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By Intizar Hussain

A question raised by the Indian critic Shamim Hanafi was echoed in a seminar held last week at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, under the title, ‘What is the Pakistani Public?’

At Karachi’s Global Urdu Conference, the organisers had chosen to divide the keynote address into two separate parts — one surveying Urdu writings in India, post-Partition, and the other looking at Pakistani writings. Hanafi, who was invited to present the first half of the keynote address, sensed in this organisation an attempt to force a division in Urdu’s literary tradition. “The literary tradition of Urdu,” he said, “is indivisible,” adding that “at least I cannot talk of the writings on my side without referring to what is being written in Pakistan”.

This question raised during Karachi’s conference was taken up by Asif Farrukhi at the Lums seminar. He said: “among the many problems which continue to confront this body of literature from 1947 to date, is the question of name. Should this literature be correctly and properly called Pakistani literature, as many people are wont to call it, and if so, what does this imply? What makes a particular piece of writing Pakistani and what makes it not? What are the parameters and the criteria of inclusion or otherwise?”

When discussed in this manner, the question leads to many others, each one bringing in its wake some new complication. Every definition of literature produced in Pakistan may appear inadequate. Creative works elude definitions. Has any definition-loving critic ever succeeded in offering a comprehensive definition of poetry? When engaged in such an attempt, we forget the question raised by Hanafi, who posed it thus: are you trying to divide Urdu’s literary tradition into two, one Pakistani, the other Indian? He clarified his own position in this respect. Urdu, according to him, cannot afford to have such divisions. Its literary tradition, with its long history, appears indivisible. But Farrukhi has diverted the discussion by pointing out what he calls a broader issue. He says that “a number of scholars and critics, ranging from Dr Jamil Jalibi to the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, have written about the broader issue of Pakistani culture, of which literature can be assumed to be a component.”

Muhammad Hasan Askari was the first to bring into discussion the question of Pakistani culture. It was in this context that he laid stress on the significance of Indo-Muslim culture, which, according to him, needed to be treated as the basic factor in the formation of Pakistani culture. He defied those elements who, in those early years of Pakistan, were pleading for the adoption of ‘Islamic culture’ as Pakistani culture, with Arabic as Pakistan’s national language. He vehemently argued that there exists no such thing as a pure Islamic culture. Islam, he argued, openheartedly imbibed influences from different lands. So in each place it is undergoing a process of acculturation, emerging as a new culture with its distinct form. Such is the manner in which the Indo-Muslim culture emerged within the boundaries of the subcontinent with Urdu as its medium of expression.

This was Askari’s line of argument. And could he, with this line of argument, afford to think of a divided literary tradition of Urdu?

Of course, at one time in his exuberance for Pakistan, he had spoken of ‘Pakistani adab’. But we cannot conclude from this that he was thinking in terms of a break away from the central tradition of Urdu. He gave no such hint in any of his writings. Instead, he stressed Urdu’s Hindi roots. That was what prompted him to choose Mohsin Kakorvi’s naat for his special study.