Literary footprints of giants, like (clockwise) Saadat Hasan Manto, Intizar Hussain, Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi and Josh Malihabadi, among others, are indelible in the realm of Pakistani literature. Seen on the right is the iconic Faiz Ahmed Faiz at the Urdu Markaz Mushaira in the 1980s that was organised by the BBC in London, which was a favourite spot for intellectuals who tried to stay away from Zia’s Pakistan. He is flanked here by Ahmed Faraz and Zehra Nigah on his right and by Iftikhar Arif, Jameela Dehlvi, Shohrat Bukhari and Gopi Chand Narang on his left. (Courtesy: BBC/ White Star Photo)
Literary footprints of giants, like (clockwise) Saadat Hasan Manto, Intizar Hussain, Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi and Josh Malihabadi, among others, are indelible in the realm of Pakistani literature. Seen on the right is the iconic Faiz Ahmed Faiz at the Urdu Markaz Mushaira in the 1980s that was organised by the BBC in London, which was a favourite spot for intellectuals who tried to stay away from Zia’s Pakistan. He is flanked here by Ahmed Faraz and Zehra Nigah on his right and by Iftikhar Arif, Jameela Dehlvi, Shohrat Bukhari and Gopi Chand Narang on his left. (Courtesy: BBC/ White Star Photo)

WHEN the sun peeped out from behind the horizon on August 14, 1947, much to its surprise it was an altogether different landscape in the subcontinent, not only politically but also literarily and linguistically. Urdu literature, hitherto created in an undivided British India, was to be written now in two different countries with their own ideals, credos and convictions. Events that took place before independence had had a tremendous effect on Urdu and its literature. In post-independence era, distinct milieus of the two nascent countries were to impact the creative process in the years to come and schism between the two Urdu literatures to be created in two different countries was only to widen.

When the Urdu-Hindi controversy emerged in 1867, writers of both the languages had taken up a different approach and, consciously or unconsciously, were influenced by nationalistic sentiments in the aftermath of the controversy. Hindu writers were trying to accommodate in Hindi as many words of Sanskrit or Prakrit origin as they could. Muslim authors did the same with words of Persian and Arabic origin.

Munshi Premchand, one of the pioneers of Urdu short story and a much revered figure of Urdu fiction, used to write in Urdu and his writings were translated – transcribed, actually – into Hindi. But with the passage of time and under the influence of Hindu reformist and revivalist movements, he began writing in Hindi and his writings were then rewritten for Urdu edition. Masood Husain Khan proved that Gaodaan, Premchand’s masterpiece, was originally penned in Hindi, and today it is debated whether it should be considered an Urdu novel or classified as a ‘translation’.

The episode indicates the sentiments in pre-independence era. In the post-independence era, Hindi’s influence on the Urdu language in India, both written and spoken, is evident. Pakistani Urdu gradually became distinct from its Indian version, with a marked difference in vocabulary, idiom and even orthographic preferences. In Indian Urdu, under the influence of Rasheed Hasan Khan, different spellings of certain words are preferred. The impact of Pakistani languages, especially Punjabi, contributed to a new mood and colour of Pakistani Urdu.

Over the years, Pakistani Urdu literature has developed differently from its Indian counterpart and reflects ideological battles and aesthetic movements that have enriched our literary language.

Ideological battleground

In June 1947, Dr M.D. Taseer had raised the issue of Pakistani literature, emphasising the need to define how Pakistani literature was going to be different from Indian literature, and also from literature created before independence in British India. Taseer had also asked what the stance of Pakistani writers would be on the issue of Kashmir — much to the chagrin of our Marxist intellectuals.

Mohammad Hasan Askari, having migrated to Pakistan, raised the same issues right after independence, and stressed the need to portray Pakistani identity and adopt nationalistic approach in literary works. Askari and Taseer felt that Urdu literature to be written in Pakistan must reflect authors’ loyalty to the new state. Soon this turned out to be a movement-like trend. Spearheaded by Askari, it is known as Pakistani Literature Movement in the chronicles of literary history.

Those who were for Pakistan’s Islamic identity and wanted it to be reflected in literature written here launched another literary movement, Tehreek-i-Adab-i-Islami, or the Islamic Literature Movement. Mahirul Qadri, Naeem Siddiqi and some other writers were the key figures the movement most of whose members were basically rightists.

It is argued that Askari soon mixed up the two streams, creating a bit of confusion. A little later, Askari declared that Urdu literature was suffering from jamood, or inertia. As critics were busy countering his claim of an ‘inert’ Urdu literature, Askari dropped another bomb, saying it was all but dead. In fact, whatever Askari said made ripples, and even today his school of thought, that he had single-handedly founded, exists and many of the critics refer to Askari with reverence.

The contrasting point of view was put forward by the progressives; the leftists. They saw no reason to merge religion with literature, and their idiom to describe the reality, as they saw it, was in sharp contrast to that of the rightists. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, for instance, described independence as not quite the ‘morning’ one had waited for. In fact, he called it a ‘night-bitten morning’ marked by ‘stained light’.

In the 1950s, the tussle between the two streams was at its peak and fully reflected in literary output and even literary journalism. Interestingly, both schools of thought accused each other of sloganeering.

With the introduction of McCarthyism in Pakistan and the resultant crackdown against communists and their sympathisers, the progressives had to keep quiet for a while as many of them were persecuted by the state. Faiz, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Sajjad Zaheer and many others were imprisoned. Of them, the most interesting case is that of Sajjad Zaheer who, an Indian national, was sent to head the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). Having crossed the border illegally over to Pakistan, he was arrested and jailed. On his release, he headed back to India and, on arrival there, said he was happy to be back in his “own country”. Among the progressives, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi was much clearer in his head than many of his comrades about the direction they wanted Pakistani state to take going forward.

On its part, the rightist movement was unable to produce another towering figure like Askari. Unlike the progressives who wrote some really great literary pieces, the rightists, despite all the rhetoric, could not produce a single writer or poet that could truly be called great.

Away from all such debates, Josh Malihabadi continued to wield his craft like only he could. Having remained in India till the mid-1950s, he was a rather late entrant to the national literary scene. His stature as the Sha’ir-i-Inqilab, or the Poet of the Revolution, was well-acknowledged on either side of the border.

Symbolism and modernism

In the wake of the first martial in 1958, there came more restrictions on the freedom of expression. It is generally believed that the martial law had prompted the rise of symbolism and deliberate obscurantism in Pakistani literature. Some insist that even the trend of writing plot-less short stories from 1960 onwards owed much to martial law as it was a means of avoiding the restrictions imposed by the censor. However, there is no dearth of those who disagree and think symbolism and modernism would have come to Pakistan anyhow, and that it was a mere coincidence that they arrived after the imposition of the martial law.

Modernism arrived in Pakistan quite late, but when it did, everybody noticed. Halqa-i-Arbab-i-Zauq, a literary circle that supported aesthetic values and backed the notion of literature for the sake of literature, played a vital role in the propagation of modernism.

Progressives perceived the Halqa as a regressive force because the latter never showed any political tendencies expressly, at least in its early phase. On its part, the Halqa did not favour the utilitarian concept of literature that the progressives practised. Halqa’s literary gatherings were open to all schools of thought and the discussion used to be lively, to put it mildly.

The desire to say something modern and different resulted in a poetic movement in the 1960s. Rising from Lahore, the Nai Shaeri Ki Tehreek, or the New Poetry Movement, was the brainchild of Iftikhar Jalib, Anees Nagi, Zahid Dar and some others. Though the movement claimed to be a forum for “new linguistic formations”, its founders could not practically show in their writings what they meant by it.

It was left to Zafar Iqbal to skilfully demonstrate what new diction was and how a new language could say different things in new ways. Zafar Iqbal, and some of his followers, intentionally created a new version of ‘Pakistani Urdu’, devising new verbs by modifying nouns and blending the words from local languages. This contribution to Urdu poetry and language has been much underrated.

The Progressive camp emphasised the theme of literature, while the Halqa favoured form. Some critics rejected both theme and form, arguing that the division was unnecessary as new linguistic formation covered both, presenting the “truth in totality”. Such critics were inspired by the theory of logical positivism, too. The proponents of this group were well aware of modern Western critical and linguistic theories and behind their ideas of a new diction and new poetry one can trace the influence of critical theories of structuralism and modernism.

Taking a cue from James Joyce and William Faulkner, they insisted on deviating from traditional patterns of language as ruled by grammar and dictionary. It was, in a way, the impact of modernism and tucked in somewhere were the influences of abstractionism and surrealism. Though the movement largely failed to deliver what it promised, it can never be overlooked as it left its mark on Urdu literature, criticism and language.

Arguments generated by the supporters of Askari prompted a wave of questions regarding Pakistani or Islamic literature. If Pakistan was to be treated as a political and geographical unit, what its cultural identity will be, considering its multilingual characteristics and subcultures, they wondered. Many asked if cultural identity included local rituals, values, folk literature and customs, and the issue of the civilisations of Mohenjodaro and Taxila was also raised.

Some questions were partially answered and some remain unanswered even today, but the debate paved the way for some brainstorming. While some progressives, like Qasmi, for instance, gave a balanced point of view and said that our culture was Indo-Islamic in essence as there was definitely some influence of Islam on Pakistani culture, and our ancient heritage, too, was a part of it, others showed their displeasure.

There were some other critics who elaborated the theories of postmodernism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, feminism and, in recent times, post-colonialism. With postmodern theories beginning to reverberate in Urdu criticism written in India in the 1970s, in Pakistan’s literary circles it began in late 1980s and early 1990s. Some literary journals, like Funoon, Auraaq, Daryaft and Sareer, played a pivotal role in popularising these critical theories.

While all these debates continue to make waves, there was a marked surge in patriotic feelings and its reflection in Urdu literature in the wake of the 1965 and 1971 Pakistan-India wars. In poetry and fiction written in Pakistan against this backdrop, a profound sense of belonging to the land and its love was recorded. The unprecedented euphoria gave way to the agonies of the fall of East Pakistan in 1971. Pakistani writers and poets expressed their views in the 1970s and 1980s on the tragedy artistically in their writings, mourning the dead and bewailing the living.

Trends and genres

The 1990s witnessed a surge in feministic critical theories and some women poets and critics, especially Kishwar Naheed, Fahmida Riaz and Fatema Hasan, who made major and impressive contributions.

Another phenomenon that became quite noticeable was a fuller role for female writers and poets. Not only a large number of women poets and writers began to shine brightly on the literary horizon, but in many fields they outshone their male counterparts, especially when it comes to Urdu novels. Many of the best Urdu novels written in Pakistan during 1960s and 1970s were penned by women writers.

As for the literary genres, unprecedented progress has been noted over the years in Pakistan. For instance, Urdu short story, or afsaana, offers some very fine examples of the art and craft of short story. Similarly, Urdu novel attained new heights in Pakistan.

An interesting case study is that of Urdu ghazal. In fact, had nazm, the modern poem, not challenged its supremacy, ghazal would have still been the most popular genre. But ghazal did come under threat for a while, and there were times when it seemed that nazm would replace it as the preferred form.

In the pre-independence phase, Allama Iqbal gave Urdu ghazal a makeover, and the post-independence ghazal embraced the realities of a changing world: its diction, themes, symbols and vocabulary all went through a great transformation, and social and political issues began to appear in it. The best use of it was made by Faiz, who subtly used the traditional metaphors and symbols to convey a political message. In doing so, he revived the art form and gave it the energy to fight off the threat posed by nazm.

Rural milieu

An oft-repeated lament is about the lack of depiction of rural milieu in Urdu literature in general. and in Pakistani Urdu literature in particular. It is a fact that many of the writers and poets come from the educated urban middle class and they portray the issues related mostly to what they experience in real life. But there are some who have painted Pakistan’s rural scene with accuracy and a peculiar local diction. For instance, Majeed Amjad and Sher Afzal Jafri in their poetry recorded Pakistan’s rural milieu with its sights and sounds.

Qasmi’s short stories captured the villages of Punjab, but many of his stories set in rural background were written in the 1940s and 1950s. Shaukat Siddiqi’s Jangloos reflects the people, language and cultures of Pakistan, particularly the rural areas in relatively modern times. Others who captured the essence of rural Pakistan include Jameela Hashmi, Abdullah Hussain and Ghulam-us-Saqlain Naqvi.

Majeed Lahori, Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, Mohammad Khalid Akhter and Asad Mohammad Khan successfully captured in their prose Karachi’s local colours and its multiethnic cultural peculiarities. Intizar Hussain’s Aage Samandar Hai was able to highlight the megacity’s ethnic problem.

In conclusion, Urdu literature produced over the last 75 years in Pakistan has been deeply influenced by the local stimuli. Pakistani nationalism is pretty ingrained in our literary output.

The writer is a Dawn columnist and can be reached at:



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