The English translation of “Angarey”, a collection of nine stories and a play written in Urdu in 1932, brings to fore issues that are still pertinent

It was December 1932 when Angarey (meaning cinder) was published in Urdu, a collection of nine stories and one play — five by Sajjad Zaheer, one by Mahmuduzzafar, two by Ahmed Ali and one story and one play by Rashid Jahan. It was an effort by like-minded friends and authors towards creating a world free from social, economic and religious exploitation.

Like all works which stir up a hornet’s nest, this book too was banned in March 1933 by the then United Provinces Government with almost all the printed copies seized and set on fire. Though reduced to ashes, the book helped lay the foundation for the establishment of Progressive Writers Association. In 1987, a microfilm of the volume was discovered in the British Museum in London and it was brought back to India and republished in 1995. It has now been translated into English by Vibha S. Chauhan and Khalid Alvi.

Vibha, who teaches English at the Zakir Husain Delhi College, heard Rashid Jahan’s poem at a private reading session and mentioned this to Khalid Alvi, a colleague who teaches Urdu. Khalid told her about Angarey, which on reading, she found fascinating. “I teach Progressive Literature in translation and was very keen that my students should have a chance to read this work,” says Vibha. She along with Khalid sat in the college library and started translating it in 2012 which was completed by 2013 beginning. Terming this “collaborative translation” as a good method, Vibha says it can lead to translations of many more works.

The collection is deeply influenced by the times during which it was penned — the goings-on in Western philosophy and social systems and the writings in England. They question religion and skewered patriarchy, candidly explore sexual themes, make fun of excessive piety and some are instances of the stream-of-consciousness technique to depict isolation and uselessness of religion.

The issues tackled by the book are still prevalent and pertinent. “The discrimination against women still exists leading to their marginalisation,” says Vibha, adding that “protests against this are vocal with literature being used as a tool of social reform.” Stating that “there is a needto question and change the patriarchal conditioning of men and women to bring about a change,” she feels that “education, social institutions and family” can definitely play an important role. Agreeing that gender bias still persists, Khalid views education as the only solution, especially that of women. He cites the gulf between the educated Muslims and others and the grip of the so-called religious leaders as important factors leading to the discrimination.

Perusal of the lives of the four writers reveals their active interaction with the political and literary milieu of the West as well as the realities of India at that time. All were well-educated belonging to middle-class or upper middle class families and were exposed to Western thought, literature and ideas. The vision of a classless society free from gender, class oppression and political subjugation, religious and social dogmas was what fired their writings.

On the subject of banning of literary works, Khalid is of the opinion that “as a writer, I do not have any right to hurt religious sentiments.” He feels that instead of State censorship, writers should adhere to self-regulation. Vibha is of the view that “books should not be banned and like bad films, bad books too will sink.” She wants the choice to be left to the readers instead of the authorities.

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