Reading a forgotten voice

Reading a forgotten voice

An evening in lucknow
K A Abbas
Harper Collins
2011, pp 212
Rs. 299

As if to acknowledge that Abbas is no longer widely known, the book has a few chapters at the end which helpfully give us an insight into the man. We learn that Abbas found his bearings in pre-independent Bombay as a journalist, writing short fiction, novels, plays and film scripts of a high calibre on the side, including the screen play for Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani which was made into a hit film by V Shantaram. Abbas was drawn to the freedom movement in the course of which he cultivated a lifelong association with Pandit Nehru that combined a deep friendship with hero worship. Those who feed off Hindi cinema trivia may remember Abbas as someone who gave Amitabh Bachchan his debut cinema role in Saat Hindustani.

A letter from Mulk Raj Anand, written in January 1947, praises Abbas’ short story ‘Sparrows’, which at one time was included in a collection of the great short stories of the world. The senior writer observes, “The strength of your short stories, my dear Abbas, lies in the fact that you have grasped the weaknesses of your characters amid their strengths.”

A couple of interviews of Abbas help us understand his involvement with the left-leaning Progressive Writers’ Movement among other things.
In order to appreciate Abbas’ craft, the current generation of Indians who read English short fiction may need to keep aside their sensibilities derived from a staple diet of Western fiction. Reading him is like seeing a black-and-white Hindi film of yesteryears. His stories empathise with the poor and the disadvantaged and palpably show a social concern. Most urban Indians, cut off as they are from poverty, not merely in rural India but even in their own cities, may find this difficult to relate to.

The most celebrated among the stories is ‘Sparrows’. It tells us of Rahim Khan, a loutish man who is feared and shunned by his family and village. When he discovers a nest of fledgling sparrows in the rafters of his humble home, he shows towards them a tenderness he is not known to possess, saving them from a downpour at the cost of his own life.
In ‘Sylvia’, the eponymous nurse feels so passionately about her calling that she is willing to say no to a marriage that would force her to quit her job, even if that means she will be stigmatised by society. In ‘The Sword of Shiva’, four caste men gather beneath a tree as a storm rages. Together, they are symbols of caste oppression in rural India — priest, landlord, the record keeper and moneylender. They are even willing to kill the people of ‘low caste’ rather than let them into the shelter of the tree. But the forces of nature strike them down, thereby instilling a sense of justice in the old Hindi cinema way.

This O Henryesque style meets a Shantaram-like cinematic sentimentality in many of the stories. Contemporary readers may find the sentimentality a little too much in-your-face. But these stories certainly deserve a place in our bookshelf for their humanism.

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