Islamabad Literature Festival 2013: Urdu Short Stories

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on May 2, 2013.

Islamabad – If someone thinks Urdu short stories are a thing of the distant past when writers such as Manto, Bedi, Krishan Chandar and Ismat Chugtai ruled supreme, they are mistaken.

“Just in the past one year, 102 people have written and published a short story in Urdu,” Hameed Shahid said, during a session on the current situation of Urdu short stories at the Islamabad Literature Festival.

Shahid, a writer himself, said short story writing has strengthened with writers are taking on present-day issues and even the readership of fiction, which had declined, has emerged again. The proof of the latter is the tremendous number of working short story writers and the feedback they get not only on their published books but also social media and blogs, Shahid said.

But the basic issue is that no one is bothering to analyse new writing.

“The problem today is not that stories are not being written, the question is who is critically analysing them?” Shahid said. “Critics have become blind to the literature present all around them.”

He said it is important that recent fiction be studied critically so people know what kind of writing is being produced today.

Speakers also talked about the dearth of social sciences education in Pakistani educational institutions, which has affected quality analysis and also resulted in a lack of enthusiasm for modern Urdu fiction among young readers.

Asif Farrukhi said school teachers of Urdu are unexcited about modern literature themselves.

“They are teaching some classical texts but modern fiction has to make inroads into curriculum,” Farrukhi told The Express Tribune after the session. “We cannot ignore contemporary literature and expect the younger generation to take interest in reading.”

Aamer Hussein, the other panelist of the session, said, “We have enough in the canon of Urdu literature to keep us going for at least one generation.”

New Voices of Urdu Short Story

At another morning session, three writers who were representing the new generation of Urdu short story writers proved Hameed’s earlier point about the frequency of new writing.

Nilofar Iqbal, Asim Butt and Mubashir Zaidi read short stories from their respective published collections. The session was moderated by Ziaul Hassan.

While Butt’s short story dealt with a broken man’s pursuit for meaning in a world that is equally suffering, Iqbal read a story from her series “Operation Mice” — a set of stories that interpret the 21st century wars fought by the US from the perspective of an American family.

In her story, Iqbal combined journalistic snippets about the Iraq war, pop culture references and descriptions of the American way of life with a dialogue between her main characters — a soft-hearted but determined US commander, General Mercy, and his wife, Martha — to condemn war and America’s imperialistic ambitions as well as to explore the emotional cost of war borne by US families.

Iqbal said she was aware she would be sacrificing some literary value when she began writing the series, which is published in her book “Surkh Dhabbay.” But a writer has to act as historian as well, she said.

Butt said he tries to depict the crisis-like conditions in which modern humans are living.

“The human of today is a different phenomenon from the humans of the past,” Butt said. “Today’s human traded village life for cities to get rid of her loneliness but instead she was stuck a new kind of loneliness that is even devoid of nature and beauty.”

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