Thursday, February 26, 2009

Urdu Afsana: Soorat O Ma’ana

The critical muse

Reviewed by Asif Farrukhi

The most glorious moment in the history of literary criticism as applied to the art of fiction occurred in all probability when Henry James chose to write about The Future of the Novel and linked the development of fiction as an expression of the human condition. In the essay, bearing the same name, he remarked that “Till the world is an un-peopled void there will be the image in the mirror.” In James’s memorable phrase, this mirror image provided “the great anodyne” enabling man to ponder over the larger realities of the imagined world. For James, it was fiction, particularly the novel, which could play this life-enhancing role. However, if we make any detailed effort to critically examine the contemporary trends in Urdu fiction, we would repeatedly find ourselves coming against the same dead end, and we would be left pondering that if the images in the mirror have become so distorted then surely we have seen the world turning into the un-peopled void of James’s world without the novel.

This chilling reminder of a world with a prospect of fiction becoming a limited resource has been occasioned by the publication of Hameed Shahid’s critical essays on the contemporary Urdu short story. He has dedicated this book to Hasan Askari and Shamsur Rahman Farooqi, the two major critics of fiction in Urdu. Alongside he has included the name of Mumtaz Shirin, paying tribute to the writer turned critic. This again reminds one of what Henry James would term “the critical muse.” This is the vantage point for Hameed Shahid who is a notable fiction writer himself with a number of books to his credit. The matters of fiction which he has chosen to write about are not questions of sterile academic debate for him but living issues related to the substance of his art. This sense of analysis brooding over questions of meaning and form, and the evidence of personal involvement blend well to make this one of the few important books of fiction criticism in Urdu to have emerged in recent years. While this should give you an idea of the value of the book, it will also tell you about the state of criticism in general.

Hameed Shahid has developed his arguments in a number of separate essays. However, there are two important points of departure in the case he builds. He is emphatic about the independence of the short story as a literary genre and not simply a diminutive form of the novel. He refuses to see the short story as a novel cut up in halves or chopped down to size. He gives a wider meaning to the term ‘afsana’ and, in doing so, raises questions about the meaning of the narrative. He sees a richer heritage behind this term as he links it to the various forms of narrative in use within our society rather than simply accepting it as an alien form introduced under western influence. This sense of infusing the short story with widened horizons is, to my mind, the most distinctive feature of Hameed Shahid’s work as a critic.

Although he is inclined to read the contemporary short story as a form with firm roots in the past, he has severely contested veteran critic Intizar Hussain’s sense of loss over the demise of the oral tradition. Locking horns with the senior writer, he has taken up the debate in a most interesting way. In spite of Intizar Hussain’s wishes, can the oral tradition be brought back and can it be used to malign or negate the modern short story? Hameed Shahid has raised this issue and one wishes that other critics should further develop the discussion around these themes.

Interesting and relevant in the context these themes, the critic is on less firm ground when he is writing of contemporary concerns such as terrorism and modern-day scientific breakthroughs. These essays seem sketchy and the critic has not really allowed his arguments to develop.

By far the longest piece in the book, and disproportionately large, presents a detailed array of all short-story writers in the 20th century. However, even then the writer can manage a few sentences or at the most a paragraph or two about each writer, managing to come up with general statements. What diminishes their value is that mistakes can come up, as when Abul Fazl Siddiqui is credited as being the author of ‘Sard Lahoo Ka Noha’ while even a cursory glance could have revealed that the book was actually written by his nephew, Nazrul Hassan Siddiqui, an established short-story writer himself. This is the same mistake which Mirza Hamid Baig has made in the compendium compiled by the Pakistan Academy of Letters. There is arbitrariness in the way the various writers are described. A pattern does not emerge but writers are merely piled up. This sort of attempt is best left to the modern-day tazkiras of the more academic critics.

Tucked away right at the end is an interesting piece on the author’s own creative process, which throws into sharp relief many of the arguments presented in the main body of work. But what use is criticism if it cannot be related to and measured against the creative work of the artist?

Urdu Afsana: Soorat aur Ma’ana
By Mohammad Hameed Shahid
Selected and compiled by Yaseen Afaqi
National Book Foundation, Islamabad
304pp. Rs160
Curtsy: Dawn, Books and Authors