ESSAY: WHAT MAKES US UNIQUE

August 27, 2017

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Pakistani Urdu literature possesses some very distinctive features. These features not only lend unique colours to Urdu literature written in Pakistan after independence, but also set it apart from the Urdu literature written in India during the last 70 years.

As described earlier in this series, Pakistani Urdu literature was influenced by the political, social and literary stimuli peculiar to this country. Pakistani writers and poets reflected on the society they were living in and wrote about its problems, aspirations, geographical features, distinct social milieu, societal peculiarities, society’s cultural characteristics, ethnic strife and linguistic environment, sometimes quite lovingly and in an ecstatic manner — though sometimes they were visibly shocked over the state of affairs and their words showed their dejection.

Many Pakistani Urdu writings reflect our cities, villages, valleys, mountains, plains, streets and bazaars, capturing their essence and the distinct aura that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, hence making them a purely Pakistani affair. Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, for example, vividly describes the business-mindedness and industrial culture of Karachi, a city he loved and where he lived most of his life, though he originally belonged to Bahawalpur. Chacha Abdul Baqi, a collection of Akhtar’s humorous short stories, portrays Karachi as an industrial and economic hub where fraudsters prowl to con simpletons such as Abdul Baqi. His novel Chakiwara Mein Visaal depicts, with much love and a bit of satire, a poor locality in Karachi’s Lyari area, portraying with much accuracy some Makrani and Baloch characters. Akhtar recalls the Karachi of the 1950s and ’60s when trams used to run on the city roads and an industrial culture was emerging. In his novel Khuda ki Basti, Shaukat Siddiqui also portrays an industrial Karachi with its own social and economic problems.

Concluding the series exploring Pakistani Urdu writing over the past 70 years

Asad Muhammad Khan is another Pakistani Urdu fiction writer who painted Karachi with its peculiar Baloch, Sindhi and Makrani citizens, writing their particular parlance and dialect of a local, non-conforming Urdu. Since Khan spent a long time in the areas in and around Karachi’s older parts, especially near the port, his depiction of local indigenous culture is accurate.

Mushtaq Ahmad Yousufi in his laughter-evoking memoirs Zarguzasht (though he himself called it an “autobiography of the childhood”) tells of a Karachi that was emerging in Pakistan’s early days, when I.I. Chundrigar Road was known as McLeod Road and Zaibunnisa Street was Elphinstone Street, that Karachiites affectionately called ‘Elphi.’ Interestingly, Karachi has appealed to many humorists and satirists and they have talked of it in a tongue-in-cheek style, though they could not hide their fascination with this Pakistani melting pot of different cultures and languages.

Aside from Majeed Lahori, who wrote about Karachi in his humorous prose and poetry in Pakistan’s early days, some humorists have cast a delectable glance over the city. Karachi’s buses, with the city’s ever-present transportation problems in the background, caught the fancy of humorists such as Syed Muhammad Jafri, Syed Zameer Jafri and Dilawar Figar who, in their poetry, wittily highlighted the plight of Karachi’s buses and commuters. The city’s ethnic problems were also narrated and Intizar Husain specifically described in his novella Aagay Samandar Hai Karachi’s ethnic unrest, borrowing the expression from Gen Ayub Khan who, in the wake of the Mohajir-Pathan riots of the 1960s, was quoted as saying, “Mohajiron ke liye aagay samandar hai” [for Mohajirs, only the sea lies ahead], implying that they could not go back to India from where they had migrated.

Coming to other parts of the country, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi is among the writers who portrayed Punjab’s towns and villages. As Punjab’s villages changed with time, so too did Qasmi’s short stories, and portraying the new trends in rural areas — such as Pakistanis from the villages going to the Gulf states to earn a living and the consequent social problems — became the theme of some of Qasmi’s short stories. It is a pity that most Urdu literature depicts urban life and the middle-class; there has always been a dearth of the rural scene in Urdu literature. The reason, perhaps, is that most writers of Urdu belonged to urban backgrounds and came from middle-class families. Though depictions of the rural areas were not a rarity, they were somehow overshadowed by city culture. The writers who captured the essence of rural Pakistan in their writings include Jamila Hashmi, Abdullah Hussain and Ghulam-us-Saqlain Naqvi. Majeed Amjad’s poetry is a vast canvas where one can see, hear and feel the sights and sounds of rural Punjab, especially cultural and rural scenes from Jhang and Sahiwal, come alive.

Colonel Muhammad Khan in his humorous writings talks lovingly of Pakistani cities and villages such as Karachi, Rawalpindi and Balkasar, his native town in the Chakwal district. In his travelogues, Ibn-i-Insha unconsciously compares Pakistan with the foreign lands he visits and often the mood is as pensive as it is lively. Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s travel accounts of Pakistan’s northern areas draw a lovely picture painted with a tinge of romanticism. Similarly, other geographical terrains of Pakistan, such as Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have made it to Pakistani Urdu literature. Shaukat Ali Shah’s travel account Ajnabi Apnay Des Mein should have served as an eye-opener for common Pakistanis and the powers that were, as it paints a gloomy picture of a backward and deprived Balochistan back in the 1970s, boiling over with lava that ultimately came roaring out. But it was not to be. Our rulers do not read books. The only books they love, it seems, are the ones called cheque books.

An inherited characteristic of Pakistani culture and literature is Islam and its moral values, though some may cringe at the idea. But it is a fact that Pakistani literature has never been able to completely forget its religious identity and this is reflected in literary works. Naseem Hijazi, a novelist not much favoured among serious-minded readers and critics, based his over a dozen so-called ‘Islamic novels’ on the theme of Islam’s glorious past and its revival. Though now analysed in a different perspective, especially in the post 9/11 era — with Christina Oesterheld, a German scholar of Urdu, in one of her articles declaring Hijazi’s novels a potential threat with jihadist ideas — Hijazi’s novels were immensely popular in their time and ran into several editions in a society where reading habits have never been encouraging. This points to subconscious affiliations with Islam and its moral values in Pakistani society, a trend that was initiated in the early days of Pakistan with the Islamic literature movement. The trend found new energy during Gen Ziaul Haq’s era, resulting not only in a marked tendency among poets to write naat — poetry praising Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) — but influencing some fiction writers as well who tried their hand at writing stories with emphasis on Islamic moral values and religious ideas. One such novel is Bano Qudsia’s Raja Gidh that presents Islam’s concept of halal and haraam as a scientific idea, deducing that indulging in the haraam, whether in the form of food or sexual relationships, results in actual lunacy.

Gen Zia’s imposition of martial law in 1977 inspired a large number of writings, later touted as ‘resistance literature’ and published in bulk after — as it was said — ‘the restoration of democracy.’ But later it somehow became fashionable to present a piece of resistance literature as proof of political affiliation and many benefitted from it by winning favours in the post-Zia era. Still, it should be appreciated, considering the sad fact that there was little resistance against Gen Ayub’s martial law of 1958. Some critics believe that the Pakistan Writers’ Guild (PWG), an association of Pakistani writers and intellectuals formed, apparently, to secure the rights of writers and poets, was just a novel way to win the favour of writers and intellectuals for the new military government, offering them carrots rather than using sticks, giving writers residential plots and sending them on foreign tours. It is often said that the PWG was the brainchild of Qudratullah Shahab, Gen Ayub’s secretary and a writer himself. Some alleged that the PWG was formed with a nod from the Americans (friends, not masters, as suggested in the title of the book by Gen Ayub).

In addition to a leaning towards Islamic values, another factor that defines Pakistani Urdu literature is the sympathetic approach towards the Muslims of Kashmir and Palestine. Some dissertations and books have discussed the topics of Kashmir and Palestine in Pakistani Urdu literature in depth and it is not possible to give details here, but these issues do comprise an integral part of Pakistani Urdu literature. Islamic rituals, festivities and cultural phenomena are very much a part of our literature. Similarly, Pakistani nationalism and Pakistani nationhood have been reflected in our literature, though not as much as one would have desired.

An interesting phenomenon that Pakistani Urdu literature recorded is a new, Pakistani version of the Urdu language. Adorned with words and expressions from Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto and other Pakistani languages, this new Pakistani Urdu is quite distinct from the Indian version of the language, making it a manifestation of the peculiar Pakistani aura and linguistic environment.

These are just a few of the factors that lend Pakistani Urdu literature an identity of its own. It is simply not possible to discuss all the aspects or mention all the writers and poets here as that would be the topic of a doctoral dissertation.

The writer is a former chief editor of the Urdu Dictionary Board and now teaches Urdu at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 27th, 2017