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The phenomenon called Urdu literary magazines

Updated March 10, 2014


File photo
File photo

GONE are the days when Urdu literary magazines sold like proverbial hot cakes. Until the 1960s and 1970s, readers not only waited for the arrival of the new issues of literary periodicals such as ‘Nuqoosh’, ‘Seep’, ‘Funoon’ and ‘Auraaq’ but any literary writings that deserved attention were discussed in teahouses and continued to reverberate through literary circles. I still remember that as a schoolboy when I would pass by the Regal bus stop in Karachi’s Sadder area, I would notice the banners displayed by roadside booksellers, announcing the arrival of a new issue of a literary magazine or a new novel by Ibn-i-Safi. But today one wonders who reads literary magazines and how these literary magazines survive, let alone make any money.

Recently, Lahore’s Sang-i-Meel Publications brought out four volumes of Qurratulain Hyder’s short stories and novellas. Jameel Akhter, the compiler, says more volumes of Ms Hyder’s works are on the way and it would be a kind of complete works of hers. The complete works include some writings of Qurratulain Hyder that she herself had lost trace of and their inclusion is indeed a commendable work, as Ms Hyder too has appreciated in her preface. Aside from that, these volumes carry two prefaces by Ms Hyder, which are something to relish.

Penned just two years before her death — and in her usual mesmerising style — these prefaces capture some rare glimpses of our literary and cultural history. But today I would have to be content with referring to these prefaces briefly as I intend to say something about the strange phenomenon called Urdu literary magazines. In one of these two pieces, Ms Hyder mourns the death of Urdu’s literary magazines. She writes: “Literary magazines are ceasing publication one after another. A few literary magazines that are being published from India have such a meagre circulation that one does not even feel like mentioning them. It is surprising that a very popular film magazine, ‘Shama’, which had a circulation of 100,000 closed down.”

And she wrote these words in 2005. Since then a lot has changed in the literary world on both sides of the border. Reading habits are in decline. But it is even more surprising than the closure of popular film-cum-literary magazine to note that even today in India and Pakistan several Urdu literary magazines not only survive but are published on a regular basis. But their circulation is, generally, from 300 to 600 copies per issue. They do not sell at bookshops, except for a few specific bookstores, and it is sometimes difficult to get a copy of a literary journal.

Despite this discouragingly small readership, some of the magazines are regularly published and writers and poets contribute to them regularly. For instance, ‘Ijra’ is a quarterly magazine published from Karachi. Edited by Ahsan Saleem, recently it has become quite regular and its 16th issue has just appeared. Spread over 575 pages, it contains critical articles, interviews, novellas, poems, ghazals, short stories, a travelogue, memoirs, research articles, book reviews and ... what not. About 100 writers and poets have contributed to it. Another literary magazine published quite regularly is ‘Ijmaal’. Edited by Faheem Islam Ansari and published from Karachi, in about two years’ time it has brought its sixth issue. It too covers a wide range of issues.

But the question is: how do they survive? With such a limited number of copies being printed the cost per unit goes quite high and, sorry to say, many intellectuals and writers expect complimentary copies from the editor who happens to be a friend or a fellow writer. In effect, very few copies sell. A few literature buffs send annual subscriptions and if the editor is well-connected, it can get a couple of advertisements that do not cover even the cost of printing. A few more lucky ones get a few more ads and somehow the costs are covered.

Another category of Urdu literary magazines is the one published by government departments. Some literary organisations that publish literary magazines receive grant from the government. Some journals are published by governmental literary organisations. Both do not have to worry for salaries, marketing or advertisements, but we are not discussing such magazines here. Apart from that, in Pakistan, publishing a literary magazine is not a viable commercial venture and it is a sheer delight or pride of the editor that keeps the magazine going. Many lose a good amount of money with every issue. Call it an addiction or indulgence, passion or extravagance, the fact is literary journalism in Urdu today is not what it used to be, say, just 30 years ago. However, we must appreciate this passion and support literary magazines because literary magazines are barometers that tell of the ongoing literary seasons and record the trends.

Another interesting aspect of this paradox is that on the one hand literary magazines do not sell and, on the other, many scholars, researchers and students of literature go from lamp to post to find some articles or material published in such journals, especially the older issues. Luckily, some individuals and organisations are working on digitalising the older literary periodicals and some issues of some magazines are available online. One such organisation is the Mushfiq Khwaja Memorial Library. They are preserving old literary mags by scanning them and would soon be launching them online.