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Is literature really defiant?

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By Nasir Abbas Nayyar

Literature and arts are usually celebrated as harbingers of secular ways of perception of reality. Thus, they are perceived to act as a vanguard in combating rampant extremist ideas and narratives. It is not always to foster liberal ideas that literary texts are made an essential part of syllabi. At best, they are supposed to inculcate a tolerant view of life and society in students; coaxing them into rising above the confines of race, colour, gender, tribe and nationhood.
Likewise, literary festivals and symposiums are held with an unshakeable determination and belief that they would — and can — defeat the narratives of extremist forces; or at least create an intellectual ambience where arguments held by fanatical elements could find no room.
The basic arguments behind proclaiming literature as secular are not hard to state: it is created by mortal humans not by gods; it deals with their earthly, mundane, socio-politico-psychological world. The medium that literature employs is also human-made, i.e. language, which is not only the most effective means of all sorts of communications but both forms and encapsulates the world-view of a society. Moreover, the faculties of imagination and intellect behind all creativity, in one way or the other, are rightly taken as purely human, that have developed in the due course of evolution.
It is also asserted that the evolution of intellect — and to some extent imagination — took the road of defying unfavourable natural and social forces. So, it is an essential characteristic of human intellect to defy the authoritative versions of reality. Evolution of imagination was chiefly to go beyond — and combat — the limitations of sensual perception.
Certainly, these arguments are not unconvincing, but the truth is that literature is not essentially defiant. Literature might be — and has been — as ‘convergent’ as any other form of expression. Ideally, literature is expected to break the fetters of explicit and implicit forms of nationalism, racism and ideologies constructed by state and non-state authorities, being instilled in mind through syllabi, media and public speeches. Defying all forms of authority is considered an essential feature of the creative mind. Though we find a great number of literary works that diverge from what is thought to be sacred and unquestionable, there have been works that are ‘convergent’ and supportive to authority. They glorify ideologies, narratives and values that serve the powerful elite at the cost of the deprived, marginalised commoners. They invent new heroes, new conquerors and new victors that are shown exhibiting god-like powers to defeat enemies. Interestingly, enemies are also invented; they are imaginative foes who emerge to challenge the narrative of powerful elite and cause commotion.
In convergent literature, ‘enemies’ are brought to their knees or shown embracing shameful defeat. In colonial and postcolonial societies, such works are enthusiastically made part of the curricula, ostensibly defying the purpose of liberal education. A social environment is created in the society to make them widely read and popular. What is adored in political and social arena through media begins to be crystallised in imaginative work of particular set of writers and, thus, get appreciated by uncritical minds.
Glorification of power cannot be done in isolation; it discovers or invents some competitor that can be belittled; — an opponent that can be darkened for it to shine brightly.
To see how enemies are invented through literary works following the footsteps of powerful elite, Chinua Achebe’s celebrated essay ‘An Image of Africa’ about racism in Conard’s Heart of Darkness offers a classic example. It unravels how a modern English classic has played a role of collaborator to imperial authority. In Achebe’s words: Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world”, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation; a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality. It is obvious that the image of Africa as the ‘other world’ to Europe was constructed by European colonisers in a bid to legitimatise their rule over a land that was historically and culturally different from Europe.
Difference has served as a fertile land to invent enemies. Instead of creating something new and discovering something novel about Africa; that would challenge its existing imperial view, Conrad sided with the European colonial ideology. It is not easy to understand whether Conard deliberately made his otherwise exceptional imagination subservient to European imperial ideology, or did it happen unintentionally. Achebe also decries the ground on which this novel was declared a great one.
Native writers didn’t lag behind in glorifying colonial ideologies. In Urdu, we have some texts that serve to lionise the image of English colonisers. Glorification of power cannot be done in isolation; it discovers or invents some competitor to its image that can be belittled — an opponent that can be darkened for it to shine brightly. Hali’s Hubb-e-watan (Love for land), a long poem written in the last quarter of the 19th century, terms the English as the most civilised nation of the world.
[Indian history tells that this land has been attacked and looted. At some juncture of its history it was attacked by Turanies and Durranies. Then came Nader Shah to massacre, and Mahmood Ghaznavi to enslave Indians, but in the end, by the blessings of God and as a reward of the most beneficent, a civilised nation of the world (the English) came to rule. ]
It is apparent that glorification of the English nation is done at the cost of decrying earlier invaders. The lines quoted above don’t question the legitimacy of the English rule, nor do they seem to differentiate between the good and bad invaders. How can a civilised nation be termed as an invader! A glorified image of Europe cajoled the Indians into desiring European norms, language, literary texts etc. as the remedy for their miserable conditions, which were actually caused by the English colonisers. This glorified image of Europe was satirically contested by Akbar Allahabadi in the late 19th and early 20th century. Josh, Iqbal, Rashid and Akhtarul Iman kept defying the glorified image of Europe in their poetry. Their works might justly be termed as defiant.
As the postcolonial era began, another kind of glorification took the stage. Image of Imperial Europe was replaced by fascinating ideologies of Muslim and Indian nations. Another sort of Hubb-e-watan found its way into the imagination of writers. A new set of convergent writers emerged, unflinchingly aligning with the narratives of State. Qudratullah Shahab, Ishfaq Ahmad, Bano Qudsia and one of most popular writers of our age, Umera Ahmad, are just a few examples. On the other hand Manto, Faiz and Jalib, the legitimate defiant voices, refused to make their creative imagination subservient to the world-view of the powerful elite of their day.
It is very interesting to see that in Pakistan, both convergent and divergent writers are equally popular. In this perhaps we can find an answer to the perturbing question — of why our society is so polarised.
(The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel e Jadid (criticism) and Farishta Nahi Aya (short stories)