December Issue 2009
The Story of Urdu Literature
Translation is certainly not an easy task. The Oxford Book of Urdu Short Stories, an anthology of 22 short stories by 17 writers translated into English by Amina Azfar, has managed to put forward the best in Urdu literature. Azfar, a former editor at Oxford University Press Pakistan, is definitely not new to the task and has thus done an excellent job of it. She has an impressive track record of translating five books, namely Sajjad Zaheer’s Roshnai (The Light), Premchand’s Bazaar-e-Husn(The Courtesans’ Quarters), Hameeda Akhtar Husain Raipuri’sHumsafar (My Fellow Traveller), Akhter Husain Raipuri’sGard-e-Raah (The Dust of the Road) and Mirza Farhatullah Baig’s Maulvi Nazeer Ahmed Ki Kahani, Kuch Unki Kuch Meri Zabani (The Story of Maulvi Nazeer Ahmed, in His Words and Mine) from Urdu to English.
The short stories included in this collection span a time that can be divided broadly into two periods. The first period, dominated by a realistic mode of expression, begins with Premchand and ends in the last years of the 1950s. The second period starts roughly with the end of the 1950s and stands apart as a revolt against the realistic mode of expression. The selection covers Urdu writers who have shaped the path of literature with their outstanding work. Many of these writers belong to the Progressive Writers Movement.
Azfar aims to reach out to two categories of readers: those “who, on account of their ties with South Asia but with insufficient knowledge of Urdu, would like to read Urdu stories in English translation, and those who are accustomed to reading short stories from different languages of the world.” Without doubt, the translator succeeds in her endeavour. The translation displays a fine grasp of the meaning of the original works. In addition to this, Azfar’s language is quite simple yet poetic at times when situations in the stories demand it.
The inclusion of classic short stories like Toba Tek Singh by Saadat Hassan Manto and The Shroud by Premchand are just two examples of the works of these literary giants of Urdu fiction without which any translation of Urdu short stories would certainly be incomplete. The selection must be commended since it brings to its readers the best that has been produced in Urdu. While at one point the readers are introduced to the sensitive and perceptive writing of Ghulam Abbas in The Name Plate, at another point the horrific tale of Partition, in its bare gruesome form, comes forward in Manto’s Open! Rajinder Singh Bedi’s sensitive handling of reality in Lajwanti is yet another fine example of the diverse selection made by Azfar.
The Oxford Book of Urdu Short Stories may by no means be an exhaustive compilation, but it is definitely a good selection including both the icons as well as the forgotten gems of Urdu literature. The selection also carries works of contemporary Urdu short story writers, which adds to the diversity of the selection. Amina Azfar has also included writers whose work was “acclaimed when it was published” but later forgotten. Zaheer Abbas’s short story Fiza Mein Latakti Hui Laash translated as Corpse, Suspended in the Air falls into this category.
The detailed notes at the end of the book on the life and writings of each short story writer whose work has been included in the volume, provides the English readers with the background information that is so important to understand the time the writings took place. Interesting pieces of information dot the notes. For example, Premchand’s real name was Dhanpat Rai and he was forced to change it to Premchand after “he came close to being tried for sedition” when Soz-e-Vatan, a collection of his short stories, was published. We also learn that Ghulam Abbas was offered, and accepted, the editorship of Phool, the legendary children’s magazine, at the age of 16. Many readers may know a lot more about the writers but those who are reading these writers for the first time will certainly appreciate the effort of the translator in going out of her way to enlighten the readers about the stalwarts in Urdu short-story writing. Similarly, the introduction by Iftikhar Arif is a valuable piece that briefly explains the history of the Urdu short story. Amina Azfar and the Oxford University Press deserve kudos for bringing superb quality Urdu literature to the local as well as an international audience.