It is not easy to put together an anthology. One could finalize a theme with relative ease but inclusion and exclusion of texts around the decided theme can be an unusually challenging task. At a time when literary and academic circles, for the most part, swear by theoretical propositions that deny individual choice its due, the compiler must gear up for answering a series of questions on why some pieces were included and others were not.
Translated and compiled by Amina Azfar, Modern Urdu Short Stories from Pakistan is an anthology that does not leave much scope for questioning its contents. A collection of twenty-six short stories by writers who were/are Pakistani citizens, it is insightfully diverse and, to an extent, representative. The collection’s promise lies in bringing together stories that inform the reader of the many shades of the tradition of the Urdu short story, something beautifully phrased in the foreword as ‘the medley of tradition in the Urdu afsana’ (p. xi). As someone who has had a long relationship with the Urdu language and literature, Azfar has not included stories that are famous (barring Muhammad Hasan Askari’s ‘Bastard’). Instead, she undertook a painstaking research to find not-so-famous works of writers such as Ghulam Abbas, Manto, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, and Intizar Husain. In doing so she has turned the collection into a noteworthy contribution.
Starting with pioneers, Ghulam Abbas’s 1967 short story ‘Dhanak’ translated as ‘What the Moon Saw’, outlines the deep pathos of a society that gets its spaceship land on the moon but is run by the mullahs who call it a sacrilegious act. As the anti-spaceship agitation acquires a certain momentum, it turns into a full-fledged movement that leads to change of government followed by complete normlessness. As a story that spells out the deep issues with islamization of a society, it now reads like more of a prophecy. It urges us to re-engage with the texture of a society prone to religious orthodoxy and the taken for granted-ness associated with the oft-used ‘enemy’. Manto’s ‘A Fake Story’, though a not-so-famous piece, carries his distinct literary imagination. The story presents the unique case of goons and rogues coming together to form a union and making a claim for their rights. The story’s description of the corrupt and dishonest claims for their rights tellingly introduces us to the shallow righteousness and sheer hypocrisy of holders of various public offices. Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi’s ‘Lawrence of Thalabia’ acquaints us with the tyranny that characterizes the Pakistani countryside. Known for exceptionally strong portrayal of characters, Qasmi’s story unfolds the character of senior Malik as an unapologetic tyrant actively involved in the exploitation of the tenants and the complicity of the subsequent generation represented by his son junior Malik. While the story in a way narrates the failure of education in checking ruthless and oppressive feudalism in its tracks, its end hints at the presence of a rebellious self in the exploited masses.