Book List

Six must-read translations of Urdu novels

With over 50 million native speakers, Urdu is the seventh most spoken language in India. The Urdu language has a rich literary tradition in the Indian subcontinent, ranging from Mirza Ghalib’s poetry to Saadat Hasan Manto’s social realist short stories about partition.

The Urdu novel and short story was preceded by dastangoi or the oral storytelling tradition. The early Urdu novels that emerged in the nineteenth century were initially centered around urban social life and later expanded to include rural social narratives. In the twentieth century, under the influence of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Urdu fiction, in particular, the short story form flourished and was concerned with social inequality and injustice. During the partition period, Urdu fiction primarily dealt with themes of migration, identity, and decolonization.

Here is a list of Urdu novels that are easily accessible in English translation. 

Mirat-al-Urus by Nazir Ahmad
Translated as The Bride’s Mirror by G.E. Ward

Published in 1869, The Bride’s Mirror deals with the themes of female education in Muslim society and social and educational reforms in the second half of the nineteenth century in India. The plot revolves around the contrasting life paths of two sisters from Delhi who are married to two brothers. Akbari, the spoilt and poorly educated sister lives a troubled life after her marriage while Asghari who is hardworking and well educated is able to deal with the difficulties she faces and forms a good relationship with her husband’s family and the local community. Through the story of the two sisters, Ahmad creates a compelling portrait of a rapidly changing society in Delhi in the nineteenth century.

Aag Ka Darya by Qurratulain Hyder
Translated as River of Fire by the author

The novel unfolds over two and a half millennia of Indian history, covering the classical, medieval, colonial, and postcolonial periods. The narrative moves seamlessly from one epoch to another, interlinked by four characters: Gautam, Champa, Kamaal, and Cyril who represent the various ethnic and religious groups that have populated the region. In the final post-partition period, historical continuity is disrupted with the division of people and creation of nation states. With its magical elements interlaced with parables, legends, and personal notes, Hyder’s masterpiece provides a sweeping overview of the history of the Indian subcontinent and sends out a clear message of inclusivity.

Ek Chadar Maili Si by Rajinder Singh Bedi
Translated as I Take This Woman by Kushwant Singh

Set in a village in undivided Punjab, the novel revolves around the lives of Rano and her young brother-in-law Mangal, who are forced to marry each other after the death of Rano’s husband, even though Rano has raised Mangal like her own son. Eventually, both Rano and Mangal reach a level of understanding and are able to form a conjugal bond. Tackling themes of sexuality, society, patriarchy across religions, this novel remains a classic in the Urdu literary canon.

Bazaar-e-Husn by Premchand
Translated as Sevasadan by Snehal Shingavi

Originally written in Urdu, the novel was first published in Hindi in 1919 and in Urdu in 1924. Set at the turn of the twentieth century in the city of Benares, the novel tells the story of Suman, an unhappy housewife, who forced out of her home by her husband, ends up becoming a courtesan. During this period, as a result of social reforms, the local municipal corporation orders the relocation of kothas or brothels to the periphery of the city. Suman faces social ostracism as a courtesan and eventually discovers an existence that restores her agency. Through Bazaar-e-Husn, Premchand exposes the hypocrisy of society and presents a critique of the demand for women to be the standard bearers of morality in colonial India.

Umrao Jan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa
Translated by Kushwant Singh and M. A. Husaini

Published in 1899, Umrao Jan Ada is a fictional first-person account of an eponymous Lucknawi courtesan and poet, as narrated to the author. Set in the mid-nineteenth century, the novel recreates the decadence of Awadhi aristocracy and provides an insight into the social impact of the Revolt of 1857 in Lucknow. As a young girl, Umrao is kidnapped and sold to a tawaif or a high-class courtesan and trained in classical music and dance and literature. Through the use of psychological realism, Ruswa creates one of the most complex and memorable characters in Urdu literature.

Ajeeb Aadmi by Ismat Chughtai
Translated as A Very Strange Man by Tahira Naqvi

Situated in the Bombay film industry of the 1940s and 50s, the novel tells the story of Dharam Dev, a popular married actor and director and his infatuation with Zarina, a young dancer from Madras. With his help, Zarina becomes a famous actress and subsequently abandons him. The narrative follows the descent of Dharam Dev and his wife into depression and alcoholism. Chughtai, who was herself part of the film industry as a screenwriter and producer, explores the dark side of ambition, glamour, and infatuation in her characteristic irreverent prose.

About the blogger
Priyanka Lindgren has a background in linguistics and refugee studies. She is passionate about world literature, in particular, 20th-century South Asian literature in translation. She is the Culture Editor at The Lead, part of the International Women’s Initiative. She blogs about books and South Asian identity at thesouthasianreader.wordpress.com.

World Hindi Day

Six translations of Hindi works that are a must read!

To mark the first Hindi Conference held in Nagpur between January 10-12 1975, World Hindi Day is celebrated every year on January 10. Hindi is one of the most widely spoken languages in India. The rich and diverse culture the country represents is extensively reflected in classics of our regional literature. Hindi novels, with its immortal themes, are often neglected by monolingual Indian because of their inability to read Hindi as fluently as English. Translation of regional Indian languages thus holds a paramount position in the accessibility of Hindi literature too.

On this World Hindi Day, we celebrate our loved language by bringing to you six Hindi Novels which have been made accessible to an English reader in translation.

Godan By Munshi Premchand
Translated as The Gift of a Cow by Jai Ratan and P Lal

Godan, written by Munshi Premchand in 1956, is one of the greatest novels of modern Indian literature. The novel is an important social documentary dealing with the poor economic conditions of the Indian peasants. It revolves around the social deprivation of a poor couple and the importance of a cow in the village context. The characters – Hori and Dhania – have since become immortal icons of social and class struggle. The realism, artistry and tenderness with which he has created the characters here, particularly that of Hori, are unparalleled and unsurpassed in Indian fiction.

Raag Darbari by Shri Lal Shukla
Translated by Gillian Wright

Raag Darbari, published in 1970, is a commentary on the disconnect between what we practice and what we preach. Rangnath, a history student visits his village and stays there to notice the stark differences between the ideals he learnt at university and the practices of his uncle, the village head. One of the most hard-hitting satires of modern India against the myriad instances of manipulation, abuse, and machinations of power struggle, Raag Darbari remains one of the most telling narratives of the chasm between libertarian ideals and social dogmas.

Gunahon ka Devta by Dharamvir Bharati
Translated as Chander and Sudha by Poonam Saxena

This passionate love story revolves around the intertwined and inseparable viciousness of marriage and caste hierarchy. Chander is from a lower caste than Sudha and that is why he doesn’t dare ask for Sudha’s hand in marriage from her father. While Sudha seems to be ‘modern’, she cannot stand up to the social pressure to get married to the man of her father’s choice; Chander also forces her to abide by the wishes of her father. This, then, is the turning point in the novel but it is also through this tragedy that the story becomes appealing to the readers; making it a bestseller till this day.

Tamas by Bhisham Sahni
Translated by the author

Tamas is the ‘reflective response’ to the partition of India and Pakistan. Partially based on true events that Sahni witnessed himself in the communal riots during India’s Partition in 1947, the novel follows the life of people from both communities – Hindu and Muslim, and from various classes and backgrounds, as tensions in cities build up. It presents a snapshot of a violent and fractured period in Indian history and through fictionalization allows the reader to inhabit the minds of those who perpetrated and suffered through its worst crimes.

Mitro Marajani by Krishna Sobti
Translated as To hell with you Mitro by Gita Rajan and Raji Narasimhan

Mitro’s mystique is well summed up by her mother-in-law Dhanvanti: “No one can fathom this girl. When she’s good, she’s better than the best. When she’s bad, she’s worse than the worst.”

The vampish bahus of soap operas are nothing but inferior versions of this hell-raiser, who is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating characters in Indian literature. Its an unapologetic portrayal of a married woman who brooks no limits to her sexuality is as compelling, pertinent provocative today as when it shook the Hindi literary world in 1966.

Adha Gaon by Rahi Masoom Raza
Translated as A Village Divided by Gillian Wright

Rahi Masoom Raza’s honest and controversial novel unfolds during the latter years of the Raj and the first decade of Independence and portrays the rival halves of a zamindar family, their loves, fights and litigations. It attacks the creation of Pakistan and explores the abolition of the zamindari system and its impact at the village level. This is a semi-autobiographical work set in the author’s village of Gangauli, in Ghazipur district on the fringes of Avadh.

Dr Raza becomes the voice of millions of Indian Muslims, who had nothing to do with the making of Pakistan and who refuse to leave the place they call home.