Literary Notes: A kaleidoscope of memorable characters in Urdu novels
Urdu novel has come of age. Beginning with Moulvi Nazir Ahmed Dehlvi’s Mirat-ul-aroos (1869), this long journey has taken about 145 years.
But the impact of English novel on the development of Urdu novel cannot be denied and our earliest novelists were indeed much influenced by English literature and English novel. Nazir Ahmed Dehlvi, often dubbed as the pioneer of the novel genre in Urdu, was definitely inspired by the English novel. In fact his Taubat-un-Nusooh (1873) is based on Daniel Defoe’s The family instructor, though Nazir Ahmed has made many changes in the plot. Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar’s Fasana-i-Azad (1878) has a plot based on the theme from Cervantes’ Don Quixote. His comic character Khauji has a striking resemblance with Cervantes’ character Sancho Panza.
The next generation of Urdu novelists too had a tendency to rely on the English novels for plots and characters. Sultan Hyder Josh (1886-1953), a popular Urdu fiction writer of the first half of the 20th century, for instance, has adapted many themes from the English literature. His novella Havaee is a reflection of Earnest Hemingway’s A farewell to arms. His novel Naqsh-o-naqqaash was inspired by Somerset Maugham’s The moon and the six pence. His article ‘Iblees’ is more or less a plagiarised Urdu version of Marie Corelli’s article ‘Sorrows of Satan’.
Zafar Umer is considered the pioneer of Urdu’s detective fiction and his Neeli chhatri (1916) is dubbed as Urdu’s first detective novel. But it was a modified translation of one of Maurice Leblanc’s novels. Only when Munshi Teerath Ram Ferozpuri translated the same work under the title Shahi khazana, it dawned on readers that Neeli chhatri was a mere translation.
Krishan Chandr’s Ulta darakht has a plot with the basic idea of a city built underground, a theme taken from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in the wonderland. Even Qurrat-ul-Ain Hyder’s Aag ka darya is said to have been inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Similar claims were made about Ahsan Farooqi’s novel Sangam. Ismat Chughtai’s novel Ziddi too was an altered version of Hajra, an English novel by a Turkish woman writer Adalat Khanam, which is apparently a penname.
Imtiaz Ali Taj had mentioned that he took the idea of Chachcha Chhakkan from Jerome K. Jerome’s character Uncle Podger in his Three man in a boat. Mohammed Khalid Akhter had admitted that he was much influenced by English literature and his novel Bees sau giyara, or 2011, written in 1950, was inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and his character Chachcha Abdul Baqi was influenced by P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves. But many never admitted to such borrowings, though their plagiarism was somehow discovered later on.
But it is not that the whole world of Urdu novel is built on plagiarised themes and borrowed ideas from the west. In the early 20th century, Urdu novel discovered its own world of themes and characters to portray. With Prem Chand giving a realistic touch to it in the early 20th century and a little later the progressive writers’ movement insisting on portraying the teeming millions, Urdu novel began depicting the common characters found in our society, as real as life itself. Ever since then, we have come across some Urdu novels that meticulously and artfully paint some characters and make them come alive.
Today we may scoff at some idealistic, one-sided characterisation by Nazir Ahmed but his role in developing Urdu novel can never be forgotten. The latter-day Urdu novelists too have learnt a lot from the west, because English novels are known for their remarkable and unforgettable characters, be it Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy or present-day novelists. Characterisation plays a vital part in a novel. But some feel that plot is more important. Dr Mumtaz Ahmed Khan has summed up the debate in the foreword to his new book Urdu novel:
kirdaron ka hairat kada’ with a concrete example: “life is the eternal truth and plot is the blood that circulates in its veins. But what makes these veins? Characters”. He thinks plot and characters are two pillars on which the whole structure of fiction rests and removing any one of these pillars will make the whole structure come tumbling down.
Dr Mumtaz Ahmed Khan is editor of Qaumi zaban. He is a critic and researcher. He has been working on Urdu novel since long. Having penned three books before this one on different aspects of Urdu novel, Dr Khan has a penchant for recording the history and characteristics of Urdu novel. The characterisation of some landmark Urdu novels such as Umrao Jan Ada, Kai chaand thei sar-i-aasmaan, Aag ka darya, Terhi lakeer, Gardish-i-rang-i-chaman, Firdous-i-bareen, Chakivara mein visaal, and Alipur ka Aily has been discussed in the book. A connoisseur of Urdu novel, Dr Khan has pinpointed unique and memorable characters of some Urdu novels with quotations from the original texts. The variation in Urdu novel’s characterisation makes one wonder. It proves that Urdu novel has indeed come of age.
Karachi’s Fazlee Sons has just published the book.