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The 10 best Urdu novels...and a runner-up

By Rauf Parekh 2014-02-11
THE response to the piece on the best 10 Urdu autobiographies (Jan 27) has been so overwhelming that today I`m trying to present a list of the best 10 Urdu novels. Just like the previous one, this list is based on importance, relevance, readability and literary and cultural value. It is in chronological order and, with apologies, does not include the socalled `popular` fiction, written mainly for people with undergraduate mentality or the housewives who like TV soaps based on skirmishes between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Again, there can hardly be any list that everybody agreed upon. So you are at liberty to compile your own one if you disagree with this one.There were times when critics were pessimistic about Urdu novel. Many said there were not even a dozen Urdu novels that could truly be called good ones, let alone great ones. But Aziz Ahmed, a critic and novelist, disagreed and in one of his articles wrote that only those who had not studied Urdu literature and novel at length could say that. Shahzad Manzar in an article on Urdu novel said that after independence many good novels were written and, so he thought, in the 1970s many good Urdu novels were penned. This, perhaps, is a testimony to the statement that novel is the epic of industrial age and agrarian societies prefer poetry over prose. And then in the last 15 years or so, we have had a steady flow of good Urdu novels. Writer Irfan Javed says in the last decade or so wehave seen a revival of Urdu novel.

1. Fasana-i-Azad: Ignoring the early Urdu novels, such as Miraat-ul-Aroos (1869) by Moulvi Nazeer Ahmed, since they hardly qualify today as novels, we begin with a masterpiece by Pandit Ratan Naath Sarshar. The common objection to Fasana-i-Azad (1878) is that it lacks a true plot and its length has made it somewhat unwieldy. But then the same goes for many great novels of the world, be it War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov. The detailed depiction of the Lucknow culture and chaste Urdu in this work of Sarshar`s more than make up for the shortcomings. Its buffoon Khauji is one of Urdu`s earliest humorous characters.

2. Umraao Jan Ada: Written in 1899, 2. U m r a a o Jan Ada was a kind of harbinger, signalling the dawn of modern Urdu novel. Notwithstanding the divided opinion of the critics whether or not Umraao was a real person, the novel shows its author Mirza Haadi Rusva`s mastery over the craft of fiction writing. Ostensibly the biography of a prostitute, the novel showcases the Lucknow society and culture during the latter half of the 19th century.

3. Godaan: Munshi Prem Chand`s swansong Godaan (1936) is considered his best work. Portraying the miserable lives of Indian peasants, Premchand decries the exploitative system. Though Premchand began as an Urdu writer, he gradually turned to Hindi and Godaan too was initially written in Devanagari script and rendered into Urdu by Iqbal Bahadur Varma Sahar. But still it is considered an Urdu novel and one of the best, too.4. Aag Ka Darya: Often dubbed the best Urdu novel ever written, Qurratul Ain Hyder`s magnum opus Aag Ka Darya (1957) caused many controversies that have not really ended yet. Apart from the accusation of being inspired by Virginia Woolf`s biographical novel Orlando: A Biography spread over 300 years, the author was harassed for the views expressed in the novel. Though it is difficult to read the first 200 pages or so, the novel that covers some 2,500 years of the subcontinent`s history grips you once you try to grasp it.

5. Udaas Naslen: It was Abduallh Hussain`s first novel and it shot him to fame overnight. Though Qurratul Ain Hyder accused him of plagiarism, quoting paragraphs with the page numbers that have been copied down verbatim from Aag Ka Darya, Udaas Naslen remains one of the most important novels written after independence. It captures the life of a village that exists somewhere between Delhi and Punjab and whose inhabitants are Muslim, Hindu and Sikh.

6. Aangan: Written in 1962, this masterpiece by Khadija Mastoor tells the story of the Pakistan Movement in a fascinating manner. Unlike many other works of fiction, it does not read like a history. Mastoor`s style is one of the reasons cited for the work`s popularity and greatness.

7. Khuda Ki Basti: One of the most popular novels of Urdu, it is a work by Shaukat Siddiqi and has run into some 50 editions and has been translated into over 20 languages.

Capturing the life in the slums of Karachi in the late 1950s, Khuda Ki Basti is a reflection on a society that is strugglingto survive the economic and political upheavals. The minute details complete with slangy expressions make it appear real.

8. Basti: Intizar Hussain`s novel became a bit controversial just after its publication. The objection often raised against Intizar Hussain is that he becomes too nostalgic. But that is where Intizar Hussain`s art lies. The beautiful style and bewitching language is the secret of successfully presenting the tale with a touch of mythology and allusions.

9. Chakiwara Mein Visaal: Muhammad Khalid Akhter was a satirist and this novel of his, recommended by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, has a touch of satirical tone in everything he describes. Set in Chakiwara, in Karachi`s Lyari area, the novel makes Chakiwara and its habitants come alive.

10. Raja Gidh: Written in the 1980s, this novel by Bano Qudsia kind of presents a novel sociological theory. It says that corruption in any form may cause lunacy. Ours is a society immersed in corruption and the author shows how corrupt characters suffer.

11. Kai Chaand thay Sar-iAasaman: If there can be a runner-up to this list, it is Shamsur Rahman Faroogi`s novel Kai Chaand thap Sar-i-Aasman. The most important aspect is the portrayal of historical characters and the culture of the subcontinent, spread over a few centuries.

Correction: It was erroneously mentioned in the piece on biographies that the sequel to Divan Singh Maftoon`s biography Saif-o-Qalam remained unpublished. The error is regretted.