When put together the two versions do not multiply the original text but subtract from it.

The publication of Angarey, a joint collection of short stories and a one-act play in 1932, was perhaps the greatest explosion in the world of Urdu literature. Within months the book was banned, copies confiscated, put on fire, resulting in very few people actually reading the collection. The authors refused to be cowed down by the censorship and their rebellion led to the formation of the Progressive Writer’s Association under the stewardship of Sajjad Zaheer, one of the four contributing authors to the collection. Only five copies of Angarey survived. Two were taken to the British Museum in London and three went into private hands never to surface again. In 1995, Khalid Alvi retrieved the microfilm of the collection and recreated the Urdu original. This year, two Indian publishers have brought out English translations of the collection.

Yet, one of them, the Penguin version, states on the cover: first-ever English translation of the banned short-story collection (all in capitals). Rival publishers surely know each other’s listing that comes out in advance, so the claim seems like a little boast. For someone like me who sadly cannot read Urdu, reviewing both the books together is like looking into two mirrors to find the original face. The problem is compounded because the two mirror images are vastly different from each other, including how the name of the collection is spelt: Angarey (Rupa) and Angaaray (Penguin). The Rupa collection is paperback at 105 pages, the Penguin one is hard cover at 167 pages. In collections of short stories, it does matter which story opens the collection and which comes next and last. Yet, Angarey starts with ‘A Summer Night’, while Angaaray starts with ‘Can’t Sleep’. The introduction to each collection is an essay on the context of the book and ban. The Rupa one is more comprehensive. Both make a set of points that hardly echo the other. As if the translators Vibha S. Chauhan and Khalid Alvi for Rupa and Snehal Shingavi for Penguin are talking about different original texts.

The translations: the story ‘Can’t Sleep’ (Penguin) uses straight font and italics for the monologue and dialogue to render the story more comprehensible. Snehal says in his note: (I) tried to borrow from solutions attempted by modernist writers in English … relied on typography to make it clear when there was a shift in narratorial voice. Yet, this blurs the look of the original story. ‘This Uproar, Too’ in Penguin starts with a sher, a couplet, by Ghalib but that is not the case in ‘The Same Uproar, Once Again’ in Rupa. Why one translator would use it and the other won’t is beyond understanding. In the Rupa version, the seemingly disjointed stream-of-consciousness paragraphs are punctuated with explicit dividers but not so in the Penguin one. That again seems to be a liberty the translators took with the original. In the same story, the Rupa version uses: Iblees and Jibraeel for the fallen angel and the other angel but the Penguin version says: Satan and Gabriel. The Penguin version places a foot note telling us how the ‘satanic verses’ were the excised chapters of the Holy Qur’an and also refer to Rushdie’s work The Satanic Verses. The reference to Rushdie is completely unnecessary because his work does not pre-date this story. Similarly, in the Rupa version of ‘Dulari’, the translators use the word ‘londi’ to locate the protagonist in the social milieu and foreground the politics within the social classes in the family. The Penguin version uses a more sanitised ‘slave girl’, robbing the story of its hard edge. ‘The Clouds Don’t Come’ refers to a fable and its understanding is assisted by the Penguin version giving us the fable as part of the text. Rashid Jahan in both her short story and the one-act play portrays the world as closely as if we were hearing a live conversation. Mahmuduzzafar depicts the cultural clash between a forward looking, worldly man and his anxious, cloistered wife on her death bed. Upon reading both versions the question that remains unanswered is: whether the ban was for blasphemy or because the collection was a penetrating critique of its social times inspired by styles of modernist European literature. The collection does not seem to be as much a critique of religion as one of society: women in purdah, health issues, challenging our ideas of masculinity, a bit of mythology, and most of all, our own failing to remain empathetic human beings. Angarey was an attempt to show that the act of questioning any authority figure on social reforms, on issues that were real to readers, was possible. This understanding later became the guiding principle of the PWA.

Though the effort of each translator is laudable, the loss is that when put together, the two versions do not multiply the original text but subtract from it. The question that strikes a reader is: if the original could be brought out as a collaborative effort, what stopped modern publishing from bringing out the translation as a collaborative project between the two publishing houses? Though the lines are blurred, the Rupa version is more a translation while the Penguin one is a transcreation. Read them to understand how concerns about social justice could inform our writing about the world we inhabit.