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Aziz Ahmad


Published Date: Oct 9, 2016

History through fiction

Fabulator and academician Aziz Ahmad had a strange writer’s life, as if two writers were stapled together. His first career consisted of a string of short stories, novels and long tales in Urdu, many set in the state of Hyderabad from where he originally hailed, while his second career resulted in a series of scholarly books on Indo-Islamic history and religion written in English while he was teaching at a Canadian university. It would seem that there was a split between the two aspects of his talent which otherwise bore no connection with each other, but a strong sense of history pervades all that he wrote, whether fiction or academic work, and even in his earlier phase when he focused primarily on fiction, he wrote critical articles which displayed his scholarship.

Equipped with such a remarkable range of interests, it is no surprise that Ahmad was one of the most innovative fiction writers of his time. He established himself as a writer who painted a rather unflattering picture of the feudalistic society in Hyderabad state, bringing out the cruel and corrupt elements in the lives of the privileged individuals, deliberately producing a very different impression from the romantic stories which many fiction writers of that period churned out about their milieu. His earlier novels were praised by Maulvi Abdul Haq, while his most ambitious book, Aisi Bulandi Aisi Pasti, moved a critic no less than Muhammad Hasan Askari to devote an entire essay to it. While his novels have fallen to undeserved neglect, he is remembered today for his short stories and tales which he set in periods of the past and wove around historical characters. The most memorable ones, Khudang i Jasta and Jab Ankhain Aahan Posh Hooiyen, which bring about images of warriors of ancient times and battles long ago, are included in this volume under review, Paanch Navilet.

A collection of stories by Aziz Ahmad, accompanied by perceptive critiques of the man and his work

In keeping with the present day conventions, the editor has named the book ‘Five Novelettes’, making use of a term which has become widely used in Urdu circles as a borrowing from English. Interestingly, it is not much in vogue with the English circles which tend to prefer the novella, straight from the French and a form on which the craft-conscious Henry James literally doted and regarded as “blessed”. Urdu critics like to differentiate between the long story or tale and the novelette, but the point is that for most readers such distinctions tend to be pedantic and the real point is the content, no matter which genre you ascribe it to. These five longish pieces may not have been feasible as separate books by themselves, but make up a sizeable volume here to engage the reader.

This book consists of two parts in which the text of the five novelettes follows introductory and critical essays. Out of the various essays gathered here, the most perceptive are the three pieces of varying length written by Naiyer Masud, himself a distinguished and sophisticated fiction writer. What makes his critical assessment particularly relevant is that he has authored Taoos Chaman Ki Mynah, perhaps one of the finest examples of history-based short stories in Urdu. Masud has presented a detailed analysis of the historical tales included here and raised fundamental questions. He points out that Ahmad was familiar with the bestselling historical novels of Harold Lamb and had himself translated some of his works. He makes the case that the similarities are too obvious to be ignored and that Ahmad has most certainly benefitted from the work of Lamb, to the extent of borrowing certain descriptions. The other articles included here add to the details and are valuable as such. The editor, Humaira Ashfaq, has written a detailed introduction in which she touches upon the historical and social perspective of these tales. However, it may have been better if more details about the writer’s life had been included, as some of the facts appear misleading. The editor informs readers that the two historical tales were published in 1985, seven years after the author’s death. This is true for publication as a book, but she does not mention that both the tales had previously appeared in literary journals and had attracted immediate action.

The best assessment of Ahmad’s career as a whole was written by Qurratulain Hyder and I wish that it had been included here as it would have helped to place these works in the larger context. Similarly, there is a fine essay written by Intizar Hussain in the early part of his literary career which includes comments on Ahmad’s fiction. It would have added to the value if these essays could have been included in this collection.

While his novels have fallen to undeserved neglect, he is remembered today for his short stories and tales which he set in periods of the past and wove around historical characters.

It is the five novelettes which make the best and most worthwhile part of the volume and reading them again after many years, they still retain their charm. The two best known of this set are undoubtedly Khudang i Jasta andJab Ankhain Aahan Posh Hooiyen, both of which feature Amir Taimur, or the celebrated Tamerlane for Western readers. He seems to step out of the pages of history before the reader’s eyes and become a character, acquiring a human dimension as he reveals his vulnerability under the guise of cruelty. Touching and poignant, the stories seem to have an existentialist depth as the reader can visualise the protagonist as he crushes down with what Sartre called “iron in the soul” and what Ahmad terms as iron covering the eyes.

Historical times give way to love and lust in contemporary settings in the remaining tales. Rapidly modernising Turkey forms the backdrop ofMusallas. The main character is an army officer who eyes women with a view to possession and the triangle in the title refers to three women belonging to three different countries and the three different psychological states he encounters. At the end he seems to be on the verge of a choice, but then does he really have a choice?

A physician originally from Lahore but settled in London is the focal point in the next novella, and the many characters, including Pakistani and Bangladeshi, suffer from physical ailments reflecting their plight as refugees, exiles and unsettled persons. The most problematic is the last novelette, which is rather sketchy. As the editor points out, Ahmad vehemently denied having written it and there is no clue as to who actually wrote it. It is the historical tales and then to some extent, the tales of encounters between the east and west that are the best works of this author and make this volume worth reaching out for. Historical conflicts and contemporary crises fuse together to take the reader to a world of desires and dreams in a way no other author can.

The reviewer is a writer and translator. He teaches liberal arts and Urdu and is the editor of the literary journal Duniyazaad.