Khalida Asghar’s “The Wagon” and Fiction in Urdu

Today we are pleased to bring you Khalida Asghar’s “The Wagon,” originally published in Urdu in 1963 and translated into English by Muhammad Umar Memon. Although the story has appeared in printed textbooks and anthologies before, it has not previously appeared online. The tale can entertain several interpretations, from the uncanny to the more science-fictional or even the mundane.

As noted in the Annual of Urdu Studies, v. 4, 1984 (p. 112.), edited by Memon, “[The author] thinks that the so-called modern modes of literary expression, like surrealism, symbolism and the absurd, and ideas like existential freedom, have always been present in a very positive manner in our mystical literature. Therefore, as she says, the debate on whether these literary styles have been borrowed from the West or are basically indigenous is mostly irrelevant. The point, as she puts it, is to make use of these modes of expression in a creative way, to assimilate them, and not to take them up merely as a fashion or, worse still, as a matter of plain opportunism.” Asghar’s “short stories can be read as serialized crises of identity, as attempts to come to terms with one’s subconscious compulsions. It is more like trying to acknowledge and relate them to one’s outward, day-to-day existence.”

According to further information in the Annual, Asghar, born in 1938, disappeared from the literary scene for many years after getting married, re-emerging much later writing under her married name, Khalida Husain. Her work has appeared in many anthologies of Urdu and Eastern literature from Oxford University Press, Penguin, and others. I, for one, will be seeking out more of her work.

As for the translator, Muhammad Umar Memon has long been active in writing and translating fiction from Urdu. He also had a distinguished career as a scholar at the University of Wisconsin. You can find out more about him from this fascinating interview at The Short Form. Also, this in-depth review provides more context about Urdu literature, in the context of an anthology edited by Memon.

Many thanks to Anil Menon for bringing this story to our attention and to Memon for allowing us to reprint it.

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UsmanstandardpicFor further context on fiction in Urdu, I interviewed Usman T. Malik, a Pakistani writer of weird fiction who lives Florida. His novella The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn is forthcoming at Tor.com in April of this year and he is currently a finalist for the Nebula Award.

Weird Fiction Review: Urdu exists primarily in Pakistan and parts of India. Are there regional differences?

Usman T. Malik: Yes. Several regional dialects exist because of seepage of vocabulary from local languages such as Punjabi, Bengali, Sindhi, Seraiki, Balochi et cetera. Spoken Urdu in India is called Hindi and has more Sanskrit words than Urdu spoken in Pakistan. Hindi is written in a different script, however, than Urdu, which is written in a Persio-Arabic style called Nastaliq.

WFR: Are there specific (Pakistani) literary traditions in terms of Urdu?

UTM: Historically, Urdu literature was dominated by poetry, whose early proponent was the great writer and musical genius Amir Khusro. Khusro was a mystic polymath credited with having systematized northern Indian classical music. He is also said to have invented the sitar and tabla, while at the same time produced massive amount of Urdu poetry. His influence was on both the language and its literature, and his couplets have influenced later Urdu writers tremendously.

Early prose in Urdu was mostly epics (daastan) and literary memoirs (tazkara). Short story (afsaana) and the novel came later. Mirat-al-aroos, The Bride’s Mirror (1868) by Deputy Nazeer Ahmad is usually considered the first Urdu novel.

WFR: What would you imagine are the main difficulties or issues in translating Urdu to English?

UTM: It depends on the age of the manuscript, I’d say. The farther back in time we go, the more ornate and contextual the writing becomes. For example, certain maxims that were commonplace in the seventeenth and eighteenth century don’t make much sense now. With time and misspeaking, they’ve changed–much like in English where a misspoken word used at large slowly becomes part of the linguistic canon.

Realistically and generally speaking, the two big hindrances might be deficiency of skilled translators proficient in both English and Urdu, and money. In Pakistan at least we’ve been watching a class divide wherein because of lack of standardization of education in the country, rich and upper middle class kids go to English medium schools while poor kids go to Urdu medium schools. This is problematic on several levels but in terms of literary loss, we’re losing the urbane literary ‘moderate’ who feels at home in both literatures and cultures.

WFR: Have you encountered fantastical or SF-nal works originally written in Urdu? Anything in particular you might recommend?

UTM: Urdu has a long history of fantastical literature. Two of the great epics are Daastan-e-Amir Hamza (translated into English as ‘The Adventures of Amir Hamza’ by Musharraf Ali Farooqi) and Talism Hoshruba (which Musharraf is in the process of translating). An incredible dark fiction/horror novel is Kaala Jadoo, Black Magic, by M.A. Rahat.

WFR: Do you have a favorite work in Urdu?

UTM: Several. Instead of one work, I’ll give you two poets and two short story writers: Mirza Ghalib and Allama Muhammad Iqbal (poets). Munshi Premchand and Saadat Hassan Manto (short story writers).