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A century of war, 1914-2014: War & conflict in Urdu literature

January 06, 2014

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Harris Khalique.
Harris Khalique.
Kishwar Naheed.
Kishwar Naheed.
Afzal Ahmed Syed.
Afzal Ahmed Syed.
Satyapal Anand.
Satyapal Anand.
Wusatullah Khan.
Wusatullah Khan.

The year 2014 marks 100 years since the start of World War I. What was supposed to be the war to end all wars turned out to be one of the many bloody conflicts since then. The death count of the past 100 years has been more than that of any other century and our region, for one, continues to be mired in violence.

Pakistan came into existence amidst bloodshed, fought wars with India and became involved in proxy wars, all the while facing internal divisions. September 11 and the wars that it spawned are some of the biggest and bloodiest stories of our times. The Middle East remains a troubled region and Kashmiris continue to suffer under occupation.

The following is a discussion which is part of Sunday, January 5th's special double issue of Books & Authors - an issue that looks at some of the conflicts that have shaped and are shaping the world we live in, and how Urdu literature has responded to them.


Kishwar Naheed, Afzal Ahmed Syed, Satyapal Anand, Wustatullah Khan and Harris Khalique got together to discuss how Urdu literature has written about wars and conflicts, within the subcontinent as well as elsewhere in the world. Khalique moderated the conversation. Following are the edited excerpts from their discussion, translated from Urdu.

Harris Khalique: Let’s start the conversation from 1914 as the world is marking 100 years to the start of World War I this year. However, it is important to note that there is also a lot of literature about 1857’s war of independence and that a lot happened between 1857 and 1914. We have memoirs of people who were sent to Kala Pani, for instance. Elegies and stories were written, as well as non-fiction. But we will start our discussion from 1914 and look at poetry and prose, fiction as well as non-fiction, including creative non-fiction, such as autobiographies and memoirs. We will try to look at regional as well as international events in the last 100 years and their impact on Urdu literature.

I’d like to invite Wusatullah to start the conversation.

Wusatullah Khan: I am more interested in what was intentionally not written about, even when all the information was available. Maybe some of it was unintentional. Let’s start with some local examples that are very obvious.

I’d like to go 16 years before the start of the First World War, to 1898. In 1898, an act was passed in Sindh, called the Criminal Tribes Act of India. The aim was to suppress the Hurs who the British couldn’t control. With the help of this act, the entire tribe was declared criminal. This story continued for 54 years. During it, Pir Pagara was hanged and no one even knows where his grave is.

In the 1940s, martial law was imposed in the Sanghar area. The Hur population was about 50,000. They were all forced into trucks and taken to 20 concentration camps and imprisoned there. And this was done in a way to break up families — parents and one child in one camp and the other children in another.

The remains of a few camps still exist while sugar mills have been constructed on the sites of a couple; the wall of one camp is partially standing.

The lands belonging to the Hurs were given to the Marri and Bugti tribes, and their livestock was confiscated. The Marris and Bugtis in the Sanghar and Mirpurkhas area today were settled there by the British.

Children were born in those camps and grew up there. Three of them — professor Allah Warayo, Haji Wali Muhammad Nizamani and Haji Gul Muhammad Nizamani — have written their memoirs collectively. It was published in 2006. Reading it, for the first time you realise what happened to an entire segment of society.

The other book was written by Professor Umar Chand in New Zealand. He has collected the orders given during the British rule and eyewitness accounts.

But what is surprising is that this episode in not covered when Sindh’s history is written, forget accountability. The camps were closed in 1952 while the Hur act in theory still exists. I don’t know how such a big topic can be overlooked. And it is not the only big story that has been missed.

Khalique: There are many more examples of this.

Khan: For instance, the generation after ours will not know what happened in the year 1971 in West Pakistan. They won’t know it through any medium, unless they dig out news archives. The books are all apologetic and present excuses — I wasn’t part of it, that person was, I didn’t commit that crime, this person did. I don’t consider that literature.

Khalique: Was it that things were written but didn’t reach the people or weren’t published? Because something must have been written, in some language, by someone, somewhere.

Khan: It has now been 40 years. Meaning to say, the ISI won’t pick you up if you write about East Pakistan. In 40 years, I have seen nothing more substantial than biographies of army generals and bureaucrats. But a lot has happened in Bangladesh. Their art changed because of 1971. People there are doing independent research. The Oxford University Press has recently published two books, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 War by Sharmila Bose and Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971 by Yasmin Saikia. This is evidence of peoples’ interest in the war. But what happened in Pakistan? There should be something visible in 40 years.

Kishwar Naheed: Masood Ashar became a short story writer because of 1971 and what happened in East Pakistan. All his stories are around these themes. Also, Umm-i-Ammara and Masood Mufti.

Khalique: Afzal Sahib, what is your opinion?

Afzal Ahmed Syed: As Wusatullah said, a lot of our history has not been written. And what has been written has been according to a particular ideology and to propagate it. A lot remains to be written.

There is a meta narrative, that India incited the people of Bangladesh and convinced them to rebel and our army fought bravely, etc. But the reality is different. And it wasn’t written.

It was a big tragedy, a very complex situation and a moment of truth for the writers of the subcontinent. And many of them failed the test. Even if you look at Faiz Sahib’s poems. Ahmed Saleem wrote that when he read them out to the chief justice of Bangladesh, he said that stains of blood are not washed away in this manner.

Habib Jalib is a very big poet, we have a lot of respect for him. He was writing:

It’s very mediocre word play; it’s not something that came from the heart. It was from the heart when he said:

He couldn’t write about Bangladesh with the same passion. So a lot remains to be written.

Naheed: Nadaar Log by Abdullah Hussein has been written in the perspective of Bangladesh. Besides, we get news of crises and conflicts immediately, but short stories and novels about them are not written immediately.

Khan: Maybe it is a matter of time. But then there are those like Manto who start writing about 1947 during 1947.

Khalique: Let’s ask Satyapal Anand Sahib.

Satyapal Anand: It looks like we have jumped 50 years to get to 1971. Before that is the First World War during which India saw a lot of conflicts and a lot of literature was written.

When Turkey joined Germany there was Khilafat in Turkey. Areas under its control included Syria, Iraq and Palestine. Editorials were written in Indian newspapers, pamphlets were published, resolutions were passed and delegations sent to Britain saying that Indian Muslims should be assured that Turkey would not be divided, that these areas would not be handed over to anyone. According to my estimate, 312 writers and scholars signed the resolution that was sent to Britain. I feel not enough work has been done on that literature.

Syed: Agreeing with doctor Sahib, I’d like to remind us that the Balkan War which started in 1912 was also very important for Indian Muslims and for Urdu literature. Al Hilal was started that year by Abul Kalam Azad, Muhammad Ali Johar started Hamdard, and Zaffar Ali Khan started the newspaper Zamidar. All their attention was on that war and hundreds of articles and poems were written that were read in large numbers and were very popular. Their history needs to be compiled. I feel this war is very important because an environment of pan-Islamism was being created which later developed into the Pakistan movement.

Khalique: Is it possible that as far as local conflicts are concerned, such as the Hur act mentioned by Wusatullah, things were written in regional languages? And that Urdu is not a representative language for these conflicts and for the literature about them?

Khan: We find resistance poetry in Balochistan dating back to the 15th century when Gwadar was captured by the Portuguese. There was a person called Mir Hamal who commanded the lashkar as well as wrote poetry. He is still a hero.

When the British came, they ruled Balochistan via remote control, through the sardars. Even then, the poets were directly attacking the real power, that is, the British. In the 19th century and in half of the 20th century, there is a long list of names who wrote anti-British poetry.

Politics and literature were not separate. They went hand in hand, they complemented each other. Nawab Akbar Bugti’s older brother, Abdul Rehman Bugti, used to write anti-British poetry. Because of one of his poems he was sent from Dera Bugti to Ranchi. He died in Jacobabad in 1958.

But no big writer has emerged after Gul Khan Nasir. And those who try to write are picked up. Resistance literature took off under the British because they didn’t disappear people.

Baloch poets have been translated into Urdu but I can’t think of short stories or poetry by non-Baloch writers about Balochistan. It is alienation, basically.

Anand: I am thinking of Baloch writers who write in Urdu, Agha Gul and others. A lot of their stories portray the Baloch situation.

Khalique: Let’s move to how the Urdu afsana captured the 1947 Partition and the creation of Pakistan.

Naheed: I’d like to point out that no story, article or criticism was written on the Pakistan movement, even though it lasted at least from 1936 to 1947. I searched a lot for it.

Khalique: But it is difficult to look at the Pakistan movement separately from the movement for India’s independence. Partition happened and a lot was written about the human cost of that tragedy.

Naheed: You will find it in Rashid Jahan’s book. And the impact of the Pakistan movement on women you will find in Khadeeja Mastoor’s novel, Angan.

Anand: There is a lot of material in Urdu with regards to Partition. The biggest name is Manto. We find a lot in his stories about the impact on peoples’ lives. Other than that, if you have read Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, it seems to have been copied in Urdu many times. I won’t take any names, but I know of at least five or six novelists whose novels are inspired by Train to Pakistan. I also wrote one story but didn’t write any more on the topic. For me, it’s a poisonous tree which can spread its seeds. So I stayed away from Partition.

What is important is that whoever wrote didn’t blame the Muslims, or the Hindus or the Sikhs; everyone presented a perspective in which humanity was suffering.

Khan: You have identified the disease: poisonous plant. This is what stops us from engaging with conflicts and taking risks. We are too cautious. Those who weren’t created great literature.

Naheed: The woman Balwant Kaur, who stayed in Pakistan, lived here as Bano. And Bano from Pakistan lived in India as Balwant Kaur. I don’t know whether not writing about this was a conscious decision or not. I have met women who were kidnapped in 1947 and who were disowned by everyone. It was important to write on these issues.

Khalique: Afzal Sahib, Wusatullah said that we have maybe been too cautious. Another thing is that Urdu speakers and writers are fond of thinking of the language as the greatest of creative languages. If we look at it, it is essentially the creative language of the Indo-Ganges plains. A lot of other people also write in it, as we write in English. But it reflects what the people in this region are concerned about, what affects them. I am not saying that it has nothing to do with Hyderabad Deccan or Sindh or Gujarat or Bombay. But if in the sensibility of the Indo-Ganges plains they feel the pain of the Turks more than that of the Baloch, you naturally see that reflected in Urdu literature. Is that not so?

Syed: Yes, that is the case. As far as the approach of Urdu writers to the independence movement is concerned, at least of the poets, we don’t see rebellion. Josh Sahib stands out, though. He talked about Hitler-i-azam, East India Company, Jallianwala Bagh and Bhagat Singh. But I can’t think of any other poet. There is Wamiq Jaunpuri who wrote anti-British poetry. But there aren’t many big names or a lot of literature.

I salute the courage of one poet only, who was hanged in 1712, Jaffer Zatalli. We need to follow in his footsteps, make him our leader. The day we do it, our literature, our destiny, our nation will change.

Naheed: Let’s move forward from Partition. Because as Anand Sahib said, Manto wrote a lot about Partition, as did Bedi, Ghulam Abbas, Krishan Chandar, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, a lot of people. But afterwards, we see a few contradictions in our country. We need to talk about those.

The most important thing that we have not discussed is that when Ayub Khan’s martial law was imposed, our writers welcomed it. All the writers were a part of it, such as Qudratullah Sahib and Altaf Gohar. Whether it is Jamila Hashmi or Qurratulain Hyder, everyone was part of the group that was sent to Bengal by the writers’ gild. Till that point, people didn’t know what martial law meant. Either the writers couldn’t see or they couldn’t understand what was happening.

Khalique: What was being written in India in Urdu during the wars of 1965 and 1971?

Naheed: Ali Sardar Jafri wrote against the war, as did Kaifi Azmi. Indian writers were all against the 1965 war while Pakistani writers were writing, “zinda rahay ga Pakistan, zinda rahay ga”.

Khalique: Apart from Faiz Sahib.

Syed: I was just reading an article about the 1965 war by Aijaz Ahmed. He sees it as a landmark, the point when the views of Indian and Pakistani writers diverged. This division probably didn’t exist before 1965. The poetry and the literature that was written didn’t become very popular but the anthems did, whether because of the music or the calibre of the singers. According to Aijaz Ahmed, the division in literature between India and Pakistan came after the 1965 war.

Khalique: I’d like to move the conversation to current conflicts.

Khan: I want to look at the MRD (Movement for the Restoration of Democracy), 1983. I find this political struggle that emerged from the streets and neighbourhoods a bigger movement than the PNA. It is present in Sindhi literature, in poetry as well as prose, but outside the interior, MRD is mentioned in political writings and autobiographies, but not in literature. I read about one incident in the village Kantar Khan Chandio in Sakrand in which 500 people blocked the highway. The entire village was present, from school students to an old man of 74. An army truck came, and without any warning, opened fire. Sixteen people died and 54 were injured. Many were picked up. Among the injured was a 74-year-old man. When the soldiers tried to pick him up he held on to a chain hanging from the truck. He said you can drag me but I won’t let this go. The truckstarted moving and the man died.

In Moro, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi’s mother asked to the women to come out and protest. Five thousand women took to the streets. In Dadu, General Ziaul Haq’s helicopter landed. A middle aged man jumped from behind a tree and lifted his clothes.

These stories provide fascinating raw material, but apart from the Sindhi language, I don’t see the MRD anywhere.

Naheed: The topic of most of Zaheer Babar’s stories is the MRD movement. Movements are not for a short moment; they leave their impact. And it is only after five or 10 years that you start to see their results.

Khalique: I think the issue is of the priorities and concerns of those who are writing in Urdu. For instance, they are getting news about Turkey and passionately writing about it but they are unaware of what’s happening in Sindh because they don’t have DawnNews or Geo TV.

Naheed: People were also dying in Multan and D.G. Khan and stories were being written in Seraiki.

Khalique: My argument is that a lot cannot be written in Urdu because its readers and writers don’t share those concerns. Things should be translated into Urdu. But as Afzal Sahib had said at the beginning, the affect of pan-Islamism on the Indo-Ganges plains meant that a lot of issues addressed in the literature of this area were international.

Syed: Let’s move to the current situation. While some things have been written about Karachi, Harris has written a lot of wonderful poems, they have mostly been written by people from Karachi or who are in some way connected to the city. I haven’t come across a poem by a poet who isn’t from Karachi against what is happening in the city or in sympathy with the people. Even in the city, which is such a big centre of Urdu, and of publishing, there are only a few people who are writing about the problems that we are stuck in. Ehtisham Hussain has a collection, Asif Farrukhi has one and Ajmal Kamal took out a Karachi number. Is that enough?

Naheed: We are surrounded by issues. In Balochistan, women are buried alive; people are killed in the Qissa Khawani Bazaar; children are killed. These things are happening around us and people are also writing about them. But these writings are not collected in one place.

Khalique: Let’s look at what’s been written in Urdu about the Afghan war against the Soviet Union and 9/11. I am aware of some writings, such as Dehshat Aur Barood Main Lipti Shahari. The crisis of religious extremism and terrorism is much bigger than Karachi’s. How has Urdu responded to it?

Syed: Some things are being written about the ongoing conflict. Ahmed Fawad has written a long poem about Swat. People are writing and some of it is being published but the rest remains hidden in drawers.

Khalique: What about sectarian conflict? Afzal Sahib, let’s start with you.

Syed: It is the most dangerous topic to write on. Whatever you write, you will be condemned by one sect. And you won’t get to go through the process of trial and jail. Maybe you can say something in an oblique manner. We see a humanistic message in writings, but no one addresses these issues very specifically.

Naheed: Fahmida Riaz addressed them, as well as Hasan Manzar and Ikramullah.

Khalique: The treatment of Ahmadis is one topic on which you won’t find anything in Urdu literature.

Naheed: Ikramullah and Habib Shahid have written stories. But most people don’t out of fear.

Khalique: As far as Ahmadis are concerned, there is a total blackout, with a few exceptions that Kishwar Apa pointed out. But other than that, a lot has been written on religious conflicts and divisions, on the Shia-Sunni conflict, for instance, or on the persecution of non-Muslim communities such as Christians. But the problem is that about 50 literary magazines are published in the country, 200 to 500 copies each. A lot is being published in these magazines but there is no way of knowing what’s being published in a particular magazine unless you are reading it. And how many can you read or subscribe to?

But I think it is also important to note that what is being done in other languages is being done in Urdu through translations. Urdu has a rich tradition of translations from other languages.

Naheed: During General Zia’s time, we couldn’t write openly as our stories were censored. So we translated and published literature from other languages. I used to edit a magazine during the martial law. We published more translated literature than original works because original writings could not be published. During those days, the symbolism in fiction took off. Whether Anwar Sajjad or Rasheed Amjad, they all wrote in that style.

Khalique: Let’s look at some of the Urdu texts that we think are representative in their exploration of conflicts, which haunt us when we read them, or which we like particularly.

Naheed: Aag ka Darya and Akhir Shab kay Hum Safar. Akhir Shab was against the progressives. Then Nadaar Log.

Syed: There are two writings about 1971 and the situation that developed afterwards that I am very fond of. One is Intizar Husain Sahib’s short story, ‘Aseer.’ I think it was written in the early ’70s, after the independence of Bangladesh. It’s about a man who is returning to a Pakistani city after two years. Intizar Sahib has captured the changes that the man sees very well. The clothes are different, the food is different. He sees karhai gosht, which two years ago was not eaten there. And there is a sentence about it which goes something like: “This is karhai gosht; you can’t eat it gently. You have to be slightly barbaric.”

The other story is Asad Muhammad Khan’s ‘Forklift Number 352.’ It foreshadows the Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report. In the story, a forklift is damaged and an inquiry is held to figure out who is responsible. The person who is being investigated is ridiculing those who have been sent to carry out the inquiry. The entire system is reflected in that short story.

Anand: Poets have always glorified war. Shahnamas were written to glorify ancestors. Even ‘Shahnama-i-Islam’ only talks about war.

Anand: If you read Beowulf, one of the oldest English poems, there is fighting on every page and 224 people are killed. In one poem. It didn’t occur to any poet to criticise the world war, to say it’s against humanity. This is the thinking we inherited. It was a lot later that we realised that we should write against war. And we realised it when we felt war in our bones, in our blood. A new development then took place in literature in which people started writing against war. This wasn’t the case earlier. History had taught us that war is a good thing, a higher calling, whether for your own country or to conquer another. But a lot has been written in Urdu about this and it is worth appreciating.

Khan: No one has captured the emptiness between the two wars like Miraji did. If we look Partition, there is Manto. About 1971, the dairy of Jahanara Begum made me realise for the first time what the victims were feeling. To understand Zia’s period, if I read Ahmed Faraz, I figure out the situation. And about urban conflicts, Zehra Nigah’s poetry, explains what is happening.

Khalique: I stand by the argument that everything cannot be written in Urdu. Only that with which Urdu speakers have an emotional and psychological connection can be written in the language. But a lot is possible through translations, which is why the translation of global literature is important. They will inform our literature, our readers and our writers.

I agree with Anand Sahib. A lot has been written and is being written in Urdu literature. Literature is not like journalism; you don’t have to immediately file a report. At the same time, it’s important to say that very little was written in Urdu about 1971. Similarly, very little is being written about what’s happening in Balochistan today.

The weakness I see in Urdu writers is that they did not introduce themselves to what was being written in Indian and Pakistani regional languages. They are more interested in translating French writers Baudelaire and Paul Valery. They need to develop an interest in what is being written in Marathi, Malayalam, Sindhi, Gujrati, Pashtu and Balochi. We need to do this consciously.

Naheed: Writing by people who went abroad is also ignored. It is not read or discussed.

Khalique: Yes, we don’t discuss diaspora literature, a lot of which is about 9/11. We have ghettoised ourselves. There are those who keep advocating that we should get out of this ghetto, but such people are few.