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November 12, 2019

Literature, politics, and resistance: Part - III


November 12, 2019

Some of my readers have wondered at my definition of resistance literature, which they find too broad and encroaching upon material that should be included in history or journalism, not literature.

Let me clarify once again that to me asking questions about established traditions, inquiring into the causes of injustices, voicing concerns against the presumed authenticity of dominant narratives, questioning the official versions of history, wondering about the failures of self-righteous political organs and state institutions; challenging discriminations on the basis of caste, colour, community, congenital condition, or creed, is resistance. And then, writing all that in the form of articles, biographies, columns, fiction, interviews, personal histories and observations, poetry – and even travelogues – is resistance literature. Of course, a narrow definition of literature would include only fiction and poetry in its fold.

There may be different definitions and interpretations, depending on your personal inclination. For example, even for fiction there are myriad definitions, some confining fiction to novels and short stories; and some others including various forms of prose too, such as fables, parables, tales, and sagas. Some broad definitions of fiction even subsume poetry into fiction. As mentioned in the first part of this series last week, renowned critics and writers, Rasheed Amjad and Abrar Ahmed, have written about resistance literature in Urdu, but mostly they discuss fiction and poetry. This series of articles has a different take.

I even include Zahid Islam’s marvellous book 'Pakistan Mein Tabqati Jadojihad ki Tareekh' (The history of class struggle in Pakistan) as resistance literature; as he has painstakingly documented people’s movements and struggles in three volumes. Zahid Islam’s third volume, 'Mazduroon ki Trade Union aur Nazrayati Tehreekain' (Trade union of workers and ideological movements) discusses political trends among trade unions and their resistance from the early years of Pakistan to the regimes of General Ayub Khan, Z A Bhutto, and General Ziaul Haq. Zahid Islam is not only an activist but also a strong advocate of and believer in the local government systems.

I also consider the 250-page narrative by Ibrahim Jalees, 'Jail key Din, Jail ki Ratein' (Days and night in jail) as resistance literature. In this book, Jalees describes how he was arrested and sentenced to imprisonment in 1950 under the notorious Public Safety Act. He tries to give it a humorous touch, though you can feel the agony and anguish a young writer feels while kept in jail with some hard-core criminals. His wife and children had just migrated from India and he was able to spend just two weeks with them before being imprisoned on charges of penning an article, which the authorities found objectionable.

Coming back to defining resistance literature, in addition to Rasheed Amjad and Abrar Ahmed, a couple of other writers such as Afzal Tauseef and Shahzad Manzar have also discussed resistance literature. Shahzad Manzar’s essay, 'Urdu ka muzahimati afsana' (Resistance stories in Urdu) spanning nearly 40 pages, appeared in the second issue of 'Pakistaniat' – an academic journal from the Pakistan Study Centre of the University of Karachi – in 1996. He begins by trying to define resistance literature and I am tempted to translate and quote:

“Resistance literature is a new term, just like protest literature. Though, if you look at it, literature is always protesting and resisting. Especially, since the term purposeful literature was introduced, protest and resistance are going on in literature. But when this term was not coined, there was no concept of literature being purposeless. At that time, all literature was considered purposeful. The discussion about literature being purposeful or purposeless started with the advent of the industrial age.”

He goes on to say that, in real terms, resistance literature appeared in Pakistan with the dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq, albeit the literature produced during the regimes from General Ayub Khan to the martial law of General Yahya Khan could also be termed to some extent as resistance literature. Shahzad Manzar thinks that in Pakistan the literature produced during all military dictatorships should be included in resistance literature.

During the first 25 years of Pakistan’s existence, East Pakistan was a major centre of resistance against the domination of military regimes of Generals Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan who had deprived the people of Pakistan of their right to self-determination. The refusal of General Yahya Khan to hand over power to the elected representative after the general election in 1970 precipitated the downfall of Dacca (now Dhaka), the provincial capital of East Pakistan in December 1971. But the seeds of resistance had been sowed much earlier and many writers wrote about it.

For example, if you read some short stories of Masood Ashar, you feel the resonance of what was happening in East Pakistan. Masood Ashar’s collection of short stories published in 1974 was titled 'Aankhon par Donon Haath' (Eyes covered by both hands). One of the stories is 'Apni Apni Sachchai' (Everyone has their own truth). Just look at the following lines uttered by a woman in this story:

“They came at night, amid the thunder of cannons, and asked us to handover all men to them. All men must come with us. I said, this is my son, and he is not a man yet, he is just a child. But, they looked at me as if they had not understood, as if my voice had not reached them.

“You too will not go anywhere from here.

“Where can I go from here, but just look at…

“Yes, we will see, they laughed and asked me to move away

“I didn’t understand what they meant by ‘moving away’, but when they approached my daughter, I understood. I moved forward and said, ‘she is my daughter, she is your daughter, she is not a man’

“Daughter? Whose daughter?’ their eyes were white like a blank paper.

“And then, the womb of earth was stripped, my daughter was naked in front of her father and brothers. They pulled her saree, which rolled around their arms; the saree was no more there.

“My daughter was not Dropadi”

Reading this short story by Masood Ashar, you feel the pain and have goose bumps. The characters in this story have no names, neither does it specify the location, but while reading this story you understand when it happened and where it must have been. This is the success of resistance literature.

In another short story by Masood Ashar, 'Daab aur Beer ki Thandi Botal' (Unripe coconut and a cold bottle of beer), some visitors from West Pakistan are traveling in East Pakistan with their local Bengali hosts. The visitor from West Pakistan narrates how they make fun of their host Jaleeluddin, whose name was pronounced as Zaleeluddin by Bengalis. Whenever his name was called, the visitors from West Pakistan started laughing; it was a lot of fun for them. This was the attitude that alienated the Bengalis of East Pakistan from West Pakistan, ultimately resulting in the division of Pakistan, after the Indian intervention.

With the same background there is another story by Masood Ashar titled, 'Bela Nai Rey, Joldi Joldi' (there is no time, hurry up). In this story too, we see the exploitative attitudes of West Pakistanis and their humiliating talks to East Pakistanis. This story was against the military action in East Pakistan. In 1976, Muhammad Ali Siddiqui’s collection of critical essays, 'Tawazun' (Balance) included a brief review, 'Masood Ashar ke Afsaney' (The short stories of Masood Ashar).

Dr Zeenat Afshan’s book 'Urdu fiction Par Suqoot-e-Dhaka ke Asarat' (The impacts of the fall of Dhaka on Urdu literature) published by Idara-e-Yadgar-e-Ghalib, Karachi, is her doctoral thesis. It discusses in detail the impact of the fall of Dhaka on Urdu novels and stories. It is an outstanding piece of academic research and must be read by all those interested in the literature of resistance. It discusses writers such as Fazl Karim Fazli, Inayatullah, Razia Faseeh Ahmed, Intizar Hussain, Quratulain Haider, Altaf Fatima, Khalida Hussain, Zafar Payami, and many others.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]