The Telegraph
Friday , May 22 , 2015

Then there was light


Angaaray, as the sub-title conveys, is an English translation of a collection of Urdu short stories published in 1932. When the original collection was published, the orthodox Muslims of the time viewed it as an attack on their religious sensibilities. They requested the government to ban the book. The colonial administration promptly obliged the request. Copies of the book were destroyed, except for a few which were despatched to London. Those copies were kept in the Oriental and India Office Collections of the British Library. After almost 50 years, two scholars managed to track down the book and republish it. The translator, Snehal Shingavi, concedes that the present book could not have been published without the "efforts of (those) two scholars".

Circulars and letters of the government banning the book can be found in the appendices, so can be the views of the writers as expressed in the newspapers. The controversy surrounding the book is important in that it led to the formation of the All-India Progressive Writers' Association, which soon developed into one of the biggest literary movements in South Asia.

The four writers whose works have been brought out in English after more than 80 years, are Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmud-uz-Zafar. Zaheer has the maximum number of stories in the collection. He has five stories. Though, the five short stories are not of equal merit. Some of them fail to appeal to a mature reader. The first one is called "Can't Sleep". It is the story of a man who tries hard but fails to fall asleep. The story revolves around the erratic manner in which the protagonist's mind functions. However, the writer has not been able to do justice to the subject. The story moves through different layers; satirizing society, denigrating religion and criticizing literary ideas to weave a new set of values for which the society of the time was not prepared. Another story by Zaheer, "Dulari", is about a young master who sexually exploits his maidservant, but then dumps her to get married to a girl from his own social stratum. All the stories penned by Zaheer revolve around sex, morality and religion but he fails to flesh out his characters or come up with a mature narrative that can satiate the intellectual cravings of a modern mind. It seems that Zaheer was only interested in creating a sensation, which the collection did, rather than write stories that could pass the test of time.

Zaheer later established his name on the literary scene. However, in comparison to him, Ahmed Ali has done a better job. Ali's "The Clouds Aren't Coming"and "A Night of Winter Rains" are written from a woman's perspective.

"Virility" by Mahmud-uz-Zafar, on the other hand, is very different. It is about a man who falls in love with a terminally ill lady, but in spite of her deteriorating condition, goes on to marry her.

Rashid Jahan, incidentally, is the only woman whose works feature in the collection: a short story and a one-act play. They beautifully capture the restricted world of women of her time. Jahan's passionate rendition reminds one of the English novelist, Jane Austen.

The collection harbours thoughts that were far ahead of their times. Some of the stories might appear structurally deficient but the works must be judged keeping in mind the fact that most of writers were just in their twenties at the time.

Though Shingavi has done a commendable job by bringing out a work from the darkness of anonymity and translated the collection for the readers of English, his translation suffers from certain inconsistencies. In trying to retain the tone of the original, Shingavi may have used certain phrases that sound a trifle odd in English. This might not leave a good impression on the readers.

Since the collection was banned before Independence and has only now been translated into English, the book will generate interest among the readers. Even those who know Urdu may not have read the original. Angaaray created a lot of controversy in the early 1930s, but after more than eight decades, it does not seem to be too radical a work.

 More stories in Opinion

  • The politics of naming