In a world where more women are joining the work force, where ever more are stepping out from their secluded and cloistered world and can be physically seen in larger numbers, this collection seeks to explore how male writers in Urdu view and consequently present or represent the women of their world.
In her Introduction, Rakhshanda Jalil traces the history of 'writings on women' by both male and female writers — from the doyens of Urdu literature to contemporary writers dealing with contemporary issues, setting the mood for the stories in this collection and giving the reader a sampler of what to expect in the ensuing pages.
The collection includes themes which are timeless as well as topics that are an outcome of the times we live in. Starting with two of the four pillars of the Urdu short story - Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chandar - who can be credited with introducing a realistic portrayal of women in Urdu fiction, the stories in this volume offer multiple ways of 'seeing' women.
Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian. She has published over 15 books and written over 50 academic papers and essays. Her book on the lesser-known monuments of Delhi, Invisible City, continues to be a bestseller. Her recent works include: Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers Movement in Urdu (OUP, 2014); a biography of Urdu feminist writer Dr Rashid Jahan A Rebel and her Cause (Women Unlimited, 2014); a translation of The Sea Lies Ahead, Intizar Husain's seminal novel on Karachi (Harper Collins, 2015); Pigeons of the Domes: Stories on Communalism (Niyogi Books, 2015) and Krishan Chandar's partition novel Ghaddar (Westland, 2017); and most recently an edited volume of critical writings on Ismat called An Uncivil Woman (Oxford University Press, 2017). She runs an organisation called Hindustani Awaaz, devoted to the popularisation of Hindi-Urdu literature and culture.
The woman has been both subject and predicate in a great deal of writing by male writers. In poetry she has, of course, been the subject of vast amounts of romantic, even sensuous imagery. Be it muse or mother, vamp or victim, fulsome or flawed, there has been a tendency among male writers to view a woman through a binary of 'this' or 'that' and to present women as black and white characters, often either impossibly white or improbably black. Since men are not expected to be one or the other but generally taken to be a combination of contraries, such a monochromatic view inevitably results in women being reduced to objects, of being taken to be 'things' rather than 'people'. That this objectification of women, and the consequent dehumanisation, effectively 'others' half the human population seems to escape many writers, even those ostensibly desirous of breaking stereotypes or those who see themselves as liberal, even emancipated men. Films, television and media have traditionally aided and abetted the idea that women are objects to be pursued and eventually won over like trophies or prizes. Literature has fed into the trope that women are bona fide objects of sexual fantasy, or blank canvases on which men can paint their ideals, or even empty vessels into which they can pour their pent-up feelings and emotions.
Feminist theoreticians would have us believe that there is, and has always been, a traditional heterosexual way of men looking at women, a way that presents women as essentially sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. The feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, in her seminal essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (1975), termed this way of seeing as the 'male gaze'. Mulvey's theory was based on the premise that 'an asymmetry of power between the genders is a controlling force in cinema; and that the male gaze is constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer which is deeply rooted in the ideologies and discourses of patriarchy'. Within a short span of time, the expression slipped into accepted usage and moved seamlessly across medium: from film to literature to popular culture. Today, we use the term loosely to describe ways of men seeing women and consequently presenting or representing them.
In the context of Urdu, I have always been intrigued by how men view women and, by extension, write about them. For that matter, I am equally intrigued by how women view women and the world around them. In fact, as a precursor to this present volume, I had edited a selection of writings in Urdu by women called Neither Night Nor Day (Harper Collins, 2007). I had set myself a deliberately narrow framework by looking at women writers from Pakistan as I was curious to discover how women, in an essentially patriarchal society, view the place of women in the world. I chose 13 contemporary women writers and tried to examine the image and representation of women by women.
Now, ten years later, I have attempted to do the same with male writers, except that this time I have chosen Indian writers. While I have begun with two senior writers, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chandar, I have chosen not to go back to the early male writers such as Sajjad Hyder Yildrum, Qazi Abdul Ghaffar or even Premchand, for that matter, who wrote extensively on women. For the purpose of this study, I wanted to make a selection from modern writers. In a world where more women are joining the work force, where ever more are stepping out from their secluded and cloistered world and can be physically seen in larger numbers, I was curious to see how, then, do male writers view and consequently present or represent the women of their world.
But before we come to my selection from the present times, it might be useful to understand the literary world contemporary Urdu writers have inherited and how women have been represented in Urdu fiction in the hands of the masters.
The Woman in Urdu Short Fiction
The four pillars of the Urdu short story — Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chandar —are not merely the finest exponents of the genre but can also be credited with introducing a realistic portrayal of women in Urdu fiction. Their women are a far cry from the cosmetic, unnatural, almost fictionalised depictions of women that Urdu readers had hitherto encountered.
Saadat Hasan Manto was among the earliest Urdu writers to have written about women with any degree of naturalness. He wrote about women in a way that no other writer from the Indian sub-continent had or has, till today. Sadah he Kinare (`By the Roadside') was a beautiful elegy to a mother forced to abandon her baby. Here Manto, quite literally, got under the skin of a woman, and described the very physical changes that take place in a woman's body as it prepared to nurture life deep inside it — and the equally 'real' physical trauma when the baby was snatched from her and tossed on a rubbish heap by the roadside, possibly because it was illegitimate and therefore not likely to be accepted by respectable society. And again in Shahdole ha Chooha (The Rat of Shahdole') Manto talked of a mother's despair in giving up her son as mannat at a saint's shrine where a perfectly healthy baby was 'miraculously' disfigured and mutilated into a rat-boy before being sold to an itinerant tamashawala. A scathing attack on the shrines that thrive on poor, desperate and superstitious people, the story derived its punch from a mother's steadfast desire to keep her son's memory alive inside her heart.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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