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 Khushwant 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 Khushwant 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.

Women Writers in Indian Languages

10 Indian language women writers who should feature on your reading list

India has a rich literary heritage. The diversity in cultural and lingual spheres has given rise to varied narratives with unique viewpoints. Many women writers throughout our history have strived to write fearlessly and question stereotypes. This Women’s Day we share a list of ten women writers who have broken stereotypes and challenged the way women are written about.

Qurratulain Hyder
Urdu
One of the most outstanding literary names in Urdu literature, she is best known for her magnum opus, Aag Ka Darya. It tells a story that moves from the Fourth Century BC to the post-Independence period in India and Pakistan. The female characters in most of her works are portrayed as independent individuals rather than being known through the male lens.

Kamala Das
Malayalam
Kamala Das is best known for her fearless and unapologetic treatment of female sexuality and questioning patriarchal norms. In her autobiographical novel, My Story originally published in Malayalam, titled Ente Katha, Das recounts the trials of her marriage and her painful self-awakening as a woman and writer.

Mahasweta Devi
Bangla
Mahasweta Devi has been known as one of the boldest female writers in India. Her Bengali novel, Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa delved into the life of an ordinary Indian mother fighting against all odds to retain the memory of her dead son. Rudali, based on the life of Sanichari, a poor low-caste village woman and a professional mourner, is an ironic tale of exploitation and struggle and above all survival. A powerful text, Rudali is considered an important feminist text for contemporary India.

Indira Goswami
Assamese
Indira Goswami continually addressed social injustices in her work. Her writing was spurred on by widowhood and social injustice. From her first novel, Neel Kanthi Braja (Shadow of Dark God, 1986), she examined the social and psychological deprivations of widowhood to Tej Aru Dhulire Dhushorito Prishtha (Pages Stained With Blood, 2001), where she writes about a young female teacher in the neighbourhoods of Delhi that have been affected by anti-Sikh riots in the wake of the assassination of Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards, her characters stand out and are imprinted in your mind forever.

M K Indira
Kannada
Malooru Krishnarao Indira is a well-known Kannada novelist. Her most popular novel, Phaniyamma is based on the life of a child widow. It is a real-life story of a widow whom Indira knew during her childhood. While Gejje Pooje revolves around the life of prostitutes and the social stigma associated with it. Indira’s works have been a strong critique of various unjust practices related to women in the society.

Lalithambika Antharjanam
Malayalam
Lalitambika Antharjanam, is popularly known for her short stories and powerful woman narratives in Malayalam literature. Her novel, Agnisakshi tells the story of a Nambudiri woman, struggling for social and political emancipation. The novelist highlights the women’s role in society and critiques the social institutions that limit women and curtail their freedom.

Bama
Tamil
Bama, the Tamil, Dalit, feminist novelist who rose to fame with her autobiographical novel Karukku, which chronicles the joys and sorrows experienced by Dalit Christian women in Tamil Nadu. They portray caste-discrimination practised in Christianity and Hinduism. Bama’s works are seen as embodying Dalit feminism and are famed for celebrating the inner strength of the subaltern woman.

Kundanika Kapadia
Gujarati
Kundanika Kapadia is a Gujarati novelist, story writer and essayist who won the Sahitya Akademi Award for Gujarati in 1985 for Sat Pagala Akashma – a revolutionary feminist work in Gujarati. The novel raises questions about the status of a married woman accorded to her by a male-dominated society and struggles to find an equal voice and liberty for women.

Krishna Sobti
Hindi
Krishna Sobti is popularly known for her bold and daring characters in her novel. Her most acclaimed novel Mitro Marajani is about a young married woman’s exploration and assertion of her sexuality, which set the Hindi literary world aflame and is seen as a major feminist work.

Forthright as ever, Sobti said, “I don’t like being called a ‘woman writer’. I would rather be called a writer who is also a woman…”

Irawati Karve
Marathi
Though not a novelist, Irawati Karve’s refreshing approach to Mahabharata in her collection of essays, Yuganta: The End of an Epoch, have left a lasting mark in literature. Scientific in spirit, yet appreciative of the literary tradition of the Mahabharata, she challenges the familiar and formulates refreshingly new interpretations, all the while refusing to judge the characters harshly or venerate blindly.

Do you have a list of your own? Do share it with us in the comments below.