FICTION: IN SEARCH OF LOST IDENTITY

January 05, 2020

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Muhammad Hafeez Khan’s latest work of fiction — a novel in the Seraiki language titled Adh Adhooray Lok [People with Lost Identities] — is in the continuation of that postcolonial literature which is created by Afro-Asian writers from countries that won freedom from European colonial powers. The backdrop of Khan’s novel is the liberation of India, the creation of Pakistan and the migration of millions of people from one country to another country in the face of some of the worst human tragedies seen in the world.

The 20th century witnessed great cataclysmic changes in human history when colonised people — particularly of Asia and Africa — started anti-colonial liberation movements and, by the mid-20th century, British and French colonies became liberated one after the other. Wars of emancipation were fought not only by freedom fighters or politicians; writers from the colonised nations also played an important role in setting their people free. Hence, anti-colonial literary movements began taking root, leading to the emergence of postcolonial literature.

Postcolonial writers challenged the basic assumption that the colonisers were superior whereas the colonised were backward, ignorant and therefore, inferior. Many classic postcolonial writings were published between the 1950s and 1990s. The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, a writer from the French colony of Martinique, was a pioneering work that helped in understanding the colonial mindset.

While speaking at the Congress of Black African Writers, Fanon said, “Colonial domination, because it is total and tends to oversimplify, very soon manages to disrupt in spectacular fashion the cultural life of a conquered people. This cultural obliteration is made possible by the negation of national reality, by new legal relations introduced by the occupying power, by the banishment of the natives and their customs to outlying districts by colonial society, by expropriation, and by the systematic enslaving of men and women.”

The colonisers thought that the colonised had no culture and no history. Postcolonial writers challenged this version of history and set about writing history from their own perspective. Interestingly, postcolonial literature was not just about countering the colonisers’ narrative; it also questioned the integrity and credibility of the natives who betrayed the dreams and aspirations of the newly liberated people. The effects of betrayal and of colonial legacy were so deep that even after independence, some nations and cultures continued suffering those effects — that is, the same colonial mindset and the same type of administrative and bureaucratic setup.

The establishment of the One Unit is a dark chapter in the history of Pakistan.

It was also during the mid-20th century that India was liberated and subsequently Pakistan was created. But, soon after independence, the people of the newly created state witnessed a series of betrayals by its rulers. The so-called One Unit was established by merging different provinces, princely states and regions into one province — then known as West Pakistan — in an effort to create a homogeneous province by negating the culture, history and identity of different linguistic and cultural groups.

The establishment of the One Unit is a dark chapter in the history of Pakistan. In the words of the author of Adh Adhooray Lok, “One Unit was a colonial ploy under which linguistic, cultural, historical identities were usurped by the particular dominant linguistic and cultural groups.” That was, in fact, a sort of domestic colonialism. The people of Sindh, Balochistan and the then NWFP, and even democratic forces in the Punjab province, refused to accept the negation of their identities and started a movement against the One Unit. Though the One Unit was abolished almost half a century ago, its effects still haunt Sindhis, Balochis, Pakhtuns, Seraikis and other minority ethnic groups.

Inspired by the movement launched against the One Unit, Seraiki writers began to write for the restoration of their linguistic, cultural and historical identity that had been encroached upon and usurped by the dominant ethnic group. The people of Bahawalpur struggled for the restoration of their state as a province, and they are still struggling. In the mid-1980s, the Seraiki literary and cultural movement for identity emerged as a strong resistance movement against the dominant group, demanding linguistic, cultural and political rights.

Khan, an outstanding literary critic, playwright, fiction writer and historian, is among the pioneers of the Seraiki literary movement. While he writes in Urdu and English as well, he is largely known as a Seraiki writer as his works, in any language, revolve around themes of Seraiki people and their homeland.

It is generally believed that drama and poetry are important in postcolonial literature, but it’s really the novel that defines this movement. Khan’s novel, Adh Adhooray Lok, now translated in Urdu also, is a factual story of the bewildered people of a small town — Ahmadpur in Bahawalpur state — who are not sure about their social, cultural and political future as a consequence of the division of India.

The main character of the novel is Fiaz, a young man in search of his lost identity. Other characters — Ram Lal and his daughter Tulsi, Wadhu and his wife Mehran and others — are also facing the same uncertain socio-cultural and emotional life. The language and idiom used by the writer may prove as a language refresher course for those who are used tospeaking and writing urbanised Seraiki and words of daily usage have been transformed into literary metaphors.

The reviewer is a journalist and writer

Adh Adhooray Lok
By Muhammad Hafeez Khan
Multan Institute of Policy and Research, Multan
ISBN: 978-9699782169
256pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 5th, 2020