The first half of the 20th century witnessed a transformation in Urdu literature with the emergence of the short story as the choicest medium of literary expression, reflecting the shifting contours of Indian society. Urdu was not a communal language then. The Muslims and Hindus of pre-1947 India preferred the language for its subtlety, richness and aesthetic qualities. This was the age of Prem Chand’s realism, the romanticism of Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishna Chandar, the irony and brutal directness of Ismat Chughtai and Manto and of course the prescient visions of Ghulam Abbas.
The art of storytelling and creating ‘real’ characters was a huge shift from the idyllic, escapist and courtly expression of the 18th and 19th centuries. These new storytellers were children of Syed Ahmad Khan, Hali, Shibli and the modernists who modernized the Urdu idiom and brought it closer to the people and their evolving everyday dialect, now interpreted as Hindustani. The 20th century was also a time of ideological upheavals and movements inspired by the October 1917 revolution, leading to the creation of the first Communist state. Therefore, the realism of later writers like Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi was inspired by the literary debates on what literature ought to be doing and saying. This genre of short story gradually gave way to post-Partition traumas and the emergence of other styles that relied on symbolism and allegory, especially when Pakistan was pushed into martial rule in the 1950s.
Restrictions on freedom of expression for decades implied that ‘Urdu literature’ – now a ‘Pakistani’ project – had to rely on indirect modes of writing. The cynicism and nihilism which resulted from the ‘night-bitten dawn’ (yeh daagh daagh ujala, yeh shab gozeeda sahr, as Faiz put it) traumatized the Pakistani writer who did not want to undo his or her national identity and yet was not free to say all that an independent muse would have liked to say. Thus, over time, we lost the magic of realistic and direct storytelling.
The reader will find beggars, prostitutes, clerks and other subaltern characters alongside the usual middle class characters, burdened by their morality and suffocated by their own selves
Nearly a decade ago, when Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi’s giant literary magazine ‘Funoon’ was still being published, I chanced to read a short story by Irfan Javed which was devoid of technical frills and did not indulge in the pretentious, existentialist rants now common with young writers. Since the 1990s, Irfan has made a mark on the short story landscape by writing prolifically in Funoon and several other literary journals. Irfan is also steeped in the classic humility his mentor Qasimi Sahib exhibited throughout his life; and in his death too.
Perhaps this is why it took him a decade to compile some of his short stories and allow Lahore’s Sang-i-Meel publications to bring out this volume entitled Coffee House. The title of the book itself evokes the long-lost literary culture of Pakistan and perhaps India, when writers would congregate and share their literary musings with each other as well as with a huge body of young writers, readers and critics. This collection showcases twenty-one intriguing short stories, noteworthy for the diversity and complexity of their otherwise everyday characters. The reader will find beggars, prostitutes, clerks and other subaltern characters alongside the usual middle class characters, burdened by their morality and suffocated by their own selves.
The amazing thread which runs through these stories is how the writer keeps a neutral tone while describing the most complex and sometimes gruesome incidents. For instance, an important story, ‘Chacha Izzat’, takes up the intricate issue of ethnic hatred within Pakistan. The subjects of ethnic identity and extremism are handled deftly: no judgments are passed but the everyday human pleasure of enjoying sport becomes the vehicle for articulating the simple message that despite all divisions, humans cannot lose the fundamental connections emanating from their common condition. Another story that celebrates humanism in a Manto-esque fashion is ‘Kamni’, which narrates the travails of a Hindu girl being traumatized by a Muslim man in the context of Partition. Irfan Javed does not refrain from handling taboo subjects such as abortion (in the short story entitled ‘Shikast’); and the maladroit sexual contact between a prostitute and a novice client (‘Jo Jaage’).
Irfan has many literary milestones to achieve: he is among the younger generation of fiction writers and his style and art are still evolving
My favorite short story happens to be ‘Intizaar’, which forays into the contemporary situation of Pakistan’s largest metropolis i.e. Karachi, and the massacres that takes place in the city and about which very few have dared to write. These two chilling lines say it all: “The van trampled over the box and sped past. At the same time, Kashaan woke up and started to cry.” The story is taut and quite simply comments on the larger existential issues of the people who comprise Karachi.
The first story, ‘Samjhauta’, deals with a couple who undergo severe inner turmoil due to a crime inadvertently committed by the lead character. The story delves tenderly into the psyche of characters, the commonplace fears and ends up making some unique commentaries on how we view crime and punishment in our daily lives.
Irfan Javed was educated at the Lahore Government College University and happens to be a public servant by profession, and appears to be completely uninfluenced by the mundaneness of his bureaucratic career. His prose is simple, another hallmark of early short story writers, and the stories are tightly knit and constructed. The collection has some less worthy stories too. For instance, ‘Apna Ghar’ and ‘Afsar-e-Aala’ deal with themes which have been done to death in contemporary Urdu fiction. Similarly, the story ‘Shart’ is also quite predictable. It is commendable nevertheless that the author selected the full range of his creative output and which lends honesty to the collection.
The amazing thread which runs through these stories is how the writer keeps a neutral tone while describing the most complex and sometimes gruesome incidents
In terms of dealing with the subject matter and the stylistic elegance, Irfan seems to have learnt a lot from Ghulam Abbas and Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi. In fact, the self-effacing tone of the narrator confirms that it is possible to get published in Urdu without the bravado and self-aggrandizement common to the Urdu writing in the newspapers. This is why Urdu columnists need to uphold the great traditions of our literary reservoir and not create an ideological narrative which negates the essence of Urdu writing i.e. its elegance.
It was therefore intriguing to note that Pakistan’s famous Urdu columnist and anchorperson Javed Chaudhry has written a longish blurb on the back cover of the book. Whilst Mr. Chaudhry’s fertile imagination is well-known like his penchant for historical references, the last paragraph of his eulogy is noteworthy: “After such long association, I’m asked how is Irfan, how does he write, how long will his art survive, what else can I do but to laugh at these questions? For I am like the algae on a centuries old well and I am a tress of an old Banyan tree which indicate the age of the tree – for me, Irfan is simply ‘Irfan’ and nothing else needs to be said”. Interestingly, Javed Chaudhry claims that he perhaps met Irfan in Noah’s Ark and hence they share a special bond.
Restrictions on freedom of expression for decades implied that ‘Urdu literature’ – now a ‘Pakistani’ project – had to rely on indirect modes of writing
Irfan has many literary milestones to achieve: he is among the younger generation of fiction writers and his style and art are still evolving. It would be good to see him write a novel one day, for Urdu fiction remains bereft of this literary form, and less and less novels are being written in Urdu and regional languages. The challenge of transmitting contemporary Urdu fiction to the new emerging readership of Pakistani literature in English, both at home and abroad, is nothing short of a mega crisis. There are very few competent translators and the divide between the two worlds is getting wider. It is hoped that better translations and proactive efforts by the publishing industry may improve this situation. But then there is so much in Pakistan that needs to be corrected and perhaps literary works are somewhere down the priority list.
Coffee House is eminently readable. It represents the continuity of our formidable tradition of storytelling and literary realism. In any case, Irfan happens to be a member of an intermediate generation: straddling between the giants of Urdu literature and a burgeoning youth that has little clue about Pakistan’s cultural past, except knowing that Muhammad Bin Qasim created Pakistan and a sportsman-turned-politician is the best thing to have happened to Pakistan. Literature is threatened by ‘ideology’, technology and the self-hate we inadvertently manifest by shunning Urdu and our rich regional languages.
Raza Rumi is a writer and policy expert based in Lahore. He blogs at http://razarumi.com. Follow him on twitter: @razarumi