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