Ahmed Ali's career is one of the best ones I know to illustrate the connections between the style and ideology of the Progressive Writers' Movement and more experimental and lyrical modes of mid-20th century writing in India and Pakistan. Ali is best known for his English-language novel, Twilight in Delhi (first published in London by Hogarth Press in 1940), but he wrote several other novels in English, as well as a number of short stories and plays in Urdu in the 1930s. He was one of the "Angare Four" -- one of the four authors who contributed short stories to a collection called Angare in 1932, which was furiously condemned by the Indian Muslim community and banned by the British government for material deemed offensive to Muslims in particular. He was also one of the co-founders of the All-India Progressive Writers' Association AIPWA, in 1935-6. Around 1940, however, he left the movement following disagreements with its leader, his friend Sajjad Zaheer. Like many of the other major Indian Muslim intellectuals of his era, Ali had spent some time in Aligarh at the Aligarh Muslim Anglo-Oriental College (today known as Aligarh Muslim University), an English-medium college that was also known as a reformist hub. (E.M. Forster's friend Syed Ross Masood had a connection to Aligarh.)
Thanks to the Annual of Urdu Studies, we have a lot of biographical material about Ali freely available online. Start with this annotated CV. Then see Carlo Coppola's survey of literary Ali's career here. Ali went into diplomatic service right around the time of independence, and was assigned to China. After Partition he elected to make Karachi his home, and later continued to work as a diplomat and a businessman there. In the 1960s, he published a second work of literary fiction in English, Ocean of Night. In the 1980s, he published a diplomatic satire called Of Rats and Diplomats, as well as a self-translated volume of his earlier Urdu short stories from the 1930s and 40s, The Prison-House. I've looked at all three novels, but the only one I can recommend is Twilight in Delhi (the short stories are also recommended).
In the volume that started it all, Angare, Ali has two short stories, Badal Nahi Aati (The Clouds Don't Come) and Mahavaton ki ek raat (One night in the winter rains). "The Clouds Don't Come" was translated by Tahira Naqvi for Michigan State's Journal of South Asian Literature (JSAL). As far as I know, "Mahavaton ke ek raat" has never been translated into English [I'm actually working on doing one, albeit with help.] Indeed, as I understand it, despite its importance as a starting point for the Progressive Writers' Movement, Angare as a whole has never been translated into English; at best we have a few selections here and there in journals like JSAL. I also can't find any evidence that it's ever been republished in India since it was banned by the British in 1933; the only re-publication I know of is an Urdu edition published in England around 1988. (That is, needless to say, the version I myself am looking at; the original, banned Angare is nowhere to be found.)
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Before getting into Twilight in Delhi, it seems appropriate to briefly quote from the experimental, stream-of-consciousness text of "The Clouds Don't Come," which is important as a starting point in Ali's career. It also has some important points of intersection with the subsequent novel. (Another story that shows some clear overlap is Ali's Urdu story "Hamari Gali" [Our Lane], which uses the same paratactical technique -- following the random encounters and characters who show up in a particular neighborhood of Delhi -- and which even has some actual characters who Ali also figures in Twilight.)
"The Clouds Don't Come" is not the most scandalous story in Angare. By far, the story that has been singled out most frequently is Sajjad Zaheer's "Sleep Doesn't Come" (Nind Nahi Aati), which features a devout elderly man who is preoccupied mostly with religion, at the expense of his young wife. While trying to do night-time prayers, he falls asleep, and begins to have erotically charged dreams related to a vision of Paradise. Zaheer's story is a flagrant provocation, which would likely be as offensive today to pious Muslims as it was when it was first published in 1932 (luckily, most people have long since forgotten about this story).
Ali's "The Clouds Don't Come" shares the anger about religious conservatism, but uses a more carefully leveraged attack. The narrator is a woman who feels oppressed by the heat, but also by her confinement indoors in the middle of the Delhi summer. The story is essentially her first person, stream-of-consciousness rant, with the most powerful condemnation of traditional gender relations coming in the following section:
Why don’t the clouds come? And life is despair. Despair, hair, long and black, such a hardship. Why can’t we cut it like men do? It’ll make one feel so light. Father, God rest his soul, had a crew-cut. And once, when it was as hot as it is now, he had his hair cut even shorter, and then Sabira and I washed it thoroughly. I wish we too had short hair. Scalp’s burning; it’s scorched. And to make matters worse, we can’t cut our hair. The family has enormous honor, and if we cut our hair, the family’s honor will also be demolished. If I were a boy, I’d shear it off with a dull blade, chop it from the roots. And what fear of honor being damaged when there’s none to begin with? [...] Whether you want to, or not, your blasted husband will take you forcibly by the hand… come here, my love, my dearest, such fire in your coquetry. How cool the room! Light of my heart, come to me. Get away! Always lusting night or day! Oh! Kill me, strike me with a dagger… twisted my poor hand, broke it. Where are you running off to? Lie down next to me! Here’s a taste of the dagger. Those hands, running over breasts again, crushed, crushed, the wretch squeezed so hard, I couldn’t move, may he die young. Even prostitutes aren’t treated like this. The moment I rested my weakened body, he vent his frustration with the torrid heat on me. Why do you lie there like a corpse? Make an effort.
[...] And we can’t stop burning, we shed a thousand tears! The terrible fire in which perpetually burn will not go out; death won’t come. Hindus are better off than we are, they’re free. And Christians—they’re so fortunate. They’ll do what they want, dance, look at pictures, have short hair, says the narrator. How unfortunate that we were born in a Muslim household, may such a religion perish. Religion [Urdu: Mazhab], religion, religion is the soul’s solace, the security of men. What good is it to a woman!The key provocation is of course at the end of the passage above ("What good is [religion] to a woman"), though the anger simmers throughout the speaker's interior monologue. One also notes the explicit account of what amounts to marital rape.
The recurring motif of the story, of the speaker's desire for clouds to come in order to change the weather, is a clear (one might even say, obvious) symbol for social change. The coming of the clouds will change the speaker's circumstances, and give her some control over her life. Under the direct glare of the sun, she's rendered paralyzed and inert, unable to alleviate her misery in the least.
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The figure of twilight, so central to the thematics of Twilight in Delhi, actually is actually somewhat similar to the figure of the cloud in "The Clouds Don't Come." As with the earlier short story, Ali is particularly interested in showing a set of characters who are essentially stranded in their particular present, waiting for a change (in this case, the advent of "night") that promises change.
Unlike Ali's more optimistic progressive peers, Twilight in Delhi may be seen as a work of modernist pessimism, looking at characters in a historical setting, who are themselves looking forward blindly. The book is an elegy for Delhi life in the 1910s, just before the British recreation of the city, the massive building project designed by Edwin Lutyens that eventually led to the advent of New Delhi.
Within the novel itself, Ali’s characters are split, with the elderly Mir Mihal largely glancing nostalgically to the glory days of his youth as well as the fallen Indo-Islamic heritage of the subcontinent, seen in ruins after the failure of the 1857 Rebellion/Mutiny (a beggar appears in the novel who is nicknamed "Bahadur Shah"; he's known mainly for reciting the "last Mughal's" famous verses about exile and loss). Mir Nihal's son Asghar, by contrast, aims in fits and starts to find a way to a possible future, only to be stymied at every turn by a conservative social order. The novel is divided in its attention between father and son, ultimately committing to father over son, past over future, aware that its retrospective gaze can only be a tragic one.
Twilight in Delhi is also a backwards-looking gesture from a bio-critical perspective – as it represents the author’s definitive public break with the Progressive Writers Movement he had helped found six years earlier. With its moody interiority, Twilight in Delhi also marks Ali’s stylistic break with social activist fiction. The novel’s characters are nominally anti-colonial, but have no self-consciousness about their own role in subjugating others, especially women, and Mir Nihal is reduced effectively to nurturing a diminishing stock of pet pigeons on the roof at the expense of the human relationships in his life. Despite the overlapping and overdetermined retrospective qualities of the novel, Twilight in Delhi cannot help but also be in some sense a proleptic gesture: a Twilight that looks back on the day that is ending (the British Raj, the Indo-Islamic legacy in Indian society), which cannot help but also look forward to the oncoming embrace of a spirit of newness entering the world at night.
Unfortunately, given what happens on subsequent pages, this is negative foreshadowing: neither bridge nor bridegroom are going to come out of the story at all happy -- or well.
The central paradox of Twilight in Delhi is its commitment to posing Delhi as on the verge of a historical abyss -- a city on the edge of ruin -- even as its author is situated some thirty years later, well into what should by all accounts be seen as the foreshadowed 'night'. In that sense the novel is anti-progressive; the prospect of new immigrants is figured as a cause of further decline, rather than rejuvenation. And the prospect of an anti-colonial politics or social reform (such as one might see with Aligarh MAOC, or Gandhianism) is seen as a dead end for Ali's characters.
That said, the novel still feels like a work of modernism for formal reasons. Ali's novel is clearly and by even a relatively conventional critical standard formally modernist, specifically its "paratactical" urban method, which resembles the urban rambling of Ulysses at some moments, and the crystallization of multiple perspective around a singular event one sees in Mrs. Dalloway (Ali's account of the King's Coronation and Darbar may be seen as an echo of the King passing by in his car in Woolf's novel; it also calls up the "Wandering Rocks" episode of Ulysses).