The iniquities of globalization have meant that even as a new generation of Pakistani writers in English have found a mass audience and not inconsiderable material rewards, Pakistani Urdu writers of the present day and of previous generations struggle on in the shadow of obscurity, neglect, or even, at best, an audience smaller than they deserve. Translation is a way out of at least the last of these predicaments, but even translation is something to which, in a consumer society, the market attaches the tag of “difficult” and, therefore, not consumer-friendly.
Simply put, in a market economy it is incumbent on readers—the last players in the chain of literature, and therefore the custodians of its health as much as publishers—to cut through the hype and hubbub swirling around the front stretches of the literary market, and to look further and deeper to be willing to supply time and mind for more unusual pleasures. Such readers will certainly find much to savour in Muhammad Umar Memon’s anthology of Pakistani stories in translation, Do You Suppose it’s the East Wind?
Do You Suppose it’s the East Wind? Penguin, 298 pages, Rs299
Memon is the editor of the excellent periodical The Annual of Urdu Studies, which publishes a selection of literary criticism, short stories in translation and scholarly essays every year, and can now be read online. He is also the translator of Indian writers of Urdu such as Naiyer Masud. Indeed, many of the writers in his collection, although they lived and died as Pakistanis, were born in the north of an undivided India, and they extol the beauties of a landscape which could just as well be Indian. Memon has left out younger Pakistani writers, as if desirous of first giving the greats of the post-independence generation their due. But his selections are very astute, and there are at least half a dozen stories here of the highest calibre.
Unsurprisingly, one of the best stories comes from the familiar hand of Saadat Hasan Manto. Called For Freedom’s Sake, it is set in Amritsar in the years of the freedom struggle and centres around two friends: The first, called Ghulam Ali, is a Kashmiri and wants to be a politician; the other is recognizably Manto himself. Always a sceptic of high rhetoric and noble motives, Manto writes cynically of his friend’s meteoric rise in political circles, saying that “the slogans, strings of marigold, songs of patriotic zeal and the opportunity to talk freely to female volunteers turned him into a sort of half-baked revolutionary”. As always in Manto, the mind wants one thing and the body another. His story of a political worker deeply in love with a woman in the same movement is reminiscent—although the narratorial voice is considerably more sardonic—of R.K. Narayan’s later book Waiting for the Mahatma.
Some other Pakistani writers who may be only names, and not really words, to Indian readers are each given a room of their own in Memon’s anthology. In Sunlight, Abdullah Hussein tells a moving story of a man returning to his village after 20 years. Javed Shahin presents a different kind of journey, that of a son wandering through small towns and pilgrimage centres in search of his missing mother, in If Truth be Told. While most of the stories follow the conventions of realist fiction, a charming turn is taken at the very end by Tasadduq Sohail’s The Tree, about a man who finds a tree giving him a good scolding.
Fruit fest: One of the best stories in the book is about the king of fruits. Ramesh Pathania/Mint
But perhaps the best of these stories is one about the opulence and decadence of the aristocracy of north India as revealed through their quarrels over, of all things, mangoes. In Abul Fazl Siddiqi’s Gulab Khas, every five years, on the border of Avadh and Rohilkhand in what formerly used to be known as the United Provinces, there takes place a competition for the best new breed of mango. During this great mango festival, writes Siddiqi, “The whole world was nothing but mangoes and life was lived only for the sake of this luscious fruit.”
Siddiqi (1908-1986), whose forte was stories about rural and feudal worlds, backs his claim by drenching his story in mango lore, reeling off catalogues of the best varieties, tracking with delight the conspiracies of growers to develop sublime new strains, and stretching every sinew of his prose to find words to convey the beauties of colour, flavour and texture of the fruit. Just as the Gulab Khas mango, bred by a lowly gardener, walks off with the first prize in the competition, so too Gulab Khas is the crowning glory of this excellent collection.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org