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A taste of modernist Urdu publishing

With her new book, Rakhshanda Jalil presents an antidote to Urdu’s dimming glory by reclaiming it from misguided populist presumptions

Urdu has come to be associated with the florid idioms of ‘ghazal’ and ‘shayari’.
Urdu has come to be associated with the florid idioms of ‘ghazal’ and ‘shayari’. (iStockphoto)

In early 2019, in the comparatively benign days before Twitter assumed its current avatar X, a viral trend broke out as users from across India began posting their names in the nastaliq script. Soon, #MyNameInUrdu was creating headlines, as Urdu and non-Urdu speakers alike did their bit to revive the dwindling fortunes of the majestic language. Once a living tool of communication, Urdu had, through decades of prejudice and wilful official neglect, become associated with one community alone—or, at best, with the florid idioms of ghazal and shayari.

In her expertly curated anthology Urdu: The Best Stories Of Our Times, scholar and translator Rakhshanda Jalil presents an antidote to Urdu’s dimming glory by reclaiming it from misguided populist presumptions. By translating some of the finest stories by contemporary Indian writers, Jalil gives us a taste of the diverse and modernist landscape of Urdu publishing. As she explains in the introduction, “Urdu is not the language of India’s Muslims alone, these stories need not be about Muslims; instead, they should reflect a mood, an outlook, a catholicity of concerns among Urdu writers.”

We begin with Surendra Prakash’s Bajrooka (1988), which extends the story of Hori, the protagonist of Munshi Premchand’s Godaan (1936). It’s a fitting start—an Urdu story by a non-Muslim writer, presented as a tribute to one of the greatest Indian writers ever, a man who was equally dexterous in Hindi and Urdu. 

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While most stories in this volume are by living writers, there are some well-deserved exceptions. The Halfway View by Qurratulain Hyder (1927-2007) is a timeless tale of a poisoned love triangle, a sheer masterclass in suspense that lends an edge to the collection. In Suffocation by Khurshid Alam and The Halted Train by Abdus Samad, a trivial argument on a train turns murderous. It is a typically Indian situation where one word leads to another, and before long you have a group of men erupt into senseless rage. As a character in The Halted Train puts it, “There is darkness inside, there is darkness outside…there is darkness everywhere.” 

In Faiyaz Riffat’s A Night’s Paradise, we get another reality check as morbid humour gives way to a shocking tragedy. If the bitter realities of Muslim lives form the premise of a couple of stories, there’s nothing obvious or remotely gratuitous about the way in which these themes present themselves. A story like The Circumcision Of Khalid by Ghazanfar or The Vultures Of Doongerwadi by Ali Imam Naqvi is hard to forget because of the writers’ mastery of understatement. It’s impossible to fathom, until the end, the sinister foundation on which these plots are built. What seems like an innocuous slice of life one moment turns into psychological horror within a few paragraphs.

Perhaps due to the sheer impact of these naturalistic stories, especially their ability to get unexpected reactions out of the reader, the stylised stream-of-consciousness dystopia of the stories by Gulzar and Khalid Jawed feel somewhat dissonant. Hopefully, this volume is just an appetiser to many more such collections, filled with the thrill of discovery, that Jalil will make accessible to a wider readership in the future. 

Urdu: The Best Stories Of Our Times: Edited and translated by Rakhshanda Jalil HarperCollins, 200 pages, Rs. 399.

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