Book Reviews

Review Published in BOOK REVIEW

Of An Age Gone By

An Evening in Lucknow; Selected Stories by K.A.Abbas; Edited by Suresh Kohli; Harper Perennial 2011;
Pps 226; Rs 299

MARCH, 2012

Reading the short stories of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas in the India of today- the emerging, global economy of enviable GDP growth, free market enterprise, bustling shopping malls- is a sobering exercise. They remind one of another India, the black and white India of the early Nehruvian years when the idealism of nation-building was more in evidence though often found bleeding on the jagged edges of poverty and deprivation, resistant feudalism, inequalities and the divides of caste and religion. It was a time when socialism was not a derided philosophy and when normal households regularly read journals called Current and Blitz. That was a time when you got bought only one type of Bata leather shoes for school and home alike and one type of ‘fleet’ shoes no matter what game you played. If you were lucky, the family had one Fiat car which would last the owner’s lifetime, a precious Kelvinator fridge and a wonder called a pressure cooker. There were five-year plans, Films Division documentaries, large dams, ration shops and long waits for the big black telephone. Not to say that this other india, at least in its essence, has vanished; it exists, and is somewhat patronizingly referred to by stylish TV anchors as ‘Bharat’. But it certainly does not have centre stage in our consciousness or in our writing today. And one wonders where Abbas, who wrote for the last page of Blitz for a straight forty years, would have published today and whether his stories would have been dismissed as being ‘so aam aadmi.’

Suresh Kohli has therefore done a stellar service in resurrecting a selection of the stories of K .A.Abbas for the modern reader before the writer is completely forgotten. As Kohli says in his introduction, Abbas’s “handful of insightful novels, considerable repertoire of seemingly simple yet intense short stories, his record-breaking, crusading journalism, a number of films inspired by the neo-realist school, all seemed to have been confined to the dark abyss of history.” Much of the credit for his idealistic and passionate screenplays has gone to others like V. Shantaram (Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani) and Raj Kapoor (stories for Awara, Shree 420, Bobby). Of his films, only Saat Hindustani is remembered today, and that too because it was in that film that Amitabh Bachchan made his screen debut. In this volume, which clearly comes across as a labour of love, Kohli has added an interesting post-script section to the stories that includes several interviews of Abbas that throw light on the man’s creative impulses as well as a gem of a letter by Mulk Raj Anand to Abbas in which he writes : “The strength of your short stories, my dear Abbas, lies in the fact that you have grasped the weaknesses of your characters amidst their strengths. You seem to have an uncanny, instinctive awareness for the other side of the ‘moon’ coupled with a passion for the light. And if the ‘moon’ may in this context stand for the land of our heart’s desire, our India, then surely you have brought to it the only kind of love which can redeem its present wretchedness and stretch out to its unexplored future. So it there is a message in your stories it seems to me this: ‘You cannot love India merely for its strengths but you have also to love it for its weaknesses.’

Abbas probably needed no pushing in this direction. Like many other members of the Progressive Writers Movement of which he was a part (and later fell out with), Abbas believed that the “improvement of man....... is the greatest mission of a writer, or an intellectual or a creative artist.” Familiar with the Urdu writing of his time- he was a contemporary of Krishan Chander, Ismat Chugtai, Sardar Jafri- and influenced by the great English and Russian classics, Abbas also modelled himself on the American writer Upton Sinclair, who like him, took inspiration from journalism and wrote for a cause. In fact Abbas refused to draw a line between journalism and literature, believing that good journalism was literature and bad literature was only journalism. Much of his creative work took inspiration from factual incidents and actual figures and was even criticised on this account but Abbas stoutly defended the mixing of fact and fiction pointing to men like Hemingway who wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls even as he covered and took part in the Spanish Civil War.

The present volume contains several excellent and timeless stories, prime among them being the celebrated tale “The Sparrows,” in which a brutal, boorish peasant is redeemed by the affection he feels for the sparrows nesting in his house. There is “The Green Motor Car” in which the launch of the sputnik revives the spirit to live in a defeated man in post-partition India; the title story “An Evening in Lucknow” that brings out the dying decadence of the city in evocative detail; “The Umbrella” in which the metaphor of a beautiful, foreign temptress who picks the pocket of dumbstruck, poor man on a rainy Bombay night signifies the avaricious nature of colonialism; and “Sylvia” in which a hard-working nurse finds beauty and reward in the act of service. There are several others worth the read though every once in a while the reader may find the symbolism a bit contrived, the conclusion too stark, the plot predictable. But what Abbas’s stories lack in literary subtlety, they more than make up in social commitment and uplifting humanism. Some more writing of this kind today may yet bring Bharat back into India.


Navtej Sarna
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