Resistance in literature

November 26, 2017

Literature and all creative arts must possess a kind of magical power that could metamorphose the cry of resistance into a ‘whimper’ without vitiating the ‘essence’ of crying

Resistance in literature

Is resistance poetry a diminishing genre? This was the theme of a session at the Faiz International Festival ’17 which was held in Lahore last week.

The panel comprised Harris Khalique, Amar Sindhu and this author. The theme of resistance also came under discussion in an earlier session -- on feminine creative process in the perspective of Urdu literature with Yasmeen Hameed and Najeeba Arif on the panel.

Resistance was not just a hallmark of Faiz’ poetry, he turned into a symbol of resistance himself. The festival seems to have been gripped by a well-wrought ‘corporate culture’s festivity’ which swirls around Faiz’s symbolic image of resistance. It was rather a queer contrast: the moment the discussion on resistance poetry was going on at the small Adabi Baithak of Alhamra, the bigger hall was reserved for a television and film artiste.

Anyhow, a very lively talk was held on resistance literature. All three panelists almost agreed that the "golden period" of resistance literature is over which coincided with the times when the ideological divide of right and left was at its peak. In the post-ideology period, there are just sporadic scintillas of resistance. But the theme deserves to be talked about in its wider perspective.

Writers have to, willingly or otherwise, stand with or against or question the existential basis of dominant perceptions, narratives, discourses or ideologies of their times. They cannot stay neutral. If they decide to stay silent where they should speak, they implicitly endorse the course of events.

Writing is essentially a social act; even maintaining a personal diary becomes a social business. The moment something appears on paper in a language commonly shared, it enters into an impersonal and social realm. Writing can hold a sort of ‘personal’ import, but the meaning and scope of words ‘personal’ and ‘private’ can only be made out, interpreted and justified within the signifying system a society evolves over a long period of time. The moment one sets off to write, they find themselves in a ‘state of fluidity’ which is inundated with personal thoughts, ideas, and emotions, embedded in the said signifying system. It can be dealt with by taking a ‘position’, i.e., turning fluidity into a solidified verbal action.

Writers might have multiple reasons to write but in dealing with the fluid state of thoughts and emotions, they can either choose to conform or resist a particular situation or prefer to hang around the ‘grey area’ of that situation. One may wish to stay neutral but language and its intentional use leaves no room for neutrality. In reality, no expression is innocent. When you say something, you mean or intend to mean something, you point towards something; you prefer one thing to other things -- though you do all this within a shared signifying system.

It means you have to take a stand, even in simple, daily expressions. Not surprisingly, even silence observed in a particular situation does not qualify as neutrality. Sometimes silence speaks more loudly than words. Ghulam Rabbani Taban, an Urdu poet, says silence too is a way of expression.


[People say a lot by saying nothing; O friends, silence too is a way of expression]

Writers have to, willingly or otherwise, stand with or against or question the existential basis of dominant perceptions, narratives, discourses or ideologies of their times. They cannot stay neutral. If they decide to stay silent where they should speak, they implicitly endorse the course of events. As the words of a poet have different connotations and metaphorical dimensions which remain repressed or absent in daily use of language, his or her silence too signifies differently.

Likewise, their conformity to dominant ideologies becomes a highly serious matter that no human society can afford to ignore. Most popular and dominant beliefs, narratives, ideologies and stereotypes emanate from or are closely associated with power structures. So when a writer intends the same, what lies at the heart of the popular stuff, his or her writings serve not only to strengthen the power structures but wrap them up in a sort of ambience where they remain unchallenged. Nothing is more dangerous than stereotypical things that go unquestioned and unchallenged.

Contrary to common belief, writing in itself is not an act of resistance. However, nothing is more illusory than resistance particularly when it comes to be entrenched in literature. At first sight, it appears straightforward and in a sense an easy choice, but in reality it is convoluted and multifaceted in a problematic way. To resist means to refuse loudly, deny openly, and reject publicly all that appears unreasonable and unfair. But literature doesn’t like a louder tone.

In a way, resistance and literature are at daggers drawn. Literature -- and all creative arts -- must possess a kind of magical power that could metamorphose the ‘cry of resistance’ into a ‘whimper’ without vitiating the ‘essence’ of crying.

Resistance takes many forms and employs diverse styles and techniques. One can resist publicly a particular ‘political order’. Some resist against all kinds of ideologies through critically analysing them. Others can resist against all forms of discrimination through speech, tweets and blogs. Still others may oppose extremist ideas by adopting and favouring moderate ideas.

There is another type of resistance which is more subtle and intellectually far more effective: ruthless critical exploration of the basis and essence of dominant ideas, ideologies, values, and concepts which make up the fabric of a society. We can thus divide all forms of resistance into three categories: socially active, critical and interrogative.

Socially active writers resist what is desired, demanded or dictated by power centres. Repressive State Apparatus (army, police, and judiciary) resorts to brutal use of power to silence activists, public intellectuals and writers while Ideological State Apparatus (educational, religious institute and family) draws on inducements and lures to tame them. In the following couplet, Habib Jalib articulates the role of a socially active writer:


[No matter how many times they dictate us to name not darkness; we haven’t learnt to give in to the dictation]

Faiz epitomised the same idea in a more emphatic and aesthetic manner:


Though Amjad Islam Amjad is not an activist poet like Habib Jalib, he has written a few poems which are soaked in unambiguous ‘socially active’ resistance:


[No doubt the ambit of your repression is too strong, but the power of our patience has a style of its own; the boundary of our endurance lies far beyond the border of your cruelty]

Conformist writers stand with representatives of repressive or ideological state apparatuses while rebels stand with the victims of actual or ideological repression. Conformists have implicit love for power, awards, and honorariums. Rebels have explicit, selfless love and sympathy for the down-trodden segments of society. Conformists work for the continuity of a system which bestows upon them all sorts of comforts and rewards. Rebels labour for rapid, plausible change in the political and social system.

When the ideological divide between the right and left was at its peak during the Cold War, ironically both conformists and rebels were equally popular. In those times, conformity and resistance were both desired -- one by the state, the other by the people.

Contrary to socially active rebels, writers engaged in critical and interrogative types of resistance aim at slow yet essential change in intellectual and imaginative realms. Socially active writers hit at the ‘super structure’ of society while the other two kinds of resistance batter the very ‘base’ of society. One’s life is shorter, the other longer.

As said earlier, every writer has to embrace a state of fluidity. Going with or against it means an unambiguous act of solidifying that fluidity, taking a clear-cut position, preferring an unequivocal possibility to multiplicity of possibilities. Proponents of critical and interrogative resistance believe that there exists another domain -- the grey area -- where everything seems melting; boundaries appear blurred, clarity gives way to ambiguity. Of course, these writers too take a position which is not explicit. They stand against the habit -- and the way of developing a habit -- of seeing things superficially, accepting ideas uncritically and becoming the consumer of popular perceptions. They believe that what we come across in our daily life, in school, at home, in media etc has been socially and historically constructed, disseminated and institutionalised.

Here are a few Urdu couplets that depict this superior kind of resistance, challenging the institutionalisation of ideas:




 The English translation of Urdu verses has been done by the author.

Resistance in literature