Sin: Stories by Wajida Tabassum is set in Hyderabad’s old-world aristocratic society of the 1950s, this collection of stories resurrects and explores the work of Wajida Tabassum, one of the most prominent names in Urdu literature, an iconoclast and non-conformist often referred to as the ‘female Manto’. An excerpt from the autobiographical essay titled ‘Meri Kahaani’
A weekly magazine, Aaina, was printed in Delhi. It published ‘My Memories’, a column where writers wrote about an unforgettable moment in their lives. I picked an instance from my intermediate exam days. After setting it down, I slept in a new lightness as if a traveller in the hot sun was in a dark, cool shade. Words cannot limit my relief. It was here that I began my career as a short-story writer.
Besides my own tragedies, many aspects of life have broken my heart. My words honed them into brazen form on paper and then the piece was sent to the editor. A few stories stirred a sensation. The literary world was not at swords’ point, our relatives were. You might think that distant kin are not worthy of a mention. You forget that we were raised by a lonely grandmother. The oldest was only ten years old when our parents died. Nani tended to our wails, upbringing, education, health crises and costs. No life is ever short of traitors.
Abandoned by our relatives to weather brutal times alone, we were bereft of even the rarest kind of people, the ones who stand by you through thick and thin. Those who could watch our life grow and diminish with us. I do not resent the clan for it. However, when we were not in school or went astray, our terrified grandmother had to face their refrains. There were times when I bowed my head to her.
After a few stories were published, they flew into feral hysteria and said, ‘Wajida Begum has left Ismat behind. Can these stories be read by noble girls?’
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Her work will shock married women.’
‘You will see. She will sully her father’s name.’
‘If my daughter ever wrote such a story, I would strangle her.’
The outcry slowly flowed into Nani’s ears. At first, it fell flat. But soon after, a front formed against me. Many poisoned my grandmother’s ears during her visit to Amravati. She came back wildly angry at me.
This was when my story ‘Teen Janaze’ was printed. She came to me with the magazine and insisted that I read it to her. ‘I want to hear it. Tell me what your stories are about,’ she said.
Dear readers, could I have read it to her? My fault was that I cast naked truths in stories and was not obliged to read them out. My refusal made her suspicious. She believed that the blows being rained upon me held some sway, that the stories were lewd.
Every attempt to defend my work was futile. The moment I held a pen and paper in my hand, Nani appeared and said, ‘What are you writing? Read it to me.’ A commanding woman, she was not one to be cajoled, misled or evaded. When I told her that it was a letter, she was unwilling to trust me. ‘Are letters ever that long? I am sure you are writing a story,’ she replied. She then began to repress my correspondence with editors.
At long last, I wrote a note and read it to her.
‘Respected Editor, You have requested a story, but I don’t have one at the moment. When I do, I will write it and send it to you.’
‘What have you said! “When I do, I will write and send it?” Why did you write this?’ she shouted.
This ruse of delay did not get me far. She resolved to keep a close watch on my activities. An editor replied to tell me that he had received my story. His words: ‘I have it and it is wonderful. The day is not far when you will be a star in the literary world.’
‘When did you send this story?’ Nani asked.
Her scrutiny was so painful that I gave in and decided not to write. One day slid into another without a word on paper or a drop of ink in my pen. An uncle who leaned on palmistry came to visit us. He saw my hand and said, ‘Malka, you have an extraordinary hand. You are destined for startling glory.’ I pulled my hand away with a sullen face. ‘Don’t embarrass me, Mamu. I have lost the chance.’
In the evening, my grandmother went to see a relative and I broke my promise. I put ‘Aag mein Phool’ in an envelope and gave it to a servant the next morning. Nani caught me and asked about the contents of the envelope.
The servant answered before I could. ‘Mulko Bibi has given a letter and she told me to post it quietly.’
He lit a raging fire and my aag and phool were on the floor. An aunt came to the house and said, ‘So, she is Wajida Tabassum.’
I think my father named me Wajida Begum, but what royalty did my mother see in me to call me Malika? The family used the name my mother gave me. Sometimes it became Mulkoo, Milki or Mikki. I was Wajida Begum in school. When I started writing, I changed it to Wajida Tabassum. It was simpler, a way to bring light and laughter into my life. Our extended family has known me as Wajida Tabassum.
Featured Image Shows the translator Reema Abbasi
Excerpted with permission from Sin: Stories by Wajida Tabassum translated by Reema Abbasi published by Hachette India.
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