ALTHOUGH it seemed that Covid-19 would affect literary activities badly as lockdown had forced bookshops and publishing houses to cease their normal working, during the year 2020 many writers somehow managed to get their works published.
In fact, the number of new titles that appeared during the year is quite heartening and the number of autobiographies that were published is quite surprising. Another trend that really picked up, though caused mainly by the pandemic, was organising literary conferences online. These online conferences mostly follow a hybrid system wherein many of the participants deliberate online. The International Urdu Conference organised by Arts Council of Pakistan, Karachi, was an example of how to manage a gathering in the time of pandemic while following the SOPs. Similarly, Pakistan Academy of Letters and Idara-e-Farogh-e-Qaumi Zaban, Islamabad — and some other organisations — held a number of online literary conferences. This compensated, at least to some extent, for the lack of literary gatherings and ‘musaheras’.
Another trend that resurfaced was reprinting the golden oldies. Reprinting the works by maestros is a welcome trend and it took off a couple of decades ago. It had slowed down, but this year a few publishers, especially Majlis-e-Taraqqi-e-Adab, Lahore, reprinted many titles that were sought after for many years, especially by students and scholars.
Here is a brief survey of what Pakistani Urdu literature offered to the readers during the year 2020. As for fiction, luckily, Mustansar Hussain Tarar was quite active, though he has turned 80. His novella Shehr Khaali, Koocha Khaali appeared. It is written against the backdrop of pandemic. His novella Roop Behroop, too, was published. Muhammad Ilyas’s Maya Ko Maya Mile, a novella, and Surkh Gulaab, a collection of short stories and novella, appeared. Nasir Abbas Nayyar’s Aik Zamana Khatm Huwa Hai is a collection of his short stories.
But what really stole the show was an incessant flow of autobiographies, some of them quite readable and informative. For instance, Raagni Ki Khoj Mein, Najeeba Arif’s autobiography describing a spiritual journey in search of a ‘murshid’, is an absorbing read. Her mother Hadiya Zafar penned her autobiography Jeevan Dhaara at the age of 85. It is a story of a woman’s resilience and patience in a male-dominated society and how she successfully manoeuvred her teaching career against all odds. Muhammad Shams-ul-Haq, a scholar who has tirelessly worked on Urdu’s famous verses, surpassed even Hadiya Zafar and published his autobiography Aao Phir Guzre Huwe Ayyaam Ki Baaten Karen in March 2020, exactly a hundred years after he was born. This is quite a unique record and surpasses both Mehdi Ali Siddqi and Nirad C. Chaudhury who had written books at the age of 97 and 99, respectively.
Be Zabani Zaban Na Ho Jaae is an autobiography by Malika Pukhraaj, a well-known classical singer. A research work on Urdu’s brief autobiographies was penned by Mushfiq Khwaja and it had excerpts from dozens of brief autobiographies, some of them quite rare and interesting. Mahmood Kaavish edited and annotated it. It was published under the original title Urdu Ki Mukhtasar Aap Beetiyaan.
Travelogues, reportages and pen sketches, too, are considered autobiographical literary genres. Mustansar Hussain Tarar published two travel accounts: Vietnam Tere Naam and Sanam Kada Combodia. Masood Mufti’s reportage Do Meenar narrates the story of two minarets: one is Pakistan and the other is he himself. Pen sketches by Mubeen Mirza were published in a volume titled Arzhang. His three-volume selection of Urdu’s best pen sketches was reprinted by National Book Foundation. Muhammad Arif Jameel’s reportage is a heart-touching tale of his two simultaneous journeys: one to the inner world and the other to Makkah and Madina.
Literary criticism and research had some subdued representation as compared to last few years. Yet we had some good critical and research works. Some of the works on Muhammad Hasan Askari planned to appear in 2019 to coincide with the critic’s 100th birth anniversary were delayed and could appear this year. For instance, special issue on Askari Sahib was published by Iste’aara, a literary journal edited by Amjad Tufail and Riaz Ahmed and published from Lahore. Ishtiaq Ahmed had collected critical essays on Askari but it could not see light of the day before 2020. Muhammad Hamza Farooqi added some newly found material to the second edition of his work named Hayat-e-Iqbal Ke Chand Makhfi Goshe. Zafar Hussain Zafar compiled and annotated 96 letters written by Maulana Moudoodi in his book Syed Moudoodi Ke Khutoot.
A few dictionaries made us richer. Nisar Ahmed’s glossary named Farhang-e-Kulliyaat-e-Quli Qutb Shah was published by Idara-e-Yadgar-e-Ghalib. Bahar-e-Hind, Ameer Meenai’s hitherto unpublished Persian-Urdu dictionary, was edited by Ateeq Jeelani and Rafiq Ahmed Khan. Farhang-e-Aamira, a dictionary of Persian, Arabic and Turkish loanwords in Urdu, compiled by Abdullah Kheshgi, was edited and annotated by Vasiullah Khokhar. Bibi Ameena’s doctoral dissertation on Urdu lexicography was published by Anjuman Taraqqi-e-Urdu.
Had it not been for the online literary conferences, reprints and autobiographies, the year 2020 would have gone down in the literary history as a year that did not yield as many flowers as the previous ones.
Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2020