In one of the stories in An Evening in Lucknow, Lakshmi, an ageing cow with watery eyes, is the young Bholi’s dearest friend, at least until Bholi’s father has the cow slaughtered. In another, a family of sparrows gives succour to a man who has driven away his own kind. Animals and birds of every imaginable type wander in and out of the landscapes of these short stories, gazing only fleetingly at their human counterparts.
Their author, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, was best known for other things—his films starring Raj Kapoor, the break he gave to a desperate and unknown Amitabh Bachchan, and the newspaper columns he wrote until his death in 1987. Addressing our ignorance of Abbas’ fiction, Suresh Kohli has edited a collection of 17 English short stories, published this June by Harper Perennial under the title An Evening in Lucknow.
Abbas was a dissatisfied man by his own admission, an anti-imperialist in 20th century India, an artiste who wrote in multiple languages and mediums. His restlessness, the quality that drives all art, brought Abbas to the threshold of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association. Begun in the 1930s, the rambunctious Progressives believed in turning their critical gaze inwards. They wrote to startle Indians out of the passivity borne of history. They were a vocal and contentious lot with a loose mandate interpreted variously by different writers, often held together by nothing more than the fraying thread of shared languages—Hindi, Urdu and English.
Among these writers was Abbas, and Kohli’s introduction to An Evening in Lucknow makes a convincing case for devoting our attention his way. Reading his stories, it becomes evident that Abbas was concerned with writing about oppression and provoking our empathy. In the opening story The Sparrows, we are invited into the inner world of a violent and unhappy man who has lost the very family he tyrannizes. In another, a Hindu man whose daughter was raped and killed during the riots of Partition plots the savage murder of a Muslim girl who is his daughter’s age. In Sylvia, Abbas’ whispered voice tells us of a nurse’s most private concerns. How quickly, Abbas seems to say from behind the curtains, we turn from victim to tyrant, or from oppressor to oppressed. One finds too in his stories the humour of a writer cognizant of Urdu’s finest short fiction.
An Evening in Lucknow— Selected Stories: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 296 pages, Rs 299.
Yet, An Evening in Lucknow is an uneven collection, and Abbas’ hand lacks the virtuosity of peers such as Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai. Many of his stories begin well, and then lapse into didacticism or sentimentality. Others are strangely propagandist; A New Temple, for instance, is a thinly disguised endorsement of Jawaharlal Nehru’s claim about dams being the temples of modern India.
While the contradictions in Abbas’ prose tell us something about the inner turmoil of mid-century Indian writing, the collection would have benefited from more stringent editing. As it stands, we are presented with 17 stories, not all of them readable, where 10 or 12 would have done quite well. Every book published must answer the question “Why this book, and why now?”, and An Evening in Lucknow does so only in part. Despite an introduction, interviews, letters and essays with and by the author, we are left in the dark about what language and year each story was first published in.
Abbas, perhaps unconsciously, turns to animals for the empathy he himself often cannot provide. Their gaze is more penetrating than any other and provides a more trenchant critique than his sermonizing.
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