My grandfather was well-versed with Urdu and Persian. He used to spend a lot of time reading books written in these languages. What particularly drew me towards his love for poetry & stories written in Urdu and Persian was his eagerness to share all he read with his family and friends.
Unfortunately, I was pretty young when he left me with the longing to learn these languages. Though I never got an opportunity to learn them in the future, my eagerness to savour the translated versions of Urdu and Persian literature has grown over time.
This is why I picked this book at the very first opportunity, almost six months ago.
I couldn’t bring myself to review this book, despite promising it every time I shared its pictures.
This was because I found myself incapable of capturing the beauty and the wholesome experience this masterpiece collection delivers.
In my repeated attempts to review this book, I reread the book in entirety or in parts many times.
Today, though am not fully convinced my review can do justice to this book, I am determined to write it.
Let’s begin with the blurb on the book:
Every story in the anthology illustrates one or the other facet of the form in the Urdu literary tradition. But even more than for their formal technique and inventiveness, these stories have been included because of their power and impact on the reader. Death and poverty face off in Premchand’s masterpiece ‘The Shroud’. In Khalida Asghar’s ‘The Wagon’, a mysterious redness begins to cloak the sunset in a village by the Ravi. Behind closed doors and cracks in the windows lies desire but also ‘a sense of queer foreboding’ in Naiyer Masud’s ‘Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire’. The tragedy and horror of Partition are brought to life by Saadat Hasan Manto’s lunatic (in ‘Toba Tek Singh’) and the eponymous heroine of Rajinder Singh Bedi’s ‘Laajwanti’. Despairing, violent, passionate, humorous, ironic and profound—the fiction in The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told will imprint itself indelibly on your mind.”
I believe this book deserves to be read and talked about widely because of a number of reasons:
1. The Beauty of the book:
The beauty of the book spans from its artistic cover to a careful selection of poignant stories that stand true to the book’s title. This book is undoubtedly a compilation of the finest stories I have read.
2. A compelling introduction that opens doors to the history of the Urdu literary fiction:
The book’s introduction gently yet generously shares the history of fiction writing in Urdu. I was amazed to note how the exceptionally rich in poetic creation, Urdu literature lacked fiction of any kind until the dastan (that was majorly an oral and anonymous composition) was finally written down and printed in the nineteenth century.
Starting from the era of Dastan and dastan-gos, Muhammad Umar Memon takes the reader through the chronological history of Urdu literature. He also introduces the readers to the stalwarts, their contributions and hereto unknown insights about Urdu Stories.
The book also has a separate section sharing brief introductions to the life and works of the many authors and the translators whose writing adorn this anthology.
“Altogether then, the short story is essentially a borrowed form in Urdu.
Despite its technical and thematic wealth, the Urdu short story has remained less widely known among South Asians of different linguistic backgrounds. Since English alone enjoys the status of a shared language among these readers, it is inevitable that one reaches out to them through English. Hence this collection.”
3. There has been a deliberate attempt throughout not to talk of women writers as a distinctive group:
I was both impressed and amazed by this unbiased approach. The author claims to have handpicked the stories based solely on his personal liking, trying to achieve a balance between the realist, traditional type of short story and its more daring modern counterpart.
“In this age of rampant discussions, partisan or otherwise, of divisions and subdivisions, of cultures and subcultures, of liberation and identity, the only decent way to show respect to half of the humankind seemed to lie in not identifying it as a marked species.
Woman and man are part of a single continuum, and to think otherwise is downright vulgar. Urdu literature is an act of imagination. And whoever heard that man imagines better than a woman, or the other way round?”
4. The translation from Urdu to English has been done keeping in mind that the reader knows little to no Urdu:
This is particularly important for readers like me who wish that the intricate details of the plot, period and characterisation not be lost in translation. The author has taken due care to cite Urdu titles sparingly.
While an attempt has been made to discuss some stories and authors who aren’t part of this anthology with the intention of outlining the history of the Urdu fiction in its entirety, the author has succeeded in saving the book from degenerating into a textbook by eschewing annotations or glosses except in a couple of instances.
5. The anthology is a kaleidoscope of emotions:
The twenty-five stories in this book represent a fine collection of human emotions, relationships and facets of life that poignantly transgress the borders of anger, disbelief, disgust, despair, longing, fear, desire, death and poverty.
6. The short stories surprise with their freshness and contemporariness:
Many of the stories have been written almost a century ago, yet they pretty accurately capture the ideologies of the modern day societies. I couldn’t help but be amazed by the fact how human beliefs have stood the tests of time, despite the constant evolution of the cultures and societies.
The Wagon written by Khalida Asgar in 1960, captures the insensitivities of the city dwellers towards the environment and the villagers that can be seen prevalent even in today’s times. I was startled by the mention of global warming in this short-story which clearly hints how some writers were visionaries and well ahead of their times.
Of Fists And Rubs by Ismat Chughati is a hard-hitting, gut-wrenching tale of botched up abortions that highlight the timeless tragic scene of the human societies that haven’t changed much over the years.
7. It is impossible to pick a favourite story:
The success of this well-curated, wonderfully translated anthology lies in the diversity of each of its succinctly titled, twenty-five stories that makes it almost impossible to pick a favourite.
The stories are of varying lengths, portray a variety of settings, evoke a different emotion at the turn of every page often blurring the boundaries where one short story ends and another begins.
The book is a page-turner, that draws you in right from the introduction. The rich vocabulary and the lucid narration makes each story linger long after you’ve put the book down. This delightful book is best enjoyed in small morsels because most of its stories are emotionally exhausting.
The stories that particularly stood out for me include:
The Shroud by Munshi Premchand – I was taken by surprise when I learnt that the author whom I solely related to his contribution to Hindi literature was, in fact, the first professional short story writer in Urdu. This story featuring a lazy, poor, father-son duo is a masterpiece of wry humour and clawing irony. It left me with a bitter aftertaste while marvelling at the compelling, dispassionate and objective narration.
The Shepherd by Ashfaq Ahmad – I was intrigued from the start by a teacher’s dedication to help his student excel and by the student’s continued defiance. The teacher’s patience is exemplary while the turn of events, in the end, are what make this story unforgettable for me.
Laajwanti by Rajinder Singh Bedi – The story portrays the devastating effects of partition, domestic violence and the conflicting, fragile desires of a woman’s heart.
Toba Tek Singh by Saddat Hasan Manto – This short story narrates the plight of lunatics in the pre-partition period. This entertaining story revolves around the plight of a lunatic who is left wondering which side (in India or Pakistan) shall his town lie post partition. This story was made into a feature film by Bandung Films, London.
Who is this book for?
I highly recommend this book to everyone who loves reading translated books, is looking for a refreshing anthology that’ll leave you emotionally drained long after you’ve put the book down or is looking for a book that’s nothing like any anthologies they’ve read till date.
About the Book:
Title – The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told
Selector & Translator of Stories –Muhammad Umar Memon
Publisher – Aleph Book Company
Genre – Fiction
ISBN – 978-9383064076
Pages – 346
Price – INR 699 (Explore the best deal at Amazon)
About the Author:
Muhammad Umar Memon is professor of Urdu literature and Islamic studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is a critic, short story writer and has translated numerous works of Urdu fiction, of which the most recent is Collected Stories: Naiyer Masud.
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