Our critics have often lamented the absence of Urdu novels from the library shelves of world literature. There is no denying the fact that Urdu novels have not yet made it to those coveted shelves. As a ray of hope, however, the biggest literary crop we harvested in this country in the last decade was the Urdu novel. However, the remarkable increase in the number of Urdu novels that have been published is still not a guarantee that these novels will take off.
A postcolonial historical novel that attempts to shake the readers out of their complacency
(To those who ask: how can Rekhta be the envy of Farsi
Read Ghalib’s verse just once and say, “this way”)
Our critics have often lamented the absence of Urdu novels from the library shelves of world literature. There is no denying the fact that Urdu novels have not yet made it to those coveted shelves. As a ray of hope, however, the biggest literary crop we harvested in this country in the last decade was the Urdu novel. However, the remarkable increase in the number of Urdu novels that have been published is still not a guarantee that these novels will take off. But in order to get quality, quantity is necessary at times.
I believe that most contemporary Urdu novels are good, particularly because they represent anger – to borrow Asif Farrukhi’s words – a harvest sown in our society by our socioeconomic and geopolitical conditions. One such angry novel that truly deserves a place among the world’s best works is Anawasi.
With a historian’s eye for factual details, Hafeez Khan plots to take us back to the late nineteenth century as the British plan to dig up the graveyard of Aadam Wahn village to run a railway track across it. Angry youths from the village immediately organise themselves to resist this new development. However, while they are ready or at least willing to counter the coercive tools of the colonisers, they have no defence mechanism against their discursive tools.
The biggest strength of the youth of Aadam Wahn is their unity, which remains undefeatable on the battlefield. Therefore, the British opt to launch a campaign the locals had never imagined. Using ulema-e-soo, pseudo-scholars, belonging to various Muslim sects and other religions, the colonisers construct multiple narratives that create conflicts and succeed in turning the youth into directionless angry mobs that begin killing each other.
As a postcolonial novel, Anawasi exposes the machinations of colonial control. It theorises the misdirected resistance of a divided community as self-destructive. It hints at the roles that constructed chaos and diminished memory to make a community forget the real enemy and the right way of resistance to start an intra-community war. In such a situation, the most they could do was punish a few local collaborators or employees of imperialism.
While one result of the colonisers’ efficient use of discourse was division and infighting, the second was moral degradation. That is why, on the railway track issue in Anawasi, the biggest tragedy is perhaps not the casualties that the people of Aadam Wahn have to face, but rather the moral corruption of the maulvi, and the young men and women.
This decline is best represented in the days of the flood when humans begin living a life inferior to that of wild animals. In this situation, the only ‘sane’ person one can find in the crowd is Manger: a lunatic but a gentleman.
If you are looking for a postcolonial historical novel, written in Urdu, that can shake you out of your complacency, Anawasi is for you.
The reviewer is Chair, Department of English, International Islamic University Islamabad. His most recent publication is his Urdu novel Sasa
Author: Muhammad Hafeez Khan
Publisher: Multan Institute of Policy and Research, Multan