Little jugs and Urdu tales

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Aamer Hussein

At a London gathering a few nights ago, I heard a fellow-Karachiite complain: “There are so many books for children in English, but when I tried to find similar stories in Urdu for my daughter, there was nothing.” I wrote to a friend of mine who grew up reading Urdu books in the 90s, and there seemed to have been plenty of stories around for him: condensed versions of retellings of dastaans like Amir Hamza, Hoshruba and Hatim Tai, and adaptations of Western stories to a Pakistani setting. Many of my friends read the stories of Shafiqurrahman, Hijab Imtiaz Ali, and Ibne Safi in their teens: not exactly written for children, but didn’t all of us start raiding the adults’ shelves when we reached our teens? What sort of books do we really want to read when we are young?

I remember, as a child in Karachi, seeing lurid paperbacks in bookstalls with Urdu writing on the cover and bright pictures of daunting fortresses, surging dark sea-waves and men holding bleeding devils’ severed heads in one hand and the hands of cowering long-haired maidens in the other, with titles such as Khaufnak Jazeera and Safaid Khoon, but if I ever did open them the paper was bad; with my limited Urdu-reading skills I couldn’t decipher the cramped, blurred writing. And if I’d ever asked someone to read them I’d have either been sent away with a classic of Western literature or heard, for the umpteenth time, the story of The Happy Prince or The Star Child. Yes, there were storytellers around who told us traditional tales in a variety of regional accents, but they couldn’t read these books either.

I did manage to get hold of an Urdu novel in my childhood and made someone read it out to me, grappling with sections of it myself when the grownups were busy. This was because my mother’s music teacher had seen me reading Ben Hur when I was 11, and decided it was time for me to be properly acquainted with my Muslim heritage. He’d brought me a copy of Qaisar o Kisra, a novel about the time of the Prophet (p.b.u.h) by Nasim Hijazi. I enjoyed it, chapter by chapter, as much as I had any Biblical or historical popular novel in English, and probably improved my tiny Urdu vocabulary along the way, but I didn’t go running to a bookshop to find another novel by the author. (Hijazi did not, as far as I know, write for children).

Speaking of Urdu fiction, I remember my mother chatting with my father one Sunday morning after coming back from a showing of a film based on Umrao Jan Ada. “She never really repented or reformed as she did in the film”, I heard her say. “She kept other girls to do the work for her”. She had Ruswa’s classic book on her bedside table. (I imagine it must have been in her list of proscribed titles for girls when she was young, and now, as a mother of four, she was filling in the gap). But any desire to have her read out the book to us would have been futile: somehow, restricted subjects were much more restricted in Urdu than in English, as if the proximity of the subject matter made them more dangerous.

But little jugs have big ears, as they say. And in a roadside bookstall in Bombay, in 1970, I fulfilled my childhood curiosity when I picked up an English translation of Umrao Jan Ada (with a gaudy pink cover) and over the next few days read it in absolute fascination. I was 15 and didn’t know then that this encounter would be the start of a long relationship with Urdu, or that I’d lose my copy at Beirut airport on the way to London, or read the original four years later when I’d settled here and was doing an ‘A’ level in Urdu. (But that’s another story).

Speaking of little jugs and mothers, though, I did recall a line from a story my mother had told us when we were little: “Ab tumhara naam Bakht e khufta nahin, Bakhtavar hai”. And one day, when I was in my late 30s, I came across a tiny book called Nurulain on a dusty shelf in the quiet basement of the SOAS library. I recognised the author’s name — A.R. Khatun. I had always thought of her as the Barbara Cartland of Pakistan — a soppy sentimentalist. (My women friends often giggled about how she used recipes and sewing patterns as padding in her novels, which they’d read in their grandmothers’ homes on dull afternoons). But this lovely title and the tiny size of the book drew me to it, and I opened it to find a beautiful preface, addressed to children, about how, as a child, the author had heard such stories from the old women in her family home. As I read on I came across the name Bakhtavar and I knew where I was. I was back in the story of a princess who is married off to a black dog to avert a calamity, burns his pelt on her jealous sisters’ advice, and goes off in search of her husband when he’s spirited away from her by his family of jinns. I rushed home and rang my older sister Shahrukh, who was working on a collection of retold stories at the time, to ask what she remembered. “Oh yes, it was a book she was reading to us from”, she said.

So why had I never taken the book from my mother to try to read it on my own? Was my Urdu so bad at the time? Anyhow, as an adult I read it in a glow of enchantment. I had half a wish to translate it, but I was working on my second book, which would take another four years. I was just about to finish it when I came across Kahaniyan, an entire collection of Khatun’s stories for children, evenly divided between stories for girls, boys, and both: or more aptly, between stories with male, female and multiple narrators. There are two princesses beside Nurulain: Simin falls asleep when her rival steals a little fish with her heart in it, till true love awakens her; Mahrukh falls in love with a horse (a prince in disguise) and goes off in search of revenge when he elopes with her treacherous maid. Then there are young men of limited means who set off in search of their fortunes and meet hideous obstacles along the way. These tales, often quite rambunctious and bawdy, aren’t censored or neutralised for children, a fact I found quite impressive as I read: Khatun simplifies her style for young readers, but makes few narrative compromises, though she constantly maintains an exciting, gripping narrative hold. I read the book throughout my winter holiday; something had changed in me as a writer by the time I finished it. I’d seen recaptured in words on the page a voice that had, until then, only echoed in my inner ear. Once again, I considered translating some of the stories, but my third book got in the way, though for that collection I wrote and included a story inspired by the life of Khatun with a framed tale inspired by her writing for children.

Years went by and then one day a new literary fashion began: the reintroduction of the traditional dastaan. Somehow I’m not a huge fan of the genre – give me shorter, sustained tales any day. However, the most impressive dastaan translation I read was by Shahnaz Aijazuddin. Imagine my pleasure when Ms Aijazuddin told me, in a letter responding to my praise for her work, that she’d translated three stories by Khatun – the stories about the princesses – and was working on a fourth. (Two years later I was able to publish her translation of Mahrukh in the Pakistan issue of Critical Muslim I was helping to edit. I hope to see them all in print soon, so that those readers who are too lazy to read in Urdu – or simply can’t – might discover their many delights).

One of my favourites from the collection remains untranslated. It’s called Andher Nagri ka Vazir. In it, a man travels to the eponymous land of darkness – I forget his mission, but it has something to do with a taunt from his shrewish wife. He comes across a lot of obstacles on the way – evil characters and tricksters and at least two wise men. The journey, not the goal, is the point of the tale.

So, I responded to my fellow-Karachiite at the party: did you ever come across the stories of A.R. Khatun, I said, and began, with the help and interruptions of another friend, to recount one with glee. “Poof, fairy tales!” Our friend responded. “They want adventures!”

“But these are adventures!” we responded in one voice. What I forgot to say, though, is that many younger readers today are obsessed with fantasy: film, television and books reflect this obsession. The line between some of Khatun’s stories – too long, too embellished with detail and characterisation to be fairy tales – and some of the fantasies we read today are so permeable as to be near-invisible. I felt the same way when I read an abridged edition of Hatim Tai two years ago: unlike the other popular dastaans, it’s unified by a single narrative perspective, and perhaps fulfils the narrative requirements of today’s young readers more completely.

So, any takers for a translation of Andher Nagri? And shall we present, among others, Khatun’s stories, Hatim Tai and perhaps the Stories of the Four Dervishes in attractive new packages for younger readers who are hungry for new stories, and turn to Hunger Games when they run out of books to read in Urdu, or need to perfect their skills in the language? Film versions too, perhaps? Let them know how much they have to gain from the experience? (I certainly wish I’d had them to read when I was younger). And – better still – can we invite a new generation of writers to write, in their own language, the stories they want to read? After all, there are as many stories as there are mouths to tell them. Even more.

Aamer Hussein, “Little jugs and Urdu tales,” in Dawn, May 31, 2015. Accessed on June 7, 2015, at:

The item above written by Aamer Hussein and published in Dawn on May 31, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on June 7, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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