Recognising literary tradition

December 4, 2022

The two-day ninth edition of the Faisalabad Literary Festival celebrated seventy-five years of Pakistani literature and arts

Recognising literary tradition


iterary festivals show that festivity is not altogether indifferent to aesthetics and that celebration is not entirely unconcerned with cerebration. They also make the audience believe that thinking can collaborative and happy and experience this. Apart from celebrating seventy-five years of Pakistani literature and arts, there was plenty of food for thought at the two-day ninth edition of the Faisalabad Literary Festival (FLF ‘22).

“Why has the Urdu literature yet to win a Nobel prize?” was the first trenchant question Asghar Nadeem Sayyad raised in his inaugural speech. Urdu has produced big names like Kabir Das, Meer Taqi Meer, Mirza Ghalib, Allama Iqbal, Faiz and NM Rashid, Manto, Quratailain Hyder, Abdullah Hussain and Intezar Hussain. Still, “why have we not been given room in the blue book of world literature?” he pointedly asked. Resistance has been the dominant theme of Nobel laureates’ writings as going against the socio-political grain forms the core of any creative act. Arguably, the chequered literary tradition of Urdu is not only awash with multifarious forms of resistance but has been unique in experimenting with aesthetics. Then what is the reason for not being able to grab this most prestigious award? This author believes that Urdu doesn’t lack matchless literary works; it lacks excellent authentic English translations and their robust dissemination through the world’s best publishers.

We live in a world where a non-stop play is going on between transitory-ness and permanence. Literary tradition and culture are marked with a sort of permanence. At the same time, in the outside world as well as in the social media world, things and images come and go; insinuating a sort of transitory-ness. It is the tehzeeb, only tehzeeb and its magnificent manifestations in literature and art, that possesses the power to redeem forfeitures caused by our accidie and ephemerality of time. This point was poignantly elaborated by Arifa Syeda Zahra in her keynote speech titled Our Cultural Values and Bash of New Age.

The questions of how our tehzeeb was mutilated and misinterpreted by the colonial masters and how the harrowing effects of this cultural mutilation were felt in dungeons of the psyche by Urdu authors in the post-colonial era were debated in the first session on the second day. Discussing the trajectory of seventy-five years of Pakistani Urdu fiction, the panellists – Muhammad Hameed Shahid, Tahira Iqbal, moderator Dr Amjid Tufail and this author, were of the view that the reclamation of the tehzeeb has been the dominant theme of modern, post-independence Urdu fiction. However, the word tehzeeb appears as elusive and problematic in Pakistani fiction writings. The Urdu writers who experienced migration were to embrace the meaning of tehzeeb as Indo-Islamic tehzeeb. While the Urdu writers belonging to the Punjab, Sindh and other parts of present Pakistan have gone with Vadi-i-Sindh ki Tehzeeb (Indus Valley Civilisation). The latter have not suffered the pangs of migration but have undergone the twinges of cultural displacement. So, both kinds of Urdu writers have reclaimed defaced, disfigured or forgotten tehzeeb in their writings. Intezar Hussain’s novel Basti and Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s Bahao are emblems of these two strands of cultural reclamation.

No discussion on Urdu fiction can miss a reference to Saadat Hasan Manto, who was not just one of the best storytellers modern Urdu fiction ever produced but also a non-partisan, humanist chronicler of horrors of partition. In his letters to Uncle SAM written in the early fifties, Manto augured that Pakistan was all set to get entangled in the Cold War and neo-colonialism. However, Urdu fiction has kept progressing in the post-Manto era as well, Muhammad Hameed Shahid asserted while contending Tahira Iqbal’s views in which Manto was dubbed as the ‘concluding’ figure of Urdu story. Shahid mentioned the names of Khalida Hussain, Rasheed Amjid, Mansha Yaad, Asad Muhammad Khan and Asif Farrukhi, as some of those who gave voice to the issues of their times in a manner unique to their experiences.

Recognising literary tradition

Literary festivals make the audience believe that thinking can be done both happily and jointly.

The theme of partition again, and this time more forcefully, emerged in a session on Punjab Di Vand Diyan Kahanian (Stories of Partitioning of the Punjab). It was heartening to see that the whole session was held in Punjabi. It was the Punjab that suffered partition, and it is the Punjabi that can truthfully and effectively relate to the stories of partition. Dr Khaula Cheema talked about the miseries and sufferings Punjabi women underwent during and after the partition. She said women’s sufferings were more multilayered than those of men. Not only were they stripped naked, raped and forced to commit suicides by jumping into wells, but also cursed. After disconnecting from their families during the partition, hundreds and thousands of women had to begin living again. But their miseries didn’t end there. Following an agreement between Pakistan and India in 1950 about sending these displaced women back to their families, many women were now forced to leave behind their ‘husbands’ and children. Dr Cheema also lamented that the tragedies and agonies these Punjabi women endured didn’t find adequate room in history. They, their parents, siblings, and even their neighbours stayed reluctant to narrate their stories, for an uncanny element of shame was surreptitiously attached to these stripped and raped women. Hence, a consummate cruelty of silence engulfed these women’s stories until 1980, when oral history established itself as an academically authentic discipline. Nasir Dhillon, another session panellist, shared the success story of his YouTube channel Punjabi Lehr TV mostly dedicated to recording oral memoirs of those who lost their homes, possessions, family members, friends, and dear ones. He said that he had done nine hundred such stories and three hundred people got connected or reunited for the first time with their dear ones by watching his vlogs from across the border. Faisalabad-based Siddique and his Delhi-based brother Mujeeb, who got connected by watching Dhillon’s vlog, reunited after seventy-five years. They also briefly talked to the audience. “They partitioned us, and the 21st-Century Generation came forward to heal the wounds of partition” was the crux of this session.

Why is our journey as a nation so slow? In the words of Munir Niazi: Munir iss shehr per aasaib ka saya hae ya kia hae/ keh harkat tez tar hae aur safar ahista ahista (Is this country haunted or what? Why is the movement ever faster, and the journey ever slower?) This theme was debated by Asghar Nadeem Sayyad, Haris Khaliq and Ziaul Hasan in a session titled Seventy-Five Years of Urdu Poetry. Dr Hasan was of the view that poetry is not only a skillful use of metaphors but also a historical progress or inertia of a society that can be captured and mapped by assorting of metaphors frequently used by poets across the decades. Khawab (dream), chiragh (lamp), raat (night), subh (dawn), sham (evening) raasta (path), manzil (destination), safar (travelling), darya (river), sehra (desert) etc, are the metaphors that keep ringing and reverberating incessantly in Urdu poetry of the last seven decades. This means that we are bogged down in a rut; the night has not ended, and nightmares have not stopped haunting us.

The theme of Indo-Islamic tehzeeb came under discussion yet again in a session dedicated to a debate on the newly released edition of Tilism-i-Hoshruba. Musharaf Ali Farooqi, who earlier translated this tome into English, has edited the first volume of its first original Urdu version. To make it more accessible to modern readers, a comprehensive glossary and Urdu translations of Persian couplets have been added to this edition. Along with Farooqi, Usama Siddique and this writer were the discussants. The session was moderated by Dr Sheeba Alam, an Urdu scholar and one of the chief organisers of the festival. Tilism-i-Hoshruba is a part of one Daftar (long chapter) of Dastan-i-Amir Hamza, which runs in seven Daftars and forty-six volumes. Munshi Naval Kishore commissioned Tassaduq Hussain, Muhammad Hussain Jah and Ahmad Hussain Qamar to retell the centuries-old Dastan-i-Amir Hamza. Its forty-six volumes were published in the period between 1884 and 1917. As it depicts the values, ethos and world view of Indo-Islamic tehzeeb, it couldn’t get validation from colonial masters and Indian reformers of the colonial period who were fonder of the new genre of novel. Though it is essentially a fantasy, its story revolves around a war between forces of Islam and Kufr, Haq and Batil. However, the Muslim characters of this Dastan, including Amir Hamza, leading the Lashkar-i-Islam, are ‘liberal’, openhearted, epicures; equally fond of razm (fight) and bazm (conviviality). Siddique elaborated upon how this, our very own, fantasy is richer in content and more inventive in the use of language than that of Western fantasy literature. Farooqi divulged that Shakespeare had used only twenty thousand unique words, while only this first volume of Tilism-i-Hoshruba carries fifteen thousand unique words. The use of unique words means a lot; for example, in George Orwell’s 1984, the use of a particular set of words was banned for the said words allowed people to think and connect with certain things and ideas, eventually creating trouble for the power that be. Once words disappear, things and ideas attached to them disappear as well. So, a literary text loaded with an abundance of unique words exhibits its heightened ‘creative interest’ in life, the world, society and the universe.

The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer, and professor of Urdu at the University of the Punjab. His new book, Naiy Naqqad Kay Naam Khatoot, is coming soon

Recognising literary tradition