Review: The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told

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The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told is a mixed bag that is certainly worth digging into. Our reader Sunita Bhalerao finds much to savour in it.
The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told, selected and translated by Muhammad Umar Memon, was first published in India in 2017 by Aleph Book Company. It is a mixed fare from 25 authors, with varying styles of narration. Some left a deep impact on me, while some were vague and foggy. The evolution of Urdu literature from the late 1930s, followed by its progressive phase of modernist era; the inclusion of today’s experimental writers of Urdu fiction, made a delightful reading experience. The selection depicts the richness of Urdu language and its understanding was made easy by the excellent English approximations.

A Start From The Beginning
The eternal stalwart Munshi Premchand’s ‘The Shroud’ is a realistically heart-breaking saga of a woman’s worth in an impoverished home. Premchand was a true member of the progressive movement who used literature as a vehicle for bettering society. Women can be the most complex characters in fiction, and this fact is woven into a tale well-written by Qurratulain Hyder in ‘Beyond the Fog.’ It covers the pre-and post-partition period where circumstances led the women to become opportunists, delusional or even subjugated beyond reason. The bold disclosures of the secret, hidden desires of women, who are bound by society and its cultural norms, is expressed brilliantly in Anwer Khan’s ‘The Pose,’ Zamiruddin Ahmad’s ‘Sukhe Saawan‘ and Ismat Chughtai’s ‘Of Fists and Rubs.’ This sphere of secret desires, emotions and feelings are dormant within each individual, irrespective of gender bias, and Intizar Husain’s ‘The Back Room’ is a portrayal of the ‘back life’ of every individual. For this piece progressive writing, the author was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2013.

Partition Tales
The post partition horrors are vividly brought to life in Jamila Hashmi’s story ‘Banished,’ in Muhammad Salim-Ur- Rahman’s ‘Voices,’ Rajinder Singh Bedi’s narrative ‘ Laajwanti’ and above all in Saddat Hasan Manto’s short story ‘Toba Tek Singh.’ The last was made into a feature film in London and the author was immortalized on a Pakistani postage stamp. All these stories are definitely worth a read. A hilarious short story ‘Aanandi’ written by Ghulam Abbas shows how the pseudo cultural norms laid by people in power can brilliantly be backfired by the needs of the simple man in a simplistic society. A must read.
A dampener in the medley of stories, which left an unpleasant aftertaste for me, was the reflections of a pained psyche in ‘The Wagon,’ written by Khalida Asghar. The narration lacked the strength and was difficult to comprehend. Two absolutely unputdownable stories in the book are worth a mention. One was ‘A Sheet’ by Salam Bin Razzaq. It gives a heart rending insight into the unfounded fears surfacing into morbid emotions, all as a result of caste related atrocities perpetrated by the fanatics. This story is concluded with a touch of humane goodness still prevalent in some. The other story, ‘Fable of a Severed Head’ by Sajid Rashid, who was a liberal Muslim intellectual and activist, gives a gripping account of how extremists lured the vulnerable, God-fearing, extraordinarily intelligent youth into committing acts of terror. The unreal emotions and eye openers reflected by the severed head leave one reeling in disgust for the entire modus operandi of the extremists. Truly an un-putdownable tale. Overall, Muhammad Umar Memon’s selection was an enriching experience in the genre of the Urdu writings. It left me thirsting for more.


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About Author

Sunita Bhalerao

Sunita Bhalerao is mother of two loving daughters and grandmother to three adorable grandkids, now settled in Bangalore. She has worked as a teacher for 15 years in a regular school and then as a volunteer for 17 years at a school for special children in Thane, near Mumbai. She is now looking for creative opportunities in the second innings.