24: A Banned Book from Colonial India

By Tarika Khattar

In 1932, Sajjad Zaheer, a law student briefly back in India from his studies at Oxford, met Ahmed Ali, an English lecturer at Lucknow University. Zaheer, who was heavily influenced by developing radical trends in Europe, decided to publish a collection of ten Urdu short stories entitled Angarey (Embers). The stories, five of which were authored by Sajjad Zaheer, two each by Ahmed Ali and Dr Rasheed Jahan, and one by her husband Mahmuduzzafar, created an uproar across India.

The stories addressed radical and taboo themes from prostitution and sexuality to satirizing religion and critiquing practices that the authors felt were dogmatic. Inspired by the writings of James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, the authors broke with conventional literary norms, not just thematically but also stylistically, with Zaheer’s Nind Nahin Aati (Sleep Doesn’t Come) becoming the first experiment in stream-of-consciousness in Urdu literature.

The book was banned on March 15, 1933 under section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.[1] The public outcry wasn’t restricted to the government alone. The regional press and national newspapers published articles criticizing the contents of the book[2] and some religious groups went as far as demanding punishment for the authors. Ali described these threats: ‘We were lampooned and satirized, condemned editorially and in pamphlets…Our lives were threatened, people even lay in wait with daggers to kill us.’[3] The police destroyed all but five copies (three were kept in the National Archives of India and two were sent to London).

[1] Mahmud, Shabana. 1996. “Angare and the Founding of the Progressive Writers.” Modern Asian Studies 30 (2): 447.

[2] The Urdu press denounced Angarey, as can be seen in this extract from an article in Medinah, published on 13 February 1933: We could not find in them anything intellectually modern except immorality, evil character and wickedness. To mock at the creator of the world, ridicule religious beliefs and to make indecent jokes are the main characteristics of this bundle of filth.”

Quoted in Ahmed, Talat. Literature and Politics in the Age of Nationalism: The Progressive Writers’ Movement in South Asia, 1932-56. New York: Routledge, 2009. 449.

[3] Coppola, Carlo. “The Angare Group: The Enfants Terribles of Urdu Literature.” Annual of Urdu Studies 1 (1981): 57.

Image Credit:

Tarika Khattar

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