Saturday 24 May 2014


Bhadka rahen hain aag lab-e naghmagar se hum
Khamosh kya rahenge zamaane ke dar se hum
  • Sahir Ludhianvi
The publication of a book which was instrumental in the creation of one of the greatest literary movement –PWA (Progressive Writer’s Association) in Indian history and was so far unavailable in English language, should call for a big celebration. Hence, the moment I saw the English translation of Angarey (translated from the Urdu by Vibha Chauhan and Khalid Alvi, Rupa, 2014) up for pre-order at one of the more popular e-commerce sites, I immediately placed my order. Originally published in Urdu in December 1932 by Nizami Press in Lucknow ,the book containing nine short stories and a play, was banned within 4 months by the government for insulting the religious sentiments of the people (Doesn’t that sound familiar?). The four young contributors - Sajjad Zahir (5 short stories), Ahmed Ali (2 short stories), Mahmuduzzafar (1 short story) and Rashid Jahan (1 short story and 1 play) however refused to apologize and Mahmuduzzafar even wrote an article ‘In Defence of Angarey’ (April 5, 1933) for the newspaper The Leader. The Press was by and large critical of the book and once the book was banned by the government, all copies of the book were destroyed (set on fire). Undeterred by the criticism Sajjad Zaheer, who had emerged as the leader of the group decided to use literature to challenge the social ills and orthodoxy prevalent in Indian society and went on to form the PWA in 1934 along with Jyotirmaya Ghosh, Mulk Raj Anand and Mohammad Tasir. He received full support for this endeavor from many stalwarts of Indian literature like Premchand and  Maithilisharan Gupt.
Only five copies of Angarey survived. However, the microfilm of the book had been preserved in the British Museum in London and once it was brought to India, the stories were edited by Khalid Alvi (who teaches Urdu at Zakir Hussain College, Delhi ) and the book was re-published in Urdu in 1995. It received tremendous response and has run into several editions since. Why no one thought of translating this landmark book into English since 1995 is something which the publishers need to ponder. However, a chance discussion between Khalid and his colleague at Zakir Hussain college, Vibha Chauhan (who teaches English) laid the foundation for this translation. Both need to be complemented for their effort in translation as well as their concise introduction in the book which gives the reader a background to the significance of the book.
Great literature has often been described as one which transcends time and even though the stories in this collection were written more than 80 years back many of the themes in the stories are still relevant today. Be it the lowly peon Jumman (‘A Summer Night’) or the exploited house help Dulari (‘Dulari’) there will be no redemption for them from their miserable existence. In ‘Heaven Assured!’, Sajjad Zahir has taken on the clergy head on and I am sure this one must have offended the conservatives the most. ‘Masculinity’ and ‘Behind the Veil:A One-Act Play’ are a lament to the poor state of women in our society
The stories also broke new grounds as far the writing techniques in Indian literature were concerned. We see use of ‘narrative techniques like the stream of consciousness and the interior monologue’ and as Nadira Babbar (daughter of Sajjad Zahir) mentions in her Foreword to the book-‘Qamar Rais often discussed the impact that Angarey had on writings of other writers of the PWA like Premchand and Manto’.
Not having read the original Urdu text I won’t be able to comment on the quality of translation but just going by the credentials, I am sure they have done full justice to the original text.
Even as I write my blog, another translation of the book is about to hit the stores (this one by Penguin). So I guess finally the book is going to get a wider readership and recognition it so rightly deserves.

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