Burning coals’ is the transliteration of the collection of short
stories, Angaarey that was banned in India soon after its publication in 1932. Only five copies escaped police destruction and were sent to London where they were housed in the Oriental and India Office archives of the British Library.
The present translation – the first in English – re-ignites the fire, as it were, since the voices remain as strident, as irreverent and angry as they sounded, felt and read (as much of the writing is in the personal vein, soliloquising) 83 years ago. This work is a continuation, and culmination, of the efforts of two scholars – who are acknowledged with gratitude by the editor – Shabana Mahmud in London in 1988 and Khalid Alavi in Delhi in 1995.
Little must be said of the writers of this remarkable book as they formed a group which would voice, through literature, their disgust of the social mores of their time. Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, Mahmud-uz-Zafar and the only woman in the collective, Rashid Jahan, were united in not only their shared exasperation with the hypocrisy and formalised modes of literary expression they were confronted with, but also in their courage to take on the establishment as well as the highly conservative Muslim community which was already roused from religious and social inertia by the political unrest of pre-Independence, pre-Partition India.
So much was the opprobrium heaped on these writers that Rashid Jahan was threatened with acid attacks if she were to appear in public. The voice of this brave lady is all the more remarkable when one takes in the time she was writing her short stories – just a short couple of decades after the women’s suffrage movement in the West and a year before the emergence of Hitler’s Nazi Party in Germany which muffled voices of other forms of dissenters more vociferous than women, more numerous than liberal litterateurs and more supported by governments and the public the world over – communists, imperialists, homosexuals, and, most infamously, Jews.
The translation of Angaarey is particularly germane to our times because of the worldwide outcry against militant Islam and a publicly professed search for a moderate face of Muslims. India is very much present in the escalating war between, what is increasingly being seen as, the Islamic world and the West, and in a way more complex than the ‘for’ and ‘against’ binaries that exist in the rest of the countries in this ideological battlefield .
This collection of stories took on the Muslim community in general, with specific attention to India, “not because of any ‘special’ malice, but because being born into that particular society, they felt themselves better qualified to speak for that alone” – to quote from the writers’ defence during the brouhaha surrounding the publication of their controversial volume.
Rashid’s In the Women’s Quarters is of particular interest as it ushers the reader into the zenana – much guarded against anyone outside the immediate family, as is Seeing the Sights in Delhi which deals with the fragmented view of the world that is afforded to Muslim women on the rare occasions when they step out of their homes.
Personal despair at the conservatism and straight-jacketing of social life is the subject of Sajjad Zaheer’s Can’t Sleep. He also forays into prohibited territory by writing of the sexual dreams of a Muslim holy man and plunges with gusto into A Summer’s Evening.
Disquiet is omnipresent in Ahmed Ali’s The Clouds Aren’t Coming and wistfulness in A Night of Winter Rains when a dead husband is longed for in the lonely chill of the North India.
The publication is a labour of intense belief and love – if love can lie in consistence with the firebrand, activist, paradigm-changing zeal which the material undoubtedly is – and makes for addictive reading. It is not a book you would read to sleep or spend a relaxed Sunday with. It is a brazier of hot charcoal that may, from time to time, singe the reader between its incendiary pages and leave an excitable sense of unease and an impatience with the overpowering ennui against the status quo at any time and in any place. Angaaray is a living, throbbing rant against the middling and sometimes muddled march of those who rule by sheer numbers and do not want to disturb the universe which, to them, yields food and livelihood.
These are the very people whom the book tries to shake out of a complacency that is complicit in their universal acceptance of overall situations that are, they believe in their lazy myopia to be, out of their control.
This translation carries some of that energy that exploded on to the literary scene all those years ago, more than a decade before free India. This book proves that the embers of that energy are not dead yet.
The author is a writer and documentary film-maker who lives partly in Calcutta and in Delhi