AUSTIN, Texas - Professor Snehal Shingavi’s translation of Angaaray – the first English translation ever of the work – has just been published by Penguin India.
First published in 1932, this slim volume of short stories created a firestorm of public outrage for its bold attack on the hypocrisy of conservative Islam and British colonialism. Inspired by British modernists like Woolf and Joyce as well as the Indian independence movement, the young writers who penned this collection—Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmud-uz-Zafar—were eager to revolutionize Urdu literature. Instead, they invited the wrath of the establishment: the book was burned in protest and then banned by the British authorities. Nevertheless, Angaaray spawned a new generation of Urdu writers and led to the formation of the Progressive Writers’ Association, whose members included, among others, stalwarts like Chughtai, Manto, Premchand and Faiz.
Translated into English for the first time, Angaaray retains the crackling energy and fiery polemic of the original stories. This edition also provides a compelling account of the furore surrounding this explosive collection.
Professor Shingavi was kind enough to answer some questions about the origins, the writers, and the legacy of this controversial and culturally important book.
So, this book was banned when it was first published. Could you explain why it was banned?
The book was critical of both conservative elements within the Muslim community as well as of the corrosive effects of British imperial rule in India. One of the stories, “A Vision of Heaven,” contains a scene about a Muslim cleric having an erotic dream about the afterlife and waking up while ejaculating on the Qur’an. So, it necessarily antagonized two powerful constituencies. What’s interesting about this is that the British used Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code to confiscate all of the copies of the book (except for a few which they saved in the British Library). Section 295A criminalized speech which had the possibility of “outraging the religious feelings of any class … or [attempting] to insult the religion or religious beliefs of that class.” It’s a law that is still on the books in India and has been used, for instance, to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
Why were the British who were ruling in India at the time eager to ban the book and please this conservative Muslim group?
The British had a number of strategies that they used to govern India, but the one they relied on most heavily was pitting different communities against one another. This was necessary for them since the British forces in India numbered about 100,000 while there were more than 250 million Indians. One of the easiest ways for them to do this was to create the impression that there were two distinct communities (Muslim and Hindu) with very different social and cultural outlooks that were supposed to be antagonistic to one another. In order to accomplish that feat of social engineering, they supported the most conservative elements in both Muslim and Hindu communities.
What became of the four authors after the book’s publication and the many subsequent legal and physical threats against them?
They all survived, but the toll was immense. Rashid Jahan was singled out for target, since she was the only woman in the group. Sajjad Zaheer went on to be a writer in Pakistan. Ahmed Ali also continued to write, but had an enormous falling out with the others over political differences. Rashid Jahan and Mahmud-uz-Zafar were leading members of the Communist Party of India and were repeatedly thrown in jail for their activism.
Is the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association functioning in any way today? How was this group, formed in part by the authors of Angaaray, influential in Indian literature and society?
It is still active, but it is not as powerful or influential as it once was. The AIPWA actually split when Partition happened and divided India from Pakistan. So there’s also a PWA in Pakistan. It was a group of writers who were committed to using art as a tool to help social change and justice come about, and in the heady days leading up to independence, every young artist wanted to be a part of something like that. Through the 40s and 50s, though, it was probably the most important literary association in the region, and the most important and influential writers of the time were members.
Why did you choose to translate this work at this time? How do you feel that it is relevant in contemporary India and in society in general today?
Well, it’s an important text, for obvious reasons, and as I was doing my research for my dissertation I thought it was strange that everyone was commenting on the book’s importance but no one had read it or could find a copy of it. I’m told that there are bootleg copies of it available in India. In the 1990s, two scholars, Shabana Mahmud and Khalid Alvi, tracked down copies of the book and republished them. Those were the texts that I relied on to do the translation.
I think that India and Pakistan are still undergoing vast changes, and the problems that are posed by economic disparity, sexism, and conservative religious forces are very durable. And the collection was very forward thinking, addressing issues that we are still reluctant to talk about: marital rape, religious chauvinisms, the consequences of poverty. That makes the collection feel contemporary, even though it is also a historical document.