Ralph Russell’s A Thousand Yearnings is a great introduction to Urdu literature

In A Thousand Yearnings, Russel takes the reader on a guided tour of 19th and 20th century India.

When I was in primary school, Urdu and Hindi scared the life out of me. There was no escape though, thanks to the three-language formula. So I have a smattering of Urdu language but know little of its literature. English is my first effective language as it is of millions of others across India and Pakistan who went to English-medium schools. Ralph Russell, the late British scholar of Urdu literature, took upon himself to bring the wealth of Urdu literature to us, as also to the Indian and Pakistani diaspora in Britain, America, Canada and elsewhere who have lost touch with their literary heritage. As Russell says in the book, people have a desire to know about their heritage but have little choice to do so except through the medium of English.

Russell taught Urdu at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) London for three decades and was also a highly regarded visiting professor in India and Pakistan. A Thousand Yearnings: A Book of Urdu Poetry and Prose is his English rendering of select ghazals, short-stories and other genres that opens up an appreciation of Urdu literature to a wide range of readers. The author helps the reader by putting things in socio-political context. He, so to say, takes the reader on a guided tour of 19th and 20th century India.

Introducing the short stories section, Russell tells us about the progressive movement of 1930s when courageous writers, including women, for the first time, wrote about “forbidden themes”. He tells us how a collection of short stories entitled Angare (burning coal), caused an uproar because it was seen as challenging the traditional notions about the role of women, talking explicitly about intimate relations and satirising aspects of religion. Such was the commotion that the British administration had to ban it.

All the short stories in this compilation are equally absorbing, but some stand out. For instance, In Behind the Veil, written by Rashid Jahan, a woman who has had a child birth every year tells another woman that her children are weak because her husband does not allow her to breast-feed them. “Doesn’t matter whether it’s day or night, he wants his wife. And not only his wife, he goes the rounds to other women too.” This was too bold a conversation between two married women in purdah, in those times.

In Ismat Chugtai’s Tiny’s Granny, a domestic help puts her orphaned granddaughter on her job after she retires, but the girl is raped by a rich, powerful employer. The young girl ends up in a whorehouse and the grandmother is reduced to penury and eventually dies. Through their suffering, Chugtai scorns society for exploiting women’s bodies and labour and heaping humiliations on them.

The next section in the book is about ghazals, which the author describes as “poetry of love”. Russell reminds the readers that “the ghazal celebrates a love, which, in that social context, could only be illicit” and was regarded as “a menace to ordered social life”. But apart from love, there are couplets on various other themes as well.

The author has chosen mostly from Mir Taqi Mir who lived in the 18th century and from Mirza Ghalib, the most outstanding Urdu poet, who came almost a century later. In the book, Russell has quoted Urdu couplets in Roman, instead of Urdu script, and has also given their English translation alongside.

The throne of Solomon is but a toy in my esteem / The miracles that Jesus worked, a trifle in my eyes. (Ik khel hai aurang e Sulaiman mere nazdeek / Kya baat hai ejaaz e maseeha mere aage.) — Ghalib

Russell tells us that for Urdu speakers, the ghazal is primarily something they hear, not read. Poets recite their poetry at gatherings called mushairas, and mushairas are held even today, not only in India and Pakistan where Urdu originated and is spoken widely, but also in other countries. These mushairas, however, come to a large majority of people through television and social media sites, bringing us in touch with only the poets of today, not the short story writers, much less the novelists. Ralph Russell, for his part, has made readers aware of a treasure trove of poetry and prose that lies in our backyard. He kindles in the reader a passionate desire to explore this rich heritage.

A Thousand Yearnings: A Book of Urdu Poetry and Prose
Translated by Ralph Russel
Edited by: Marion Molteno
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 380
Price: ₹599