Urdu’s forgotten woman critic

March 19, 2023

Fifty years after her passing, Mumtaz Shirin’s work continues to be a valuable contribution to the literary canon of her times

Urdu’s forgotten woman critic


hatever she wrote gave us a new type of pleasure, she widened the light of her language within the unknown borders of darkness a little bit further. People with uncultured minds cannot write anything upon the tombstone of such an artist… she had triumphed over elements which can formally be called difficulties, but this triumph was of a positive kind because it also brought spoils of war. Sometimes her writings seem to glitter in a row like prize silverware. Upon them is engraved: These trophies are the triumph of mind over matter which is both her friend and enemy too.”

EM Forster once wrote these words about Virginia Woolf. With a few modifications, they also apply to short-story writer and critic Mumtaz Shirin, whose work remains a valuable contribution to the literary canon of her times fifty years after her passing.

At the start of her unfinished autobiography, Shirin reflects on the unique fusion of elements that shaped her art and personality: “Life does not comprise only accidents, events and physical experience. The intangible change in the biological and mental growth, character and attitude of any individual, the effect of tourism and other cultures, the idea of religion and morals, life (and my life too) is a combination of them all.”

Shirin was born in Hindupur, a town in Andhra Pradesh. Her early years were spent in Mysore, where her maternal grandparents raised her. Her father, Qazi Abdul Ghafoor, was her first teacher. She received most of her early education at home. About the features of childhood and their effect on her personality, she writes: “My early mental and, to an extent, literary training owes itself to the responsibility of my father and my religious and moral training in the shadow of my maternal grandfather… the solemnity, purity and piety of my maternal grandfather; my father’s tolerance, liberal ideas, free and contented life, luxury and comfort; mother’s simplicity, innocence, carelessness with the world and inexperience, patience and contentment and seclusion; and the civility, friendliness, popularity, liveliness and refinement, all these contrary effects and qualities are dissolved intangibly in my character and person.” During her early years in Mysore, Mumtaz Shirin viewed it as a ‘city of lost paradise and desire.’ Her maternal grandfather significantly impacted her life during this time, providing her with a strong influence. In fact, upon hearing of his passing, she left her autobiography unfinished, a testament to his profound impact on her life.

After completing her BA from Maharani College in Mysore, Mumtaz Shirin married Samad Shaheen in August 1942. She later described him as the dominant influence for the rest of her life. Around this time, her literary career also began to take shape. In an interview, she reflected on her early days as a writer. She shared her thoughts on the subject: “Since childhood, I have had a taste for reading literary things. I also used to write short stories at a young age, but I do not regard that as a part of my literary career. The urge for literary taste in the true sense came in 1942 after my marriage. Since Samad Shaheen had a literary taste, my library contained mostly literary books so. As I read good literature, my literary taste developed and I gained the courage to write too.”

Mumtaz Shirin gained immediate fame after her first short story, Angdai, was published in 1943 in Saqi. According to Muhammad Hasan Askari, “Mumtaz Shirin is one of the few Urdu writers, male or female, whose story begins with her fame. She did not have to wait to become famous; after the [publication of] her first short story, she commanded the attention of literature lovers.” Besides writing short stories, Shirin was interested in what other writers were producing. This interest and association led to the creation of Naya Daur, which Shirin and Samad Shaheen started publishing from Bangalore in 1944. Naya Daur was issued in book form, modelled after Penguin New Writing, and was the first Urdu journal of its kind. Due to the editors’ excellent literary taste, Naya Daur was regarded as a literary journal of a high standard. It is still referenced. Shirin’s association with the journal and her literary endeavours continued until her death.

Shirin excelled both in creative writing and criticism, as evidenced by works like Aaina, perhaps her most effective composition. 

Mumtaz Shirin gained more recognition after her first critical essay, 1943 Kay Afsanay, was published in the inaugural issue of Naya Daur. Askari said, “It was a totally new thing in Urdu for a woman writer to not only write good short stories but also write reasonable criticism.” The essay’s publication earned her appreciation from writers nationwide and further solidified her reputation as a talented and insightful writer.

During that period, Shirin was deeply engaged in short story writing, married life, reading new books, and the responsibility of bringing out the journal. Her life revolved around these pursuits. Their reflections can be seen in her short stories, such as Apni Nagariya and Ghaneri Badliyon Mein. Her first short-story collection, Apni Nagariya, was published in 1947 with a preface by Muhammad Hasan Askari.

Shirin excelled both in creative writing and criticism, as evidenced by works like Aaina, perhaps her most effective composition. She also wrote articles like Technique ka Tanavvo, resulting from her vast reading, literary awareness, consciousness of literary devices, and deep acquaintance with Western and Urdu literature.

In 1947, Shirin left her native land and moved to Karachi. Her activities took a new direction in Karachi, where she took out the Fasadaat Number (Riots Issue) of Naya Daur. She conducted a thorough study of short stories written on the riots. She also made a selection of the best short stories with the title Zulmat-i-Neem-Roz for the Pakistan Writers’ Guild. Unfortunately, the book was not published in her lifetime.

Shirin’s study of these stories prompted her criticism of propaganda without a true feeling for the significance and terror of the riots.

In these essays, among other things, Shirin criticised certain features of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. She also proposed ideas for an association of writers in the newborn state. She advocated for a spirit of nationalism and communal consciousness in Pakistani literature. The writers, she held, should stand by the people’s desires for strength, progress and nation-building. Like Muhammad Hasan Askari, her ideas favoured a new consciousness in the literary tradition of Indo-Islamic civilisation and Urdu. For this, she faced a lot of opposition.

After reading a large number of short stories written on the Partition riots, Shirin was dissatisfied with what she called a superficial praise of humanity. This led her to contemplate the nature of man and the conflict between good and evil. She turned her attention to Saadat Hasan Manto and wrote several essays, including Maasiyat, Masoomiyat (Sin and innocence) and Targheeb-i-Gunah: Aurat Ka Tasavvur (The idea of women as a temptation to sin). Shirin asserted that Manto went beyond the portrayal of a ‘natural’ or ‘primordial’ man and had depicted an ‘incomplete’ man. She started writing a book titled Noori Na Naari (Neither heavenly nor hellish) that remained unfinished. Her study of Manto’s work went beyond psychological interpretations and explored mythology. It remains unique in modern Urdu literary criticism.

Shirin continued to evolve not in her critical writing but also as a short-story writer. In her youth, she had written stories that depicted protected lives. However, after encountering the complexities of life, she started exploring more profound themes, such as the duality of human nature and the struggle between good and evil. She aimed to blend these themes with a growing consciousness of technique and capture multiple aspects of reality. To achieve this, she developed the concept of a “three-dimensional short story.” She cited Krishan Chander’s Annadata and Aziz Ahmad’s Madan Sena Aur Sadiyan, and her own short stories Megh Malhar and Deepak Rag, as examples of this form.

The success of these long short stories has been a subject of controversy. Some critics argued that without uniting mythology with its epoch, the details and poetical beauty of the stories do not serve any purpose or carry any meaning. Muzaffar Ali Syed asserted that the comparison/ juxtaposition achieved in these stories did not provide insight into contemporary aesthetics or cultural requirements. Despite the criticism, these remain important experiments in Urdu short story. More than the stories, some critics objected to the foreword in which Shirin had explained the literary merit of her writing.

Shirin attributed her emergence from the sheltered world of her adolescence to her experience of the outside world and her exposure to other cultures. She embarked on numerous journeys and spent time in various countries to broaden her horizons. In October 1954, she participated in the PEN international conference held in the Netherlands. That year, she also attended a course on modern English literature at Oxford University, during which she wrote a monograph on Emily Brontë, a writer with whom she felt a deep affinity due to her portrayal of love that transcends death and time. In 1958, she accompanied her husband to Bangkok and lived there for three years. It was during her stay in Bangkok that Mumtaz Shirin wrote her short story Kaffara (Atonement), published in 1962. She did not write a short story after that.

Two books published around the same time marked the climax of her writing career. In 1962, her second collection of short stories, Megh Malhar, was published in Karachi. A collection of her critical articles titled Meyaar (Standard) was published from Lahore in 1963, with a preface by Muhammad Hasan Askari. Earlier, she had translated John Steinbeck’s novel, The Pearl, (as Durre Shahwar). It was published in 1975. She also wrote an introduction to a collection of American short stories titled Paap Ki Nagri (The city of sin), published in 1957. She also translated Camus’s novel, The Stranger. However,the translation remained unpublished.

In 1963, Shirin relocated to Turkey with her husband. They live there until 1967. During this time, her literary output began to slow down. By the time she returned to Islamabad in 1967, she had largely disengaged from the literary world. Apart from two brief essays on Manto, she did not write anything in this phase. The reasons for her literary silence remain unclear. It has been argued that Shirin’s development as a critic may have stifled her growth as a writer of fiction.

Her health too declined during this period and after several bouts of illness, she was diagnosed with terminal intestinal cancer. She passed away on March 11, 1973.

Shirin’s literary legacy includes several unfinished projects and writings published in various magazines. These include translations from foreign languages; a few critical essays; an incomplete autobiography; English translations of her own short stories Footfalls Echo; and booklets in English on Emily Brontë and Boris Pasternak.

Some of her work was compiled by the late Asif Farrukhi and the rest by Prof Tanzim-ul-Firdous, who also wrote a critique published by the Pakistan Academy of Letters.

The writer is a Lahore-based writer, critic, translator and researcher. He is translating Mumtaz Shirin’s short stories and unfinished autobiography. He can be reached at: razanaeem@hotmail.com. He tweets @raza_naeem1979

Urdu’s forgotten woman critic