Urdu’s heroes, villains and victims

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa explains the politics of contemporary Urdu fiction

Urdu’s heroes, villains and victims
“Just you watch how conditions are about to change” was the cry of a couple of political party worker friends. Their theory was that Imran Khan, after coming to power in 2018, would soon fall out with the establishment which will result in frustration and a political movement leading to change in Pakistan’s power politics. The partial success of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) lurked in the minds of these friends.

I was amazed at their linear calculation. Notwithstanding the general frustration amongst people and that PTM as a movement has revived political activism for which we must all be grateful, there is a long road to tread before change happens. Movements turn into a revolution through a grueling process that requires harnessing of public agitation and benefiting from a supporting narrative. For every Pashtun who would like to question the state’s irreprehensible behavior, there are double the numbers that will compromise. The state of politics in Balochistan, especially the Senate elections and the engineered birth of Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), has set a trend that many aspiring for power and survival would follow.
While the print run of serious Urdu fiction books during the 1970s or 1980s was an average of 1,000 copies, this new literature publishes in hundreds of thousands. These books definitely sell more than Saadat Hassan Manto, Ismat Chughtai or Intizar Hussain

But during the conversation, my larger concern was for the Punjab which makes for more than half of Pakistan. The issue with movements in the country is that they fail to connect with the largest province or provoke its people into a conversation. The fact that the country’s oppressive establishment belongs to the largest province makes people from smaller provinces or movements from there to shy away from reaching out to ordinary Punjabis. The popular notion is that Punjabis bow to the establishment or are not prone to start pure political movements and this may not entirely be a misperception. Besides Bhagat Singh, Saifudin Kichlu and Lala Lajpat Rai, who were all part of India’s Independence Movement in the early 20th Century, most protests were religious-political in nature. The Ahrar, which had a sharper socioeconomic agenda as compared to the pre-partition Muslim League in the Punjab, was also a religious movement. This trend exacerbated after 1947 in which most political protest was linked with the religious right or sponsored by the establishment. So the Punjab rising to the occasion is exciting but that may not happen. Ultimately, the political battle in the Punjab is between two key patronage groups whose support base may not be capable of dissipating influence of the deep state.

After Independence, political responses got dumbed down further for which there are several reasons but the most important is exposure to a highly statist narrative. The curriculum in the Punjab does not really mention any organic heroes. Schoolbooks across the country are filled with state-approved heroes. However, what differentiates the Punjab from Sindh is lack of investment in Seraiki and Punjabi written material and local images. This was partly a consequence of the Punjabi elite abandoning their language to adopt Urdu and later English, so it became a stigma to speak Punjabi in front of family and friends. It is a language that continues to be used at work but more as a medium for communication between classes. Seraiki, which is spoken much more at home and at work irrespective of the class divide, has limited written material. Seraiki youth have lesser memory of Khwaja Farid and other Sufi poets than their counterparts in Sindh have memory of Abdul Lateef Bhitai or Sheikh Ayaz. The younger generation finds it easier to negotiate Urdu text than Seraiki written material. The Seraiki middle class, in any case, is fast turning to Urdu for social purposes.

Political Punjab turning into an Urdu territory also meant that the middle classes, in particular, grew on literature using an ideology preferred by the state. While we talk about minds being framed by textbooks, there is little on what people read informally or in their leisure time – literature. Contemporary Urdu prose that shapes public imagination is very ‘statist’ and was consciously crafted to produce and popularise works that fit a particular criterion. Over years, especially after the end of the 1970s, we saw the emergence of a Pakistani literature that encouraged an attitude of subservience to authority.
Literature is a critical measure of the social mood of a society. It nurtures interpretation of the past, present and future to shape the reader's mind

Literature is a critical measure of the social mood of a society. It nurtures interpretation of the past, present and future to shape the reader’s mind. Fiction playing a role in forming ideas is less talked about. Poetry is certainly powerful but people have the option of disassociating verses from its ideology and using it for their own. For instance, you will find Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib or Ahmed Faraz being cited by some rabid right-wingers. A piece of fiction, on the other hand, will only make sense in its totality.

Ideologically, fiction is potent as it sneaks into the mind and shapes ideas in your head before you notice it. Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin understood the importance of literature shaping ideas. He encouraged writers like Maxim Gorky to write his memoires and novels as means to educate the proletariat and warn them against revisionists. Some of this literature produced by Bolshevik intellectuals reached other parts of the world. The amazing Urdu translation of Russian literary works provided inexpensively by the former Soviet Union through the People’s Publishing House in various cities of Pakistan is something that we ought to thank Moscow for. As a child I remember reading stories about mothers that drove trucks, worked as electricians, pilots and even astronauts.

Many writers publish in Urdu digests easily available for consumption by the middle class

The Urdu translations of Great Russian works filled a gap in Pakistani Urdu literature where imagination was either dominated by grand presentation of Muslim conquests and history or the urge to understand the Partition of India. While most Muslims of North India accepted the Partition as fait accompli, many continued to wonder about what they had lost. I will come to this discussion later and how this literature may have influenced the plan by the state or the intellectual establishment to create the genre of Pakistani literature as part of creating a Pakistani identity that would be separate from India’s.

It’s this new ‘Pakistaniat’ that the contemporary popular Urdu fiction develops. I include short stores, novels, travelogues and biographical-novels as part of this fiction. The storyline is engaging as it keeps a reader rapt just as television soaps do. Artistically, this fiction is crude in terms of how the plot is constructed. Socio-politically, it tends to inculcate ultra-conservative social values, is crudely nationalistic and constructs an identity that is a mix of statist patriotism and varied forms of Sunni Islam ranging from ultra-conservative religious belief to Sufism. Its worldview is also archaic – emphasising the primacy of Muslim identity as being uncontestably superior than rest of the world and following the statist formula of the West being a source of evil which must be destroyed or would come to an end because it does not have the superior values that Islam as a religion and Pakistan as a country offers. Of course, there are variations as well with some fiction being less obsessed with the civilizational divide. However, even those works are steeped in a religious identity.
A woman, though a protagonist of the story and a good Muslim, is never perfect like a man. Her role, in any case, is always subservient to a man's

This fiction mostly does not get discussed in international literature festivals held in Pakistan because it is not something that organizers would like to showcase. However, this is the fiction which is read by the middle class and in smaller towns where Urdu is rampant. While the average print run of serious Urdu fiction books during the 1970s or 1980s was an average of a 1,000 copies, this new literature publishes in hundreds of thousands. These books definitely sell more than Saadat Hassan Manto, Ismat Chughtai or Intizar Hussain. Moreover, the sale is not just through books as majority of these writers publish in digests in Urdu language that the middle class still has access to. Even after having read a story in a digest they would still go and buy the book because a published novel has the entire story put together. But more importantly, these novels are kept as reference books to authenticate a certain set of beliefs. Forget about reading Tolstoy’s voluminous War and Peace, these novels vary from 400 to 1,500 pages and sell despite high prices. I happened to survey bookstores in several cities of the Punjab and heard booksellers talking about the high demand for these novels that varied from Rs1,500 to Rs5,000. Who says people don’t spend money on books? The real question is what books are they buying and what is the likely impact?

I would divide the contemporary Urdu fiction into three types: (a) romances represented by Farhat Ishtiaq, (b) fast pace novels with intricate plots – Umera Ahmed and Nimra Ahmed, and (c) slow pace biographical novels bordering on science fiction-ish mystic – Baba Yahya, Abu Yahya and Hashim Nadeem. Even though all these pieces of fiction share the common characteristic of being painfully long, I found the second category very interesting as it denotes a rich mix of romance, adventure, and religion. In novels of both Umera Ahmed and Nimra Ahmed you will find Bushra Rehman, Ibn Safi and al-Huda all clinging together. The third category has a sprinkle of romance but it basically markets Sufism through creating interest in the super natural.

Despite the comparative differences, there is a commonality of emphasising significance of religion. The other shared characteristic is that the plot is based in the upper and upper-middle classes but advocating deviation from elitist values. The hero is always Prince Charming who would ultimately become rich and influential even if not born with a silver spoon in his mouth and the heroine is always a Cinderella. Even in novels using a mystical background like Hashim Nadeem’s famous work ‘Abdullah’ the protagonist is from an elite family. His social environment and life could make him a slightly better version of Shahrukh Jatoi, the scion of the Sindhi neo-feudal construction and real estate don. However, his life changes after he meets a beautiful woman at a shrine. It is through following her that he gets into the world of Sufis and shrines.

Locating the stories in the upper-middle class or upper class, which is far more rampant in Umera Ahmed and Nimra Ahmed’s novels, is also a technique to attract readers, who are not from these classes, to concentrate on the real message of these stories. An affluent background helps magnify the pain and agony that characters experience when deviating from God’s path. The use of a particular social class helps market religion certain social norms better – if the rich can do it, so can the middle class.

The stories tend to evolve an ideal personality type. The protagonist is always a Muslim, nationalist, prays five times a day and even performs tahajud(pre-dawn) prayers, preferably someone who has memorised the Quran, extremely intelligent, knowledgeable, big-hearted, conscious of social norms and an exceptional family man. The tragedies in the lives of heroes and heroines occur when they do not abide by religious values. A woman, though a protagonist of the story and a good Muslim, is never perfect like a man. Her role, in any case, is always subservient to a man’s.

However, the heroine is never docile and is always strong-willed. In fact, it was by reading these novels that I got my head around Humaira Iqtidar’s formula introduced through an anthropological study of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamaat-ud-Dawwa (JuD) in which she argued that there was something like Islamic feminism. Iqtidar would have definitely patted Nimra Ahmed on her back for developing the heroine in the novel ‘Janaat key Patey’ (Leaves of Paradise), who decides to wear a full hijab even though many of her family members challenge her. The novel in itself is interesting as it takes you on a trip to Turkey while artfully using verses from the Quran and intertwining the discussion about hijab with the story. When the heroine’s mother complains about why the former does not dress the infant in sleeveless frocks, her answer is, “I don’t want my daughter to lose the notion of shame.” We also learn that an Islamic marriage is not a contract between equals but a bond in which a woman can be given away even at the tender age of one.

These novels, like Iqtidar’s thesis, fail to convince a thinking mind about this notion of feminism, not because the basic framework is not liberal, but because of its inherent contradictions, at least for a modern woman. Even a strong-willed female character is fickle-minded, imperfect and cries a lot. Or perhaps, this is nothing but an extension of Islamic hagiography that tends to highlight women’s imperfections, even if it is the prophet’s favorite wife. Ultimately, it is not personal intelligence but taqdeer (destiny) and following God that brings them on the right path. A woman performs better in the kitchen, minding children and accepting decisions made by male protagonists or parents. There is clearly an effort to formulate an ideal male and female Pakistani stereotype in which the former is perfect – a good human being, forthright, sticking to values of religion and society, and the latter, always willing to abide by decisions of her parents or family male. Wherever a woman doesn’t listen to her elders, like in Umera Ahmed’s ‘Darbar-e-Dil’, she is fated to a miserable ending. The basic notion of an acceptable relationship with another man is through marriage which is why the heroine of Umera Ahmed’s most popular novel Pir-e-Kamil (The Complete Saint - used in reference to the Holy Prophet) marries her neighbour before she runs away from home to marry another man she loves, but also because she has converted from Ahmediya to a Sunni Muslim. Similarly, Farhat Ishtiaq’s heroine in ‘Bin Rooyay Ansoo’ (Tears Without Weeping) has to wait for her older sister to die to marry the man she cherishes.

Acceptance of religion – the right religion – is something that echoes throughout this fiction. The Ahmediya girl has to convert to Islam and even sacrifices her career for it.  Her father can only get redemption in the eyes of the readers after he has suffered sufficiently and renounced his faith. Even her romance is halal – she runs away from home for a man who is a doctor but his main quality is he sings naats beautifully. But he turns out to be a bad Muslim who doesn’t help a girl convert to Islam. It is towards the end of the novel that the confusion is removed and we find that it is not his personality or his voice that attracts her but his love for the Prophet of Islam. She is eventually rewarded through heavenly intervention as the man she marries accidentally and elopes with, converts to become a born-again Muslim, free from most human blemishes.

This literature, however, is more than just being a modern version of Nazeer Ahmed Dehlvi, an early 20th century writer and religious reformer. He is known for his works like ‘Miratul Aroos’ that laid out the ideal character of a young woman. The modern day authors do not limit themselves to religion or charting a Muslim woman’s ideal behavior. It engages with politics and geo-politics. Reading these novels you get a clue as to what produces minds like Hamza Ali Abbasi’s (he may not have read these novels personally but those reading would turn out to be replicas of Abbasi). A character that turns away from God becomes ‘westernised’, which is a category unto itself, depicting moral and ethical corruption. Even in romances by Farhat Ishtiaq there is a condemnation of liberal values that are exaggerated to create a stereotype. The ‘NGO aunties’, for instance, are part of the liberal exploitative bunch. Notwithstanding the need for nuances in this literature regarding NGOs or the liberal class, it is an issue worth debating but missed by the more liberal but mediocre fiction.

Part of germinating ‘Pakistaniat’ is the emphasis on the West as evil, especially the United States. Bureaucrats get corrupted only when they go to America for training. In her novel ‘Aab-e-hayat’ (Water of Life) Umera Ahmed, for instance, situates her story in 2030 when America is no longer powerful even though the CIA lays out plots to pick flaws in the life of the protagonist, who is a Muslim Pakistani. The hero is so awesomely smart that he is made the head of the World Bank but resigns to form his own institution that offers interest-free banking. The US government eventually has to break ties with the World Bank and enter into partnership with this new organisation. Probably educated about debates on issues with multilateral aid donors, the novel shows popularity of the hero and his ideas in Africa which is probably a safe perimeter for the author. It allows her to tarnish the World Bank as a western conspiracy while not locating the protest in Pakistan. In the same manner the only Indian, who is accepted, is Muslim. We realize how there is a push for making Erdogan’s Turkey as a natural replacement of the US and related institutions for Pakistan.

Devoid of artistic sophistication, these novels and short stories generate a strong sense of commitment towards the military establishment versus the political class. Not surprisingly, some of these writers feed the ISPR narrative. Farhat Ishtiaq, for example, is scriptwriter of the recent film about the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), ‘Parwaz Hey Junoon’ in which Hamza Ali Abbasi plays the protagonist. The real issue, however, is that raised on a particular statist narrative, which dates back to the 1980s, and haunted by over 30 years of war, is it even possible to expect a vibrant political movement that amounts to rebellion of sorts? As Nimra Ahmed writes in her novel, “No matter how much we Pakistanis turn against martial law, we may have many reservations against our generals and dictators, no matter how much we oppose their policies, but one thing is decided that we love our military a lot and will continue to do so.”

This is a special TFT series on the construction of contemporary political attitudes through literature. It will continue next week.

The writer is a civilian military scientist, author, former bureaucrat and political commentator. She tweets as @iamthedrifter