Friday, January 19, 2018

The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told: Edited by Muhammad Umar Memon: review

The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told: Edited by Muhammad Umar Memon

-Review by Divya Dubey

[ Published in India Today mag: Oct 20, 2017:]

In 2003 Sahitya Akademi published an anthology, Short Stories from Pakistan, translated from the Urdu (1998) into English by M Asaduddin and edited by Intizar Hussain and Asif Farrukhi. In its Preface Hussain says, ‘…just after the Partition the writers and thinkers had to negotiate questions that were specific to Pakistan. The writers in India were not faced with such questions as they were inheritors of a historical and literary continuity. We had to discover the connections anew. If we were a different nation then what was our national and cultural identity?’

Given that stories of Partition form a significant part of Urdu literature, this is an important point. The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told, Aleph’s new anthology of 25 stories from India and Pakistan, edited by Muhammad Umar Memon, is broader in scope. Memon’s collection traces the journey of the short story in Urdu from the oral, and later written, ‘dastan’ in the early 1800s – with its love for the fantastic and supernatural – to its engagement with social realism and political protest (esp. from the Progressive Movement in 1936 to India’s Partition in 1947) and, more recently, to the exploration of deeper psychological issues and intellectual concerns.

The collection includes well-established names such as Premchand, Manto, Ismat Chughtai, etc, to new voices such as Khalida Asghar, Sajid Rashid, etc. What emerges, eventually, is a range of themes – from the horrors of war, migration and exile in the classics to fear and desire (‘Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire’), literacy, education and the love of learning (‘The Shepherd’),  mixed-faith marriage and terror (The Saga of Jaanki Raman Pandey), trauma and lunacy – both temporary and permanent, women’s sexuality and situation in a highly patriarchal society (Lajwanti, Aanandi, Fists and Rubs, Banished, etc).

Muhaamad Umar Memon
In fact, stories such as ‘Lajwanti’, ‘Aanandi’, ‘Jaanki Raman’, ‘Fists and Rubs’, ‘Banished’, etc, mark it almost as a feminist collection. In more than one story parallels are drawn with Sita and the Ramayana. In ‘Lajwanti’, it is the idea of Ram Rajya, while ‘Banished’ shows yet another Sita. Strong satire and hard-hitting images make a lasting impact upon the reader. Khalida Asghar’s ‘The Wagon’ is a unique story with a unique theme. It is both a reminder of a deadly past and a warning of impending doom in the future. A red sky, three mysterious men, a stench-drenched city and a vanishing wagon are vi
vid symbols suggesting a nuclear war. The story slowly builds up a sense of terror and anticipation. In a way, life comes full circle after the Partition.  

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