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Ayodhya and Ram: What history reveals about the reality behind scripture and myth

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By Valay Singh

Ascending anachronism means pushing an event or occurrence to a time in the past. This is often accompanied by the idealisation of that time as a period when things were perfect. The more the event is pushed back into the past the more legitimising power it acquires. Muslims hark back to the time of the Prophet, Christians to the time of Jesus, Buddhists remember Buddha, Jains the time of Mahavir, and Hindus today are told that in the time of king-god Ram, Ayodhya was the best capital in the world where all lived happily and peacefully.

The example of Ram Rajya, or Ram’s rule, was often cited by Mahatma Gandhi. It is interesting that Gandhi could use Ram Rajya to galvanise all communities and not just Hindus, which once again reflects the plurality of the Ramayana tradition. Ram was called Imam-e- Hind by Iqbal, the famous Urdu poet who later wrote the national anthem of Pakistan.

It is impossible to establish when Ram Rajya prevailed, if it indeed did.

Those who believe in the historicity of Ram Rajya place its birth around 5114 BCE on the basis of astro-archaeology, although using planetary positions to establish historicity is yet to be recognised as a reliable method.

The material evidence of Ram Rajya in the Ayodhya of today is negligible. Perhaps the Ayodhya of Ram was a different place that now lies submerged under the Sarayu, as suggested to me by KN Govindacharya, a former ideologue of the RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS). The paucity of evidence of the kingly Ram has been replaced by faith in the godly Ram, and thus, the Ayodhya of today encapsulates both Ram-Rajya and Ram worship.

We cannot scientifically establish the historicity of Ram Rajya, but we shall attempt the same for Ram worship in Ayodhya. In today’s Ayodhya, the legends around Ram stretch time to limits that are impossible to wrap one’s head around. Visitors, educated and unlettered, rich and poor, are told by local guides, “It has been nine lakh fifty-six thousand years since Ram left Ayodhya. Therefore, obviously, nothing remains from that time. The temples that you see today were built by KingVikramaditya of Ujjain. He brought a Kamdhenu (wish-fulfilling) cow from Banaras, made the cow circumambulateAyodhya and wherever the cow dropped dung, he excavated those places and at these places he built the temples.”

A slightly different version of this story is what MahantSatyendra Das, the head priest of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple, tells me. According to him, it was not dung but milk from the cow’s udders that marked the “holy” spots. Wherever the cow spilled milk, Vikramaditya built a temple.

Nar Singh Pandey, a local guide, continues, “Hanumangarhi, Ram Janmabhoomi, Kanak Bhavan, SitaRasoi and Dashrath Mahal were built by Vikramaditya. Later on, many temples were built by people. In Ayodhya, every year a couple of new temples come up.”

Ram is said to have left Ayodhya for heaven nine lakh fifty-six thousand years ago, taking his subjects who loved him dearly along with him. Thus, Ayodhya became desolate and remained so until Vikramaditya – whose own historicity remains unestablished – found it and resettled it. Pro-temple historian Thakur Prasad Verma writes about this legend in his book, AyodhyakaItihasevamPurattatva, and also in the ASI’s magazine, Purattatva.

“Who was this Vikramaditya? Nothing can be said with certitude about him. According to tradition,Vikramaditya was a king of Ujjain in the Gardhabhilla dynasty and who instituted the Hindu calendar known as VikramSamvat in 57 BCE. There is no evidence of him ever visiting Ayodhya.”

Verma also explores the possibility of Chandragupta II being the Vikramaditya of Nar Singh Pandey’s tour but concludes that the legend “can neither be rejected nor verified”. Be that as it may, the guides of Ayodhya believe it and so do the priests.

At the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP)-run stone-cutting workshop which also houses a mini gallery exhibiting the VHP-approved version of Ayodhya’s history, Nar Singh Pandey continues, “Babur destroyed the temple in 1526 with the help of cannons because the temple was so strong that his army couldn’t destroy it without them. The mosque that he then built over the ruins used the blood of 176,000 Hindus to prepare the mud mortar. One lakh seventy-six thousand,” he emphasises the number of Hindus who presumably died protecting the Ram temple.

Information about the exact number of martyrs is doled out with astonishing confidence and regularity by many local guides. Pandey’s claims made at the VHP workshop seem even more astounding given that historians and archaeologists have been looking for decades for signs of the grand temple and have come up with nothing but controversial finds.

On the other hand, there are examples of destroyed temples at other sites in India, including Bijai Mandal and Ashapuri near Bhopal, where the broken and scattered remains of temples are overwhelmingly visible. They are undeniable, eliciting the attention of even the most uninterested and unsympathetic observer. No such remains are to be found in Ayodhya.

“Where is all that rubble?” John Stratton Hawley, a professor of religion at Barnard College, New York, had asked when he visited Ayodhya in January 1993, just a month after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. He was told that the “vast Hindu crowd took it away…as souvenirs and objects of veneration”.

This is partially correct, but it doesn’t explain the virtual absence of huge building blocks of stone or any other remnants of the great mosque of Babur, said to have been constructed from the ruins of an equally great – if not greater – Hindu temple. As Hawley noted, the answer is quite simple: “The mosque was not actually constructed of such stones. It predated the fine mosques of Mathura and Banaras and used a more modest medium: large bricks of the Jaunpuri style.”

Ayodhya may not have any grand ruins of the Babri Masjid or any other majestic structure, but it does have other interesting layers of religious history.

The Buddha is believed to have preached from Mani Parbat, a mound of earth on the periphery of Ayodhya. Today, Mani Parbat has become part of the local Ramayana lore. It is said to be a fallen portion of the hill that contained the Sanjeevani herb that Hanuman was transporting from the Himalayas to the battlefront in the war with Ravan.

DeshrajUpadhyay, a local expert on the region’s history who works in the Dr Ram Manohar LohiaAwadh University in Faizabad and has published a book on the “statue art history” of this region, explains the origins of the Mani Parbat tale:

“When Buddha used to visit Saket (Ayodhya) he used to stay in PubbaramVihar which is the Pali distortion of PurvaramVihar (earlier it was Ram’s Vihar).Thus it is clear that the place was associated with Ram in the time of Buddha. Later on, in the time of Nandaram of Krishna dynasty a small stupa was built there which was enlarged in the time of Ashoka. With the decline of Buddhism the hump became abandoned by Hindus till the Vaishnava tradition turned it into a Ramayanic spot in the Mughal era.”
This kind of appropriation by the Vaishnava108 tradition is seen also in the case of the oldest known temple in Ayodhya – the Nageshwarnath Temple on the banks of the Sarayu. This temple is dedicated to Shiva, and the shivling there is said to have been installed by Kush, Ram’s son, as a sign of gratitude to a Naga-kanya who helped him find his bangle which had fallen in the Sarayu.

And so it goes on in Ayodhya. The guides, often from the community of “Pandas”, are young boys who work part-time to promote this hybrid but indisputably Vaishnava history of Ayodhya. Nar Singh Pandey too is in his first year of college and is preparing to appear for an exam that will get him a government job. These guides are aware of Ayodhya’s Buddhist history but reluctant to acknowledge it. And some of them admit that, being untrained in history, they are unqualified to comment on any non-Hindu aspect of the region. Many of them were in fact born after the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992. Thus, to them, Ayodhya is what the VHP has made it to be. However, there are many people who acknowledge that Ram worship in Ayodhya is a phenomenon that gained prominence in the Mughal period (1526–1857).

Pawan Singh, a vociferous proponent of the theory that Jains are the real ancestors of Hindus, is one such person who doesn’t shy away from talking about the non-Hindu, non-Ram history of Ayodhya.

He has been managing a prominent dharamshala (pilgrim hostel) for many decades and is well respected for his good nature and efficiency in running the sprawling place. “When the first tirthankar of Jains, Rishabh Dev, is clearly mentioned as an ancestor of Ram-ji why can’t Hindus accept Jains as their ancestors instead of fighting with them?” Pawan Singh is referring to a well-known fact about Ayodhya’s links with Jainism. Out of their twenty-three spiritual teachers or tirthankars, five (seven, according to scholars like Hans Bakker) are believed by Jains to have been born in Ayodhya, and three of them in not too distant Banaras.

Jains believe that Ayodhya means a place “without war’ and Awadh means a place where there is “no killing”. The Jain temple of Ajitnath is the grandest and most beautiful of all the temples in the town and the statue of Rishabh Dev sits in a park named after the Buddha on the river-facing side of Ayodhya. It is one of the most scenic spots in the town, from where the stunning AwadhkiShaam (sunset in Awadh) can be best enjoyed.

Like elsewhere, Jain temples in Ayodhya are not only the grandest but also the best maintained. However, it is possible to spend several days in Ayodhya without ever hearing of its Jain history, as I would myself discover. And therefore this unsolicited declaration by Pawan Singh, a Ram-bhakt, was all the more unusual.

For Hindu pilgrims, this much can be said without a doubt – no matter which god the people of this region come to worship in Ayodhya, their visit isn’t complete without a dip in the river Sarayu, the only uncontested constant in the history of Ayodhya. The river’s importance to worship subsumes religious and sectarian differences.

As we have seen earlier, the Sarayu is mentioned in an eleventh-century inscription by Chandradeva, a Gahadvala king of Kannauj, in which he proclaimed a massive land grant to 500 Brahmins after bathing in the river at Swargdwar, the place where Ram ascended to heaven along with the entire population of Ayodhya. This is the “first evidence” pointing to Ayodhya as a holy place. However, Ram worship was still at least 500 years away.

(Courtesy: scroll.in)


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Opinion

The true role of art and literature

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By Justice Markandey Katju

In poor countries such as India, art for art’s sake amounts to escapism. The people are thirsty for good literature. If someone writes about their problems, it will be popular.

India faces gigantic problems today. In some states, farmers and weavers are committing suicide. Prices of essential commodities are skyrocketing. Unemployment has become massive and chronic. Water and electricity shortage is widespread. Corruption and fraud are everywhere. Medical treatment has become prohibitively expensive. Housing is scarce. The educational system has gone haywire. Law and order has collapsed in many areas, where criminals call the shots.

What has all this to do with art and literature?

There are broadly two schools in art and literature. The first is ‘art for art’s sake’. The second is ‘art for social purpose’.

In the firstschool, art and literature are only meant to create beautiful or entertaining works to please and entertain people and artists themselves. They are not meant to propagate social ideas. If art and literature are used to propagate social ideas, they become propaganda. Some of the proponents of this view are Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot in English literature; Edgar Allan Poe in American; Agyeya and the ‘Reetikal’ and ‘Chayavadi’ poets in Hindi; JigarMoradabadi in Urdu; and Tagore in Bengali.

The other theory is that art and literature should serve the people, and help them in their struggle for a better life, by arousing people’s emotions against oppression and injustice and increasing their sensitivity to suffering. Proponents of this school are Dickens and Bernard Shaw in English literature; Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck in American literature; Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert and Victor Hugo in French; Goethe, Schiller and Enrich Maria Remarque in German; Cervantes in Spanish; Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Gorky in Russian; Premchand and Kabir in Hindi; Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and KaziNazrul Islam in Bengali, and Nazir, Faiz, Josh, and Manto in Urdu.

Which of these paths should artists and writers in India follow? Before attempting to answer this question, it is necessary to clarify that there have been great artists and writers in both schools. Shakespeare and Kalidas can be broadly classified as belonging to the first school, of ‘art for art’s sake.’ Their plays serve no social purpose beyond providing entertainment and an understanding of human impulses and motivations. Though he was basically a realist, Shakespeare had no intention to reform society or combat social evils. Yet he is an artist of the highest rank. One is amazed by his insights and portrayal of human psychology and the springs of human action, whether it be his tragedies or histories or comedies. His characters are so full-blooded we can recognise them from our own experience as actual human beings.

Similarly, Kalidas’sMeghdoot is nature and love poetry at its highest level. Depictions of the countryside that Kalidas gives are astonishing in their beauty. Even Wordsworth cannot come anywhere near it. Nevertheless, Kalidas has no social purpose in his works.

On the other hand, Bernard Shaw writes his plays almost exclusively with a social purpose – to combat social evils and reform society. His plays are a powerful denunciation of social injustices and evils. Dickens in his novels attacks social evils in England in his time.

Shakespeare or Shaw, who is greater as an artist?The first represents ‘art for art’s sake’, the second ‘art for social purpose’.We shall attempt an answer, but a little later.

Literature – the art of the word, the art that is closest to thought – is distinguished from forms of art such as painting and music by the greater emphasis on thought content as compared with form. On the other hand, an art form such as classical music may be almost entirely devoted to creating a mood rather than arousing any thought.

For instance, the main form of serious North Indian classical music, which is called ‘Khayal, has hardly any thought content (since very few words are used in it). But it has an unbelievable power to create a mood and arouse aesthetic feelings — whether it is the raag of the rainy season called Malhar (there are many varieties of Malhars, the main one being MiankaMalhar; I am more fond of MeghMalhar), which can make one feel it is raining; or the morning raagslike Jaunpuri, Todi, Bhairav and so on, which gently wake you up; or night raags like Darbari or Malkauns (called Hindola in Carnatic music), which gently put you to sleep; or a raag like Bhairavi, which can be sung (or played) at any time and in any season and is astonishing for its sheer beauty. There is a large variety of other raags that create different moods.

There are other styles of North Indian classical music like Thumri in which there is more thought content, because they use more words than Khayal. However, there is no style or raagin North Indian or Carnatic classical music that arouses emotions to fight social injustices. It is purely art for art’s sake, yet it is undoubtedly great art.

Art critics often regard the two basic trends or tendencies in art and literature as realism and romanticism. The truthful, undistorted depiction of people and their social conditions is called realism. In romanticism, the emphasis is on flights of imagination, passion, and emotional intensity.

Both realism and romanticism can be passive or active. Passive realism usually aims at a truthful depiction of reality without preaching anything. The novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte Sisters are examples. In this sense it can be called socially neutral. However, sometimes passive realism preaches fatalism, passivity, non-resistance to evil, suffering, humility, and so on. An example is Tolstoy’s depiction of the meek peasant PlatonKaratayev in War and Peace, who humbly and cheerfully accepts his fate. Some writers were initially active but later became passive. Dostoyevsky is an example. On the other hand, Tolstoy was a fatalist in War and Peace but became a social reformer later in Resurrection.

Dickens, Victor Hugo, Gorky, and Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya belong to the school of active realists. They oppose fatalism, passivity, and non-resistance to evil. They inspire people to fight against social evils. In the stories and novels of Sharat Chandra, we find powerful attacks against oppression of women and the caste system.

The strength of passive realism lay in its exposure of human motivations and social evils, and its weakness in its lack of positive principles or ideals. This literature was valuable because of its truthful approach to reality, concentrating on the meticulous description of the visible and the real. But it showed no way out to the people. It criticised everything and asserted nothing. And it often viewed man from a fatalistic point of view, as a mere passive product of his surroundings, helpless and incapable of changing his social conditions.

Passive and active realism can both serve a social purpose. But passive realism often preaches fatalism, pessimism, and uselessness of endeavours to improve society. Active realism, by contrast, is optimistic, characterised by its solicitude and concern for the people — inspiring them to strive against their plight and improve their social conditions.

In writers such as Shakespeare, Balzac, Tolstoy, and MirzaGhalib, it is often difficult to define with sufficient accuracy whether they are romantics or realists. Both trends merge in their works. In fact, the highest art is often a combination of the two.

Romanticism, like realism, can be either passive or active. Passive romanticism attempts to divert people from reality into a world of fantasy or illusions; or to a fruitless preoccupation with one’s own inner world, with thoughts about the ‘fatal riddle of life’ or about dreams of love and death. Its characters may be knights, princes, demons, or fairies who exist in a world of make-believe. Much of the Reetikal Hindi poetry, mainly written to please kings and princes, and dealing with subjects like beauty (shringar) and love, belongs to this category. Passive romanticism hardly serves any social purpose.

Active romanticism, on the other hand, attempts to arouse man against social evils. It clearly serves a social purpose. Active romanticism rises above reality, not by ignoring it but by seeking to transform it. It regards literature as having a greater purpose than merely to reflect reality and depict existing things. Rousseau’s novels Emile and New Heloise are examples.

‘Art for social purpose’ may be expressed not always in a direct way, but also sometimes in an indirect, roundabout, or obscure way, for example, by satire.

Much of Urdu poetry, which mostly serves a social purpose (as it attacks oppressive customs and practices, as in Kabir’s poetry), is expressed in an indirect way. ‘Art for social purpose’ can come in a religious garb: much of Bhakti poetry in Hindi is in this genre.

Now, back to the question: should artists and writers in India follow ‘art for art’s sake’ or ‘art for social purpose’? Which would be more beneficial to the country today? The question, ‘who is greater as an artist, Shakespeare or Shaw?’ is not very relevant here.

In a poor country like India, it is the second path (‘art for social purpose’) alone can be acceptable today. Artists and writers must join the ranks of those who are struggling for a better India. They must inspire the people through their writings against oppression and injustice.

However, today there is hardly any good art and literature. Where is the Sharat Chandra or Premchand or Faiz of today? Where is the Kabir or Dickens of today? There seems to be an artistic and literary vacuum. Everything seems to have become commercialised. Writers write not to highlight the plight of the masses but to earn some money.

Some Hindi writers complain that Hindi magazines are closing down. Have these people wondered why? Evidently no one is interested in reading what he or she writes because they do not depict the people’s sufferings, and do not inspire people to struggle for a better life.

When Gorky stepped out on the streets of Russia, he would be mobbed. He was so loved by the people as he wrote about their lives and championed their cause. Can a Hindi writer today make a similar claim? When writers get out of touch with the people and live in a world of their own, no one will want to read them.

Today the people in India are thirsty for good literature. If someone writes about the people’s problems, it will be popular. But are our writers doing this? Art and literature must serve the people. Writers must have genuine sympathy for the people and depict their sufferings. They must inspire people to struggle for a better life, a life that can be really called human existence, and to create a better world, free of injustices, social and economic. Only then will people respect them.

The concept of ‘art for social purpose’ in its active sense, that is, in the sense of using art and literature to reform society, is largely of recent origin. It could hardly arise prior to the Industrial Revolution because up to the feudal age the thought that men could improve or change their social conditions by their own effort was rare. The belief then was that whatever has existed or will exist in future is ordained by God or Destiny and man has no role in it. Now that the scientific age has dawned, and human beings can change their social condition by their own efforts, art, too, should help in the endeavour. In poor countries like India, art for art’s sake amounts to escapism.

Writers in Hindi, Urdu, and other Indian languages should use simple language. Hindi and Urdu should both come closer to Khariboli (or Hindustani), which is the people’s language. Some Hindi books are difficult to understand: they are written in difficult (klisht) language. The same is true of some Urdu writers. If what is being said or written is not comprehensible, what is the use of such literature? Great literature is in simple language, like the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill or the stories of Premchand and Sharat Chandra.

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Translating Habba Khatoon

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By Qaisar Bashir

Most of the readers, who are good at reading the literature written in their mother tongue or in a language they can read and comprehend well, feel it as an unnecessary step taken; and they often pose a question – “Why would someone translate a work of art from source language to any other language?” For such readers, the answer is here.

Translating literary or non-literary works from source language to target languages is being done since times immemorial, because the work, when translated,gets wider readership. Readers across the world get an opportunity to know the work and in that, the culture, the wisdom, and much more, which otherwise would not have been possible. Had scholars not translated literatures from source language to other languages, it would not have been possible for people (speaking and knowing indigenous languages only) to know great philosophers and writers like Aristotle, Plato, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Ohran Pamuk etc.

However,translation is not everybody’s cup of tea. Not the forte of common minds.“It’s an art both estimable and very difficult, and therefore is not the labour and portion of common minds”, said Ignacy Krasicki.It’s not just reproducing the original text in a different language, but retaining the essence and the flavour of the original one. It’s not just the transfer of words from one language to another, but the transfer of meaning from one language to another.“A translator is repeatedly bogged down by the question,how should the translation be done – thought by thought, or word by word, and how can the idiom and metaphor be translated, without making it lose its culturally – specific punch,” says Dr Santosh Bakaya, an acclaimed poet and author.

Now, coming to the translation of Kashmiri poetry of Habba Khatoon translated by G R Malik (agreat scholar of English Literature and ex-Professor at Department of English,Kashmir University), a question arises: Can poetry, which denies translation, be translated? Poets, writers, critics and scholars have perennially commented on this issue. Let me quote Robert Frost. He says: “poetry is lost in translation.” What does it mean? Does it mean the translator murders the original text: its essence, its metaphor, its idiom? Does it means, the translator succeeds in translating the form, the body, not the soul? Or does it mean, the work loses its indigenous beauty?To answer these questions,two great writers come to our rescue. First, Salman Rushdie.In Imaginary Homelands: Essay and Criticism, he writes: “It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.” Second, Yevgeny, a Russian poet. He says, “translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.”

Well then, what has G R Malik done to Habba Khatoon’s poetry? Has he murdered Habba Khatoon’s poetry or has he succeeded in giving the work a life in the target language? Is his English rendering of Habba Khatoon beautiful, not faithful or not beautiful, but faithful? And how far has he succeeded in his venture?

A translator, before translating a work of art, must have a through eye and good command on both the languages: the source and the target. He cannot take liberties, whatsoever, and mix up his own ideas with the author’s, so as to make it look beautiful and appealing. Rather he has to be faithful to the original text.

Yes,G R Malik Saeb, you are on track. You have done it beautifully. You have beenfaithful to the original text. You have not taken any liberty. You have transferred Habba Khatoon’s poetry into English as it is, as for instance:

a) Chaw mien dany posh
Enjoy my pomegranate bloom

b) Walu wis gachiwhi hunday
Lanen niyaayi kati anday
Come mate, let’s go to collect dandelion leaves
Fate’s imbroglios will ever refuse to end.

c) Kourzyenuyikhhenu zalo
Kour zyenu rozi paam
Su aasith gachi shalo

The birth of a daughter will enmesh you in a trap;
The birth of a daughter may prove to be a slander,

And you, though a lion, will become a jackal

Translating Habba Khatoon, the destined poet, the nightingale, the songbird of Kashmir,whose poetry predominantly reflects the love, unrequited love for his lover and the callous treatment that she received at her in- laws, is not every body’s toast. Understanding her poetry, one must definitely be equipped with the idiom and metaphor of the source language and must have command on the target language too. Alhumdulilah! G R Malikhas command on four languages and we cannot think better than this from the one, who does not have command on either. He has done it successfully. After reading the English version of Habba Khatoon, translated by him, it, at once, makes you wonder as to how much he has toiled – read and surfed- to make Habba Khatoon possible in English. Selected bibliography appended to the English version of Habba Khatoon is an ample proof to the same.

However,I must say one thing, as G R Malik himself has confessed, that genuine poetry defies translation, but still he presents Habba Khatoon in English as it is in the original. Though at places, English version appears bogus, because he has remained faithful, has not added anything from his own imagination, yet it is a mile stone covered, an achievement accomplished.

(The writer, a translator, author and poet, has a Master’s Degree in English Literature from Kashmir University. Once Upon A Time, a translation of a Kashmiri novel Akh Dour by Bandsi Nirdoush, is his debut achievement. His poems have been published in various National and International Journals. Source: countercurrents.org)

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A NEW HARVEST OF ANGER

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By Asif Farrukhi

If teaching literature is a challenge, then a greater challenge is teaching contemporary literature. Classics, by their nature, call for rediscovery and renewed engagement, but are convenient when encountered in a classroom. They have been discussed, dissected, analysed and interpreted almost to the point of death, with every possible ounce of meaning extracted. The indulgent student can access notes, summaries, analyses and even sample papers. Contemporary literature has nothing similar to offer, no ready-made interpretations and clearly embroiled in social issues which could lead to subversion. The way Urdu literature is taught in most universities across the country is like a dead poets’ society, stopping short at Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, with nothing beyond a resonating silence ahead.

It was to address such a gap that a course focusing entirely on literature from contemporary Pakistan was designed and introduced at the undergraduate level at a private university. We were given a free hand which encouraged inventive and creative thinking in curriculum design, but above all, the involvement of intelligent students, curious and eager to learn. Putting together the syllabus of readings, themes and patterns from contemporary Urdu literature from Pakistan became a new harvest of anger, named after the thought-provoking short story by Asad Muhammad Khan, one of the most brilliant writers on the contemporary scene and generally missed out in narrow-vision curricular. It came to be called Ghussay Ki Nai Fasl, a rich and angry new harvest from the literary fields in Pakistan. This would enable us to learn more about the current situation in Pakistan and appreciate the complexity of emerging narratives.

Moving away from the ‘life and works’ pattern of reading about authors — which many students had acquired in school — we faced the real challenge of the texts. We wanted to read the texts as such, as stories and poems, not to be reduced to thematic patterns. But we also wanted to be aware of the context in which these were written. Unfamiliar texts and a different style of reading made the course intriguing to the students, if not challenging. While there were those who lagged behind, most students would come to class with the readings done and questions buzzing in their mind, leading to close reading followed by discussion.

Our round of readings began with Faiz and his memorable poem ‘Lahoo Ka Suraagh’ [In Search of Vanished Blood as translated by Agha Shahid Ali] which ends on a poignant note: is the orphan blood, for which there was no witness and no case was filed. The poem has a definite date at the end — January 1965 — and most students did not know what events it could possibly be referring to. Then we deciphered the bit about khoon-i-khak-nasheenaan [the blood of the downtrodden] which had turned into rizq-i-khaak [food for the dust], like dust to dust. The police were reluctant to file a report so the poem became the very FIR, as poetry had borne witness. This was followed by Afzaal Ahmed Syed’s poem Aik Mumlikat Ki Khufia Tareekh [The Secret History of a State]. With no need to identify any particular event, the students had no difficulty in relating with the poem and its style, which would be dubbed as difficult by many critics; however, they wondered at the word mumlikat in the title of the poem. An alternative history began to emerge as we read further.

In the first session, we listed the authors and poets the students were familiar with and most of the names were predictable, from Jaun Elia to Parveen Shakir, Ahmed Faraz to Kishwar Naheed. The issues included women’s rights, minorities, climate change, crime and violence and whatnot. Not surprisingly, the name of Umera Ahmed cropped up, a name not on my list. However, I was determined to tackle her through an excellent article by Nasir Abbas Nayyar. Only a few knew Naseem Hijazi and Ibne Safi, indicating how trends have changed over the years. One student was very impressed with Habib Jalib and wanted to know more about him and the significance of Raqs-i-Zanjeer [The Shackled Dance] as we watched its video.

In fiction, we started with Saadat Hassan Manto, but moving from the earlier and well-known classics, which they had read earlier, and came to his biting political satire and later pieces. This proved to be almost a new author to them, as did Intizar Husain whose story Reserve Seat and its theme of violence touched many a heart.

The biggest surprise for the students proved to be Khalida Husain, whose story Sawaari [The Wagon] left them stunned. There was a long discussion on what it signified or meant, and while they all agreed that nobody could answer such questions, they wanted to know how come they had never heard of a writer as impressive as her. Such questions also came up with the stories of Hasan Manzar and Masood Ashar which dazed them.

In a similar vein, as we read Muhammad Mansha Yaad, a number of students recorded, on the Whatsapp group they had created to carry on the discussion, that they were profoundly moved. One student wrote: “Can’t overindulge in food after reading Mass Aur Mitti [Flesh and Dust. Can’t look at food in the same way. Kuch loag doosron ka hissa khaa jaatay hain [Some people eat up others’ portions].” Later on I asked in class: how many were upset at that particular story? All of the students raised their hands. Then I asked how many would rather have not read this story. Nobody responded. All of them affirmed that they felt better after having read the story and knowing what its contents were.

As the mood became grim, we made a midway correction by adding Mohammad Khalid Akhtar’s Zebra Scheme. The students all noted the great similarity with the current situation and thought of the scheme to import zebras a political parable.

The writers they liked included Saqi Farooqi and Mustansar Hussain Tarar. The real delight proved to be Fahmida Riaz, whose poems they were familiar with, but whose fiction they loved. As I read the stories, I realised that I too am learning from their responses, as they bring their own vivid imaginations to work on what contemporary literature has to offer.

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