Urdu stories, in translation: Read short fiction by Renu Behl, Ramanand Sagar and Krishan Chandar
A round-up of the last 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 last four parts of the series:
'Run From These Slave Traders' — Ramanand Sagar
A recipient of the Padma Shri, producer of popular television series including Ramayana and Krishna, Ramanand Sagar was a writer, poet and screenwriter. He was part of the Progressive Writers' Association, deeply influenced by the Partition and interested in keeping alive the spirit of secularism. In 'Run From These Slave Traders', Sagar writes of women, wives, mothers, caught in the tangles of a messy, egoistic Partition; women left divided, homeless.
‘“May the mother lay down her life for her darling child!” the words escaped from my lips quite without my volition. But my voice did not reach him, and I became increasingly more restless.
‘Suddenly, all hell broke loose as he, stumbling and tottering in his attempt to walk, fell down beside the river. The waves lapped close by and I could contain myself no longer. In the blink of an eye, I jumped out of the second-floor window from where I had been watching this spectacle, on to the single-storey house next door. Where that straw thatch broke and where I slid and slipped, I have no recollection. All I can recall now is that the spot where I landed on the ground was full of mud and filth. But I didn’t have the time to stop. Without a second thought, I ran towards the river.
‘I was swimming with all my strength. My eyes were trained to that spot on the other bank when I saw him come running to pick up Prem in his arms. Finally, I drew a long breath. Now I could feel my exhaustion.
'Daani, The Generous One' — Krishan Chandar
With over 80 volumes of Urdu literature published under his name, Krishan Chandar is considered an icon, famed especially for his short stories. Many members of the Progressive Writers' Association looked up to Chandar, who was at one time considered 'flawed', being overtly sentimental and idealistic for a Progressive. His writing often revolves around the plight of the downtrodden and defeated, and thematically brings to light social concerns. In this story, Chandar outlines the life of Daani, whose hunger is never fully satiated and whose imagination flourishes in a way only possible for a homeless person.
Daani’s life-long dream was to be fed to his heart’s content, even if he was made to work hard for 24 hours at a stretch. And this dream of Daani’s was eventually fulfilled when he came to the Irani restaurant on Charak Road. The owner of the Irani restaurant would make him do the work of four men, but he also gave him 20 rupees as salary and let him eat to his heart’s content. He would drink the local brew with that money and then sprawl on the footpath and go to sleep.
He did not have the slightest interest in money or fame or politics or women. He was the most fortunate of all living people in this world.
The night he saved Sariya from the hoodlums, his friend Ali Akbar had tried his best to stop him. Three or four thugs were trying to abduct Sariya and take her away in a taxi that was parked beside the Church railing abutting the footpath. The night watchman who was supposed to be on duty at the crossing was patrolling another stretch of the road – as usually happens in such cases. Sariya was screaming with terror and calling out for help. Ali Akbar tried his best to dissuade Daani: ‘This Bombay. No one comes to the help of another at such times. Everyone pretends to be fast asleep at such times. Don’t be a fool!’
But Daani could not ignore Sariya’s screams.
'A Cup of Tea' — Mahindar Nath
What is the meaning of a marriage, when two people love each other and have promised to spend their lives together? 'A Cup of Tea' is a tender exploration of this question, its explanation aided with a cup of tea. Mahindar Nath writes of love, passion, family and marriage, and of things waiting to be said. A writer and actor, Nath was also part of the Progressive Writers' Association, and influenced by his elder brother Krishan Chandar, an icon of the PWM.
The first time we met on a blazing hot afternoon, Kamini looked at me in such a way as though she was willing to surrender everything to me.
One should not display such trust in another human being without the slightest hesitation – especially after one meeting.
But it was precisely this gesture of hers that I found the most endearing. And it was this that also made me her slave forever. Perhaps this is what love is all about. It is pointless to talk of the love that Kamini had for me or has for me, or the love that I have for her or will have for her. What is amply clear, however, is the beautiful outcome of that love. Shortly after that first meeting, the two of us began to live together. We acknowledged each other as husband and wife.
There is no doubt that at first I was attracted by her good looks and only later by her temperament. It was after 10 years that I began to realise her looks and temperament were no doubt pleasing, and that it was carnal desire that made me fall in love with her beauty and temperament.
'Draupadi Has Woken Up' — Renu Behl
Renu Behl, with a PhD in Urdu, has written a host of short stories and novels, and is a recipient of the Shiromani Urdu Sahityakar Award from the Punjab Government. Her story 'Draupadi Has Woken Up' is a chilling tale of family, duty and the role of women in the Indian household.
He saw Pammo enter the room Baisakha had gone into with his wife and resumed placating Bebe. He didn’t quite like the way Baisakha had married a Bengali girl and brought her home. He could fully empathise with his pain, deprivation, desires, needs, and his longing. After all, he was in the same boat. The only difference was that he didn’t want to do anything that would cause pain to Bebe. He too wanted someone to look out for him, to wait for him, to speak sweetly to him when he returned bone tired from the fields. He too longed for the sound of children’s voices in his home. But he simply sighed and stayed quiet.
Soon, the remaining eight acres were further divided. Baisakha took his share of two acres and crossed the threshold to set up his own home with his new wife.
People have seen the divisions of homes and properties. But here, Bebe’s very heart was divided.
Her hopes and dreams dissolved with her sighs and tears out of sight of everyone’s eyes. She had no bodily affliction; only her soul was in torment. The love for her sons ate away at her like termites that eat up a piece of wood from inside and leave it hollow. The sense of failure at not being able to have her most obedient and loving eldest son married tormented her till one day she left the world with her most ardent wish unfulfilled.
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.