Rakhshanda Jalil – “I refuse to be bullied or marginalised”
On Urdu: The Best Stories of Our Times, the new anthology she has edited and translated, that features fiction by Surendra Prakash, Qurratulain Hyder, Zakia Mashhadi, Gulzar, Khalid Jawed, and Ali Imam Naqvi, among others
Has the focus on Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Premchand, Qurratulain Hyder, and Gulzar among Urdu-English translators overshadowed other writers from being known more widely? Or do you hold publishers responsible?
Certain names are most anthologised and taken to be most representative of a literature. In this, more than the publishers, I would say lazy volume editors are at fault. Like tired ghosts, some writers – and only some of their “best known” stories – appear and re-appear for generations. For instance, if it’s Manto, it has to be Khol Do; if it’s Ismat, it has to be Lihaaf… as though there isn’t more to the oeuvre of these writers than these most-anthologised and therefore best-known stories. This, I do believe, is a great disservice to not just these writers but to the bhasha literature they represent. In this instance, while talking about the best of Urdu short stories, I clearly didn’t want to start with the “four pillars of the Urdu short story” namely Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai and Krishan Chander. I wanted to look beyond them and focus on the modern.
Tell us about your curatorial process for Urdu: The Best Stories of Our Times.
This isn’t the first volume I have edited. I enjoy the process of editing a selection and curating a collection. For me, the process begins with an idea that becomes the “peg” to hang a volume. In the past, it has been stories on communalism, on the male gaze, on Jallianwala Bagh, on the First World War or stories of a writer such as Intizar Husain and Manto, and so on. Once an idea is lodged in my head, I begin reading anything and everything I can on the subject. Only later, the process of curating starts as I begin jotting down a tentative List of Contents. Even then, there are additions and deletions. And finally, once all the bits and pieces are in place – while this volume was just short stories, in the past I have worked with prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction – I like to write a long introductory essay. That is my way of bringing it all together, of attempting to provide a raison d’etre for a volume. For this volume, I must have read several dozen short stories before I drew up the final short list.
What weightage did you give to the style, themes, and gender of the author?
I wanted it to be as broad-based as possible. I wanted a range of voices and concerns and themes. Gender, of course, but in a language such as Urdu which does not belong to any one state (Urdu’s case is different from say Bangla or Gujarati or Marathi, etc which are chiefly spoken by people of their respective states), I was keen to include writers from across the country – from Bihar, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and so on.
How did you discover the short stories you have translated and included?
By reading, reading, reading. And by asking people who read. Once the idea of an anthology is lodged in my head, I shoot off a flurry of mails and messages to friends and fellow travellers – people like me who read on a range of subjects My mother, a retired librarian, a voracious and eclectic reader in Urdu, English and Hindi, is invariably most helpful. She reads and retains names and details. I also depend on the kindness of friends to source the stories I have identified. They find them, scan and email them to me from different corners of the world. I rely on DELNET, the inter-library loan network, that gets me books from non-lending libraries that might have rare, out-of-print Urdu books. It takes a village for a collection to come together!
Which stories are you proudest of for pushing the envelope, linguistically and politically?
A mother is proud of all her kids as is an editor of all the things she includes in an anthology. It wouldn’t be fair to single out any one to say I especially like this for this or that reason. I like all these stories and that is why I chose to include them.
Salam Bin Razzaq’s story Life is Not a Story addresses what you describe as “prickly subjects such as the lack of family planning among Muslims and the large number of children, its consequences on the health of women, the inability to provide for many children… the link between unemployment and excessive religiosity, non-consensual marital sex, the foisting of the burqa on young women by patriarchal males... usually brushed under the carpet.” Why are these subjects usually brushed under the carpet, and what are your thoughts on the way this story engages with them?
I don’t think these things are entirely brushed under the carpet. There is concern among some sections of Muslims about the many ills that bedevil Muslim communities across the country. Like many other myths, it’s a myth that all Muslims think everything is hunky dory with their world. I think there is introspection and analysis. This story engages with difficult subjects with utmost honesty and forthrightness. I was struck by the clarity of Salam Sahab’s thoughts, his refusal to look for a fig leaf, his rejection of any redeeming qualities whatsoever in the father/head of the family, who is responsible, in large measure, for many of the family’s problems aside, of course, from poverty and unemployment.
To what extent have translation awards, fellowships, and grants made a difference to the quality and volume of Urdu literature being published in translation?
I think they bring greater visibility to the language and certainly to writers and, by extension, translators. They help in creating more space on the shelves of bookshops, in the spaces of newspapers and journals. They help in getting invitations to literature festivals. Somewhere, I hope they translate into more sales.
Has the capture of political power by the Hindu Right affected Urdu literature?
It has certainly made me more determined than ever to keep up the good fight! I am on a crusade. I want to talk about Urdu at every possible occasion. I refuse to be cowed down or bullied or marginalised. I refuse to be shamed by the trolls who tell me to go to Pakistan every time I put up a post on social media announcing a book, a talk, a reading, an event about Urdu.
How are contemporary Urdu writers challenging stereotypes about Muslims?
They are doing so by showing the diversity, inclusion, pluralism that lies at the heart of Urdu. They are continuing to challenge the stereotype that Urdu is the language of Muslims and that Urdu writers are writing stories about Muslims, Islam or the Muslim milieu alone. The case of The last Exile by SM Ashraf in this collection is a perfect example as is the inclusion of non-Muslim Urdu writers such as Surendra Prakash and Gulzar. In fact, I am currently working on a collection called Whose Urdu Is It Anyway? It comprises the works of only non-Muslim Urdu writers. And what gems I have found! Bloomsbury will be publishing it in 2024.
What are your thoughts on the continuing vitality of non-standard forms of Urdu like Dakkhani? How is it viewed by the literary elite? Does it get space in literary festivals?
I wish it got more space! Maybe it does in the Hyderabad region but it needs to be celebrated outside the Deccan. Then there is the case of a once-vibrant Urdu culture in states like Gujarat that has been completely snuffed out. The grave of Wali Dakkhani, one of Gujarat’s most famous poets, was razed in Ahmedabad and no one knows him in his state today. We need to go beyond the big names. We need to celebrate the local in a more inclusive way.
What impact do diplomatic ties between India and Pakistan have on Urdu literature, given that the visa policy determines whether authors can travel to participate in literature festivals?
Deteriorating relations with Pakistan certainly affect Urdu, Urdu writers and -- by extension -- translators. I was shortlisted for my translations of Intizar Husain for a prestigious translation award but I didn’t stand a chance of getting it because the author was Pakistani (it didn’t matter that I am Indian and that Urdu is officially recognised as an Indian language). It isn’t the same with Bangla; a Bangla translation of a writer from Bangladesh will be treated differently. But Pakistan remains problematic, and Urdu suffers in such instances. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told to go to Pakistan on Twitter if I mention the word Urdu.
LGBTQ Muslims often look to Sufi literature and Ismat Chughtai’s work for validation. While working on this anthology, did you come across any contemporary Urdu authors writing about Muslim characters who belong to the LGBTQ community?
No, I am afraid I haven’t actually. But it’s a thought. I shall look.
In the introduction, you mention that it is annoying to hear people say, “Urdu zubaan ishq aur mohabbat ki zubaan hai”. Why do such ideas persist? How do you hope to bring change?
By getting people to read this book! It’s annoying because it not true and like all stereotypes it has a slender grasp of reality. Yes, there is a great deal of Urdu poetry that is about love and romance; the word “ghazal” actually means “amatory ode” but for a long time now the ghazal-go (the writer of the ghazal) has been writing about new concerns. Let me give you an example: When Nawab Siraj-ud-daula of Awadh was killed by the British in the Battle of Plassey (in 1757), his friend Raja Ram Narain Maozoon expressed his anguish thus:
Ghazala tum to vaqif ho kaho majnūun ke marne ki
Diwana mar gaya aaḳhir ko wirane pe kya guzri
O gazelles, you know. Tell us how Majnun died?
The mad lover died, but what happened to the wilderness?
Majnun, the legendary lover of Laila-Majnun fame, becomes here a metaphor for Siraj-ud-daula, who fired the imagination of many Indians by his heroic resistance to the British. And while, at one level, it seems a typical romantic sher, it is actually an intensely political one. Similarly, during the 1857 revolt, favourite synonyms for the Beloved that had been used for centuries by the Urdu poet – sitamgar, but, kafir, yaar – began to be used mockingly for the new English powers-that-be as the poet began to speak truth to power, sometimes directly but often obliquely, indirectly, mockingly.
Change can come with awareness and empathy. In present times, both are in short supply. The currency of our times seems to be ignorance and othering.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.