Having been dislocated, as it were, from its moorings in the heartland of upper India, Urdu has blossomed and borne fruit in the seven decades since independence. Soon after 1947, it thrust new roots in the alien soil west of the newly-created border and in its own homeland learned to adapt and survive despite all odds and the hegemonic ascendance of the new “national language”. A study of contemporary Urdu literature in India, that is the literature of the post-Manto, post-partition generation of writers, bears ample evidence of that efflorescence and also offers a testimony to the survival of Urdu zubaan and tehzeeb despite the odds stacked against it.
Literature changes and evolves as its language changes and grows; literary sensibilities too develop and progress in tandem with changing times so that they reflect real situations and real concerns. Also, the health of any literature should be gauged not by how much is being written but how many different voices are articulating how many different concerns. In modern Urdu fiction one is happy to report a multiplicity of voices and a range of concerns and motifs.
Many years ago, I had edited a collection of Urdu stories called simply, UrduStories. My intention then, was to present a sampler from the “greats” of Urdu literature. That collection had begun, quite rightly, with Premchand and carried on till modern times. Almost a decade later, I set myself an altogether different task. This time I consciously went looking for the new and the relatively unknown. I called this collection New Urdu Writings: From India and Pakistan.
There were, of course, the stalwarts such as Joginder Paul, Zahida Hina, Intizar Husain and Jeelani Bano. They had to be included precisely because though they had been writing for a fairly long time, they were active writers and had influenced the nai kahani (or the “new story” as it is called by critics) through their efforts. Living in a post-colonised world, they continue to negotiate the demands of their own literary concerns and those of their younger, newer readers. Their work shows how a purity of language can be maintained to a rigorous, almost classical degree and how this language can be moulded to convey new and altogether “modern” concerns.
But some among the older generation have continued to improvise and have revisited old forms and made them speak of new concerns. Joginder Paul, for instance, brought new life to the tradition of ‘afsanchey’ or very short short stories that are almost haiku-like in their brevity and pack a powerful punch as they allow their writer to take a quick, piercing look at the world and its ways in mini-stories entitled Parkinson’s Disease, Death, One by One, Kargil, Living Happily Ever After, etc.
In the case of outright, unabashedly modern writers like Khurshid Akram or Khalid Javed or Anwar Qamar, we see how new radical ideas have produced a new sort of story and the adoption of a fresh, new voice. To those who believe ‘modern’ is equal to ‘trash’ or new is necessarily bad, this collection was offered as a sampler, by way of a taster’s menu, a smorgasbord, of modern Urdu fiction: it had a little of everything on offer in contemporary Urdu fiction: stream-of-consciousness, modernist, post-modernist, avant-garde, feminist, something in fact for everyone. Let me now attempt to take up some of the important names among the contemporary writers and their concerns.
Joginder Paul, who passed away recently, belonged to the generation that came to prominence shortly after the partition generation but continued to be troubled by the ghosts of those traumatic years. Unlike the progressive writers who wrote in white heat about the Partition, there is a gentleness in Paul’s writings and a compassion, a sense of complete empathy with these troubled, night-walking souls who are lost while still at home in their hard-won homeland. Khabrau is unlike any other partition story for its absence of anger and moral outrage; it tells the story of those who have been uprooted from their beloved Lucknow and transplanted in Karachi but cannot leave behind their memories of their homes and streets and chowks. The scent of the mangoes of Malihabad torments them.
Paul’s concerns are about the here and now as much as they are with a past that shattered peaceful co-existence. A childless woman who suffers at the hands of her suspicious husband; a homeless boy searching for a better future; an old man revealing the secrets of his marriage to his wife of many years; the truth behind a mysterious little tomb; a middle-class family travelling by train and facing undue harassment by various petty officials – these and many other vignettes make Paul’s vast and varied body of work a delightful repository of modern Urdu afsananigari. Paul also revisits the terrain of dislocation and displacement when he talks of the high noon of the Punjab militancy. In a short story named Akhri Paath (The Last Lesson), he takes us to a land where fear stalks. Armed assassins are sent to kill a village headman who has been counselling those Sikhs who have chosen the wrong path of insurgency to come back towards a normal peaceful life.
Communal violence and its threat to harmonious co-existence is a major concern for most Urdu writers. Tariq Chhatari takes us to the qasbahs of Upper India where syncretism was once virtually a way of life but here too multiculturalism is under the thrall of competing ideologies. In flavoursome idiomatic Urdu, he compels us to look at communalism and its conjoined twin, secularism.
In times of madness and communal frenzy when the tattered fabric of pluralism is being stretched from all sides, The Gun shows how there will always be some voices of sanity; madness will spiral but will eventually be contained because of a shared ganga-jamuni tehzeeb. In a very subtle manner, the story also conveys the message of non-violence.
On the other hand, Chhatari’s pen has also produced The Line, the story of a Muslim boy, Hameed, dressed as a young Krishna on the occasion of Janmashtami. When a stone thrown by an angry bigot hits Krishan ji Maharaj squarely on the head, is it Hameed’s blood, or is Kanhaiya’s? Or is it the blood of insaniyat, humanity?
Similarly, Anis Rafi’s The Curfew is Strict portrays the effect of curfew in a communally-charged neighbourhood; such is the reign of terror that those who step out of their homes — with their hands held up in a universally-accepted symbol of surrender — walk from their homes to the nearby mosque to pray going so far as to offer their prayers still with their hands in the air instead of the customary folding of hands while bending or kneeling.
Gujarat, which has been like an open wound festering on the soul of the Indian Muslim, appears in On Board the MV Gandhi by Anwar Qamar; except that unlike the horrors of the Partition and the communal carnage that were laid bare by the writers of those years with all the immediacy of camp surgeons, 70 years later the wounds inflicted by communal tensions are alluded to obliquely, indirectly, almost warily by the Urdu writer. Anwar Qamar leaves a great deal unsaid and therein hangs the story of the stowaways onboard the ship sailing out of Kandla port with its container-loads of miserable human cargo.
The starkly modern trend in Urdu literature is best exemplified by Khalid Javed. His Mourner of the Feet is a story narrated by a shoe, a shoe that possesses ‘a crude rustic charm’ yet is capable of immense perception, for a shoe is both witness to its wearer’s pains and also a shoulder to his sufferings.
Abdus Samad, a retired professor of Political Science from Patna, has produced seven collections of short stories and eight novels that bear ample testimony that the ‘personal is the political’.
Syed Muhammad Ashraf, an income tax commissioner, is a force to reckon with in the nai kahani tradition. The Hyena Falls Silent is a tautly-spun tale set in a train compartment: the train has stopped, its passengers are wondering why; outside in a house across the tracks, stands a stuffed hyena, mounted and placed atop a table on its owner’s verandah. In this surreal scenario, a persistently knocking man is introduced who wishes to enter the train compartment but is rebuffed till a young boy lets him in.
A similarly macabre note is picked up Faiyaz Riffat; his A Night’s Paradise is a haunting elegy to lost lives, especially of the young. Relentless unemployment brings three young men to the city; a night of mindless pleasure brings them death, death caused by spurious liquor.
The ghoulish note is also found in Mazhar-uz Zaman Khan’s The Last Show, a story about a circus that takes away a young life in the grisliest way possible. One man’s entertainment is another man’s calamity in this gory tale of voyeurism.
Among women writers, there’s none more powerful than Tarannum Riyaz and Zakia Mashhadi. In City, Riyaz brings out the heedless unknowing inhumanity of a big city and the plight of two small children locked up in a high-rise apartment. Mashhadi, a writer of elegant prose, locates women in the conundrum of everyday life. Like Ismat, she uses women’s language and idiom as a literary tool and defies categorisation: is she a writer of the feminine or a feminist writer?
A great deal of modern Urdu fiction is about the surreal and the inexplicable. A man walking on the road, holding the hand of his young son, is out for an evening stroll. The evening that starts on a happy note in Pin-Prick for the young exuberant boy ends with a steadily disheartened father and a disconsolate child. Perhaps, Awaz Sayeed seems to be saying, sometimes it takes very little to prick the fragile bubble of happiness.
Possibly no other writer would work so hard at revealing things as Naiyer Masud does in concealing them. And this despite a profuse and relentless detailing, a precision and clarity of writing and expression, and an eye for the tiniest of detail! In his refusal to make things easy for the reader, Masud requires a close and attentive reading and such is the mesmeric pull of his writing that he pulls you in with all the tenacity and insistence of a dream despite its blurred outlines and disregard for time and space. Once inside his world, which is part magic realism, part Kafkesque, there is no escape.
There is something so seductive, almost hypnotic about this collection of stories that the conventions of story-telling, such as plot, character, narrative, become meaningless; the word and the suggestion is all.