A trailblazer

Print edition : October 03, 2014

Sajjad Zaheer.

WHILE it is true that Penguin Books brought out the first English translation of Angaaray this year, it does not mean that the collection of 10 short stories and plays that took the Urdu literary world by storm in the early 1930s has been resurrected only now. As the collection was proscribed in March 1933, soon after its publication, it disappeared from public view and remained so for nearly 60 years.

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 and Urdu literary world sit up and take note of this truly trailblazing book.

Angaaray, edited by Sajjad Zaheer, contains five short stories by him, two by Ahmed Ali, a story and a play each by Rashid Jahan, and one short story by Mahmuduzzafar. It was first published in December 1932. Snehal Shingavi, who translated the collection for Penguin, has written a 17-page introduction giving the circumstances under which the book was proscribed.

However, in the very first paragraph, he makes a rather controversial statement that imputes motives to the four contributors. He writes: “Its contributors—Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmuduzzafar—had, of course, intentionally penned it as a provocation against religious and social orthodoxies among north Indian Muslims as well as literary conventions pervasive in Urdu letters” (emphasis added).

A lot of research has been done on progressive writing in Urdu— Angaaray is universally accepted as the precursor of the progressive writers’ movement—but nobody has so far suggested that the writers had a motive to provoke people and act, as it were, as agents provocateurs to foment trouble.

The writers did blaze a trail in modern and unconventional writing as they viewed literature as a form of social criticism. In any case, the country was in the grip of a strong anti-colonial national movement and freedom was in the air. Freedom from social, cultural and literary orthodoxies as well as fossilised traditions was naturally the goal of young, forward-looking writers.

Whether the writers intended it or not, Angaaray did create a storm and attracted strong criticism from religious leaders and traditionalists who viewed it as an insult to Islam and Muslim sensibilities. Shingavi mentions in the introduction that it was variously called “filthy”, “piety destroying”, and “a bold and shameless display of every kind of foul language”.

Newspapers wrote editorials against it and the matter was discussed even in the State legislature of the United Provinces. Funds were collected to fight court cases against the authors though, as Shingavi mentions, none was instituted against them. Muslim circles were particularly incensed because one of the writers happened to be a young woman, Rashid Jahan. She was “routinely singled out for censure and threatened with an acid attack on her face if she were ever seen in public”. How little the world has changed in the past eight decades!

In February 1933, the Central Standing Committee of the All-India Shia Conference demanded that the British government immediately ban the book, and the very next month it was banned.

Offering a detailed account of the way Angaaray was proscribed, Rakhshanda Jalil informs readers in her voluminous study Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in Urdu thatMalik Ali Javed, owner of the Nizami Press in Lucknow, had agreed to surrender all the unsold copies of the book after the police raided his premises. Only five copies survived the raid.

Of them, three were placed in the custody of the Keeper of Records in Delhi (now the National Archives of India) and the remaining two were sent to London where they were kept in the British Library’s Oriental and India Office Collections. Shingavi expresses his gratitude to the efforts of two scholars —Shabana Mahmud in London and Khalid Alavi in Delhi—who tracked the two remaining copies and published them in 1988 and 1995 respectively.

The introduction is followed by a useful section, The Angaaray Collective, wherein Shingavi has offered detailed information about the four contributors. While Sajjad Zaheer is known to every student of literature, the other three are virtually unknown nowadays, and these pen portraits will prove to be quite helpful to the readers. Shingavi has done a competent job of rendering Angaaray into English and the translation reads well. As is common knowledge, these short stories and plays have nothing but historical value for us. Even Sajjad Zaheer did not think much of them as specimens of good literary writing.

Kuldeep Kumar

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