On the translucent nature of translations, ‘When you turn a carpet over, the similar pattern that you see at the back, is like a translation of a text. It is not a replica, but you get a sense of what’s there.’ Remarked, author, translator, literary historian, Rakhshanda Jalil in her session, ‘To Abba With Love’discussing the latest out of her prolific literary quiver- Kaifiyat, at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Preeto & Other Stories -Image Courtesy

Having just read her previous Preeto and Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu- an anthology of 13 short stories, translated from Urdu by different hands, edited by Jalil, I wondered no warp and weft could possibly have been lost in translation- having moved the reader so immensely!

I caught up with Jalil on the side lines of the author’s sessions at JLF, that ranged from Indian writings on the First World War to Hindi Bhasha ka badalte Parivesh to Kaifi’s poetry- all in a day’s work!

Literature, language and Propaganda

Language as any other aspect of living, is ever changing- now that it has metamorphosed and shrunk into an emoji- is it a worrying trends for a linguist and a writer? Jalil’s insightful comment on the ‘dumbing down ‘of the language where it seemed to be losing out in the wake of the onslaught of ‘presuming a lowest common denominator of language user, who we presuppose doesn’t understand flavoursome and idiomatic language’, need attribution, to this thought.

‘Our previous generations may not have been the most educated, but their everyday lexicon had a pungency that can be attributed to their rich vocabulary. ‘accha’ ke liye they had 20 words!’ says Jalil. An important point, where flattening of communication is largely pinned on technology and the lack of time.

Literature that reflects the society and comments subtly on its mores can blur the boundaries of art and life, agenda and purpose?   ‘All socially engaged literature is not propaganda. One must make the fine distinction between a cause and propaganda. I feel we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater in adopting this reductionist approach’.

That way, if causes were not relished as subjects of literature, ‘Nirmala’ by Premchand and other writers of the time, or all the Russian literature would be painted with the single stroke of propaganda literature. Not to say that there wasn’t that too. One of the charges levelled against Progressive Writers’ Movement was the fact that they would write about a current occurrence that would further their agenda. The trouble arises when in literature, propaganda outweighs the literary content.’

Debunking Stereotypes

On depicting and associating symbols of language and culture as external tools of blatant stereotyping, Jalil pointedly remarks, ‘One shouldn’t mind when the language attributed to a character is borne out of the context of that person. Whatever be the frame of reference- the character will bring bits and pieces of her context. However, to perpetuate those stereotypes would be erroneous. Over the years of we have straightjacketed characters of Musilms slotted either into a qawwal or a Qasai.  Why can’t he be a banker, a teller, school teacher? I would reiterate that there’s a need to make the narrative more textured- without falling prey to tropes.’

On feminism and its writers Jalil points at the changing notions of feminism and literary canons. ‘I do have occasional problems with so called feminist writers like Ismat Chugtai. As I feel that notions of feminism and women empowerment change year after year. What was considered radical and progressive earlier, may not be so now.’

With aural, oral and written form of the short story genre, though over a hundred years old is basking under a public resurrection. Is then the space of novels, novellas and other genre threatened into obliteration? ‘Now that you ask me, I have always been worried about no epic or an award worthy novel coming out in Urdu writing, now. We have adopted a short cut- though, nothing wrong with the short story- however, we should not restrict ourselves to a spectacular genre and that obliterate the rest. I don’t see any major novelist emerging and that’s worrisome.’

Preeto and more

The menagerie of women characters in the book, range from calm, resolute ladies, to the guilt ridden sinners, those shedding silent tears, to the fierce avenger –Preeto; to a mother’s concern of a welcome burden and to a reluctant lover, to name a few. What was heartening was that the male writers chose to paint the men in grey- skirting the perpetuation of stereotypes.  These perspectives viewed from that of – ‘the male gaze’ – Mulvey’s famous concept of ‘looked-at-ness’

Two aspects for the stories to make the cut were key. One with the exception of two writers, the rest were the newer crop of modern writers and the fact ‘how a male looks at a woman’. The book follows the 13 short stories Neither Night Nor Day– 13 Stories by Women Writers from Pakistan. (Haper Collins 2007), the difference being, in the current anthology it is the men seeing ‘women as inhabitants of the same world as theirs.’

The stories lets their protagonists’ quiet strengths and powerful weaknesses float on the surface, not as a residue but as a continuing thread, through the narrative.. The gaze has been charted across class and contexts- challenges established patriarchical iconoclastic images of maternity, matrimony and sexuality.

An Eclectic Emotional Voyage

 A riveting read from the prolific, translator’s quill- a quiver of bitter sweet anthology of short stories, that explores the male gaze in Urdu writings! No cherry picking however some of the stories that stood out for me, for their sheer nuanced heart wrenching brilliance were- ‘Asexual’, ‘Driftwood’, ‘A bit Odd’ and the Titular ‘Preeto’. Asexual, where Tasneem proclaims ‘I am a dry river’- but does that steer her clear of the male gaze, Driftwood- the literal and metaphorical translation of this getting reflected on to Suman’s life, A Bit Odd… where particularly engaging were the staccato, curt sentences in there that heightened the irony!
The stories have really ‘plumbed’ the heart of a woman. A  moving selection, that doesn’t demonise men- shows both the genders as product of their context- and most importantly as humans, in their fallibility.

The idea of subtly powerful feminism, of a woman gazing back at the man, is one that is conveyed by Preeto and other central characters of the stories- one must though ask, why the recurring ‘13’? Next time, perhaps!

Preeto and Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu; ed Rakhshanda Jalil, Niyogi Books, 450

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13 thoughts on “Of Stories, Language and Literature”

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