The problem of popular literature

February 9, 2020

The number of conformist literature writers is on the rise in Pakistan while it is getting increa ingly hard to find new dissident popular writers

(Clockwise from above) Mumtaz Mufti, Faiz, Manto and Bano Qudsia.

The term ‘popular literature’ is a modern construct with pejorative connotations. At least in the context of Urdu, popular literature represents a category of mostly fictional writings that are, though widely and cherishingly read and admired by common folk, disapproved by highbrows. But the issue of popular literature is not as simple as it appears at first glance.

The aesthetic theory of modernism not only respects writer’s choice of theme, technique and style but generously allows them to indulge in any kind of experimentalism ranging from blurring boundaries of genres to reinventing language. So, it can be claimed that modernism is largely democratic; it is against all kinds of discrimination. But the reality is, it discriminates. When it comes to judging the aesthetic value or the thematic significance of literature it wears an aristocratic and a bit conservative look.

The modernist writer believes that things, phenomena, human feelings and even existence are ephemeral and transient, and it is the present moment that matters most, but the art — and here lies one of the big paradoxes of literary history — created out of these ephemeral things must have had some lasting and undying elements. “Life is perishable, but it has the potential to produce imperishable things like art”, is the central thesis of modernism. While popular literature is not at odds with the fact that its popularity is ephemeral and fleeting.

While defamiliarised use of language and abhorrence for cliché are the hallmarks of modern writers, popular authors incline to familiar, cliché ridden and easily digestible language. This is the reason modern aesthetics has no room for popular literature. Though the Marxist theory of literature insists on reflecting miseries of masses in poetry and fiction in a style which is comprehensible to masses, it also believes in the idea of permanence as s quintessential quality of art. It resists against relegating art to a consumable item or a commodity. On the other hand, popular literature seems ready to sacrifice artistic values at the cost of popularity.

We must admit that readers of popular literature don’t mind well-conceived opinions of literary critics. They keep reading what they find interesting, entertaining, quenching their repressed desires and close to their heart. They are basically pleasure-seekers and solace-finders. On the surface popularity of any book or author seems to be a phenomenon that might help one learn about dominant trends in reading books, but popularity is extremely problematic.

Writing, publishing, selling and reading of books are activities that are intricately connected to socio-politico-economic conditions and perspectives. In our social world, nothing happens ‘naturally’, by chance or without reasons. So, the popularity of any book or author has distinct reasons and an attempt to unravel them may shed light on a ‘meta-mind’ that lets things take this or that course. It is not easy to conceive this meta-mind as it doesn’t exist in isolation, rather is permeated across the social-literary-commercial-historical-ideological phenomena like the grammar of a language. Popularity or unpopularity, to be in central place or relegated to margin are occurrences that stem from grammar of a society.

Art and literature have been traditionally secular. Whatever humans have been imagining, thinking, feeling and experiencing, has been the subject matter of art and literature.

Trajectory of Pakistani Urdu literature divulges a very interesting yet revealing fact about popular literature and Pakistani society alike. Writers of conformist leanings and of defiant propensities have been equally popular. We can say Pakistani society is not only ambivalent as far as a taste for literature is concerned but also divided in its affiliation to (national) narratives and ideologies. Writers of romance, spy and adventure stories are not mentioned here, though their writings are not as innocent as they appear in the first place; they too lean to some ideology. Ibn-e-Safi, Ishtiaq Ahmad and Mazhar Kalim are particularly mentionable.

On one side we find conformist fiction writers like Nasim Hijazi, Qudrat Ullah Shahab, Mumtaz Mufti, Ashfaq Ahmad, Bano Qudsia, Baba Yahah, Umera Ahmad, Nimra Ahmad etc and on other there are dissident voices like Manto, Faiz and Jalib. It is glaringly apparent that the list of conformists is not only long but continuously growing while the group consisting of dissident popular writers is small and it is hard to find a new entrant to this club. Though in poetry of Kishwar Naheed, Fahmida Raiz, Afzal Ahmad Syed and Haris Khaliq particularly and in verses of Zahra Nigah, Zeeshan Sahil, Fahim Jozi, Tanveer Anjum, Ali Muhammad Farshi, Naseer Ahmad Nasir and Abrar Ahmad generally and in fiction of Intezar Hussain, Asad Muhammad Khan, Mirza Athar Beg, Masood Ashar and Ikram Ullah, the voice of dissidence is audible. However, their impact on society is not as noticeable as Faiz’s or Jalib’s. Among contemporary Urdu writers, Amjad Islam Amjad in poetry and Mustansar Hussain Tarar in fiction are popular, but their writings are problematic. It is true that it is not easy to anchor their writings to some ideology, but one thing is clear: they don’t challenge and interrogate existing power structures and their impact on the lives of common folk.

Superficially, popular conformist fiction writers display a sort of diversity in choosing their themes and styles; Nasim Hijazi wrote historical fiction, Mumtaz Mufti chose to write psychological-realist fiction, Bano Qudsia had a preference for religious morality famously known as Halal-o-Haram and Umera Ahmad, a new entrant, has taken upon herself to transform her protagonists into ‘good’ Muslims. But this diversity is illusory; there lies homogeneity underneath their writings. Their writings never attempt to challenge the dominant local or global narratives about the society and the world, rather they seem to do their best to strengthen the ideology engulfed in religious morality.

Freedom to navigate human psyche, the courage to stand against patriarchal figures and interrogation of social or political powers, are lacking in their writings. Both Bano Qudsia and Umera Ahmad use a special psychological technique: transformation through guilt. Their fictional characters usually belong to the upper stratum of society. They live two lives. First, they enjoy all pleasures of mundane life, then in a moment of epiphanic revelation, they come to realise how sinful a life (haram) they had been leading. In Qudsia’s Raja Gidh and Ahmad’s Alif, the psychic conditions of protagonists are shown extremely miserable; they repent and curse themselves for having indulged in sensual pleasures of life. In a bid to overcome their miseries they decide to live pious, submissive, peaceful and simple lives. Simply, they become ‘good’ Muslims. The notion of who is a good Muslim, though embedded in religion, is also a political one.

Apart from shared ideology Qudsia and Ahmad seek to portray in their fiction, artistic worth of Qudsia’s fiction is enviably greater than Ahmad’s. One more difference must be mentioned here. Qudsia wrote her magnum opus, Raja Gidh during Zia’s era when everything looked set to be transformed in line with Zia’s project of Islamisation. The Cold War and a clash of ideologies were on. Ahmad’s fiction originates in the post 9/11 phenomenon on one hand and globalisation on the other, turning everything including ideologies and religion into a commodity. Despite all this, the idea of a good Muslim seems to have been intact throughout Pakistani experience. Manto was the first writer who satirically prophesied in 1948 in his Allah ka Bara Fazal Hae that it is the blessing of God that in Pakistan — a country created in the name of religion — all secular forms of art ie, poetry, painting, music etc have been abolished. The foundation of the popularity of conformist fiction seems to have been laid from the day the people of subcontinent sought to achieve a land in the name of religion. And it is understandable that in countries where the binary of sacred and profane is the sole criterion for judging everything, the space for art keeps shrinking. There is not only curbing of freedom of speech but also promotion of ‘sacred writings wrapped in profane art’.

Art and literature have been traditionally secular. Whatever humans have been imagining, thinking, feeling and experiencing, has been the subject matter of art and literature. Art has made us believe in the righteousness of human nature expressed through experience. Art and literature are essentially an attempt to create jamal or beauty out of everything including the dark side of the human existence. Literature doesn’t seek to suppress bitter experiences of life, rather it urges us to muster the courage to face them so that they can be transformed. So, we can say that literature is, by nature, not submissive, passive and compliant while ‘conformist literature’ seems to have embraced these characteristics. Interestingly, there is something common between both kinds of popular literature. It is that simplistic yet artistic use of language, themes and technique familiar to masses. Great artists who prefer art over everything else, find it hard to become popular.

In the words of Ezra Pound, “great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree”. Fortunately, we have had great literature in Urdu that stands parallel to popular literature, even if it is like a lone person standing on a cliff edge.

The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of   Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid, Nazm Kaisay Parhain (criticism)  and  Rakh say Likhi Gai Kitab (short stories). He teaches Urdu at Punjab University

The problem of popular literature