Aamer Hussein reviews Rashid Jahan's Collected Writing

translated from the Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil

I've just received a copy of A Rebel and Her Cause: The Life and Work of Rashid Jahan. When I first read it in manuscript last summer, I thought it was probably the best book I would read that year, and six months later my opinion hasn't changed. Rashid Jahan (1905-1952) was a medical practitioner and writer, whose literary work has remained in print in its original Urdu. In English, however, she is known to only a few readers, largely through a handful of stories and plays which have appeared in translation in feminist anthologies: 'Behind the Curtain,' and 'Woman,' two radical plays about wives trapped in oppressive marriages; 'A Tour of Delhi,' the comic monologue of a veiled woman left to wait in a Delhi station while her husband saunters off with a male acquaintance; and 'That One,' a late story about a young teacher's unlikely association with a syphilitic ex-prostitute.

Above all, though, Rashid is remembered for the key events of her life. In December 1932, while in her twenties, she was the only female contributor to Angarey (Embers), an anthology of fiction by young left-wingers (of whom two others, Ahmed Ali and Sajjad Zaheer, were to receive lasting renown as littérateurs; a third, Mahmuduzzafar, would become Rashid's husband). The book earned the wrath of conservatives on all sides, and Rashid received death threats for transgressing the boundaries of behaviour permissible to a young educated Muslim woman in the India of the 1930s. Admired by Premchand, the elderly doyen of the Progressive Writers Association to which she and her literary comrades belonged, Rashid went on to publish, in 1936, Aurat (Woman), a slender volume of stories. Rashid married one of her communist comrades in arms, continued to practice medicine, and dedicated the rest of her short life to political activism.

Though she continued to write intermittently, she didn't pursue a literary career with the single-mindedness of her younger protégée, Ismat Chughtai. Her stories, for all the impact their boldness made, are often judged by Urdu critics to be rough and unfinished, as if she couldn't be bothered to edit them once she had written an initial draft. She is recognised for the influence she had on a rising generation of younger women writers by teaching them to tell bitter truths. Yet an eternal, unvoiced question mark hangs over her reputation: Has her work survived beyond its pivotal moment, and is it really worth the attention she continues to receive? Or is her only claim to literary renown the brief period of notoriety that resulted from the Angarey years, and that she gave feminism a voice in Urdu?

Rakhshanda Jalil's book fills in many of the gaps for the contemporary reader. Fascinating as Rashid Jahan's life is, it is well served by Jalil's decision to pair it with a selection of eleven stories and two plays, to give the reader a sense of how her social and political activism was complemented and illuminated by her literary skills. Though the selection is understandably slanted toward her feminist beliefs and is only occasionally weighted down by Marxist tropes, a knowledge of her ideology immediately reveals her understanding of the way power in all its facets limits, restricts, and distorts human behaviour, not only the victim's but also that of the perpetrator.

I first read Rashid in the early 90s, when I had just discovered a late-dawning interest in Urdu fiction. I was impressed by her strength and commitment as well as her refusal of autobiography, but found her approach a little too raw and bleak for my taste. Yet at least two of her pieces continued to haunt me over the years: the renowned play 'Woman,' in which a woman whose husband has infected her with gonorrhea decides to throw him out of her house and her life when he threatens to remarry; and 'Sale,' a fiction in which the narrator, hidden in the back of a car in a remote riverside spot, observes some supposedly respectable men indulging in group sex with a pair of prostitutes, whose veils they grab to cover their bare bodies when a passing vehicle shines its headlights on them; one of the women is left entirely naked in the light. The story "Woman" is notable for its unalloyed power, and "Sale," for its formal and thematic innovations; while the former could be a 20th century Asian response to Ibsen, the latter is remarkable, too, for its controlled style that combines lyricism and cynicism in an entirely uninfluenced manner, far ahead of its time.

Both stories are included in Jalil's anthology, as are a number of other characteristic pieces. Some show Rashid's occasionally riotous humour: in "One of my Journeys," a familiar, thoroughly modern, and somewhat bohemian I-narrator (who shares some of the author's characteristics) travels with a group of women, both Hindu and Muslim. Their religious and ethnic differences lead them into something close to a pie-fight, which the narrator interrupts with a didactic tirade, but not before the reader is almost helpless with laughter (which the aforesaid tirade does little to lessen). The laughter provoked by 'A Daughter-in-Law for Asif Jahan,' which portrays, almost in real time, the birth-pangs of a woman who delivers a daughter with the assistance of a midwife, a group of female relatives, and a number of folk remedies, is darkened by Rashid's underlying critique of traditional rituals of childbirth and the custom that decrees that a newborn daughter is immediately assigned a future role as the bride of a young male cousin.

Also included is the play for which she first became known, "Behind the Curtain," about a woman tormented by multiple childbirths. Her husband insists she go through various surgeries on her reproductive organs to make her sexually more attractive, and yet he turns to other women. Though the message of the play was for woman's liberation from domestic subjugation, the main protagonist remains, unlike the heroine of 'Woman,' subjected to the whims of her husband and to the demands of domesticity. Over and over, Rashid, highly educated though she was, was to return to the subject of semi-literate and very traditional women, until much later in her career, when she turned to the problems of religious animosity and to class oppression after the Partition in 1947, in plays and fictional works not included.

Rashid would, in the years not covered by this anthology, increasingly turn to drama for its immediacy, often writing for live performances or for radio broadcasts rather than for publication. She has a playwright's ear for dialogue, and an intimate knowledge of the speech patterns of semi-educated women, a knowledge at variance with her own Anglophone education. Capturing her characters' speech patterns is a feat for a translator. Jalil, who retains the sinewy strength of the stories, doesn't always manage to replicate the subtle shifts of register Rashid constantly employs. (I returned to Rashid's work in Urdu after reading this selection, and was captivated by her sharp, dazzling, and highly nuanced prose.) The problems of translation are particularly evident in 'Bad Company,' the only story here told from an entirely male perspective, about a judge who rejects his leftist son. The story is almost entirely composed of the judge's interior monologue, which takes us through his struggles as an orphan and his later successes, until the steady stream of thoughts reveals his ruthless upward mobility. Then a deft authorial switch to a more detached point of view lets us hear him speak to an acquaintance on the telephone, displaying his elitism along with his retrograde political stance. The ironies and satire are, to an extent, lost in translation; in English, Rashid is a very good raconteuse and a more than competent stylist; in Urdu, she is exceptional in her narrative economy and direct, unadorned prose style. Notwithstanding its inevitable omissions, Jalil's is a book to treasure, for the bilingual reader and the Anglophone alike.