If teaching literature is a challenge, then a greater challenge is teaching contemporary literature. Classics, by their nature, call for rediscovery and renewed engagement, but are convenient when encountered in a classroom. They have been discussed, dissected, analysed and interpreted almost to the point of death, with every possible ounce of meaning extracted. The indulgent student can access notes, summaries, analyses and even sample papers. Contemporary literature has nothing similar to offer, no ready-made interpretations and clearly embroiled in social issues which could lead to subversion. The way Urdu literature is taught in most universities across the country is like a dead poets’ society, stopping short at Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, with nothing beyond a resonating silence ahead.
It was to address such a gap that a course focusing entirely on literature from contemporary Pakistan was designed and introduced at the undergraduate level at a private university. We were given a free hand which encouraged inventive and creative thinking in curriculum design, but above all, the involvement of intelligent students, curious and eager to learn. Putting together the syllabus of readings, themes and patterns from contemporary Urdu literature from Pakistan became a new harvest of anger, named after the thought-provoking short story by Asad Muhammad Khan, one of the most brilliant writers on the contemporary scene and generally missed out in narrow-vision curriculi. It came to be called Ghussay Ki Nai Fasl, a rich and angry new harvest from the literary fields in Pakistan. This would enable us to learn more about the current situation in Pakistan and appreciate the complexity of emerging narratives.
Moving away from the ‘life and works’ pattern of reading about authors — which many students had acquired in school — we faced the real challenge of the texts. We wanted to read the texts as such, as stories and poems, not to be reduced to thematic patterns. But we also wanted to be aware of the context in which these were written. Unfamiliar texts and a different style of reading made the course intriguing to the students, if not challenging. While there were those who lagged behind, most students would come to class with the readings done and questions buzzing in their mind, leading to close reading followed by discussion.
Our round of readings began with Faiz and his memorable poem ‘Lahoo Ka Suraagh’ [In Search of Vanished Blood as translated by Agha Shahid Ali] which ends on a poignant note: is the orphan blood, for which there was no witness and no case was filed. The poem has a definite date at the end — January 1965 — and most students did not know what events it could possibly be referring to. Then we deciphered the bit about khoon-i-khak-nasheenaan [the blood of the downtrodden] which had turned into rizq-i-khaak [food for the dust], like dust to dust. The police were reluctant to file a report so the poem became the very FIR, as poetry had borne witness. This was followed by Afzaal Ahmed Syed’s poem Aik Mumlikat Ki Khufia Tareekh [The Secret History of a State]. With no need to identify any particular event, the students had no difficulty in relating with the poem and its style, which would be dubbed as difficult by many critics; however, they wondered at the word mumlikat in the title of the poem. An alternative history began to emerge as we read further.
In the first session, we listed the authors and poets the students were familiar with and most of the names were predictable, from Jaun Elia to Parveen Shakir, Ahmed Faraz to Kishwar Naheed. The issues included women’s rights, minorities, climate change, crime and violence and whatnot. Not surprisingly, the name of Umera Ahmed cropped up, a name not on my list. However, I was determined to tackle her through an excellent article by Nasir Abbas Nayyar. Only a few knew Naseem Hijazi and Ibne Safi, indicating how trends have changed over the years. One student was very impressed with Habib Jalib and wanted to know more about him and the significance of Raqs-i-Zanjeer [The Shackled Dance] as we watched its video.
In fiction, we started with Saadat Hassan Manto, but moving from the earlier and well-known classics, which they had read earlier, and came to his biting political satire and later pieces. This proved to be almost a new author to them, as did Intizar Husain whose story Reserve Seat and its theme of violence touched many a heart.
The biggest surprise for the students proved to be Khalida Husain, whose story Sawaari [The Wagon] left them stunned. There was a long discussion on what it signified or meant, and while they all agreed that nobody could answer such questions, they wanted to know how come they had never heard of a writer as impressive as her. Such questions also came up with the stories of Hasan Manzar and Masood Ashar which dazed them.
In a similar vein, as we read Muhammad Mansha Yaad, a number of students recorded, on the Whatsapp group they had created to carry on the discussion, that they were profoundly moved. One student wrote: “Can’t overindulge in food after reading Mass Aur Mitti [Flesh and Dust. Can’t look at food in the same way. Kuch loag doosron ka hissa khaa jaatay hain [Some people eat up others’ portions].” Later on I asked in class: how many were upset at that particular story? All of the students raised their hands. Then I asked how many would rather have not read this story. Nobody responded. All of them affirmed that they felt better after having read the story and knowing what its contents were.
As the mood became grim, we made a midway correction by adding Mohammad Khalid Akhtar’s Zebra Scheme. The students all noted the great similarity with the current situation and thought of the scheme to import zebras a political parable.
The writers they liked included Saqi Farooqi and Mustansar Hussain Tarar. The real delight proved to be Fahmida Riaz, whose poems they were familiar with, but whose fiction they loved. As I read the stories, I realised that I too am learning from their responses, as they bring their own vivid imaginations to work on what contemporary literature has to offer.
The columnist is a critic and fiction writer and teaches literature and the humanities at Habib University, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 2nd, 2018