A searing collective

Firebrands Rashid Jahan (Top) and Sajjad Zaheer, part of the Angaaray collective
Firebrands Rashid Jahan (Top) and Sajjad Zaheer, part of the Angaaray collective

At a time when the country has been in the throes of a major debate on religious polarisation, this incredible collection of short stories by a distinguished set of writers is a significant event in itself. The sheer depth of this anthology and its searing search for the real face of north Indian Muslims explains why the colonial masters took the unprecedented step of banning Angaaray when it appeared in 1932.

Its young writers, Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmud-uz-Zafar, not only revolutionised Urdu literature, but provided the foundation for an amazing band of dedicated men and women to involve themselves to the progressive cause. The book was burned in protest and then banned by the British authorities. As the introduction says, all but five copies were destroyed by the police, two of which were sent to London, where they were held in the British Library’s Oriental and India Office Collections. This translation was made possible by the efforts of two scholars who tracked down those remaining copies and published them more than 50 years later.

Translated into English for the first time by Texas-based English professor Snehal Shingavi, Angaaray retains the crackling energy and fiery polemic of the original stories. It is a decisive onslaught on conservatism in which he attempts to preserve the distinct style of each writer: the critical realism and dry humour of Sajjad Zaheer’s observations, the poignant drama of Ahmed Ali’s intensely symbolic prose, the boisterousness and bohemian ways of Rashid Jahan’s women and the ethical ambivalence of Mahmuduz-Zafar’s characters.

The members of the Angaaray collective were probably unprepared for the response their effort evoked. It was castigated as filthy, piety-destroying, bold and shameless display of every kind of foul language. The sheer content of the effort outraged the conservative community leaders. Excoriating editorials in the language press howled in protest and the assembly of the United Provinces debated ways to proscribe the book. Certain outraged Maulvis collected funds to prosecute the authors, but did not ultimately do so as the British succumbed to their tirade and decided to ban the book. Fatwas were issued and some people even went to the extent of demanding execution of the authors. Rashid Jahan risked acid attacks if she were to be ever seen in public.

For Sajjad Zaheer, the moving spirit behind the collective, it seemed to be the limits placed on sex and desire and the hypocrisies that underlined sexual and social conventions. The twin forces of colonialism and orthodoxy had made it impossible to love anything other than the basest of ways, with every relationship reduced to a venal and exploitative relationship between the propertied and those without it and between the powerful and the vulnerable.

Zaheer’s stories in the volume discuss both sexual desire and sexual repression quite frankly to highlight the ways that religious and social restrictions damage the human psyche, and also to show how rarely the rule-makers followed their own rules. The biting sarcasm that he reserves for the ruling class and the conservatives is breathtaking. Zaheer made a radical departure from his own highly pedigreed conservative background to examine the sheer hypocrisy of the community’s elite. The incredible subterfuge of the elite to zealously guard their world from being explored fired the revolutionary in him to systematically rip apart the humbug and the clever deceit that accompanied such attempts.

That competition over sex is also a class competition in which the rich frequent kothas, while those below them try to steal their moments of fun, forever trying to maintain that thin line that demarcates them in the social strata. The story “Dulari” explores the issue of female desire, as something that deserves expression, but is foreclosed by insuperable barriers that beset the upper classes.

The social critiques are often accompanied by allusions that throw unsavoury light on the theocratic order. Did Mohammad make the transition from Mecca to Medina to escape his nagging wives is one of the questions asked. Zaheer has also portrayed him in a light, which makes him appear highly susceptible to female charms. The most controversial of the whole lot is clearly “A Vision of Heaven”, where erotic fantasies of a pious religious scholar are described.

As pointed out in Rashid Jahan’s two contributions that have been included in the collection In the Women’s Quarters (Parde ki Peechhe) and Seeing the Sights in Delhi (Dilli ki Sair) — are primarily concerned with problems that women faced, especially how modern conveniences and medicine make women’s lives worse rather than comfortable. She draws on her own experiences as a gynaecologist to give an account of the social, sexual and medical problems faced by the women she treated. Her world, like Zaheer, is peopled by characters who lead dual lives, with their real selves always coming into sharp contradiction with the elaborate facade around it. Clearly, Jahan was a devastatingly equipped critic of the world she observed, and it is interesting that some attempts have been made by contemporary writers to rediscover her.

In a gesture scandalously radical for the times, Jahan invited the promiscuous gaze of the streets into the intimate world of the women portrayed. In her stories, as Shingavi points out, the women experience sexism and disempowerment through the motifs of fire (aag) and burning (jalan).

ANGAARAY Translated by Snehal Shingavi Penguin Books 167 pp; Rs 499
Translated by Snehal Shingavi
Penguin Books
167 pp; Rs 499

Mahmud-ul-Zafar in “Virility” portrays a woman who reaches out to her husband desperately, but is unable to do so because of social pressures. His contempt for the so-called ‘liberal-minded’ Muslims is clear in the story, where modern ideas do not enable new circuits of sympathy, but rather collapse back into routinised patterns of spousal abuse and neglect.

Ahmed Ali’s stories in the collection turn primarily to the condition of women: poverty, domestic abuse, sexual desire and longing experienced by widows. One of the victims of domestic abuse blames it on religion, or the way it is interpreted. Ali wrote with sensibilities that were clearly too modern for the wider world. Both he and Zaheer were radically altering the fundamentals of a literature, which till then was dominated by classicist Urdu poetry. The authors featured in this collective reserved their energies on locating the world of the urban middle class, in a way unattempted before. Their attempts signify the desire to get into the minds of characters that were repressed by the rules that governed existence.

People may say that the anthology marks not a particularly nuanced literary effort and that the writers often appear to have preferred function over form. But most young writing often suffers from overexuberance of this kind. The significance of the effort lies in its sheer gumption. The anthology may raise a few eyebrows even in this day and age, but one hopes for sanity’s sake that the essential message that it conveys is not lost.

There are distinct traces of the influence of writers like James Joyce and DH Lawrence exercised on Zaheer. The candour with which the sheer hollowness of the feudal mindset has been approached, however, imparts a distinctly Indian dimension to the effort. In “Can’t Sleep”, Zaheer evokes images of the inner turmoil in the mindsets of characters hopelessly caught in a time warp. There are some brilliant touches in him, which were to find considerable refinement as he graduated into the progressive mainstream. Never didactic or melodramatic, he stands out in a collective of excellent young minds.

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