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Origin of the afsana

An exhaustive study that traces the entire journey of the Urdu afsana from its beginning to contemporary times

Origin of the afsana

Dr Anwaar Ahmad did his doctoral dissertation on the Urdu afsana and then like many others decided to have it published as a book. But apart from giving his thesis a book form, he also updated his earlier research to include contemporary afsana nigaars.

So one should not be surprised that it reads like a directory of Urdu afsana nigaars. It mentions an exhaustive amount of writers, and every writer’s works with a small biographical sketch are part of the book. In more than a century of writing 245 afsana nigaars have been written about. The volume is informative in that it traces the journey of the Urdu afsana from its very beginnings to contemporary times, and can be extremely useful for those wanting to be introduced to all Urdu stories in one volume.

The first question to tackle is where did the Urdu afsana begin and who was the first person to venture forth on this new path. This is always a tricky question because many are claimants to that position; in this case there are three people, and without making much fuss about the precedence Dr Ahmad has included Rashidul Khairi, Sajjad Haider Yaldram and Sultan Hyder Josh in that group of pioneers.

The theme of hijrat was written large across the whole spectrum of the form and it was then coupled with violence, killing and plunder.

The second question is ‘what differentiated the afsana from what was being written earlier in prose form in this part of the world?’. For there was prose writing here but it could not be qualified as the short story that evolved in the west in the last three centuries. If a comparison has to be drawn, the prose here was like the medieval romances written in various languages in the West.

The volume, since it is comprehensive, takes readers down the various phases the genre has been through. It had taken many sub-forms within its larger form and had been influenced by outside sources as well as internal dynamics. The vast array of the sub-forms was also fascinating for its variety and diversity.

In the process of tracing the history of the form, the author also had to engage in some kind of a critical appraisal. According to Dr Ahmad, various milestones or phases in the course of its history can be identified. The initial one according to him was where the entire atmosphere of the afsana was very romance like and  was not based on realism as a form. It was dreamy and escapist and the author attributed it to its origins in colonial times when literature was supposed to be not confronting the truth but avoiding it.

The second phase began when the nationalist struggle gathered great momentum with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre; then the afsana came out of the mould and became much more confrontational and realistic. This was the phase during which the progressive writers propelled the afsana forward. This according to the author was probably the golden period in the relatively short history of the form. It had been followed by a great exploration of the self in the next phase and took the short story towards greater subjectivism.

What bothers the author is that the themes of the afsana were never really about Muslim identity that galvanised in the shape of the Pakistan movement which culminated in the creation of the country. Instead what one had was the endemic theme of the great disruption that took place and caused the loss of life and honour on an unprecedented scale.

The theme of hijrat was written large across the whole spectrum of the form and it was then coupled with violence, killing and plunder. These two themes of hijrat and fasadaat produced some of the most moving pieces of writing in the form.

The themes that he found to be very artificial and treated only on the surface were those that were based on patriotism and love for the homeland and in the shadow of that, the animosity with neighbouring India. According to the author, the latter was also not dealt with any depth.

Similarly, there was not much of substance penned in relation to the various political movements that had swept the country in its short history. He counted four in particular, two led by right-wing clerics and the other two more political and led by left-of-centre politicians; but as in the earlier case it didn’t touch more than the tip of the iceberg not leaving the kind of impact that other writings have done.

A theme which is written about with a degree of seriousness has been of exile or being forced to flee the country; the theme of not being accepted in one’s own country and being made to leave it. This too resulted in some major writings and took the Urdu afsana to successfully negotiate another turning.

Then there was this fascination with resistance and while the political movements in Vietnam and Palestine were making an impact this was treated romantically. But its charm phased out as these movements petered out, and did not take the form they should have taken.

He is also of the view that many afsana nigaars appeared with plenty of promise but very few were able to sustain that creative outburst, and fizzledout. He also mentions the passing away of many great afsana nigaars. The book, in a way, appears to be an epitaph to the fact that the quality of writing that was seen in the middle phase whose writers passed away, could not be compared to the quality of writing we see today.

Urdu Afsana Aik Sadi Ka Qissa
Author: Dr Anwaar Ahmad
Year: 2017
Publisher: Kitab Nagar
Pages: 839
Price: Rs1,400

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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