Poetry had been there from time immemorial. It had adapted itself to the new trends in every period, including that of the British occupation and the inevitable ascendance of the English language. However, the process of the evolution of our prose has been slower and more difficult. One reason was that the Muslim ruling classes did not, in the beginning, accept the local folk stories because they were steeped in Hindu religious culture. The other was that the Persian and Arab folk tales seemed to suffice for them. Even when they took the local tales, it was in poetry e.g. “Padmavat”.
Prose tales were also taken and suitably modified according to the taste of the new audience, as in the romance of Rajah Depshalem. But they carried a large dose of the supernatural. And this was retained because the stories brought from Mesopotamia and Iran themselves turned on the struggles between the noble princes and the supernatural beings.
Supernatural, e.g. malignant monsters with human shapes, invaded the human psyche and entered their tales. They represented the forces that the man had not yet conquered, i.e. diseases, forces of nature, his surroundings etc. They not only filled the space beyond the humans’ reach, but also confronted them as their failures —- as their inabilities.
This did not prevent the development of expression with time. So, we have the phenomenon of primitive stories wrapped in polished prose. Though where the writer felt the flow was unable to cope with the content, he often took to rhythmical prose, as in Suroor’s “Fasana-e-Ajaib”, e.g.
“Raqeeb kay taanon say seena figar hota hai,
Larkon kay patharon say sar ka rang gulnar hota hai.”
But, by the end of the 19th century, Urdu prose had found its feel. In fact, the rivalry between Delhi and Lucknow, as represented by Amman and Suroor, contributed a lot to the progress of the “Daastaan” and Lucknow ultimately carried the day. Probably, the apogee of the “Daastaan” was Ratan Nath Sarshar’s “Fasana-e-Azad”, which was also a transition from the “Daastaan” to the novel.
Faiz, in his article on Ratan Nath Sarshar (“Ajkal”, New Delhi, October 15, 1945), says that the Urdu novel started with realism and then got stuck with romanticism and escapism. Delhi’s first novels, those by Maulvi Nazir Ahmad, were about Delhi’s middle class, but Sarshar dealt with Lucknow’s dissolute feudal class. These landowners were shown as surrounded by non-serious courtiers catering to their whims; the young girls of their families as more outspoken and libérée than would appear to be normal in that society.
Faiz adds that this was only one side of the Lucknow society and Sarshar was aware that this was the last flicker of the candle. The ruling class itself was no less aware of it. Faiz defines “Khoji” of “Fasana-e-Azad” as cowardly, braggart, greedy and ludicrous. His was no doubt a complex personality. However, he infuses more life into the story than does its hero, “Azad”.
The novel and the short story both arrived in South Asia in a finished form. This, instead of posing difficulties to their adoption by South Asia, apparently made the job easier. “Umrao Jan” is generally recognised as the first modern novel in Urdu, meeting all the conditions attendant upon a European novel. What, in addition, lends it such power is the realistic and faithful portrayal of the life of a prostitute of Lucknow and, through her, of the art and the haute culture of the town. It is the extremely attractive, but passing phase of a particular culture captured on a camera plate.
Our prose burst forth into a hundred colours with the Progressive Writers’ Movement launched in 1936. The short story was in the vanguard. And, within a decade, we could compare with the most advanced languages in this field, with Saadat Hasan Manto and Rajinder Singh Bedi in the lead and hundreds of other talented writers beside them.
The writer is a retired ambassador.