Selected and translated by writer, editor and translator par excellence Muhammad Umar Memon, the twenty-five stories in this book represent the finest short fiction in Urdu literature.
In his Introduction, Memon traces the evolution of the Urdu short story from its origins in the work of writers like Munshi Premchand – ‘the first professional short story writer in Urdu’ –through the emergence of the Progressives in the late 1930s. whose writings were unabashedly political and underpinned their Marxist ideologies, to the post-Independence ‘ Modernist’ era, and today’s generation of avant-garde, experimental writers of Urdu fiction.
Every story in the anthology illustrates one or the other facet of the Urdu literary tradition. But even more than for their formal technique and inventiveness, these stories have been included because of their power and impact on the reader. Death and poverty face off in Premchand’s masterpiece ‘The Shroud’. In Khalida Asghar’s ‘The Wagon’, a mysterious redness begins to cloak the sunset in a village by the Ravi. Behind closed doors and cracks in the windows lies desire but also’ s sense of queer foreboding’ in Naiyer Masud’s Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire’. The tragedy and horror of Partition are brought to life by Saadat Hasan Manto’s lunatic (in ‘Toba Tek Singh’) and the eponymous heroine of Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Laajwanti’. Despairing, violent passionate, humorous, ironic and profound – the fiction in The Greates Urdu Stories Ever Told will imprint itself indelibly on your mind.
Muhammad Umar Memon is professor emeritus of Urdu literature and Islamic studies at the University of Wiscosin-Madison. He is critic, short story writer and translator. He was editor of the Annual of Urdu Studies (1993-2014). He lives in Madison Wisconsin.
Fiction in its limited Western sense and in two of its major forms- the novel and short story- is only a recent and borrowed phenomenon in Urdu. Exceptionally rich in poetic creation, the pre-modern Urdu literary tradition offers few works of belles-letters in prose that can compare favorably with modern notions of the short story or novel. It isn’t exactly that Urdu lacked fiction of any kind. There was always the dastan, to be sure. But the dastan, until it was finally written down and printed in the nineteenth century, was an oral and anonymous composition, narrated by professional dastan-gos or story-tellers for the entertainment of feudal or metropolitan aristocracy, through it didn’t preclude public recitals for the amusement of the masses. More significantly, the dastan, because of its flair for exuberant fantasy and the supernatural, used plot and character in fundamentally disparate ways from Western fiction. Here, the intent and deign was to prove about life. It referred all causality to supernatural rather than to human or natural agencies, offered a different notion of time, and its characters were unavoidably two-dimensional. Stripped of individuality they were commissioned to personify abstract ideas. The dastan was thus a different – but by no means inferior- fictional possibility from the Western novel and short story.,
Although artistically more refined of fiction were still roughly a hundred years in the future, some transitional work had already begun to appear in the early nineteenth century, as in Mir Amman’s Baagh-o- Bahaar (1801) and Rajab Ali Beg Surur’s Fasaana-ye ‘Ajaa’ib (1884). However, they did not depart in any significant way from the long-standing tradition of the dastan,except perhaps in length. Nd while its setting was contemporary, its contents in some respects new, and its dependence on supernatural incident practically non-existent, pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar’s Fasaana-ye Aazaad (serialized between 1878 and 1879) in Avadh Akhbaar)too, did not manage to break away entirely from the style of the dastan. Not until the novels of Deputy Nazir ahmed (d. 1912) would the prolonged courtship with the dastan finally appear off, only to be resumed briefly in the works of his younger contemporary, Abdul Halim Sharar. Nazir Ahmead was motivated less by a creative impulse than a concern for the moral education of his own children. For greater effect, he turned to the form of his novel: a story with a plot- but nonetheless a story to teach, yoked inexorably in the service of moral instruction. He wrote several novels. All shared his unfailing ouch for realism. The idiom was unpretentious, crisp, and close to everyday speech. Often his prose managed to achieve great evocative power, But ultimately, Nazir Ahmad’s transparent didacticism only managed to subvert the notion of fiction as an autonomous realm.
With Abdul Halim Sharat (d. 1926), a journalist and pioneer of historical romance in Urdu, the world of Urdu letters began to harken back to the dastan, or so it seems. He wrote out of a desire to rehabilitate Islam and sing its bygone glory at a time a time when Muslims were on the retreat in practically all areas of their political life. Their pride had been badly hurt in the 1857 War of Independence, which they had lost. Sharar’s romaces, of which he wrote many, flouted every law of probability and played fast and loose with history. But this did’t deter the Muslims from loving them, mostly for their balmy effect; their immense therapeutic potential.
It was this fictional background against which Muhammad Hadi Ruswa wrote his Umraao Jaan Adaa (1899)- the first true novel in Urdu, more in the sense of fundamentals than in refinements. For Ruswa hadn’t fully managed to suppress the didactic element, yet this element was least instrusive or jarring. What Ruswa had managed to achieve was considerable: a sense of character with distinct selfhood; a keen understanding of the mechanics of good fiction. He told his story skinfully; he gave it a well-constructed and coherent plot which developed according to believable causality; and he also knew how to enliven the work with dialogue full of subtlety, wit and humour.
Although the short story had made its hesitant appearance during this period,its employement by the Urdu writer was both sporadic and tentative Not until Mushi Premchand (1800-1936), the first professional short story write in Urdu, did it develop into a discrete genre and a major landmark of literary topography. But even in Premchand, the notion of fiction as an autonomous realm was relentlessly subordinated to a notion of fiction as an instrument of protest, reform, and redress. As much was already clear in his very first short story, ‘World’s Priceless Gem’ (1905). In the pervasive, gushy and oversweet romanticism of the period, it set the tone for a new kind of literature- at once socially more aware and aggressively patriotic. Kind of literature-at once socially more aware and aggressively patriotic.
However, there is enough evidence to suggest that in his later work, as in the short story, ‘The Shroud’ (1936) – a masterpiece of very humour and clawing irony subsumed by a dispassionate, objective narrative style- he was slowly edging towards some notion of fiction’s autonomy.
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