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  • Truth, Fiction and Autobiography in the Modern Urdu Narrative Tradition
  • Amina Yaqin (bio)

Historicizing the Urdu Novel

From its various beginnings in the nineteenth century and ever since the rise of print capitalism on the Indian subcontinent, the Urdu novel has become a prime medium of expression for writers seeking to fuse the narrative traditions of both the East and the West. As a hybrid genre which took shape during the nineteenth century, the Urdu novel's early beginnings were associated with the theme of historical romance; this eventually gave way to the influence of realism in the first half of the twentieth century. By and large, the Urdu novel incorporates influences encompassing the fantastical oral storytelling tradition of the dastan or the qissa (elaborate lengthy heroic tales of adventure, magic and honour), the masnavi (a form of narrative poem), Urdu grammars, religious pamphlets and journals, and the European novel.1 Proceeding initially from an historical overview of the Urdu novel, focusing on specific instances of its development, the main thrust of this essay will be the link between women and the novel; specifically, I wish to highlight the development of the 'local narrative voice' of Urdu fiction in women's writing, including autobiography.

Due to its greater availability in written form, which was facilitated by the new printing presses in India, Urdu prose writing enjoyed a considerable increase in readership during the period of British colonial rule. This boost in popularity was accelerated in the second half of the nineteenth century in particular by the flourishing of such journals as Avadh Akhbar, Tehzibu'l Akhlaq and Avadh Panc. According to M. Asaduddin, the 'intellectual-cultural-literary encounter between the East and the West' first took place in the writings which appeared in these periodicals, reflecting a dialogic engagement with 'the terms of colonial modernity'.2 With their mixture of original writings, fiction and [End Page 379] non-fiction, as well as work in translation these journals came to have a lasting influence on the shape of the Urdu novel.

In her influential study Realism and Reality of 1985 which examines the rise of the novel in India by comparing the indigenous Indian novelistic traditions of Malayalam, Marathi, Urdu and Bengali, Meenakshi Mukherjee notes that the novels of the nineteenth century 'reflect a certain dilemma of the period' felt by writers in relation to prevalent social structures.3 Notably the position of women is a central theme throughout the novels she puts under scrutiny, a topic shared by the social reformers of the period who focused on women's education and the amelioration of the plight of widows.4 Mukherjee argues that while one of the influences borrowed by the Indian novelists from the European tradition was that of social realism, it was not something that was imported wholesale. In her estimation the borrowing of form and content needs to be looked at through the prism of the specific contexts of the local culture and society.

This is akin to what Franco Moretti calls a 'law of literary evolution'.5 According to Moretti's law, 'the modern novel first arises not as an autonomous development, but as a compromise between a Western formal influence (usually French or English) and local materials'.6 Conscious of the complex yet unequal relationship between the European and non-European novel traditions, Moretti bases his perspective of comparative World Literature on an inclusive principle. He assesses the comparative relationship as a triangular one which is made up of 'foreign form, local material – and local form'. Here foreign refers to the Western novel. For him the relationship is at its most 'unstable' in the local form which he reads as the 'local narrative voice'. One of the sources deployed by Moretti in developing his analytical framework is Mukherjee's Realism and Reality, mentioned above. Mukherjee acknowledges the European novel as a key source of influence on the development of a significant new form in some of the modern Indian-language literatures. She outlines a triangular relationship similar to Moretti's model. However, her main focus is on the significance of a historical understanding of the period in which the novels are written so that they may...


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pp. 379-402
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2009
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