“The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told” Is a Belated Introduction to a Thrilling Canon

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Toward the end of the late Indian writer Ismat Chughtai’s short story “Mutti Maalish,” Ratti Bai, a hospital maid, describes to an upper-class patient two methods of abortion used by poor women in India. One entails standing on the woman’s belly and massaging it with your feet; the other, more brutal method involves yanking the fetus out with your hand. So obscene is Ratti Bai’s telling that the patient throws up. After listening to an Urdu recording of the story, I nearly did, too. It’s the type of description that a native speaker, like myself, couldn’t imagine being effective in another language.

As it turns out, in the hands of the right translator, it can be. “Mutti Maalish” was published in 1967, but it’s included, in an English translation by Muhammad Umar Memon, in the 2017 book “signals a promising resurgence of Urdu literature. In 1997, Salman Rushdie noted that English translations of Urdu and Hindi fiction were hard to come by. This has been slow to change in India, and slower in Pakistan, even with classic writers like Manto, Qurratulain Hyder, and Intizar Husain. Work by writers who are less widely known, such as Jamila Hashmi, Sajid Rashid, Zakia Mashhadi, and Tassaduq Sohail, are harder yet to find—but this is what makes Memon’s anthology special. By translating a diverse range of writers, he has introduced a new generation of South Asians—including the many Urdu speakers, like me, who can’t read the language—to the canon. Read together, these stories are a powerful retrospective of Urdu literature, starting from the founding of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in India, in 1936, to the partition, in 1947, and onwards. The only downside is that it’s likely to leave you thirsty for more, scouring the Internet for translations or hoping that someone, somewhere, is busy working on a book just like this one.