“THE FUTURE OF THE SHORT STORY is dark because trees keep diminishing in the world and men grow more numerous. In a world of nothing but men, journalism can grow, but the poem and the story cannot,” wrote Intizar Husain, in his essay, ‘Vikram, Vampire and the Story’ in 1974. While, in his inaugural speech at the recently held Karachi Literature Festival, he spoke most eloquently about how stories would survive through troubled times, giving people solace and succour. Referring to the frame story of Arabian Nights, he pointed out how Scheherazade’s storytelling humanised the tyrant king who till that point would marry a damsel each day and kill her before the break of dawn. “Many people are asking why a literary festival at a time when the city of Karachi is being rocked by violence? … I would like to invoke Alif Laila [Arabian Nights] and say, if anything can counter the wave of violence … it is storytelling.”
Husain, the iconic Pakistani Urdu writer of Indian origin, who was nominated earlier this year for the Man Booker International Prize, is a man very difficult to pin down. A realist, symbolist, writer of abstract stories, romantic, escapist, memorialist, mythographer—he is something of each and yet contained by none of these categories. He sounded the demise of the short story long ago but nonetheless went on to become one of its most accomplished practitioners, giving the modern South Asian short story an entirely new spin by foregrounding an Eastern tradition of storytelling, one in which, according to Husain, “things of this world are not discrete, isolated and utterly separate from each other, but are, somehow or the other, related to each other…” Segments of his large short story corpus (seven collections to date) have been available in English translation for some time, beginning with The Seventh Door and Other Stories (Lynne Rienner Publishers 1998), ably translated by Muhammad Umar Memon, following which sundry collections appeared in India and Pakistan. Frances W Pritchett’s English translation of his novel Basti was published by HarperCollins India in 1995. A new edition of the book appeared under the New York Review of Books Classics Original imprint last year.
In the development of modern fiction in Urdu, the short story has played a role usually assigned to the novel—that of narrating the nation. The absence of any significant novel in Urdu for more than half a century after the publication of the first modern novel in the language, Umrao Jan Ada (1899), propelled the short story to centre stage where it successfully engaged with issues of social reform, colonial modernity and the emerging concept of nationhood. Premchand (1880–1936) laid the foundation of the realistic story in Urdu, and was followed by writers of the calibre and fecundity of Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto, all of whom exploited the genre’s potential to the fullest. Many of them came together to form the Progressive Writers Movement of the late 1930s, which stressed the social role of literature and acted as a galvanising force for this generation of writers. That the movement grew doctrinaire over a period of time and gradually dissipated does not take away from the fact that it played a crucial role during a foundational period of modern Urdu literature, enabling it to go beyond airy fairy romance and fantasy and unlocking its transformative potential. Intizar Husain grew up in a literary climate in which the PWM was a great force, but as he began to write he found himself totally out of sync with this socially conscious strand of Urdu writing.