A remarkable collection of short stories translated from Urdu that are both thought-provoking and enduring.
Centuries ago, Urdu was born in the streets and markets of Delhi and became a language of middle-class North Indians. But, in the post-Partition India, it was replaced by Hindi and English. Ironically, it was adopted by Pakistan where the majority of people don’t speak Urdu. In India, though, it survived in Hindi film songs and in poetry symposia. The last few years have seen a renewed interest in this beautiful language but, alas, a majority of youngsters can’t read Urdu in the original Nastaliq script, as they are more comfortable with English. This anthology targets those Indian readers. What I liked most about this collection was the absence of Chugtai and Manto. These two writers have been translated and talked about so often that most non-Urdu speakers think that Urdu has produced just two short story writers.
This collection comprises 15 stories each from India and Pakistan and the editor has taken great care in choosing them. It has an electic mix of veteran writers and young voices. From Indian side, the collection opens with Joginder Paul’s short stories about happiness, war, death and miseries of existence. In ‘Kargil’, “a simple-hearted thief finds two corpses. One was an Indian soldier and the other a Pakistani mujahid. The thief discovers a letter written by a kid in the Pakistani’s pocket and a photograph of a little girl in the Indian’s and is wonderstruck at how the photograph of the mujahid’s daughter gets in to the Indian soldier’s pocket?”
There is a long modern tale ‘Mourner of the Feet’ by Khalid Javed which has some elements of magical realism as the narrator is a shoe. The economy of words and frugal use of metaphors makes his writing different from the typical Urdu afsananigari where use of ornamental language is a common practice. Another remarkable story ‘The Slaughterhouse Sheep’ by well-known writer Khurshid Alam tells of how continuous exploitation of the underprivileged makes the victims justify their own exploitation. This thought-provoking story depicts the stark reality of our times.
On the Pakistani side, the best of the pack is ‘Lest My Breath Disturb Thy Peace’ by Neelam Ahmed Basheer, a prominent voice in Urdu fiction. This story is about the horrifying practice of marrying the girl to the Holy Quran in the rural Sindh. The beautiful protagonist Noor Bano is a vivacious dreaming about her life with her future husband. To avoid the division of their ancestral property, her feudal family has conspired to marry her off to the Holy Book. She also knows that she will have to spend the rest of her life as an ascetic and spinster. She bears this pain stoically but when an accidental encounter with a young man leads to her pregnancy she tells her father and brothers that she was impregnated by the holy book.
‘The End of Time’ is set in the post-apocalyptic world and the protagonists are microorganisms. The story warns against the danger of the nuclear rivalry between the nations, which may lead to the total destruction of human civilisation.
The editor has done an intelligent thing by deploying different translators for each story so that the stories don’t sound similar in their English incarnations. The eye-catching cover is designed by Nikheel Aphale, an accomplished calligrapher. This is a collection worth buying.
New Urdu Writings from India & Pakistan; Edited by Rakhshanda Jalil; Tranquebar Press, Rs.395