My latest book review is of an anthology translated from Urdu to English, edited by Dr Rakhshanda Jalil. Preeto and Other Stories comprises of 13 short stories written by male Urdu writers and examining the male gaze in contemporary Urdu fiction.
Through these short stories about women, we see how male Urdu writers have viewed women and their place in society. I’ve often said and written how many male writers — both in the East and in the West — struggle to depict women well in fiction. It’s hard enough for women writers to do justice to all that is unsaid about us because we’re still trying to articulate our ways of being in the world. Some male writers do manage to pull it off, sure. But, as you will see from my review, I don’t think Dr Jalil’s intent here is to showcase these as successful cases as much as it is to give a representative sampling of how male Urdu writers have approached women protagonists in both good and not-so-good ways. And I believe that:
There are two related questions we must ask of such anthologies. First: what do such stories tell us about how literature both reflects society (of its time, at least) and influences it? Second: does such storytelling help to humanize women so that we see them as active characters driving plot and storyline rather than primarily supporting/enabling the male characters to do so?
As always, I try to situate the book in our present socio-cultural context — for both Indian and non-Indian readers. And, while Dr Jalil makes mention of the origin of the concept of the male gaze, she does not take it much further than saying that one way to counter it is to gaze back at it, which is her attempt with this collection. I take that one step further and loop in a related concept of the “male glance” that I came across last year. It speaks to the internalized male gaze that even women writers and readers are capable of when writing about women.