Review: Angarey

Two translations of a seminal short story collection— experimental in form and style—that set north India aflame: Outlook India

angarey_coverIn 1936, in the last year of his life, the Hindi author Premchand traveled to Lucknow to address the first annual meeting of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association (AIPWA). In his forty-five minute speech titled “The Aims of Literature” he charted a course for the future of Indian literature that was progressive and realistic. His speech, and the AIPWA, was to change the course of Indian writing dramatically, for the coming decades and beyond.

But founding the AIPWA was not Premchand’s idea. That credit belongs to the Urdu writer Sajjad Zaheer, and the English writer Mulk Raj Anand, among others, young Indian students in London who had the year before sent to Premchand a manifesto for Indian progressive writing. The manifesto was a fiery tract, written in English, which Premchand translated into Hindi and published in his journalHans, carefully eliminating some of the more fiery proclamations about such things as the need for a frank and open depiction of sexuality.

This was not just prudishness on Premchand’s part. In 1932, Zaheer, along with fellow writers Ahmad Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmud-uz-Zafar, had published the seminal story collection Angaare (“Embers”). The collection is usually described as creating a ‘literary firestorm’—this both for its frank and open depiction of sexuality, and also for its daring critiques of religion and hierarchy. The book was promptly banned, most copies were burned, and the authors were harassed, some for years afterwards. No doubt Premchand wished to avoid further controversy when he published the first progressive manifesto in Hans.

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