It could be a secret book, a book nobody has seen or read but everybody refers to. It is treated with carefully worded respect as a historical sign-post or vantage point but nobody offers any exegesis or interpretation of the text. It has been truly a work of collective fiction, a result of the creative efforts of four young writers whose collective opinions were handed down from one generation to the other. It could have been an imaginary book instead of a real work of imaginative and emotive fiction. This is Angaarey, long recognized as the trail-blazing collection of short fiction which spearheaded the modernist advent in Urdu literature. With texts from Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jehan and Mahmud-uz-Zafar, the slim volume appeared in Lucknow in 1932. And the rest, and in this case literally, is history. It was savagely attacked, burned and ultimately banned. All but five copies were withdrawn and destroyed but not before leaving indelible marks and changing the course of Urdu fiction.
Over a period of time, Angaarey has become emblematic. Ask any two scholars or critics of Urdu literature and there would be no disagreement over the fact that Angaarey is important, both as a milestone, and as a book, but ask anybody as to why it is important or how, and people would begin to hazard guesses, ill-informed guesses at best. Part of the problem is of course the issue of access, as the ban on the book stayed on in spite of the end of colonial rule and the creation of two independent states. So the reputation lingered on, with limited recourse to the book itself. When the distinguished Urdu literary magazine Nuqoosh made a selection of Urdu short stories for its Afasna Number, designed to be a standard reference on the development of the genre, it included a sampling from Angaarey but with a very simple disclaimer from the scissor-wielding editor to the effect “angaariyat ko thanda kardia hai,” whatever you may take it to mean. Years later, the London based scholar Shabana Mehmud reproduced the original edition, but her pioneering work was not as widely circulated as it deserved to be. In spite of everything, the book is also a great survivor. Angaarey has persisted against all odds. It gets a new lease of life in the English translations by Snehal Shingavi who has penned a brief but insightful introduction. I totally agree with Shingavi when he takes umbrage against critics who write off Angaarey as a “failure” and quotes Ali Jawad Zaidi who insisted on refusing to see the book as anything but a “freak and not the beginning of the movement.” But then who is to tell the critic that freaks do not cast such long literary shadows.
[quote]In spite of everything, the book is also a great survivor. Angaarey has persisted against all odds[/quote]
More to the point is Shingavi’s description of the “phenomenon of Angarey’s publication and censorship” as serving to “inaugurate two different literary movements (which later were in opposition to one another): progressivism – and modernism.” While born-again Progressives may not agree with this notion of two movements or even there being some binary opposition to each other, few can disagree with Shingavi’s view that “very little critical attention was paid to the stories themselves.” This critical view may have been more of a limiting factor in the appreciation of the stories than the ban, and their transformation into translated texts is an occasion to understand and appreciate the literary worth of the stories as literary texts more than museum pieces or botched experiments which have faded out.
The unleashed furies which greeted the publication of Angaarey is referred to in the introduction, including the gendered aspect which threatened Dr Rashid Jehan with an acid attack if she was seen in public, and the spirited comment from Mahmud uz Zafar, written in the form of a letter to the editor, is included as an appendix, defiantly proclaiming that there will be no apology for it and that they are not afraid of the consequences of having launched it. But what is more important, they said that “they leave it to float or sink of itself.” This displays great creative confidence on the part of the young author, and deservedly so.
[quote]The translation generally reads well, though in a few places one gets a sense of nuances being missed out[/quote]
“The Angaarey Collective” is how the four authors are described here. In another place, Shingavi says that “many of the pieces in the collection suffer from all of the problems of early, young writing.” Yes, but talented writing, I would insist. Mahmud-uz-Zafar is the least known among the authors and contributed only one piece, and that too probably translated from a text originally written in English. His wife Rashid Jehan was a practicing gynaecologist who combined activism with literary work. One of her two contributions is a short play but in reality not more than a dialogue. Her seemingly slight story, wry and humorous, gives a woman’s perspective in a way that she is recognizable as a predecessor for the still unsurpassed Ismat Chughtai. Retrospectively, Ahmed Ali became better known for his fine novel, Twilight in Delhi and the translation of the Holy Quran which he undertook late in life. However, in addition to all this, he deserves to considered one of the most original voices in modern Urdu fiction, a major voice often not given its due. Sajjad Zaheer became known for organizing the Progressive Writers’Association but he could sustain his fiction-writing talent long enough to give a long performance like the remarkable novella, London Ki Aik Raat, which became the author’s swan-song as a fiction writer. It is Zaheer’s story which must have contributed the most to the censor’s wrath as he takes on the mullah and his male-dominated world-view. Going through the stories once again, I find myself shaking my head that such stories can neither be written nor published in my country today. We have gone back many a step after Angaarey, immature though we may find some of the stories. It is a sad reminder of what the stories stood out against and the possibility of social reform which emanated from these sparks. I wonder if the spirit of Angaarey is lost?
Shingavi has done a commendable job of making these stories available to a new generation of readers and deserves full credit for doing so. His translation generally reads well, though in a few places one gets a sense of nuances being missed out, and an occasional lapse such as when he refers in the introduction to the “sprawling romances of writers like Mirza Muhaamad Hadi Ruswa.” Does he mean Rattan Nath Sarshar?