Review: "A Night in London" by Sajjad Zaheer

A little while ago I did a blog post on Ahmed Ali, one of the leading lights of the Progressive Wrtiters Movement in India in the 1930s. At the time I mentioned that the key collection of that period, Angare (1932), had never been translated. (I later learned that an Urdu literature scholar has done a full translation, but there may be rights problems that are preventing it from actually being published.)

[Update: Snehal Shingavi's translation is out.]

Angare may remain unavailable in English, but a major missing piece of the puzzle has been published in the form of Bilal Hashmi's translation of Sajjad Zaheer's 1936 (published 1938) Urdu language novel, A Night in London.

This was a novel Zaheer wrote during a period of about two years that he lived in London -- after the banning of Angare, but before the Progressive Writers' Association was formally started in India in 1937-1938. By the time he published it, in 1938, he had become a full-fledged activist whose approach to literature was fully politicized, and as a result this novel about Indian student life in London in the 1930s was downplayed and effectively disavowed even at the moment of publication. In his own Foreword, Zaheer seemed to apologize somewhat for publishing a novel about Indian students, some of them quite wealthy, living a somewhat bohemian lifestyle in London:
It is one thing to sit down at the culmination of several years of study in Europe and, under the spell of private emotional conflict, to write a book of a hundred and fifty pages. But to have spent two-and-a-half years since then taking part in the revolutionary movement of workers and peasants in India, breathing in unison with millions of people and listening to the beating of their hearts, is entirely another matter.  
Today I could not write a book of this kind; nor would I consider it necessary to write it. (Sajjad Zaheer, from the Foreword to A Night in London)
Ironically, the very features that made it less interesting to Zaheer as he was beginning a moment of full-throated left activism might make A Night in London actually somewhat more interesting to readers today. The translator Bilal Hashmi notes in his brief and elegant afterword to the current volume:

The novella, which has since run into several editions, occupies a singular position in the history of Urdu literature. There is nothing quite like it, so far as I know, in Indian writing of roughly the same period, and that alone would seem to provide impetus enough for the work's belated translation into English. 
Still, a few words are in order here, a translator's apology, if you will, as to the limits and intention of the present undertaking. Ever the consummate strategist, Zaheer chose Urdu as the language for this, his most important literary labour. in doing so he parted company with Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao and other expatriate contemporaries writing in European languages, largely on the grounds that a new Indian literature could only take shape from within the indigenous literary traditions of India. It was doubtless a political decision at the time (as it remains today), and one which kept the work at a remove from the same world literary marketplace into which it now stands the risk of being all but subsumed. 
I would add that A Night in London is actually a much better instance of ambitious Indian writing from the 1930s than are the books by Rao and Anand that have been so often mentioned by transnational modernism scholars in recent years (and in my view we shouldn't even be talking about Anand's rather dubious late memoir, Conversations in Bloomsbury) . I have long argued that Anand's early novels are not, in fact, very good, either as Indian modernist texts or as contributions to a conversation on issues of caste and colonialism that were active in the Gandhian movement. Admittedly, Zaheer is right in his Foreword to acknowledge that A Night in London is somewhat removed from the ground of Indian politics, but most readers today will nevertheless likely recognize it as a politically engaged work of fiction, which also happens to deploy several of the techniques of the modernist, stream-of-consciousness novel (including parallel, disjunctive plots, and a temporally constricted frame reminiscent of Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses).

So I want my colleagues in Modernist studies to read this translation, ASAP, and rethink how we have been talking about South Asian modernism, preferably to add a greater awareness of Urdu writing like Zaheer's.  Hashmi makes a somewhat similar point in his afterword:

Zaheer's novella was written with as much a nod to the 'socialist realist' Aragon of Le Monde reel (with whom the author rubbed shoulders in Paris), as to English literature's canonical modernists, Joyce and Woolf. It is widely regarded as the first major work of Urdu literature to employ the stream-of-consciousness technique, and that too with an expressly anti-colonial slant, far more radical, at least in that one respect, than anything that had until then emerged from within the Bloomsbury circle. [...] Zaheer was a committed realist, and yet with this work he was on the verge of creating, in tandem with other non-European writers of his generation, something radically new-- a modernism against modernism. 
I think this is exactly right. One of the ironies of Zaheer's career is that the accomplishment for which he is best known, the founding and propagation of the Progressive Writers' Association in Lucknow -- which, to be clear, was a monumental accomplishment -- seems to run counter to the spirit and intention of his most significant literary accomplishment (this novel).

A nice thing about Hashmi's translation is that the supplementary materials allow it to be effectively self-contained, rendering it a perfect teaching tool. Alongside the Afterword from Hashmi himself, there is a highly accessible and informative essay by Carlo Coppola summarizing Zaheer's life and work, and an excerpt from Zaheer's longer memoir, Roshnai, focusing on the period of his life during which he wrote this novel.  (Oh and did I mention it's short? A Night in London itself is just about 130 pages.)

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I should also mention that a pretty substantial excerpt of the novel had earlier been translated by Ralph Russell for the Annual of Urdu Studies (AUS). Those excerpts can be found here. From the chapters excerpted you can get an idea of the themes of Zaheer's novel, but in fact you probably do need the whole novel to understand the continuities in the plot or the relationships between the various characters. So I would suggest again that people interested in this subject pick up A Night in London.