Mar 8, 2014 - Books, Media, Pakistan, Writing    4 Comments

Urdu literature and regressive thought

A few weeks ago The Friday Times published a profile on Abdullah Hussein, the writer of Udaas Naslain and several other critically acclaimed novels. The interview was refreshingly candid, perhaps because people of my generation associate Urdu language with regressive thought, the fear of the unknown other and a very strict code of religious morality. We are aware of the whole Progressive Writers’ Movement and have read progressive texts produced before our times but it is something of a historical footnote in our lives and less of a reality.

The reality that we grew up with is that Deputy Nazir Ahmed’s Mirat-ul-Uroos is part of our school curriculum and Umera Ahmed’s Peer-e-Kamil is the undisputed best seller in contemporary fiction. One basically is a manual on how a shareef Muslim woman should behave at all times and the other is a woman’s rebellion from her family so that she can become a more pious and shareef Muslim! There is something oxymoronic in the rebellion to follow a religion more strictly but then Urdu literature is replete with oxymoronic expressions.

The non-fiction best sellers in Urdu are many volumes of Javed Chaudhry’s collection of newspaper columns and Qudratullah Shahab’s autobiography Shahaabnama. I personally think that they should be considered fiction as Chaudhry borrow heavily from fictional tales of kingdoms that never existed and Shahab’s life sound like a fantastical journey, complete with travels to the west and religious discovery, but I digress.

The gist is that contemporary popular Urdu writing is laden with overt religiosity, regressive thought and a tunnel vision of the world. To read an interview of a novelist of renown who so casually shuns what is supposedly “correct” and “moral” is almost as uplifting and energizing as seeing Urdu literature that is modern and progressive.

“A shareef admi cannot become a real writer. Philandering is one of the virtues of great minds, not because it is a virtue in itself but in the sense that it breaks taboos and to be a good writer you need to break social taboos. To create is to negate the existing order.”

This liberating statement runs contrary to all the exorbitant stress on sharafat in our society, especially in Urdu culture. Punjabi pop culture has icons like Maula Jatt and Noori Natt, the Gujjars that grace cinema posters on Lakshmi Chowk and the hefty women who unabashedly seduce men in fields. In Sindhi literature an abstract spirituality reigns supreme. People who talk and write in English are less obsessed with straitlaced thought, but when it comes to Urdu even its prostitutes (Umrao Jaan) are full of rakh-rakhaao and tehzeeb.

For me and a lot of people like me, Urdu has become synonymous with Iqbal’s mard-e-momin or Nazir Ahmed’s Asghari leaping out of the pages and telling us what it is like to be a morally upright person. Yes, there are Manto, Kishwar Naheed and Ismat Chughtai, but their text does not direct the norm. It is in this context that I was quite surprised to read Altaf Hussain’s (MQM leader) Falsafa-e-Muhabbat that actually dared to suggest that homosexuality is not an aberration, and that society should accept the LGBT community because everyone has the right to love.

To see Abdullah Hussain declare that “he is free of organized social and religious values” is refreshing because we are used to censoring ourselves rather diligently and rightly so. After all, in a country where any lunatic can come up and gun you down for expressing solidarity with a poor woman facing trial on blasphemy charges and be considered a hero, declarations such as this can label you a murtid and you may end up with a bullet – or 36 – in your chest.

First published in The Friday Times

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  • Interesting piece Tazeen. While I agree with you that unlike the English writing coming out of Pakistan, Urdu seems to have a much higher content of deeply disturbing self-righteous morality; you make it seem (and correct me if I am wrong) as if all of Urdu literature is a monolith oozing out backward thoughts. You mention the progressive elements as the exception rather than the norm. I find that slightly misleading and somewhat derogatory to the rebellious elements that have pervaded Urdu literature. The rise of Qudrutullah Shahabs, Orya Maqbool Jans and Ashfaq Ahmads was a result of systematic state patronage during the Zia years. At the same time the progressive elements were also censored and deliberately suppressed for political reasons. But the fact remains that this morality ridden Urdu writing is merely one of the ugly traditions in literature – it doesn’t define it.

    Rather than brushing aside all of ‘Urdu culture’ as regressive shouldn’t we be making an attempt to expose this particular trend as hypocritically motivated and instead bring to light the better works? I’ve been to a couple of literary fests in Lahore and Islamabad during the last year and they seem to be doing a good job at it. The Urdu panelists there were always critical of the religiosity trend creeping up in literature. Sadly, our generation giving up on Urdu won’t solve that.

  • Interesting piece Tazeen. While I agree with you that a sense of deeply disturbing self-righteous morality is found in only the Urdu writing coming out of Pakistan as opposed to the English word; I suspect(correct me if I am wrong), you seem to be presenting all of Urdu literature as a monolith rooted in backwardness. Yes, you mention the progressive writers, but they only come off as a minority rather than the norm. That appears to be slightly misleading and somewhat derogatory towards the rebellious elements in Urdu. The rise of Qudrutullah Shahabs, Orya Maqbool Jans and Ashfaq Ahmads was actually a result of systematic state patronage during the Zia era which also suppressed the progressive elements through censorship. Hence, the mainsreamization of the morality ridden novels and the relegation of everything else as vulgar. But the fact remains that these regressive elements are only one ugly trend that was promoted in Urdu literature. It does not define Urdu literature as the impression your article seems to be giving.

    Rather than brushing aside all of what you call ‘Urdu culture’ as backward, shouldn’t we be exposing that particular tradition of writing as dangerous and hypocritical and shed light on better works. For example, the literature festivals that I attended in Islamabad and Lahore last year did a good job at it.. All of the Urdu panelists were critical of the religiosity creeping up in literature. Sadly, our generation not giving Urdu a chance, won’t solve the problem.

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