Welcome to Aam-e-Avadh

A book that gathers a motley crowd of ordinary people up against extraordinary odds — star-crossed lovers, streetsmart women, seekers of identity, tourists from Iran. Preeti Singh elaborates.

books Updated: Jan 31, 2009 22:44 IST
Preeti Singh
Preeti Singh
Hindustan Times

Street Singers of Lucknow and Other Stories

Qurratulain Hyder

Women Unlimited

Rs 350

pp 228

Preeti Singh

The Good Lord laughs only twice; once when He bestows honours on someone whom another wants to undo, and a second time when He decides to destroy someone trying to improve his lot.” These are the words of the fiercely loyal yet cantankerous Salamat Bua of ‘Honour’, one in a collection of nine short tales by Qurratulain Hyder — doyenne of Urdu literature, and Jnanpith Award winner who passed away in 2007.

In this genre-traversing compilation you can almost hear the mirthless laughter of the gods, sometimes twice, all in the span of a few pages, for they are, variously, tales of star crossed lovers, of the unending search for identity, of ambition and despair, acceptance and betrayal, with most characters seemingly waiting for benediction from ‘the figment of imagination called God’.

Her stories, quite simply, revolve around ordinary people up against extraordinary odds, and their quest to either transcend, or cling to, the circumstances of their birth. Threaded into these tales is hope, that sometimes burns bright like the petromax lanterns lighting up the rickety carts of vendors at a qasba fair and, then just when the dream seems within reach, often flickers and dies out like a small earthen lamp at a forgotten Pir’s grave.

While in the novella ‘Street Singers of Lucknow’, there’s an all-pervasive feeling of hurtling towards inevitable tragedy and loss, catalysed by unrequited love, overarching ambition and un-mailed letters; the tongue-in-cheek ‘Confessions of Saint Flora of Georgia’ is a farcical tale about second chances that inspires the odd chuckle, with a pair of skeletons — one of them in a stolen Dior gown — cracking jokes about their unused hotel toiletries and the ill-effects of smoking!
Life comes a full circle, as the tussles between the protagonists mirror some of our daily struggles – the hesitant murmur of restraint vying for attention with the roar of reckless optimism.

But, even as the victimised woman in one story reappears as a street-smart protagonist in the other, the little twists of fate, and circumstances hopelessly beyond their control, continue to toss the ill-fated yet feisty women around with little hope of deliverance, while “extinction awaits with folded hands”.

Yet, the collection is a potent and sometimes upbeat cocktail of romance, fatalism, horror and sci-fi, with a smattering of history and a dash of the hereafter. So while a space scientist turns into a time-travelling oracle in ‘Beyond the Speed of Light’, a couple of lost Iranian tourists discover a dead fiancé/husband in a house trapped in time — with a Miss Havisham-incarnate nonagenarian aunt and a pair of delusional spinsters — on a stormy night in the play ‘A Night on Pali Hill’. The spiritual co-exists with the scientific, and the past, present and future merge into a swirling mist, with the tales traversing space and time — from ancient Egypt to medieval Georgia and pre and post-colonial India; from the streets of Lucknow and the Kumaon foothills to the tea gardens of Sylhet and the coconut groves of South India.

Nostalgia lurks in all, with the characters trying to cling to a forgotten way of life, whether it is the Awadhi tehzeeb in ‘Street Singers..’, or the feudal hauteur of ‘Honour’; the longing for home in ‘The Story of Catherine Bolton’, or a colonial hangover in ‘The Guest House’ and ‘Tea Gardens of Sylhet’.

With an insightful introduction by Aamer Hussein that whets

your appetite for more, and translated into English by the author herself, strung into the stories are tantalising translations of original couplets that make you yearn to read the real thing.

Despite the odd typo, it is a valuable collection for those of us who are unfamiliar with that achingly beautiful language: Urdu.

First Published: Jan 31, 2009 22:41 IST