Resisting tradition

July 18, 2021

Sameena Nazir’s debut collection is an important addition to feminist writing in Urdu

Resisting tradition

Urdu is often called a courtly language, and whether this classification is historically accurate or not, it is certainly true that the language’s relatively short literary history is replete with courtiers, sycophants, and apologists. The tradition of modern prose fiction in Urdu was popularised by colonial bureaucrats; Deputy Nazir Ahmed is one example. Ahmed’s novels aimed to modernise Muslim culture while relying on orientalist and colonialist conceptions of modernity. He was particularly obsessed with the idea of reforming Muslim women and turning them into moral stereotypes that could simultaneously embody Islamic tradition and colonial modernity.

Fortunately, Urdu fiction, especially prose written by women, has challenged these patriarchal dictates. It is one of the most pleasing ironies of literary history that a prose tradition that was inaugurated by men like Deputy Nazir Ahmed is today best known for the work of writers like Rashid Jahan, Ismat Chughtai, Qurratulain Hyder and Khalida Hussain.

Sameena Nazir’s debut collection, Kallo, which consists of six short stories and two plays, is an important addition to this tradition of feminist writing in Urdu. As Nazir says in the foreword to the book: “This collection is actually a private gathering of beautiful but deadly women… As for the men, they are obligatory; they are also present here and there.” The book delivers on this promise with stories and plays that centre around female characters. But instead of presenting us with exemplary moral women, Nazir presents us with a range of characters and communities from India to Pakistan, pre-partition times to the present, young to old, rich to poor. Nazir focuses on these women and their social conditions, lovingly presenting us with their innermost desires and fears; the various constraints put on them; the ways they resist such restrictions.

Deputy Ahmed’s novel, Mirat-ul-Uroos, often recognised as the first novel of Urdu literature, is the story of two sisters, Akbari and Asghari. Akbari, who is represented as lazy and immoral, has a very hard time transitioning to her new life after marriage. On the other hand, Asghari, who is depicted as hard-working and modest, is able to successfully integrate herself into her husband’s family. One of Akbari’s crucial shortcomings, according to Deputy Ahmed, is her friendship with women from a lower social class. In fact, this democratic habit leads to her very first quarrel with her husband, who accuses her of associating with working-class and low-caste women.

Deputy Ahmed is contemptuous of female companionship across social boundaries of class and caste. He considers it a corrupting influence on respectable, middle-class women. Nazir, in her title story, Kallo, completely subverts this view. Her story revolves around the relationship between the married, middle-class housewife, Mushtari Bano, and the working-class orphan, Kallo.

Mushtari Bano’s husband wants children, and when they are unable to reproduce as a couple, he decides to take a second wife and move away from her. Mushtari Bano is grief-stricken and unable to cope with this abandonment. Kallo is raped by her uncle and subsequently thrown out of the house by her aunt who blames her for her rape by accusing her of tempting her uncle. The two women find refuge with each other. Slowly, this refuge turns into a space of pleasure. They start taking joy in each other’s friendship – in each other’s emotional and sexual companionship. The story ends with Mushtari Bano’s husband dying from the shock of seeing her grab Kallo’s hand in front of him, take her to her room and locks the door. Unlike Deputy Ahmed’s Akbari, who ruins herself and her family by befriending working-class women, Nazir’s characters find enjoyment, pleasure, and a new reason to live in their association with each other.

Nazir’s attack on colonial, middle-class values of morality continues in the next story, Rajjo. The story is narrated by a teenager. He is attracted to the family’s domestic servant, Rajjo, and sleeps with her any chance he gets. The story opens with his father telling his mother to kick Rajjo out of the house as she is a Hindu. However, the mother is reluctant to part with Rajjo because she is extremely helpful around the house. When the father angrily leaves the house, declaring that he doesn’t want to see Rajjo when he returns, an aunt asks the mother what she is going to do about this threat. The mother calmly responds: “Forget it! Men’s anger is just like foreign shampoo; one moment, it’s a mountain of foam, and the next moment, it’s nothing but water.”

But the father refuses to give up his demand and fights between the father and mother keep getting worse. Meanwhile, the teenage son is only interested in ogling Rajjo and sleeping with her. Finally, Rajjo is converted to Islam, so she can continue to live in the house. The dispute is settled in this manner, and everyone seems to be satisfied. Early one morning, while everyone is asleep and the narrator is tossing and turning in his bed, fantasising about Rajjo, he catches his father walk into an abandoned room, followed by Rajjo. The sounds escaping the room confirm his suspicions.

Characters like Kallo and Rajjo are forceful reminders that some of the prevalent ideas of morality are oppressive. They are designed by privileged men to uphold a status quo that persecutes women, working-class people and religious minorities. At a time when our country’s politicians are finding it difficult to draft a simple domestic violence bill; women labourers are being dismissed for organising against factory owners; most sexual harassers go unpunished we need more writers like Sameena Nazir, who have the rare gift of exposing the complex entanglements of class, gender, and religion in our society with memorable characters and quick-witted dialogues.


Author: Sameena Nazir

Publisher: Maktaba-i-Danyal, 2021

Price: Rs 850

The reviewer is pursuing a PhD in comparative literature at the UCLA. He is the translator of Mirza Athar Baig’s Hassan’s State of Affairs and a member of the Progressive Academics’ Collective

Resisting tradition