Translator: Vibha S. Chauhan & Khalid Alvi
|In 1932 four young Muslim friends, three men and one woman, published a thin Urdu book titled “Angāre” (“Embers”). It contained 9 short stories and a one-act play. Its authors were Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, Dr Rashid Jahan, and Mahmud-uz-Zafar.The work was intended as internal critique of patriarchy and religious dogmatism within the muslim community. It was an intentional provocation against religious and social orthodoxies among Indian Muslims. If that was not enough, it was critical of the colonial rule too. The existent literary conventions at that time usually were spirituality, realism to romanticism. As Shabana Mahmud, a prominent South Asian scholar
“Angare came as an act of defiance against all traditional norms. It deliberately jettisoned much of the traditional language of Urdu literature and introduced new styles. Drawing inspiration from the writings of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence, and in some cases from Marxist writings, the young writers experimented with new techniques of writing which aimed at a more direct impact in its stark and unvarnished portrayal of human existence. The stories of Sajjad Zahir and Ahmed ‘Ali railed at enslavement to social and religious practices based on ignorance, and at the disgraceful acquiescence in foreign rule, and protested against the inequalities in Indian society and its economic ills. In their stories, Rashid Jahan and Mahmuduzzafar exposed the enclosed and oppressive world of Muslim women enslaved to their husbands’ demands and outworn religious and social dogmas.”
“Angāre” took the Urdu literary world by storm. There was strong reaction in the Muslim community and ‘fatwas’ by religious clergy. After a spate of protests and condemnations, especially by North Indian Muslims the book was was banned by the British government on 15 March 1933. It disappeared from public view and remained so for nearly 60 years. The police destroyed all but 5 copies.Of these 5 copies, three were placed in the custody of the Keeper of Records in Delhi. The remaining two were sent to London where they were kept in the British Library’s Oriental and India Office Collections. Decades later, Shabana Mahmud and Khalid Alavi individually tracked the two remaining copies in London and published them in 1988 and 1995 respectively in the original Urdu script. It seems that none of these copies are currently available either. In 1991, Prashant Kumar, a journalist-turned-publisher in Lucknow, got the entire collection transliterated into the Devnagari script and published it as the first issue of his journal, Samkaleen Dastavez. The reissue made the Hindi literary world sit up and take note of this truly trailblazing book. He too faced strong opposition and apparently gave up. Now, in 2014, come not one but two publications of English translations of Angāre. One would think that such historical work would have benefited from a teamwork instead of two separate projects.
The first translation, “Angarey” printed by Rupa, is by Vibha S. Chauhan and Khalid Alvi. The second, titled “Angaarey” (yes, even the title spelling differs) by Penguin, translated by Snehal Shingavi, an academic at the University of Texas. It (wrongly) claims to be ‘first ever’ translation of Angāre. Both translations are labors of love and have respective merits.
In 1931, while studying at Oxford, Sajjad Zaheer returned to his home in Allahbad. Son of Sir Syed Wazir Hasan, a judge of the High Court of Judicature, Zaheer came from a upper class, socially prominent land owning family, originally from Lucknow. His father sent him abroad, with the intention that he study law and follow in his footsteps. To Syed’s disappointment, Zaheer, or Banney Mian as he was fondly referred to by his friends, took instead an interest in literature and politics. Instead of studying law he devoted his attention to reading modern English literature in the school’s various libraries and spent the rest of his time attending meetings held by the university’s leftist student organizations.
Sajjad Zaheer’s stories frankly discuss both sexual desire and sexual repression to highlight the ways that religious and social restrictions unnecessarily damage the human psyche, and also to show just how rarely the rule makers followed their own rules.
The summer of 1931, while attending a party Zaheer began a lengthy conversation with another young gentleman like himself. His name was Ahmed Ali. Their meeting would go on to have a significant impact on the political and literary landscape of India. Unlike Zaheer, Ahmed was the son of a middle class civil servant. After the early death of his father, he moved to his paternal uncle’s house, under whose influence he grew up. ( Cappola, 1975) The clash between his uncle’s conservative Sunni attitude and his belief in agnosticism and Hindu-Muslim unity forced him to escape. Ali moved to Aligarh Muslim University and then to Lucknow University, from where he received first class honors in English in both his B.A. And M.A. Degrees.
Recalling their first meeting, Ali notes that the two “shared a fondness for sombreros,bright shirts and contrasting ties, collecting candlesticks and gargoyles. Bach and Beethoven, and an admiration for James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence and the New Writing poets, as well as Checkhov and Gorky.” (Ali, 1935; 36). This encounter led to to the “establishment of a bond of friendship, for we shared a love of art and literature and our tastes were common.” They continued to meet after that night, discussing the idea of publishing an anthology of their work. Despite Ali already possessing material from previous publications, the two did not have enoughwork between them to come out with an anthology.
Writing in a similar vein is Ahmed Ali’s The Clouds Aren’t Coming which is again like Zaheer’s Can’t Sleep, an experiment with stream-of-consciousness – the woman in the story is regularly beaten by the husband and blames the religion for it. The children’s fable about a male and a female sparrow ( Podna aur Podni ki Kahani) is given in the beginning of the story that brings out the stark contrast where in the human world there is an absence of chivalry. The equating of one repressed life with the water filled clouds has been brought out beautifully by Ali. In A Night of Winter Rains, the woman questions her existence as well as the religion. Interesting to see is how both the protagonists are women and are trying to break free from societal and religious bonds and are questioning the parameters that have been drawn for them.
Rashid Jahan’s two pieces in the collection – ‘In the Women’s Quarters’ (‘Parde ki Peechhe’) and ‘Seeing the Sights in Delhi’ (‘Dilli ki Sair’) – are concerned with the problems women face, especially how modern conveniences and medicine make women’s lives worse than better. She drew her own experiences as a gynaecologist to give an account of the social, sexual and medical problems faced by the women she treated.
The contempt that Mahmud-uz-Zafar had for the so-called ‘liberal-minded’ Muslims is clear in his story ‘Virility’ (‘Jawanmardi’), where modern ideas do not enable new circuits of sympathy but rather collapse back into more routinised patterns of spousal abuse and neglect. As he did not feel comfortable in writing in Urdu, he wrote the story in English and later Sajjad Zaheer translated it into Urdu.