A collection of short stories that rips apart the cloak of decency under which the society hides its violence.
One of the gaps in our nation’s literary tradition is that we do not have many detailed records of how the writers worked, what their influences were; or their thoughts at different points in their literary journeys. We do not have good long ranging interviews even of our Jnanpith winners. In this scene, Joginder Paul’s collection of Urdu short stories The Dying Sun is a welcome arrival. Beyond the 18 stories, the collection features notes by the translators, a long and substantial interview with the author, and a note by the author that he mockingly calls his ‘Self-obituary’. The stories in The Dying Sun are curated and edited by Sukrita Paul Kumar and translated by Usha Nagpal and Keerti Ramachandra.
The collection opens with ‘Heer Ranjha’, familiar characters from a love story. But in this version they are old and sick, pondering upon how they can ‘disentangle from the magical weave of immortal legends’. In ‘The Settled People’, the writer muses upon how his characters have defied his attempt to bind them into stories.
In each story, Paul’s strong characters rip apart the cloak of decency under which the society hides its violence. ‘The Shelter’ defies timeliness and juxtaposes the young and the old to create a chimera of time in a period of communal riots during Partition. In ‘Jai Shri Ram’, Lord Ram walks out of his birthplace on the day Babri Masjid is torn down and encounters his followers’ tokenism of religion. ‘God Thine Will Be Done’ depicts the idea of revenge and shows how new life is the only antidote to such violence.
Some of Paul’s stories expose the complexity of sexual relationships in the society. Whether it is ‘Jagirdar’ or ‘Family Planning’, these stories work by not stating the relationship but by hinting at them and letting the readers find out what is going on. The story of a prostitute named Draupadi, in ‘Mahabharata’, reveals the travails of a single mother while ‘Each One’s Own’ shows us how male and female prostitutes are attracted to each other, but their business gets in the way. ‘Hari Kirtan’ shows the loss of love in a marriage when an elderly couple reminisces how they strayed. ‘Market Economy’ is about an American businessman interested in the young daughter of his Indian counterpart. ‘The Next Step of Desire’ goes beyond mundane relationships by showing how people past their youth and prime in a foreign country can form an easy co-existence while their own children tear the family apart.
‘Full Circle’, which hints at madness and the relationship between a mother and her son, seems part autobiographical. ‘Locked up in a Box’ parallels the external world with an internal imagination, thus breaking the notions of reality. ‘The Dying Sun’, set in a foreign land, depicts three generations of a family going to see a play in a public park. It is only the everyday trivia that keeps them together and, in a public space, they are their own biggest spectacle.
Paul wrote in Urdu because he wanted to write ‘within a culture and not merely a language’. His style of writing defies the regular format of short stories, or the Urdu tradition of katha and dastaan. He also explores the language beyond its familiar melody. This demands a different sensibility from the reader than that required when listening to ghazals, the most common form in which Urdu still survives in an English-dominated readership. A collection like The Dying Sun, with its extra reading material, is a step towards re-training our ways of reading those writers who have chosen to write in their own languages. I hope more publishing houses emulate this model with the regional authors they want to showcase in translation.