Succinct segregations

Hidden in the Lute
April 12, 1996

Every selection is bound to be determined by personal choice. I choose from the literature I know and like," confesses Ralph Russell, the doyen of western scholars of Urdu literature, in the introduction to Hidden in the Lute. But Urdu literature, he then admits, contains a great deal more than he has read. This eclectic, idiosyncratic and generically wide-ranging anthology does, however, succeed not only in casting light on Russell's own tastes, but also in supplying some core texts for new enthusiasts of the language's heritage, for students of history to supplement their researches, and (one hopes) for future anthologists looking to include contemporary, post-independence Urdu texts.

The short story remains the most popular and widely practised, though most recent prose genre in Urdu. Russell begins with a short selection of modern stories and sketches, assuming that with their obviously international thematic and stylistic affinities they will be immediately accessible to the western reader. The first is by Premchand, the hallowed grandfather of modern Urdu fiction. Premchand can be didactic and tedious, but Russell has wisely chosen a warmly comic housewife's monologue to represent this significant writer's work: a tribute both to the depth of his understanding of Premchand and to his almost unparalleled skill as a translator from Urdu.

Most of the other stories, by the innovative Saadat Hasan Manto, by the socialist feminist and medical doctor Rashid Jahan, by Krishan Chander and by Ismat Chughtai, the finest woman writer of her time, bear witness to Russell's predilection for the Progressive Writers' Association, with whom Premchand sympathised and these other writers engaged (willingly or unwillingly). This movement, inaugurated in the 1930s, encouraged writers to focus on society's outcasts, as most of the stories here do. Although this new-found sympathy for the downtrodden created a revolution among Urdu litterateurs, it produced some deadly writing, and some artificial dichotomies between realism and aestheticism.

But once again Russell's sensibility mitigates the prevalent polemic. His choice of texts by Chughtai (born in 1915, not 1911, as appears in this book) is particularly inspired. One recounts the tale of Granny, a resilient old survivor, with irony and wit rather than the progressives' customary tirades. The other, "Hellbound", is a startlingly beautiful and compellingly honest memoir of Chughtai's eccentric brother, writer of comic fictions, renegade, rebel, agnostic and dreamer. This is a highly successful attempt at conveying in English the essence of this writer's evocative and notoriously culture-specific style. (Chughtai's feminist masterpiece, The Crooked Line, is now available in Britain in a translation by Tahira Naqvi, which is sadly inferior to Russell's recreation of Chughtai's voice.) The Manto story, on the other hand, is over familiar. Not so, however, Chander's self-reflexive portrait of an "untouchable", nor the playlet by Jahan in which a middle-class Muslim woman complains about her husband's polygamous desires and the womb-reconstruction surgeries she undergoes to retain his sexual interest. Also included is a tiny, succinct piece by the humourist Shaukat Thanvi, the only nonprogressive here, concerning the vagaries of love in a sexually segregated society. But surprisingly Russell, though he knows their works, excludes Urdu's greatest living writer of fiction, Qurratulain Hyder, who has been publishing for half a century, and also Intizar Husain, Pakistan's presiding genius of the experimental short story. These writers, modernists with a deep awareness of Urdu textual traditions, represent the revolutionary break with dogma, eastern or western, which is Urdu fiction's most significant postnationalist trend.

In the same way, Hyder's parents, Yildarim and Nazar Sajjad Hyder, are excluded from this section and from the section "The challenge of the new light" which mostly contains rhetoric relevant to historians of the Raj. Yildarim, a contemporary of Premchand, was a westernised, Turcophile symbolist writer; Nazar Begum was an outspoken feminist, an anticolonial essayist and the first Indian muslim woman writer with an unveiled public persona. And Sayyad Mumtaz Ali, an ardent advocate of women's rights at the turn of the century, and his wife Muhammadi Begum, Urdu's first woman novelist who was also a pioneering journalist and literary editor, are not represented on the question of women and education, a vital issue in this period of cultural and religious reform.

There is also a selection of popular pieces, closely linked to oral traditions: fables, aphorisms, religious parables. But the section on poets and poetry, consisting of poems, detailed sociohistorical commentaries and translated essays on poets and poetry, is predictably the most compelling part of the book. Concentrating on the ghazals or love poems of Mir and Ghalib, the two greatest poets of the 18th and 19th centuries, Russell presents the reader with some of their exquisite verses. (For a fuller explication of Mir, the confessional memoir, and the autobiographical masnavi - the genre of verse fiction which many native speakers see as the precursor of the novel - readers must examine Russell's earlier work, Three Mughal Poets.) He explains concepts of erotic love in a segregated muslim society and proceeds to illustrate the mystical muslim/sufi vision that illuminates much of the finest Urdu poetry, an alternative to the familiar stereotypes of fundamentalist puritanism. But some of his exclusions here are inexplicable. He gives a good reason for the absence of Iqbal, but the omission of Faiz, who combined the high tradition of the ghazal with a modern sensibility and the engaged humanism of the progressives (many of whom were his contemporaries) is baffling: Pakistan's greatest literary figure at least deserves an honourable mention.

As a sample of the Urdu novel, Russell has chosen only the fin de si cle novelist Mirza Muhammed Hadi Ruswa's cleverly constructed Umrao Jan Ada (1899), in which a courtesan, probably based on a real Lucknow character, delivers a confessional account of her life and times in a dialogue with the "author". Russell has written elsewhere of the development of the Urdu novel, and though he pays tribute to its founding father Nazir Ahmad in another section of this book, he does not really consider him a novelist in the western sense. (Not that the distinction would have concerned Nazir, who normally referred to his fictions as qissas or tales). Here, he tells us that Nazir's prose is simply too difficult to translate; but the stylistic wit and genius of that admittedly didactic writer is something any admirer of Russell would want to see him attempt to match in English. Nazir appears here only as a social commentator, as does Sarshar, his rival in literary esteem. Finally, A. H. Sharar's fiction is discarded on aesthetic grounds, and he is included merely as a chronicler of that bygone world which Russell, in his essays, biographies and translations, has brought to life in all its multiplicity and turmoil.

Aamer Hussein teaches Urdu for the external services of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Hidden in the Lute: An Anthology of Two Centuries of Urdu Literature

ISBN - 1 85754 117 0
Publisher - Carcanet Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 320
Translator - Ralph Russell

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