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Semeen Ali
‘Shades of the City’
Semeen Ali

Shades of the City |
Urdu stories in translation | Baig Ehsas (Urdu original) |
Translators: Syed Khalid Qadri, S M Fasiullah & Tutun Mukherjee |
Urdu Translation Academy, Hyderabad | 2020 | ISBN: 978-81-9304206-9 | pp 132 | 130


Hyderabad stories by Sahitya Akademi awardee

When the book came in for review, it was a moment of excitement as well as pride that I would be reviewing a book that contained translations of stories in English written by Prof Baig Ehsas, winner of Sahitya Akademi award in Urdu (2017) for his stories collection, Dakhma. During my childhood, I had heard his name being mentioned by my grandfather who was the Head of the Urdu Department, University of Allahabad. My grandfather’s students who used to visit our house, post his retirement, had at times mentioned his name. It was quite a happy moment when I heard that earlier this year one of his stories – Dakhma – would now be a part of the Masters syllabus at Urdu Department, University of Allahabad. Dakhma has also being translated into English in this book, Shades of the City.

The book gains relevance as the field of translation is still expanding and exploring varied writings from across the country. A city like Hyderabad contains rich histories and stories that unfortunately hardly make its way up north; that goes on to reveal that in order to actively interact with literatures from other regions and languages, more and more translations of literary texts are required. This translation attempts to break down the barriers of language and bring forth a writer who has lived and breathed the city of Hyderabad. His stories do not have an ethereal feel to them nor are they meant to ease a reader into his works, rather, his works direct a reader to the underbelly of human emotions. It is not the baseness of emotions that I am talking about but the reality behind the charade that one keeps up on the outside. The hypocrisies are continuously shown in all their entirety in his works. Dr Baig Ehsas through his works reaches out to his readers to show them what people are capable of and what resides in each one of us that we keep under chains.

One of the stories in the book that is a powerful one is Curfew. Set during the times of a curfew in the city, the protagonists are not given any names. But the uneven equation between the man and the woman gains more attention when the feeling of being trapped increases. Imagery of a cage and of a gazelle escaping a hunter- a feeling of being hunted emerges strongly in the story. The story pulls down the curtain to show how people can actually be rather than who they pretend to be. The vividness that fills the moments captured in the story as well as the fear that arises within the woman has been powerfully captured in the story. It is not how one conducts oneself in difficult situations but how suffocating it can get and to what extent it breaks a person down – is the essence of the story. The five stories by Baig Ehsas in the book that are a part of this book touch on different thematic concerns making all of them have a distinct quality and voice. The voice gains importance especially when it is translated into another language. I will discuss this in a bit. But the other story that stands out in the book is the highly acclaimed one – Dakhma – the setting of the story, the delicate weaving of the lives of the characters and the larger issues that are brought out – have been penned down beautifully in this story. The story is not just about the lives of the protagonists but turns into an extension on one’s role in the world that one is living in, the act of migration internally as well as an external one- the idea that consistency is not a currency that has ever been used faithfully but rolls along the board of life like a dice that throws up different numbers whenever played. The story takes on an important role in discussing not just people but the language and the culture that are distinct and yet try to blend in – not to efface oneself but to create a space of their own in a wider context. I don’t want to divulge more details regarding this particular story, as it has to be read and will make more sense once a reader goes through this work to understand what lies beyond one’s zone of comfort.

Translation takes on an important role. It is not just a language that is being changed- one must keep in mind what the original language carries along with it. The ideas, a culture and with it the culture specific terms. There is an underlying fragility that the two languages carry within them- it becomes the responsibility of a translator to straddle along both the worlds that the two languages carry in them. As a translator, the difficult part turns up when a sentence in the original language does not find its equivalence in the language that it has to be translated into. The crossroads at which then a translator stands turns important as the reading audience in the targeted language might not be familiar with the original one and therefore are completely dependent on the final version. Keeping this in mind, the one translation that stands out in the book is by Dr Tutun Mukherjee who has translated the story Dard ke Khemey for the book. The straddling of the two worlds of languages and the ease with which the transition from Urdu to English of the story has been made shines through her translation. There are no abrupt stops or interjections that would make a reader of the English version pause; the story unveils smoothly. It reminds one of what the philosopher Jacques Derrida said about languages in his book Monolingualism of the Other – “When I said that the only language I speak is not mine, I did not say it was foreign to me. There is a difference.”

The stories by Baig Ehsas reverberate with the times. What makes them interesting is that these stories find a resonance in times like the ones we are living in. The wheel of time that continues to move round and round keeps these stories as markers of not a specific time period but of ideas that do not get buried but remain as a constant for generations to read. Baig Ehsas’s writings are one of the important voices from Urdu literature that need to be heard and spread widely, the book needs to be read to get a glimpse of the oeuvre of his writings. It is when you step across the threshold of your own space that you can listen to stories that others have to narrate.

An inconsistency about the book is: The copyright page does not show Baig Ehsas but S M Fasiullah (one of the translators) as the author.


Issue 94 (Nov-Dec 2020)

Book Reviews
  • Atreya Sarma U: ‘Clueless’
  • Azra Naqvi: ‘The Art and Science of Ghazal’
  • Giti Tyagi: ‘Land Lust’
  • GSP Rao: ‘Our World – A Symphony of Drabbles
  • Lakshmi Kannan: ‘Devi – The BoundlessA Daughter’s Inward Journey’
  • Pushpa Subramanian: ‘The Demons of Jaitraya’
  • Ravi Ranganathan: ‘Horizon of poetic twinkles’
  • Revathi Raj Iyer: ‘The Vengeance’
  • Savita Kiran: ‘Morarji Desai – A Profile in Courage’
  • Semeen Ali: ‘Floating Islands’
  • Semeen Ali: ‘Shades of the City’
  • Sukanya Saha: ‘On the Trail of Buddha – A Journey to the East’
  • Veni M: ‘Baluchars – The Woven Narrative Silks of Bengal’