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Erotic Urdu stories that also comment on the human condition

A new translation of Urdu writer Wajida Tabassum’s semi-erotic short stories looks at the power play in Hyderabad’s aristocracy

‘Muslim Lady Reclining’, oil on canvas, by Francesco Renaldi, 1789, Yale Center for British Art (Wikimedia Commons)

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In her essay ‘Meri Kahaani’, or ‘My Story’, written when she was only 24, Wajida Tabassum talks about her cloistered, impoverished childhood and teens, when food and clothes were scarce, and books forbidden. Her first stories, published mid-20th century, when she was in her early 20s and met with derision from immediate family, “were my saviours”, she writes. “They carried me out of a murky hole to a meadow.”

Sin, which includes this essay, is a collection of some of Tabassum’s boldest Urdu short stories, translated into English for the first time by Pakistani journalist Reema Abbasi. The stories, deeply erotic and graphic in detail, offer a ringside view of bedrooms and bordellos. Not surprisingly, her work ruffled feathers during her writing years, from the 1950s to the late 1980s.

The Amravati-born writer is often compared to Ismat Chughtai, given her realistic female characters and frank exploration of female sexuality. She wasn’t nearly as famous though and lived in penury for most her life,largely reviled, facing mobs and death threats.

“It is ironic,” writes Abbasi in the foreword to the collection, “that Wajida’s relatives and distant kin, who were familiar with the bold and unconventional writing of other women writers, had a rabid view of her own work and used Ismat’s writing—despite her fame and stature—as a jibe to knock Wajida’s progress.”

Sin: Stories by Wajida Tabassum, translated by Reema Abbasi; Hachette, 240 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>384
Sin: Stories by Wajida Tabassum, translated by Reema Abbasi; Hachette, 240 pages, 384

Yet, much like other erotic works, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) and Fanny Hill (1749), which were seen as pornographic and banned in their time, the stories in Sin are less about sex and more about the human condition. “My stories are about families,” writes Tabassum, adding that this is largely an outcome of her own situation—a woman trapped in a traditional house.

Tabassum’s stories tell the tale of passion, politics and power play in Hyderabad’s old-world aristocracy. The prose is stunning and luminous and the world, lush and vivid. Naïve nautch girls, sex-starved begums, ailing prostitutes and angry brides flit in and out of the pages, weaponising their sexuality, wresting ownership of their bodies back from the men who control this gilded world.

“The mind travels to a distant future, towards a time when the stories will be read and remembered as works of literature,” writes Tabassum in ‘Meri Kahaani’. This translation may ensure she gets her due.

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