"The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told" | A literary retreat
The young Urdu language has evolved inextricably as a part of the broader culture in the north of the Subcontinent. Urdu literature took the language to the peak of its popularity. Dominated largely by poetry in the form of ghazal and nazma, it took a while for short stories to formally find their space in this realm of suave expressions.
About a little over a century ago, the culture short story-writing in Urdu began fledging in terms of artistically refined works and has since transitioned through some significant phases marked by genres such as romantic, progressive writing, modernist writing, and contemporary styles, many of which unabashedly criticised social norms. As a point in the timeline, Urdu short stories gained greater popularity and crystallised as a regular feature with the growing body of literary works of Munshi Premchand.
Some of the first generation Urdu writers include Ghulam Abbas, Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, and Ismat Chughtai. Some second-generation writers like Syed Mohd Ashraf and Salam Bin Razzaq kept up the tradition and took it forward with their works. These writers are credited to have turned short story into a major genre in Urdu literature. These are also some of the writers whose stories are included in this anthology of twenty-five Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told. Presenting a wide range of dimensions of life, the distinguishing feature of Urdu literature is the poignant stories of Partition and the raw, earthy expressions of trauma from that time. To this date, the stories of Partition are the periscope to glimpse the realities around 1947.
Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’ is a classic tale, a satire and a commentary on the state of affairs in India and Pakistan shortly after Partition. Manto, an iconic writer and eminent figure in the domain of Urdu literature throughout South Asian history, was known to boldly write about the things that were not even talked about – to the extent that he was tried for obscenity more than once. He is best known for his writings about the Partition in 1947.
Although born at a time when oppression of women and the weak was the social order, short story-writing in Urdu prominently features female writers, and on the forefront is Ismat Chughtai, fiercely feminist and of indomitable grit. Chughtai, other than Qurratulain Hyder (another influential writer), was among the Muslim writers who stayed in India after the Partition. Their works stand for the birth of revolutionary feminist politics and aesthetics in twentieth-century Urdu literature. Chughtai explored feminine sexuality, middle-class gentility, and other evolving conflicts in modern India. Her inclination towards daring and controversial writing made her a voice that was impossible to ignore.
Qurratulain Hyder, interestingly, is believed to have not been criticised due to her high stature in social circles. But she was evidently not infallible. A fellow eminent Urdu novelist had pointed out that because she wrote ‘Aag Ka Darya’ (a landmark novel that covers a vast stretch of time, pausing at historical milestones in its course) at an early age, she could not appreciate the point of view of those who did not migrate to Pakistan. She later reviewed her work and deleted the English translation of the novel (it had been published in fifteen Indian languages).
Rajinder Singh Bedi is considered the second-best Urdu short story writer after Saadat Hasan Manto. Like Manto, his best-known works, too, centre on the unimaginable price paid for the Partition of the Subcontinent in 1947. In ‘Lajwanti’, Bedi raises the problem of silence – the inability of survivors and perpetrators of violence to talk about what happened – a common theme in Partition literature. This story revolves around a couple perfectly in keeping with the typical norms of those times (a husband needs to be rough and uncouth because he must be manly). But when this normal, submissive wife returns after being abducted, what unfolds is the layers and aspects of the plight of women who survived the horrors and trauma of the violence that Partition brought with it.
This anthology of greatest Urdu stories ever told, selected and translated by Muhammed Umar Memon is a presentation of the finest short fiction in Urdu literature. A most inevitable aspect, whether in the form of context, backdrop, or timeline, in modern Urdu fiction is Partition. But without being limited to this prominent aspect, the anthology illustrates many facets of Urdu literary tradition with the choicest tales that etch a lasting impact on the reader.