The spirit of a forgotten era

November 27, 2022

The collection of stories reflects Abbasi’s commendable effort to resurrect Wajida Tabassum’s important body of work

The spirit of a forgotten era


omen who have embarked on the ink-and-paper route have used their pen to wage a battle for their creative emancipation. Urdu short-story writer Wajida Tabassum’s oeuvre epitomises her courageous struggle to prevent her creative voice from being subject to erasure.

When her work started appearing in magazines and journals in the 1950s, Tabassum was condemned for her bold, unorthodox narratives that painted a candid yet unflattering portrait of Hyderabad Deccan’s depraved aristocracy. Her stories drew attention to the insidious ways in which Hyderabad’s elite oppressed women through rigid, outmoded customs that furthered patriarchal expectations. At the same time, she bravely addressed middle-class taboos with great alacrity.

Be that as it may, her fiercest critics viewed her creative output through a narrow lens and were uncompromising in their vehement opposition to her work. Some of her detractors said that her unconventional style and depiction of risqué subjects made her a worthy successor to Urdu novelist Ismat Chughtai. The comparison, of course, wasn’t intended as a compliment.

Tabassum’s growing notoriety compelled her conservative relatives to monitor her correspondence and prevent her from writing. Though disheartened by her family’s disapproval of her literary pursuits, the young writer persevered in her quest for creative freedom.

Over the decades, Tabassum’s stories have garnered praise in both India and Pakistan. In 1988, her story Utran was made into a popular Indian soap opera. The same story was translated into English and included in an anthology titled Such Devoted Sisters, which was edited by Shena McKay. Apart from that, Tabassum’s work isn’t widely known among Anglophone readers.

Sin is, therefore, valuable for readers who wish to develop a deeper understanding of her work. The collection reflects Karachi-based journalist Reema Abbasi’s effort to resurrect the writer’s body of work which, she believes, is “an untouched jewel of Urdu literature.” Abbasi has translated eighteen of Tabassum’s boldest stories along with an autobiographical essay she penned as a 24-year-old writer who had only started discovering her creative voice.

At first glance, the book’s title and the translator’s decision to divide the stories into sections based on four of the seven deadly sins lend a forbidden aura to the compilation. The stories deal with subjects that are arguably taboo but don’t derive their creative thrust from eroticism alone. If modern readers approach the stories with the expectation of encountering salacious accounts of the nawabs in Hyderabad Deccan, they will struggle to see them for anything other than their perceived shock value. Instead, Tabassum’s stories mine the dark, distressing truths about the status of women in an exploitative and repressed milieu.

Wajida Tabssum’s stories drew attention to the insidious ways in which Hyderabad’s elite oppressed women through rigid, outmoded customs that furthered patriarchal expectations. 

Abbasi’s Translator’s Note prepares readers for a broader view of the Urdu writer’s work and shouldn’t be overlooked at any cost. From the outset, the translator situates Tabassum’s work in the context of “a fierce battle for purity” that women are trapped in a conservative South Asian society. Abbasi states that Tabassum’s stories strip away the “confines of virtue that refuse women their right to possess the base elements of human nature”. The translator also asserts that Tabassum’s characters are invariably women who hail from “conservative, demanding households” and gain the liberty to act upon their desires. Through their subtle yet significant acts of rebellion, the author’s characters challenge patriarchy in a genuine quest for equality.

When reading a collection of short stories, it is often tricky to rigidly adhere to the predefined order presented in the table of contents. Even so, readers are advised against changing the order. Any effort to underscore this fact through spoilers will only impede the reader’s experience of discovering the splendour of these stories. Nevertheless, some of the stories embody the spirit of the collection and deserve to be mentioned.

The first section, titled Lust, exposes the ways in which desire is transposed into a male-dominated tool that diminishes the identity of women. In Chinaal (Fallen Venus), Sabir marries a courtesan named Gauhar Jaan and earns the ire of his righteous mother. However, Sabir’s bride soon discovers that righteousness is often used to disguise darker realities. Hor Upar! (Up, further up!) was vilified for its brazen attempt to subvert the cherished ideals of monogamy and show how women can also claim ownership over the hallowed and inordinately male-centric notion of desire. Talaq, Talaq, Talaq (Separation) depicts a woman’s attempt to exact revenge on a lascivious nawab who falls for her and forcibly makes her husband divorce her.

The second section examines how patriarchy impinges upon a woman’s pride. The two stories that stand out in this section are Paish Bandi (In Loveless Anticipation) and Zakat (The Alms of Death). The former offers a powerful critique of the blinding glare of lust that often prevents men from seeing the cruel repercussions of their actions. The latter carries the spirit of a much-needed revolt against age-old misconceptions that men harbour about women as mere objects of desire.

The other two sections present some moving and haunting accounts that examine the peculiarities of customs that stifled women in Hyderabad Deccan in the mid-Twentieth Century. The crowning glory of the collection is undoubtedly the autobiographical piece titled Meri Kahani (My Story), which provides some valuable insights into Tabassum’s early life and creative pursuits. “My fault was that I cast naked truths in stories,” she writes about the tales that readers raised objections about. In another part of the essay, she explores her reasons for drawing upon specific themes as opposed to others. “It is simple,” she writes, “Hyderabad Deccan is my world and gangsters in Karachi are beyond the sweep of my wildest aspirations.”

Readers familiar with Utran will recall how the dialogue in the story carries the sounds and flavours of Dakhni. While it is difficult to reflect these nuances in English, Abbasi’s translations have a transformative quality that channels the spirit of a forgotten era and presents it on the page with flair. The translator has succeeded in opening a portal into a closed world for readers who may not have a firsthand experience of it.


Author: Wajida Tabassum

Translator: Reema Abbasi

Publisher: Liberty Publishing

Pages: Paperback, 240

Price: Rs 1,295

The reviewer is a freelance journalist and the author of Typically Tanya

The spirit of a forgotten era