Urdu literature and the events of Pakistan's history

Published August 9, 2013
-Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star
-Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star

What creative literature does is sometimes at variance with what it is expected - even demanded - to do in Pakistan. How can we forget the unsolicited counsel given to his captive audience - Pakistani writers attending an official conference - by Chief Martial Law Administrator Gen Ziaul Haq in Islamabad in 1985. The general declared that those who did not actively promote his 'fascist ideology' had no right over nature's blessings - including moonlight - available to Pakistani citizens. Delivering the abhorrent script penned by one of his hired speech-writers - one wonders if it was Wing Commander Muzaffar Ali Syed or Brigadier Siddiq Salik; or it may well have been a joint effort - the military dictator had as much legitimacy to address the country's writers in attendance as he had to rule the country itself. His speech-writer had mentioned and quoted Akhtar Husain Jafri, a worthy Urdu poet from Lahore, as an example of 'unpatriotic' writing deserving of condemnation.

The general's utterances were hailed by sycophants like Saleem Ahmed who went a step further and declared that Pakistan was not just an 'ideological state' - such as Stalin's Russia or Hitler's Germany - but an 'Islamic' one and as such had a right to impose even heavier responsibility on its writers and intellectuals. Gen Zia and his literary apologists were duly taken to task years later by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi with uncharacteristic but well-earned harshness in the preface of his Aab-e Gum.

Gen Zia and those who wrote for him belonged to the official tradition which invented itself as soon as the new state came into being. The birth of Pakistan had been accompanied by the worst communal riots that the subcontinent had seen and it was followed by an insane loot of the land, properties and valuables left by Sikhs and Hindus forcefully driven away from the Pakistani Punjab, Sindh, East Bengal and elsewhere. These events set the parameters of the national political culture under an undemocratic, parochial and repressive state. Since the very beginning, suppression formed the core of the official policy - dismissal of the elected government of NWFP and forced annexation of Kalat in 1947; the imposition of the Public Safety Act Ordinance in 1948; the outlawing of the Red Shirt movement and the Communist Party; the banning of a large number of newspapers, periodicals (including literary journals) and other publications; the promulgation of the Objectives Resolution drafted by obscurantist clerics with a nod from conservative, autocratic rulers, and so on. This anti-democratic official policy got early and effective support from the United States when Pakistan decided to work as an American ally against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Ideologues and critics like Mohammad Hasan Askari supported the core of this official policy tooth and nail. They also cheered on the first war in Kashmir, which later helped turn Pakistan into the security state that it is today.

All this came under heavy criticism from writers and intellectuals who believed in and practiced the literary tradition of progressive writing that began in the 1930s. The most prominent Urdu writer of this category in Pakistan was Saadat Hasan Manto who had the outstanding vision to point out and lambast in his writings, during the seven years he spent in the new state, the three rising trends in Pakistani society: (i) the repression of political and cultural dissent and free expression; (ii) the political and hypocritical emphasis on religiosity, and (iii) subordination of the policies of the new nation to the imperial interests of the US. Apart from the valuable body of fiction and non-fiction on Partition and the Partition riots, Manto also wrote stories such as 'Do Qaumain' (Two Nations), 'Titwal ka Kutta' (The Dog from Titwal), 'Yazid' and others, attacking the political culture supported both by the official policy and anti-progressive writers.

Obviously, it became necessary to make an example out of Manto to teach a lesson to others who might be getting influenced by his forthrightness as a writer and social critic. Hence, the ostracisation and judicial harassment that he had to face till his death. Indeed, such was the power and impact of his writings that even Qudratullah Shahab and Ishfaq Ahmed - who later found their distinguished and rightful places among the establishment's regular sycophants - seem to have been influenced by him in their fictions on the Partition riots, 'Ya Khuda' (Oh God!) and 'Gadaria' (The Shepherd) respectively.

The official policy of political repression and cultural suffocation continued and culminated in the imposition of martial law at the hands of the nation's first non-British army chief in 1958. Pakistani Urdu literature soon lost its vigour, and naïve literary critics gleefully announced its death. However, there was one very significant factor to it apart from the official policy. Pakistan, in the first 24 years of its existence, constituted two 'wings' situated more than a thousand miles from each other - named 'West' and 'East' Pakistan after the imposition of the ridiculous 'parity' between the two wings and equally baseless 'One Unit' to bolster it. The literary and cultural tradition that came to dominate the 'West' - and consequently the mainstream - was exclusively in Urdu, i.e. the language of the Muslim elites of Punjab, UP, CP, Bihar and Hyderabad. Bengal had its own literary and cultural tradition which was more composite in nature and had its roots in the Bengali language, the works of great Bengali writers like Sarat Chandra and Tagore, and local cultural forms such as music, painting and dance.

The dominant Urdu literary and cultural tradition, taking its inspiration from Akbar, Hali and Iqbal, was totally alien to the 'East', and thanks to the myopic vision and vested interest of its proponents, was patently incapable of respecting the tradition of Bengal as an independent cultural expression of a part of the 'nation' which, incidentally, comprised a majority. What we learn from the scarce Urdu writings on the 'East' is the fake 'colonial' view of a community of 'cute but treacherous' people whose dusky women had an irresistible sex appeal. The history of how Urdu was imposed on East Bengal (and other unwilling parts of Pakistan such as Sindh) is too well-known to relate here. This, coupled with the blatant economic exploitation and humiliation the citizens of 'East' Pakistan were consistently subjected to, was to result in the birth of Bangladesh in December, 1971.

Meanwhile, mainstream Urdu writers of the official 'nationalist' ilk were beside themselves upon being blessed with the great Muslim ruler General (later self-styled Field Marshal) Ayub Khan who could be worshipped as a combination of Gen de Gaulle, Marshal Stalin and Salahuddin Ayubi (the latter for no other reason than the lucky similarity of names) to their own benefit. When he ensnared himself (and Pakistan) in the terrible mess of the 1965 war - sold to the unsuspecting public of 'West' Pakistan as something of a military 'victory' - the field was wide open to praise him and his intended conquest of Kashmir to high sky.

The Kashmir jihad was made into a cult in Rasheeda Rizvi's novel Usi Shama ke Akhri Parwane (literally, the last moths of the same old candlestick) while the female protagonist of the short novel Purva (The East Wind) by Bano Qudsia was shamelessly shown weeping in front of a larger-than-life portrait of the Field Marshal, impressed by the mard-i-darwesh in the guise of the armyman who lectures her on the various social evils. Ishfaq Ahmed, who had started editing and publishing a semi-literary monthly Dastango in the 1950s, not only decorated its cover with a coloured likeness of Ayub Khan but also wrote a tearfully melodramatic account of his brief meeting with the demi-god in an article published under the title 'Sadr-i-Mamlikat ke Saath Chand Lamhe' (In the Exalted Presence of the President) in the weekly Lail-o Nahar in October 1959 (soon after the outstanding weekly was forcedly taken over by the martial law authorities along with the dailies Pakistan Times and Imroz). In this funny piece, Ishfaq displays the depths of his obsequiousness when at the end his voice chokes with mortifying concern for the big man's health!

One of the very few fearless voices of dissent that found print space in those dark days was that of Justice Rustam Kayani who kept holding a mirror to the face of the usurper in his speeches to various gatherings. Another such voice was that of the poet Habib Jalib whose poems travelled orally far and wide.

The literary consciousness of the non-official, critical Urdu writers and their readers kept growing at snail's pace in the face of the adverse circumstances - not to mention the intelligentsia of 'East' Pakistan which had already been thoroughly alienated. When the decade-long first martial law set the stage for the separation of East Bengal and the subsequent martial law duly managed to get rid of the majority population of the country, the event divided the rump state's writers and intellectuals roughly into two groups: those who felt insulted by the shameful military defeat and surrender, and those who were shocked by the mayhem and cruelty that accompanied the second Partition.

While the former group started producing its usual national tear-jerkers immediately after what they preferred to call the 'fall' of Dhaka, it was only after many years that Urdu fiction writers began the process of serious introspection and produced realistic literary works in the healthy tradition of Manto.

Ajmal Kamal has edited and published the Urdu literary quarterly *Aaj since 1989 and runs a small publishing house and a bookshop in Saddar, Karachi. He writes occasionally for Urdu and English publications.*



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