URDU poetry existed before the mid-19th century in the oral form or in the form of dastans – anonymous stories recited in public by professional tellers. Such Urdu appeared will to the 19th century and that too as a by-product of colonial rule. It was in 1899, that the first novel appeared with Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada. The short story arrived a quarter of a century later. It was in this genre that Saadat Hasan Manto came to be known as the most accomplished short story writer along with Muhammad Hasan Askari.
In this collection of stories of best-known Urdu writers, Altaf Fatima in the title story, Do You Suppose It’s the East Wind? reveals about the 1947 Partition of British India, the deep and abiding sense of personal loss felt by those Muslims and Hindus who, before the Partition, had developed bonds of familial affection that were now forever severed when forces beyond their control forced them apart. When the East Wind blows, it is believed to reopen old wounds and revive memories long buried under the dust of time. Similarly a Muslim woman in Pakistan thinks about a Hindu boy, her playmate back when she lived in India.
Ghulam Abbas tells in ‘Lure of Music’ the story of a hard-working husband and father who leads his innocent wife and daughters down roads and neighbourhoods they might have never hoped to see after his long-suppressed love for music is re-awakened on his way home, late one evening, when the gentle sound of a sarod fills his ears. He abandons the confines of a middle-class existence and unwittingly embraces the culture of the kotha and the courtesan.
In ‘Banished’, writer Jameela Hashmi focuses poignantly on the life of a Muslim woman held by her Sikh captor but who refuses to let her go to her new country when soldiers come looking for abducted women. What holds her back?
Ikramullah’s ‘Regret’ is a heart-wrenching portrayal of the death of burgeoning idealism. It is the story of two childhood friends, the hunger and sacrifices of east Punjab’s population for Independence, the tense atmosphere before Independence when the population is precariously balanced between hope and despair, the massacres in the wake of Partition that ripped apart communal harmony.
Fahmida Riaz in her story introduces the reader to the complicated politics of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the former Soviet Republics, while describing the complicated forces at work in her psyche. She discovers with surprise that despite her own education and freedom, she can ill afford a comparison with her children’s Pathan nanny, Bibi Jan.
In Intizar Husain’s story ‘Pichwa’, the Muslim protagonist fights to defend his village Qadirpur which has been awarded to India. He has no choice but to leave for Pakistan, but once here, he is a man adrift.
As is to be expected, the best story is by Saadat Hasan Manto and it is called ‘For Freedom’s Sake’ which is set in Amritsar at the time of the freedom struggle and revolves around two friends – a Kashmiri who wants to be a politician and the other, Manto himself.
The book offers snapshots of life in the sub-continent through short stories, some of which are of a high calibre.
(Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)