Urdu stories, in translation: Read short fiction by Gulzar, Joginder Paul and Deepak Budki
A round-up of the first four Urdu short stories presented in translation, as part of the eight-part series on Urdu fiction by contemporary Indian writers.
In post-colonial India were many writers who, among other things, were inspired by the events and lives turbulently affected by the recent Partition. Some were part of the Progressive Writers Movement (PWM), which focused thematically on social change and commentary. And all of them wrote of the things they saw and felt, the things they wanted to say, and more importantly, the things that no one wanted to say, things they did not want forgotten.
These writers are individual lights shining on the Indian short-story landscape. Urdu has been erroneously termed a ‘Muslim’ language, instead of being acknowledged for its gentle, expressive, poetic and inclusive quality. The works of writers featured in this eight-part series of short stories clear up this misconception. Here are excerpts from the first four parts of the series:
'The Crocodile' – Gulzar
Celebrated lyricist, author, and recipient of the Padma Bhushan and the Sahitya Akademi Award, Gulzar is one of India's foremost literary figures. His short story 'The Crocodile' is an intimate look at the layers of prejudice, discomfort, and sometimes ignorance, that led to the Hindu-Muslim riots. The story makes the bold move of highlighting how religious insecurity, leading to a yearning for supremacy, ultimately resulted in the mindless end of countless lives. The story is a quick-paced narrative of how the days leading up to religious celebrations result instead in bloodshed; how people preparing for Muharrum and Dussehra, in an attempt to be the grander, through their words, instead find themselves rioting.
‘Brother, the character of Ravan is not good just as Yazid’s character is not good in the incident of Karbala.’
‘But Ravan was a maha-pandit, a highly learned man, and a devotee of Lord Shiva. He was a great...’
Raza got annoyed. He cut short the pandit mid-sentence and said, ‘But then, Brother, why do you burn him if he was such a great and learned man... after all, he was a Hindu too!’
The sentence that had remained incomplete on Raza’s lips was completed by Ram Pandit.
‘Had he been a Muslim... why would we have to get an effigy made?’
That was enough! The battle lines were drawn. That year, bombs were burst instead of firecrackers during Ramlila. And the tallest flame leapt out from Raza’s shop.
Raza was absconding... and the riots were continuing.
'Those Without Graves' — Joginder Paul
Joginder Paul, a SAARC Lifetime Award winner, was born in Pakistan and fled to Ambala during the Partition. His novels, short stories, and other writing all varyingly express the angst of being away from home, of being exiled and isolated. In 'Those Without Graves', Paul talks of the absolute self-inflicted apathy of the Indian people. Disinterested in living, unaware of being alive, Paul's characters are existing in a way that is worse than corpses. Seen through the shock and fear of an American doctor, it makes the reader back-peddle, and think about the basic state and value of human life in the country.
Suddenly, the American doctor’s glance fell on the sea of people outside the car and a sort of shiver ran through his body. There was no trace of a personal life on any face. Everyone seemed to be moving purposelessly from here to there – lost, unaware of each other, here and yet not quite here, but God knows where. Their eyes were seeing but without telling them what they were seeing. Their feet were rising and falling of their own accord. There was so much noise and clamour and yet it seemed as if they could not hear anything. The doctor took out a pen and notebook and began to write.
‘15 June, 1957. A street in Calcutta. There are crowds of people on the street, but strangely enough, there is no sign of life in any of them. It would seem that they were beginning to get suffocated in their graves and so all of them have come out. And once out, they are now tired and defeated and going back to their graves...’ He stopped mid-sentence and began to stare out of the window. Are these people really alive? He was trying his hardest to get to the bottom of this strange phenomenon. ‘Well, why not? Next month, in the doctors’ conference, I am going to raise this question in right earnest... it is entirely possible... No, no! ... Why not? After all, it is possible that the human machine keeps functioning while the human being inside it may have died... Yes, if it can be proved... No! How can it be?’ Once again, he began to stare out of the window. No, after all, when it has happened already, how can it not be?
'The Rape of an Abandoned House' — Deepak Budki
This is the story of a house, dilapidated and destroyed, robbed and emptied of any sign of life within every inch of its space — compared to a virgin bride who has been gang-raped. Author of the book The Non-Muslim Short Story Writers of Urdu, Deepak Budki is also a famed short story writer and essayist. His themes revolve largely around individual and collective human behaviour, often with underlying tones encouraging reflection on human action.
And from that day onwards, anyone could enter that house. People would avoid meeting each other’s glance but nevertheless enter the house and rob and pillage whatever they could carry away. In the first lot, the black-and-white Weston TV set, the Phillips transistor, steel utensils and clothes were taken away. Then, tranche by tranche, tables and chairs, beds and almirahs, and other bits and pieces of furniture were taken away till the entire house was empty. By now the house looked like virgin who had been gang raped and then her wounded half-dead body, covered with blood, had been left beside a road. Such bodies are left half-alive simply so that they can be pounced upon and clawed at again and again. And greedy and lascivious people are known to spare neither the shroud from the corpse, nor the cold flesh of the corpse.
'I Have Done my Bhartiya-karan' — Kanhaiyalal Kapoor
Known for his prowess in creating delightful parody, Kanhaiyalal Kapoor wrote in both prose and verse, taking serious subjects, creating tense situations, and expertly injecting gleeful humour, to drive the message home. In this story, Kapoor ponders what it means to be Indian. Does it mean supporting India commercially and following its age-old traditions? Does it mean looking and living a certain way, as to make a visual statement to everyone within proximity?
Now we come to my eye-glasses. I asked several pandits: ‘Is there any mention of eye-glasses in the Ramayana or the Mahabharata?’ They said: ‘In those days, people didn’t eat vanaspati ghee and so their eye sight did not weaken while they were still young.’ I asked: ‘Did Sugreev, Kunbhakaran, Dushasan and all the rest have such good eye sight that they never felt the need to wear eye glasses?’ The pandits replied, ‘All of them applied kajal in their eyes.’ I found the solution to my problem. I took off my spectacles and began to apply kajal. As a consequence, when it got dark, I began to mistake a rope for a snake and a goat for a dog. And when I attempted to read a book the words turned into black doodles. In a few days, even during the daytime, I began to mistake one thing for another. I consulted an eye doctor. He advised, ‘If you don’t wish to become blind, kindly wear your spectacles.’
‘But spectacles are not Indian?’
‘How does it matter? This watch that you have strapped on your wrist is not Indian, and this cigarette that you are smoking isn’t Indian either.’
‘You have rightly reminded me. From tomorrow I shall smoke a huqqah.’
‘What have you decided about the watch?’
‘I shall take it off.’
‘And if you have to know the time?’
‘I shall ask someone.’
‘Do as you please, but kindly wear your spectacles, or else you will lose your eye sight.’
Thinking that I would simply add to the number of blind people in India if I were to become blind, I went back to wearing my glasses.
Perhaps, it could mean being inherently secure about your Indianness, without feeling the need to parade it in every conceivable way.
Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian. Her recent works include: Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers Movement in Urdu (OUP, 2014); a biography of Urdu feminist writer Dr Rashid Jahan, A Rebel and her Cause (Women Unlimited, 2014); a translation of The Sea Lies Ahead, Intizar Husain's seminal novel on Karachi (Harper Collins, 2015) and Krishan Chandar's partition novel Ghaddar (Westland, 2017); an edited volume of critical writings on Ismat called An Uncivil Woman (Oxford University Press, 2017); and in the past year a literary biography of the Urdu poet Shahryar for Harper Collins; The Great War: Indian Writings on the First World War (Bloomsbury); Preeto & Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu (Niyogi), and most recently, Kaifiyat, a translation of Kaifi Azmi’s poems for Penguin Random House. She runs an organisation called Hindustani Awaaz, devoted to the popularisation of Hindi-Urdu literature and culture.
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