Stifled voices of yore resonate in modern social milieu (Book Review)
It was only recently I first heard about this banned Urdu short-story anthology "Angarey" that had created an uproar when it was published in 1932 apparently because of its blasphemous, vulgar and "filthy" content.
Curious to read what objectionable content was offered through these nine stories and a play written by a gang of four progressive writers, I was set for a sweet surprise to find the English translation - the first in 81 years - at my table, waiting to be read and marvelled at.
After the book was banned in 1933, with most of the copies torched, the Urdu edition was re-published in 1995. Translation into link language is a step forward in reaching out to an audience - young and old, alike.
So were these stories by three men and a woman: Sajjad Zahir, Mahmuduzzafar, Ahmed Ali and Rashid Jahan - objectionable from the standpoint of both religion and morality?
Because the writings are about highlighting the widening gap between the rich and the poor, focussing on the limited role of a woman in a patriarchal society, showing women as an object for sexual gratification and child-producing machines within the socially-accepted system of marriage, freedom of men and their desires for women outside their marriage, and a woman's confinement and submission to a life she doesn't desire but continues to live in. If this is not within the constraints of the literary rules prescribed by myopic authorities of literary circles, then these writings truly chalked out the route for "progressive" writings in Urdu literature.
Critics have described these writings as an initial step in the evolution of modernist fiction in Urdu that used newer techniques like interior monologue and stream of consciousness to narrate the stories.
Sticking to these methods, the four writers have told stories that were so relevant then as they are today.
The struggle, discrimination and sexual exploitation of women within the realms of marriage are very much ingrained in today's society, which wears the garb of modernity, but comes out and protests if its sentiments are hurt.
This is something we witnessed with Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" and the recent case of Wendy Donider's "The Hindus: An Alternative History" that angered the sentiments of the Muslims and Hindu fanatics.
So when one of the female characters of the only play of this anthology "Behind the Veil: A One-Act Play" confesses she wished to have been born a Christian because it allowed greater freedom to women, you understand how subtly Rashid Jahan has communicated the idea of a "suffocating" life of a Muslim woman.
Another sharp observation about a man's blind ego and pride comes out extremely well in Mahmuduzzafar's story "Masculinity" where the protagonist uses his ailing wife to leave foolproof evidence of his masculinity amongst his relatives and family to prove he is capable of producing a "heir", overlooking the risk he was putting his wife in.
Other stories too, in their own way, leave a lasting impression and successfully recreate the forlorn era that reeked of conservatism in creating the modern prison we still live in.
(Posted on 13-05-2014)