It was only recently that this banned Urdu short story anthology came to light. It created uproar when it was published in 1932, apparently because of its blasphemous, vulgar and ‘filthy’ content. Curious to read what objectionable content was offered through these nine stories and a play written by a gang of four progressive writers, a sweet surprise came in the form of the English translation – the first in 81 years – waiting to be read and marvelled at.

After the book was banned in 1933 and most of the copies torched, the Urdu edition was re-published in 1995. Translation into link language is a step forward in reaching an audience – young and old alike. So were these stories by three men and a woman objectionable from the standpoint of both religion and morality? Perhaps not!

Because the writings highlight the widening gap between the rich and the poor, focusing on the limited role of women in a patriarchal society, showing women as objects for sexual gratification and
child-producing machines within the socially accepted system of marriage, freedom of men and their desires for women outside their marriage, and a woman’s confinement and submission to a life she doesn’t desire but continues to live in. If this is not within the constraints of the literary rules prescribed by myopic authorities of literary circles, then these writings truly chalked out the route for ‘progressive’ Urdu literature.

Critics have described these writings as an initial step in the evolution of modernist fiction in Urdu, which used newer techniques like interior monologue and stream of consciousness to narrate. Sticking to these methods, the four writers have told stories that were as relevant then as they are today. The struggle, discrimination and sexual exploitation of women within the realms of marriage are very much ingrained in today’s society, which wears the garb of modernity but protests if its weak sentiments are hurt.

This is something we witnessed with Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” and the recent case of Wendy Donider’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History”, which that angered the sentiments of the Muslim and Hindu fanatics respectively. So when one of the female characters of the only play of this anthology, “Behind the Veil”, confesses she wishes to have been born a Christian because it allowed greater freedom to women, you understand how subtly Rashid Jahan has communicated the idea of the “suffocating” life of a Muslim woman.
Another sharp observation about a man’s blind ego and pride comes out extremely well in Mahmuduzzafar’s story “Masculinity”, in which the protagonist uses his ailing wife to leave foolproof evidence of his masculinity among his relatives and family, to prove he is capable of “producing an heir” while overlooking the risk to his wife. Other stories, in their own way, leave lasting impressions and successfully recreate the forlorn era that reeked of conservatism, creating the modern prison we still live in.       – IANS