If Urdu literature today has a presence outside the boundaries of the South Asian subcontinent, a part of the credit may safely be attributed to Professor Muhammad Umar Memon, who along with Professor CM Naim, has transformed the way the western, in particular the American, academia regards Urdu literature today. An academic, a scholar, a translator, a short-story writer and an astute critic, Professor Memon, has donned many hats. Apart from writing/editing/translating more than a dozen books (which includes translations from Urdu into English and from English and Arabic into Urdu), in his role as a discerning editor of The Annual of Urdu Studies, Professor Memon inculcated an informed appreciation of Urdu literature among generations of his readers. The two volumes under review are specimens of what Professor Memon has accomplished in his long academic career.
The first book under review, The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told, is a collection that may be placed between an anthology and a miscellany. The growing interest in Urdu literature in the past few decades has given rise to a cornucopia of general and specialized anthologies of Urdu short stories. An anthology, implying a selection, is said to be ‘a hierarchical classification of literature as determined by an intellectual elite.’ Unlike a miscellany, which is a loose, unordered gathering of writings, an anthology is instrumental in canon formation for it conveys a sense of evolution and hierarchy. Muhammad Umar Memon’s lucid and erudite Introduction sets out to do precisely this. He traces the evolution of Urdu short story from its fantastical Dastan and Fasana origins to the didactic phase followed by social-realism of the Progressives, and the Individualism and experimentation of the Modernists. Memon is also alert to the pedagogical import of such an endeavour when he writes, ‘More in the nature of daydreaming, there is also the fervent hope that this collection might prove useful to the comparativist who may wish to assess the nature of the Urdu short story against its counterpart in other major subcontinental languages, specifically Hindi.’
However, the semblance of an anthology ends here. In his selection of stories, Memon does not follow any specific criterion of chronology or merit. The stories presented in the volume do not seek to be necessarily representative of each period or trend, as Memon admits: ‘The stories offered here are, quite simply, the stories I personally have enjoyed reading.’ It may sound elitist, ringing an echo of FR Leavis and his The Great Tradition (1948), but Memon hardly cares as is clear from his unabashed flouting of convention in the ordering of these stories as well. Naiyer Masud and Ashfaq Ahmad precede Premchand, Manto, Rajinder Bedi, and Ismat Chughtai. Ghulam Abbas, whom Naiyer Masud acknowledged as his source of inspiration comes much later. Thus, more in the mode of a miscellany, the collection contains 25 stories by an eclectic mix of famous and not-so famous writers. If on the one hand it contains widely anthologized stories like Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’, Rajinder Singh Bedi’s ‘Lajwanti’, Ashfaq Ahmad’s ‘The Shepherd’, Premchand’s ‘The Shroud’, and Ghulam Abbas’s ‘Aanandi’, and famous writers like Qurratulain Hyder, Intizar Husain, Ismat Chughtai, Abdullah Hussein, Naiyer Masud, Salam Bin Razzaq, Zakia Mashhadi and Syed Muhammad Ashraf, on the other, it also contains stories by not so widely known writers like Tassaduq Sohail, Anwer Khan and Khalida Asghar among others.
The cardinal principle guiding Memon in his selection of stories (apart from his personal enjoyment) seems to be their aesthetic merit as he declares in the Introduction, ‘The present selection hopes to achieve two objectives: to present the texture and the flavour of the modern Urdu short story, both as a daring experiment and as a more refined heir to the traditional form; and to eschew all pronouncements about literature’s alleged social relevance.’ It is here that the selection makes a dent in the already crowded space of anthologies of Urdu short stories. Encompassing a wide array of themes like Partition, identity, nationalism, sexuality, female corporeality, and death, the collection highlights the range and power of Urdu narrative tradition.
Beginning with Naiyer Masud’s story exploring the domains of fear and desire, the stories in the collection cover a wide range of subjects, metaphors and styles. For instance, the abject poverty in Premchand’s ‘Shroud’; societal double standards in Ghulam Abbas’s ‘Aanandi’; radicalization of well-meaning individuals in Sajid Rashid’s ‘The Fable of the Severed Head’; ironic takes on death in Salam Bin Razzaq’s ‘The Shepherd’ or Ali Imam Naqvi’s ‘The Vultures of the Parsi Cemetery’; the theme of illegal abortions in Ismat Chughtai’s ‘Of Fists and Rubs’ the trope of memory in Altaf Fatima’s ‘Do You Suppose It’s the East Wind?’, and Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s ‘The Man’ and so on. Each story in the collection impacts the reader in its own unique way. The collection can be termed a Leavis-like effort for establishing the Great Tradition of Urdu Afsanaa.
Naiyer Masud: Collected Stories is a culmination of Memon’s more-than-a-quarter-century engagement with Masud’s fiction, both as a scholar and a translator. Besides Intizar Husain, Naiyer Masud is another major Urdu short story writer who was introduced to the western readers through Memon’s translations. Memon first translated Masud’s selection Itr-i-Kafur in English as Essence of Camphor in 1999 and the writer immediately created a stir in the American academia. Memon later published Masud’s other selections, e.g., The Snake Catcher, (2006), The Occult (2013). The present work includes translation of a few unpublished stories of Naiyer Masud as well. In all, 36 stories in the volume let us enter the ‘tenaciously elusive’ fictional universe of one of the most talented of Urdu short story writers.
Born in 1936 in Lucknow, Naiyer Masud taught Persian at Lucknow University. He wrote his Ph.D thesis on Dastan and Marsia and wrote critical and biographical accounts of Anis, Yagana and Ghalib. However, Masud’s fame primarily rests on his short fiction, even when his oeuvre consists of four slim collections of stories—Simiya, Itr-e-Kafoor, Ta’oos Chaman ki Maina, and Ganjefa. Often compared to Kafka (whom Masud had translated into Urdu), Borges, and even the Persian writer Sadegh Hedayat (see Mubashir Karim’s review of Naiyer Masud’s stories in the October 2017 issue of The Book Review), Masud’s fiction defies easy classifications and dwells in that liminal zone between dream and reality. Nearly all Masud’s characters walk through the experiences of life as though on a journey into the unknown, throwing a pall of illusion over the banal, and defamiliarizing the familiar in the process.
Masud’s stories ‘pull the reader straight into the centre of a vortex’ writes Memon. Not surprisingly, most of Masud’s stories begin with sentences dislocating the materiality of the real. Here is a sampler:
‘I began to feel bad about my life on the night of the riots.’ Ganjefa
‘Had it all occurred in reality, I wouldn’t have cared about why it had.’ Occult Museum
‘This time after returning home I started wandering around the city all day because I had nothing to do.’ Dead End
‘There’s no longer anyone around now who can even tell what exactly was sold at Nauroz’s shop.’ Custody
‘I have spent my life in fruitless diversions.’ Lamentation
‘I never learnt the intricate, tenuous art of perfume making…’ Essence of Camphor
‘I had no personal need to go there but I felt obliged on account of my mother.’ Epistle
Story after story, the narrative voice in Masud’s stories throws a bait at the readers and once tempted, they are sure to tread into the narrative maze where the empirical reality, divested of all frills of language and human action, gains metaphysical dimensions. Critics have debated about the possibility of ‘meaning’ in Masud’s fiction. While Memon believes that ‘Masud’s fiction discourages one to insist too much on extracting some meaning out of it; instead, it encourages one to look for modes of being,’ Nasir Abbas Nayyar argues, ‘It needs to be stressed that nothing is meaningless either in his fiction or in the world. Even the state ofmeaninglessness has to be captured in some sort of meaningful way.’ An eery sense of silence pervades in Masud’s stories, sometimes even drowning the conversations. Masud deploys language to heighten the sense of silence that surrounds it and transports us to the realm of the absurd that lurks at the edge of the real. The chronotopes of Masud’s stories are mostly dilapidated buildings, ruined palaces, uninhabited spaces, gardens and old houses. Forgotten arts, neglected people, untrodden roads, and old noisy market-places keep recurring in the Masud’s fiction. The stories, mostly first person narratives, are recounted by characters who have developed a detached outlook towards life and the world around them. We meet such people in stories like ‘Nosh Daru,’ ‘Allam and Son’, ‘Essence of Camphor’, ‘Sheehsa Ghat’, ‘Destitute’s Compound’, ‘Sultan Muzzaffar’s Chronicler of Events’ and many others. While many of these characters are drawn from the ordinary, many others do not bear any resemblance to the ordinary people one meets in real life. Yet they lend an element of strangeness to the world around us, entreating us to revisit our facile assumptions about life and the world.
Masud is known for an austere use of language in his fiction. Memon is inimitable in his reproduction of that austerity in
English prose. Both volumes will not only open up new vistas of research and exploration in Urdu literature, they will go a long way in ensuring Urdu’s space in world literature.
Nishat Zaidi is Professor of English at Jamia Millia Islamia. Day and Dastan (2018) is her recent translation (with Alok Bhalla) of Intizar Husain’s two novellas.