Literary impulse(s) and national narrative

Two streaks emerge quite prominently in the fiction and poetry produced after the birth of Pakistan: nostalgia and autochthony

A critical reading of the Pakistani literature and its general trajectory leads us to interesting conclusions. The contentious aspect is the reflection of Pakistan and its culture, social values and historical consciousness, which if articulated in any literary genre, apparently stands contravened in the post-partition period.

While reading fiction, as well as poetry, produced after the birth of Pakistan, two streaks emerge quite prominently: nostalgia and autochthony. These streaks remained entrenched until the War on Terror in the wake of 9/11, brought about a change in its focus. Then the question of identity came to the foreground. Islamophobia became a theme which was visited again and again. But in this column, we will remain confined to nostalgia and autochthony.

Ironically, Pakistani state narrative foregrounds patriotism which does not take into account nostalgia because it demands engagement with the past of pre-partition days and it is dismissive of autochthony which establishes a bond with geography and the ethos emerging out of the native land. Both impulses could not be contained in well-defined and clearly crystalised confines of an ideology that, ostensibly, forms the basis of Pakistan.

I argue here that both underlying trends do not correspond with the national narrative peddled and popularised by the state. Instead, they gain strength by contravening the national narrative. Even Hassan Askari, despite his extraordinary talent, failed to bring the literary stream in consonance with the ideas and notions Pakistani state espoused and promoted. At best, he could unleash a condemnation of the west and modernity which was devoid of any depth or profundity.

Pro-state laureates like Ashfaque Ahmad and Qudratullah Shahab, in their literary pieces could not demonstrate any visible epistemic break from the pre-partition trends and patterns of literary production. Ashfaque Ahmad’s novel, Khail Tamasha, is a clear elucidation of nostalgia which failed to subside even after partition. The story starts before partition and continues seamlessly afterwards in the post-partition era and concludes in the 1980s.

The Progressive Writers’ Movement is an exception in that it tried to steer clear of both the trends and wielded tremendous impact despite all odds. Among its leaders Sajjad Zaheer had to go back to India and Sibte Hassan spent most of his active life behind the bars. Ideologically, progressives were imbued with anti-colonial sensibility which drew them closer to socialism.

Its anti-colonial sensibility made it difficult for its stalwarts to downplay the role of politicians like Jawahar Lal Nehru or revolutionary figures like Bhagat Singh which did not sit well with those inspired by the ideology of Pakistan. But as the travails of the colonial regime became the theme in various disciplines: history, literature, anthropology, and other branches of social sciences, British (colonial) regime came under condemnatory flak and the standpoint of the progressives stood vindicated among the educated classes.

After the 1980s the renewed interest in colonialism and its ramifications had a different projection. Thus, progressives became a focus of study which augmented their ideological influence.

The card-carrying members of progressive movement had to face the hostility of the religious right, but rightists could not match progressives in producing literature having a lasting impact. Nasim Hijazi is said to have created the historical sensibility of the Pakistanis in general. Prof Christina Oesterheld, a scholar of Urdu language and literature from the University of Heidelberg has persuasively ‘credited’ Hijazi with having a tremendous impact on Pakistani literati.

But the point worth our consideration is literary and epistemic value and critical acclaim of Hijazi’s novel. Among the top ranked novelists, he does not figure anywhere. His novels at best are pieces of fictionalised history which tend to entertain readers and imperceptibly impact him/her. Relating anecdotes from the golden past has a delusional impact which fails to stir the people up to the harsh realities of the present. Hijazi, therefore, engenders a false sense of complaisance among his reader, which is inimical, to say the least.

Those who kept themselves at a distance from progressives, mostly flitted about between nostalgia and autochthony. Intezar Hussain did not concede having used nostalgia in his short stories and novels but arguably it was a nostalgic feeling that pushed him to mythology and dastan, which constituted two distinctive features of his writings.

Mushtaq Ahmad Yousufi’s Aab-i-Gum is yet another prominent example of nostalgic streak. Among the poets, Munir Niazi stands out as someone who has employed nostalgia in an effective manner. Nostalgia can also be detected in the works of writers and poets like Majeed Amjad who did not directly undergo the experience of partition. Amjad towers above most of his colleagues because besides having a novel technique in the genre of nazm, he employs a refreshing synthesis of nostalgia and autochthony.

Among laureates the hallmark of whose work is autochthony, Wazir Agha is significant in that he theorised the traditions and cultural norms and practices associated with dharti or native land. Interestingly, Agha’s bete noire, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, had a prominent autochthonous streak in his short stories. The difference, however, was that Agha theoretically problematised it whereas Qasmi’s depiction of autochthony is descriptive.

A stark illustration of autochthonous streak is found in the works of Punjabi laureates — Saeed Bhutta, Zahid Hassan and Mazhar Tirmazi can be cited along with late Sharab Ansari, Sher Afzal Jafri and Sharif Kunjahi. Asif Khan and Najam Hosain Syed have been a big source of inspiration for the Punjabi writers steeped in the autochthonous tradition.

Iqbal Qaiser and Mushtaq Sufi epitomise that tradition through their poetry and scholarly works. The trend dominates in the regional literary articulations. The need of the hour is to assimilate all these autochthonies in the national narrative so that it represents all factions and lingual groups. To say it differently, the national narrative is in the need of democratisation which calls for a bottom-up approach instead of ideology and the ways of its articulation being imposed from above.

I dedicate this column to Mahboob Ahmad, a young scholar with tremendous insight. Such young scholars are an asset to Pakistan.

Literary impulse(s) and national narrative