HT Picks: The most interesting books of the week

A book on Partition, another on Madras, and a collection of the best Urdu short fiction

books Updated: Aug 04, 2017 20:25 IST
HT Team
HT Team
Hindustan Times

Between January and August 1947, the conflicting tensions of British India culminated in the country being partitioned and the creation of two independent new states - the repubics of India and Pakistan. Those momentous months saw the end of ninety years of the British Raj, as the congress Party swept to power, stetting up the country’s first modern government in Delhi. However, the autumn of 1947 witnessed the dream of independence dissipate into shame and recrimination. Partition of India’s two great provinces of the Punjab and Bengal, forced through in seventy days, led to at least ten million people becoming refugees. About one million died, many murdered in scenes of sickening, medieval violence. Countless more lost their homes and their livelihoods, as the country was dissolved amidst an atmosphere of bloodshed and bitterness.

What happened in India that year has created a cycle of revenge that has resonated through the decades and still plagues the subcontinent. Thus far it has led to three wars, countless acts of terrorism, polarisation around the Cold War powers and to two nations spending disproportionate amounts on their military while millions live in poverty. The roots of much of today’s violence, both in the region and worldwide are in the decisions taken that year. This is their story.

Selected and translated by writer, editor and translator par excellence Muhammad Umar Menom, the twenty-five stories in this book represent the finest short fiction in Urdu literature.

In his introduction, Memon traces the evolution of the Urdu short story from its origins in the world of writers like Munshi Premchand - ‘the first professional short story writer in Urdu’ - through the emergence of the Progressives in the late 1930s, whose writings were unabashedly political and underpinned their Marxist ideologies, to the post -independence ‘Modernist’ era, and today’s generation of avant-garde, experimental writers of Urdu fiction.

Every story in the anthology illustrates one or the other facet of the form in the Urdu literary tradition. But even more than for their formal technique and inventiveness, these stories have been included because of their power and impact on the reader. Death and poverty face off in Premchand’s masterpiece ‘The Shroud’. In Khalida Asghar’s The Wagon, a mysterious redness begins to cloak the sunset in a village by the Ravi. Behind closed doors and cracks in the windows lies desire but also ‘a sense of queer foreboding’ in Naiyer Masud’s ‘Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire’. The tragedy and horror of Partition are brought to life by Saadat Hasan Manto’s lunatic (in Toba Tek Singh) and the eponymous heroine of Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Laajwanti. Despairing, violent, passionate humorous, ironic and profound - the fiction in The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told will imprint itself indelibly on your mind.

Once upon a time by the sea, there was a story - and another and another - and some wandered into these pages to make up a city.

So meet, among others, a travel guide who falls for a French tourist, a rice merchant with Kollywood dreams, a god whose editor proves elusive, a portly musical lawyer caught in a noir plot, and a man in search of family in the Great Madras Flood.

Find yourself , among other places, at that gastronomic oxymoron, the Udipi cafe, in Velachery, looking for pot or maybe for love, on Kaanum Pongal day all across Madras, even in a fast car on East Coast Road, fleeing the city - till it lures you back with its lovely lies.

It’s all here: the salt in the breeze, the eternal summer, the swing of the sea.

It’s Madras on your mind.*

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*All text from book flaps

First Published: Aug 04, 2017 20:22 IST