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COLUMN: The evolution of culture

June 16, 2012

Mabahis is a new literary journal conceived to be different from the existing ones. Dr Tahseen Firaqi, the force behind it, wants readers to be confronted with disturbing questions raised in the perspective of literature and culture. The questions should be provocative enough to compel readers to think in a serious way. “The business of literature,” says Dr Firaqi “is not just to provide satisfaction to the reader. It should agitate our minds.

So we find in this issue critical studies of contemporary literary works and thought-provoking articles challenging what has come to stay among us as accepted facts. The list of articles included in this volume is long and points to a variety of subjects. The limited space at my disposal does not allow me to take into account all that has been discussed in these articles. I can only point out a few questions raised by some writers and record my reactions to them.

Dr Qazi Afzal Husain appears to me in a very dismissive mood when probing the history of Urdu literature during the 19th century and discussing the literary trends emerging under the incoming English influences. All such trends smack, he feels, of imperialist designs, which aimed at damaging our relationship with our tradition and culture. His argument is that the conqueror establishes his relationship with the conquered on his own terms, which are imperialist in nature. All the steps taken by the English rulers since the year 1800 for the promotion of knowledge and the advancement of education were meant for their own interests rather than for the enlightenment of the conquered people.

Dr Afzal is right to argue like this. But he has missed one key point. Of course the conqueror, while establishing a relationship with those he rules over, keeps his own interests in view. Once this relationship is established, a process of acculturation starts which does not always obey the dictates of the rulers very faithfully. In fact, it takes its own course, more under the dictates of history than of those coming from the rulers. And that was what happened in the case of Urdu literature. The newly emerged literary tradition formed under the English influences betrayed imperialist designs. But soon, the emergence of Iqbal came as a demonstration that our literary tradition has now regained its voice and confidence in full.

Will I be wrong if I refer here to the early Muslim conquests in this land? Whatever be the designs of those early conquerors, the fact is that once the newcomers came in contact with the locals, a relationship was established between them. That led to a process of acculturation, which should be seen as a creative process as it gradually brought forth a new vibrant culture.

We may conclude from this that when two cultures and literary traditions come in contact with each other a new relationship starts, which eventually leads to something new in the realm of culture and literature. In fact, culture and literature are the kinds of phenomena which don’t flourish in isolation.

And why should we feel threatened for our culture or literature if another culture or tradition brings in its fold a different philosophy of life or a different concept of reality. It may well add in some way to our understanding of the world.

The other article which attracted my attention is by Shafay Qidwai, who discusses Faiz as a critic of fiction. He rightly feels that Faiz as a critic has generally been ignored in spite of the fact that he wrote on a number of subjects ranging from Urdu fiction to culture. Two subjects seem to have kept him engaged more than others — culture with reference to Pakistan, and Urdu fiction. In fact, the question of Pakistani culture has been a very controversial one among Pakistani writers and intellectuals. This thorny question constantly kept him engaged. In a number of articles and lecturers he tried to resolve this problem in an amicable way and define it in terms which may be acceptable to different camps.

As for his interest in fiction, it appears that he was more involved in questions relating to modern Urdu fiction than to those about modern Urdu poetry. And here he differed widely from contemporary critics, more particularly with progressive critics. For instance, in contrast to them he refuses to believe that Premchand was a realist. Realism in Urdu fiction takes its start, according to him, with Deputy Nazir Ahmad. Next comes Ratan Nath Sarshar. Rejecting Premchand as a realist, Faiz brings Nazir Ahmad and Sarshar as realists in the true sense of the term. It is in their writings that realism takes a start in Urdu.