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Book Review: Muhammad Umar Memon’s ‘The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told’

By Fahad Hashmi

Title: The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told
Selected and Translated: Muhammad Umar Memon
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2017

It is not possible that one who is already acquainted with the Annual of Urdu Studies does not know Muhammad Umar Memon. Since its inception, the Chicago-based journal had been under his editorial stewardship until it ceased publication in 2014.

Professor Memon has been teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for over three decades. Currently, he is an emeritus professor of Urdu literature and Islamic studies at the university.

Those who are interested in reading Urdu literature through translation must have come across Memon’s translation of Naiyer Masud’s stories titled Collected Stories, and an anthology of stories from Pakistan named Do You Suppose it’s the East Wind?

The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told contains twenty-five short stories of varying length. The introduction written by Memon himself is an informative read. It’s rich in scope and presents a brilliant analysis of the history of short story writing in Urdu.

Short story and novel in Urdu are borrowed genres. On the contrary, Dastan is native to Urdu and it had been in vogue while the two genres were taking root in Urdu. Dastan is altogether different from short story or novel. Dastan, which provides a supernatural explanation for causalities, has been part of an oral tradition and thus its creators have remained largely anonymous.

Mir Amman’s Bag-o-Bahar, Rajab Ali Beg’s Fasaana-ye ‘Ajaa’ib, Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar’s Fasaana-ye Azaad bear the imprint of dastan in one way or other. Nazeer Ahmad’s didactic approach to literature couldn’t enable him to create novels with an autonomous realm. Abdul Haleem Sharar tried to revive dastan in his novels singing praises of the past glory of Islam. Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jaan Adaa was closer to the ‘fundamentals’ of a novel. Munshi Premchand is the first professional short-story writer in Urdu. His works create an autonomous world that is required of a short story or a novel. To Memon, Premchand’s

…chief contribution lay in helping the short story emerge as a distinct, freestanding narrative genre. He was also able to give it a more expansive range of topics and, more importantly finalize its inevitable and long-pending break with the cloying romanticism of his time…

Later, the publication of Angare (literally, embers) – a collection of ten stories penned by four authors – in 1933 was a major landmark in the history of Urdu short story. The Marxist and Freudian influences were writ large on the work along with the presence of sex as an important dimension of fiction.

The formation of the Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM), a literary wing of the Communist Party of India, in 1936 was again a milestone as it turned out to be the ‘force’ that attracted the best minds at the time. This Movement was an offshoot of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association that had come into existence in London two years before the creation of the PWM. It carried forward the legacy of Premchand, along with the ideas borrowed and imbibed from the Russian writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky. Thus, seen from the perspective of story writing in Urdu, the period from 1936 to 1947 was enriching in terms of both theme and technical skill.

Post-Independence, many factors, including the absence of ‘anti-imperialist slant’, caused dissatisfaction in a particular section of the PWM which resulted in large-scale defections. Memon writes:

Ideological rigidity lurked just around the corner. As the Movement became dogmatic and   doctrinaire, it arrogated to itself—and itself alone—the right to expound on the essence of ‘progressivism’ in literature. Sex, which even Sajjad Zaheer had earlier admitted as a valid fictional subject, came to be played down and was disowned as being downright reactionary.

While observing the treatment of Urdu short story at the hands of the writers associated with the Movement, Memon observes:

The progressives took a minimalist view of contemporary man: a victim of socio-economic forces. That such a man could also be a psychological being with memory, desire, and history, be a part of a cultural continuum, have an inner life, a distinct personality—these questions were ignored as irrelevant.

Jadeed afsana also made it to the literary scene during 1950s. The modernist phase of the Urdu short story owes much to Balraj Manra, Intizar Husain, Enver Sajjad, and Surendra Prakash. Interior monologue and stream of consciousness, according to Memon, were employed earlier, ‘though somewhat tentatively’, however, its ‘focused use’ was especially found in Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Dariya (1959).

It’s refreshing to see that a few of the brilliant stories whose unique narrative style and story line have left a lasting imprint on our minds such as Kafan, Toba Tek Singh, Laajwanti, Muthhi Malish (Of Fists and Rubs) and Anandi have been included in the anthology. Qurratulain Hyder’s Beyond the Fog, Abdullah Hussein’s Sunlight, Naiyer Masud’s Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire, and Intizar Husain’s The Back Room are excellent reads of this collection. I must say that Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s The Man, Ali Imam Naqvi’s The Vultures of the Parsi Cemetery, and Sajid Rashid’s Fable of a Severed Head are jaw-droppingly good. The anthology contains three co-translated stories, and Abbas’s Aanandi has been rendered into English by G. A. Chaussee.

One cannot repudiate the fact that literature should take into account the criteria that go into the making of it, as well as it ought not to be the religion of beauty. However, these two points present a conundrum which is personal as well as political in our times when right-wing politics is on the surge. How should one understand a piece of literature that stands to the criteria of aesthetics, and simultaneously keeps a plot and character(s) that also help in othering as well as demonising of peoples – racial, religious, cultural, sexual, and others? In the Indian context, for instance, how should one look at Anandmath?

There is no denying that there are other stories that can also be called ‘the greatest Urdu stories ever told’. However, the tales that have been incorporated in this anthology are certainly greatest. Since one has read most of these tales in Urdu, one can vouch for the fact that the original stories are not lost in translation.

One seeks to appreciate belles-lettres being produced in different languages. And there’s the rub: Ars longa, vita brevis. Therefore, an anthology like this serves the needs of those who cannot access great works of literature in the vernacular.

The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told is available here.

Fahad Hashmi 
holds an MPhil in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, India. He regularly writes on political Islam, issues of minorities, and on other issues of political and social concerns.


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