 22 short stories by 22 different writers, as that would have served the primary purpose of an anthology – to introduce as many writers as possible rather than include as many stories as one likes. Surely that is taking editorial license too far!

Where Azfar cannot be faulted, however, is in her translations. They are effortless and easy to read. Premchand, Manto and Bedi have been profusely translated by some of the finest translators in the Urdu speaking world. The same cannot be said for some equally good writers who are virtually unknown to the English reader. Among these are Hayatullah Ansari, Zaheer Babar, Hasan Manzar and Jamila Hashmi. By translating them and placing them in the company of the ‘greats’, Azfar has made up for other editorial lapse(s). Also, by starting with Premchand and coming down to the modern times with a contemporary writer like Fahmida Riaz, Azfar has displayed the editorial sensibility of the new-age editor. For, there was a time, not long ago, when a collection of short stories began and ended with the vintage. It is heartening to see this open-mindedness and generosity when we are willing to count the living ‘among the best’!

For Indian readers I would strongly recommend the stories of Hasan Manzar, Zaheer Babar and Fahmida Riaz. Thoroughly modern in their sensibilities, these writers show the coming-of-age of the Urdu short story. It is time now for a collection of ‘modern’ Urdu short stories that showcase new writings in Urdu from new writers. I, for one, look forward to that.

-- Rakhshanda Jalil

(Rakhshanda Jalil has recently introduced and edited a collection of Hindi short stories by Phanishwarnath Renu entitled Panchlight & Other Stories, Orient Blackswan.)

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