Love story

Published: July 14, 2010

While standards may have fallen, the popularity of the Urdu romance digest goes on unabated

Zindagi ki dhoop chaon mei koi bhi shaqs ek ehsaas… ek kayfiyat… ek jazba jise mohabbat kehte hain is ke baghair zinda nahi reh sakta. Mohabbat ek yaqeen hai, ek aitebaar hai…aasmano ki janib sar bulandi ka zinda ehsaas hai…ek bulawa hai bhichre huo ko milane ka…mohabbat ke alawa jo gham hain wo mohabbat na hone ki waja se hain.

No one can live without love. It is an intense feeling, an emotion that one cannot live without. Love is faith, a trust that gives one the strength to reach for the skies, the strength to deal with life’s ups and downs. Love is a call that unites lost strangers. All the sorrows in one’s life are due to the absence of love.

This passage from the story Mohabbat Humsafar Meri written by Anjum Ansar, editor of the monthly Pakeezah digest, is typical of the tone and content carried by the Urdu romantic digest, a popular category of fiction, boasting titles such as Khwateen, Pakeezah, Shua, Resham, Sacchi Kahania and Doshiza and consumed by a largely — but not exclusively — female readership from a wide variety of economic backgrounds. Roughly the local equivalent of legendary British publishing house Mills & Boon, these romantic digests are as popular with housewives and college students as their equivalents elsewhere in the world.

From Reform to Romance

Most of the stories in these digests revolve around women who are either victims or martyrs of love. In true subcontinental form, if women do not fail at love, or God forbid, actively pursue love, then they are villainous vixens condemned to a lonely fate.

Despite the fact that a significant percentage of the readership of these digests are women who are no longer confined to their homes and whose lives have expanded to encompass concerns such as higher education, employment and financial stability, these issues are rarely highlighted. For the past few decades, these digests have only been perpetuating stereotypes because no new writer is willing to step in and provide the audience with some decent literature — stories that will make women think, says cultural commentator Mohsin Sayeed.

While romance is the theme of choice for current digests, this has not always been the case. In the early days of independence, women’s magazines were popular because they highlighted women’s issues in a progressive manner and were aptly referred to as reformist literature. Also, prolific writers such as Ismat Chughtai and Qurat-ul-Ain Haider contributed to feminist literature by providing readers with a counter viewpoint, they were iconoclasts who broke through stereotypes, as seen in seminal works such Bahishtee Zewar.

Stories of that era usually revolved around real-life characters and came with a sense of history, weaving fact with fiction, unlike the largely fictitious and comparatively insipid cast featured in modern day digests. But over the years, these stories were transformed and romance took the place of any other concerns, such a woman’s status in society. The digests became far more domestic affairs and this trend has continued to date. As a result what we read today in the name of literature is clichéd attempts at poetry, or thinly veiled erotica, which are as popular as one would expect in a country with Pakistan’s levels of moral policing and subsequent repression.

The relevance of romantic digests

Some readers follow digests as an anthropological exercise, looking for an insight into the concerns and pressures faced by Pakistani women today. Along with the stories themselves, the feedback section is particularly telling.

“These stories about the exploitation of women often have a moral as well that one tends to ignore,” says Seema Samad, a housewife, who has been reading women’s magazines since the 1970s. Samad has subscribed to seven different kinds of monthly digests including Khwateen, Pakeezah, Shua, Sacchi Kahania and Doshiza. “At my age, I dont buy these to enjoy the romantic stories. I simply buy them because I enjoy Urdu literature and want to understand the social issues we are faced with, of what youngsters today are up to.”

Over the years, Samad says she has seen society change through the writing of these authors. “Since some of the content is based on true stories, it can be helpful for a mother like me who has young daughters. It helps me give them the right sort of advice when they step out of their home.”

Samad recalled a story she had read recently about the exploitation of female students by their male teachers in schools or madrassahs. “These are stories which the mainstream media cannot show because most victims do not report the incident, but we all know this is happening.”

Sayeed maintains, however, that issue-based stories are few and far between, and that the bulk of digests offer nothing more than inane romantic fantasies, whereas they could instead be used as an instructional  tool, highlighting, for example, human rights issues, and getting them to a segment of society in a way that will have a lasting impact.

Writers and their Writing

Farhat Ishtiaq, Saira Arif and Bushra Masroor are some popular authors among readers whose writing focuses on the ‘dreams and desires of a woman’. Most of them write on social issues with a romantic spin that greatly interests women who can relate to them. Their stories are about our society and the plots are based on friendship, love, hatred and injustice. Through their writing they also bring into light the hard facts of life and teach you how to deal with people, comments a fan of Bushra Masroor, writer and managing editor of Resham Digest, on a blog.

Other readers like Sabeen Jamil, a lecturer at Jinnah University for Women, adds that monthly magazines such as Shua, Khwateen or Kiran interest her because their writers discuss social and political issues as well. That is, however, a rarity. Most stories revolve around the Meena Kumari syndrome where a woman is betrayed by a man, who is always very good-looking. And marriage is often the most important part of a woman’s life because she cannot survive without a man’s support. The voice of an economically independent woman often looked down upon by other authors can only be heard in a few stories by writers such as Aneeza Syed. The woman in her story is often a journalist or an activist, who has an independent mind and is able to think. Anjum Ansar, writer and editor of the Pakeezah Digest, however, sticks with domestic disputes.

Apart from this, there is another class of writers that focuses on adult content, a job for which they are paid twice as much. “There’s no harm with light romance in novels, but most of the so-called romantic digests actually sell trash,” comments Muhammad Iqbal Qureshi, Deputy Editor Urdu Digest.

The world of Urdu literature has produced writers such as Manto, Ismat Chughtai and Wajida Tabassum who have been known for using themes of candid sexuality, but the ‘adult content’ contemporary writers are trying to sell is of another category altogether.

“What authors of romantic digests are trying to sell is actually litter not literature,” remarks Sahar Ansari, a professor of Urdu Literature at the University of Karachi. But despite the criticism, these digests remain popular not only among locals but among migrant Pakistanis based in the Middle East, UK and the US. Expatriate Pakistanis read the Pakeezah and Khwateen digest with great interest in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where they are sold for 10 riyals and 10 dirhams each and Pakeezah is the most popular digest among his customers.

One feature of the stories in these monthly digests is that they are often penned by men under female pseudonyms. Editors believe that the popularity of their digests increases and they receive more letters when they use the female voice. This is because most women are not comfortable reading romantic stories written by men but instantly relate to the story if the writer is a woman. “This may sound conservative,” says Qureshi, “but that is what our readers demand.” Those who write under pen names are sometimes paid double their usual rate for romantic stories, taking them from Rs. 10,000 for an action-adventure story in Suspense Digest to Rs. 20,000 for a pot-boiler in Pakeezah.

Revisiting Literature

Social movements such as the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) should target women through this mass medium because it has the potential to change the way people think. “We need to revisit the literary works of prolific writers such as Qurat-ul-Ain Haider who contributed towards social change through their works such as Kaar-e-Jahan Daraz Hai (The Work of the World Goes On) if we really want to create awareness about human rights,” comments Sayeed.

Gulnar Tabassum, WAF convener in Lahore, agrees. She admits that WAF has not invested time in the writers of this industry who can be major agents of social change. “Presently, women who run WAF belong to the upper-middle or upper class and look down upon popular literature because they stereotype women. Most of them prefer to communicate and issue their statements in English, and only target the English media,” she says.

But there is a powerful incentive for tapping the potential of Urdu digests — the hope that the average Pakistani woman will read, not about the martyr who was faithful to her love after all hope was lost, but about her sister who got up the gumption to change things for herself.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • abc
    Jul 14, 2010 - 7:35PM

    ughh sachhi kahanian has love stories? my mom reads em!Recommend

  • Jul 19, 2010 - 2:08PM

    [...] ‘There is a powerful incentive for tapping the potential of Urdu digests…’ [...]

    http://www.berfrois.comRecommend

  • Saadia rehman
    Jul 20, 2010 - 5:34AM

    well!i don’t agree with most of what has been said in the article for i have been reading khawateen,kiren and shuaa for almost ten years and have found them quite informative.i would suggest that people give a reading to the works of writers like Umera Ahmed,Tanzila Riaz,Nimra Ahmed,Amna Mufti,Aneeza Sayyid,Faiza Iftikhar,Riffat Naheed Sajjad,Rukhsana Nigar,Aneesa Saleem(these are only a few names that i have mentioned)and they’d find that romance is only a part of the stories and not the sole theme.It is a very refreshing to see that the works of these writers and many others are not only distinct but well-researched as well.These are far better than the works of Judith Mcnaught and other such modern and “popular fiction” writers which are hugely followed by our youth.Recommend

  • Mushtaq
    Jul 20, 2010 - 10:49PM

    its a totally biased article, i thin the writer never read stories of khwateen ,shuaa etc, then how come she writes such article, Recommend

  • Jawairia Ghauri
    Jul 21, 2010 - 3:49AM

    I am gonna answer you one by one referring to all the stupid things you have written.

    First of all, writing one passage from a story doesnt make the story all romantic. **Anjum Ansar** has been an editor and writter for much much longer time and She has highlighted some core issues of the society. Had you ever read pakeeza or went through her work, you would have known that she is famous for her funny short stories.

    Yes millions of females go through digests but you would be glad to know that thousands of men also read these days. These digests CAN NOT be compared to BRISTISH MILLS & BOON. Either you have never read Mills & Boons ever or you have never gone through these digests before (which seems highly likely to me).

    I have been reading these digests for almost 15 years now and I can give you more than hundreds of pages of lists of stories which Enlighten the issues related to females’education, employment and financial problems.

    Many new writers have chipped in.

    *Tanzela Riyaz* wrote about a case like Mukhtara maai. What do you think this issue is related to. SOciety or romance?

    Youngest writer *Nemrah Ahmed* wrote about mountain climbers, cricketers, chief justices’ assassination. Do you think they are written about martyrs of love?

    *Umera Ahmed* who now writes for TV, have you ever read her stories? Do you think, *Mehreen Jabbar, Babar Javed, Haissem Hussain* etc are dumb enough to give her a chance just to show a stupid romantic stuff on tv? She brought a revolution in Digest’s world. I cannot simply mention a single name of any of her stories.

    What did you think of drama **Manchley**, who was written by famous digest writer *Faiza Iftikhar*? Or **tujh pe Qurban** or **Diya Jale**?
    (She has almost 6 ot 7 dramas on air right now)
    What do you think *Rukhsana Nigar Adnan* is doing on tv if she was just a corny romance writer?

    **Sheher e Dil ke darwaze** which is currently shown by ARY these days was written by late *Shazia Chaudhry* almost a decade ago. If it was such a corny story at that time, why is it still so relatable in the current times?

    You should have been careful when you wrote such strong wordS that what we read is THINLY VEILED EROTICA. **Thats highly offensive.**

    *”One feature of the stories in these monthly digests is that they are often penned by men under female pseudonym”..* Highly unlikely. Source of Information?

    *”This is because most women are not comfortable reading romantic stories written by men but instantly relate to the story if the writer is a woman”..* Why do people still read MANTO? Are you trying to say mostly men read him?

    And at the end, 75% of our female population live in homes and they would like to read about their common problems. So if there are stories with rural background or common household issues, there is nothing bad with it.

    I have never seen any thing erotic or mills & boons type in Digest so take your words back.

    Your article was stupid. I would really like to see if someone agrees with you here (if he/she has ever read digests).Recommend

  • Jul 21, 2010 - 12:10PM

    All i can say, from my first hand knowledge, that article is “aadha sach + aadha jhoot”. Our society has many classes, and these digests and digest writers are addressing them all. Writers try to portray a true and real like situation. Characters in these stories, truely represent real people living around us. Some feminist, some victims, innocent / coward girls and some brave.

    Digests and Digest writers have done a wonderful job for readers. They sure are not writing litter but good quality literature, that we only realize after some years.Recommend

  • samina
    Jul 21, 2010 - 5:31PM

    IF the writer of this article went through only a single episode of Riffat Naheed sajjad’s current nvl CHARAGH E AKHIR E SHAB, she wouldnt’ve written this article….i always feel that some people ‘ve made an image of digest since a century n they are nt ready to bother the taking a little pain to read the digest of today n amend their view….its long been ago when the trends of digest ‘ve been changed ..If one will read the digest today ,its so easy to find out that all type of topics like…Religion, spriualism, politics, kashmir ,afghanistan, palestine, martial law, dictatorship, terrorism, 9/11, cuurent political scenario, sports, media, patriortism,….i dnt think that there is sigle topic left which is nt under the tip of these female writers…..
    BUT…even then i would like to say..why not romance….is there any literature in this world that is without romance??? its an essential part of our lives no matter how much we get advance in scince n technilogy…love ‘ll always be there….why should we underesti,ate the writers who write about love…..
    If Gabriel garcia is writing LOVE in the time of CHolera n winning nobel prize why should we feel ashamed writng about love??
    Yes Quratulain Hyder is an example of excellence everyone can become Q.U hyder…like all poets cant become Ghalib, all politicians cant become QUAID E AZAM….n so on….but female writers of today are doing great job in their own way…….
    one must not talk about digest writers untill n unless he dont read Riffat Naheed Sajjad, Riffat Siraj, Huma kokab bukhari, aneeza syed, umera ahmed, aneesa saleem, kashifa hussain, qanta rabia, sajida habib, nighat seema,….n many moreRecommend

  • samina
    Jul 21, 2010 - 5:36PM

    n ‘ve you read amna mufti??Recommend

  • huma
    Jul 22, 2010 - 9:29PM

    if that paragraph u quoted is a proof of presence of erotica(and this word is so strong)in monthly digests,then i m afraid i can quote alot from wht people call “fiction”….
    agree with samina and jawairia
    waiting for author’s responseRecommend

  • Naila
    Jul 24, 2010 - 8:30PM

    The writer of this article should have researched on the khawateen digest, Shua digest and Kiran before writing that article which is just based on her assumption. She should read Riffat Naheed Sajjad, Aneeza Syed, Amna Mufti, Umera Ahmed, Aneesa Saleem and many more who are writing in these digest. Life is already full of sorrows and I think there is nothing wrong to write, read and watch love stoires. Recommend

  • Hasan Umar
    Jul 31, 2010 - 1:00AM

    I am sure the author of this Article had made some failed attempts writing in Digests but because of her caliber and very little knowledge and Extreme Biasedness she could not make place in Digests she must have not even read any of the Digest aur agar parha hoga tu Aanchal ya aisa 3rd rated parha hoga inhone digest…

    Now coming to this Childish accusation

    . For the past few decades, these digests have only been perpetuating stereotypes because no new writer is willing to step in and provide the audience with some decent literature — stories that will make women think,

    Stereotypes????????Are you in a habit of Day dreaming Madam???Have you ever read Umera Ahmed,Faiza Iftikhar,Sadia Aziz Afridi Aneeza Syed’s novels???Have you ever read Samina Azmat’s and Qanita Rabia’s short stories??
    I guess no…
    And to tell you most of the writers in digests are newcomer who started writing in late 90′s like Umera Ahmed or some started writing in early 21st Century like Faiza Iftikhar and others…
    Kindly go read some stuff then judge it..
    And your comment regarding EROTICA….I can only just laugh at it …..Name me any of the story published in Khwateen,Shuaa or Pakeeza which promoted Erotica….And Female Writers are being Stereotype???Peer-e-Kamil(S.A.W) written by Umera Ahmed based on Qaadiyaniat…Amar Bail written by Umera Ahmed based on Bureaucracy…Man-o-Salwa based on Showbiz culture….And you call them promoting only Romance in their stories???????

    Wowww

    AAP HI APNI ADAA’ON PER ZARA GHOAR KARAIN
    HUM AGAR ARZ KARAIN GAY TU SHIKAYAT HOGI…Recommend

  • Hira Irfan
    Sep 9, 2010 - 11:41PM

    I am sorry but I found your article highly biased…you have given a lot of general statements without actually quoting the sources.
    You wrote that topics other than romance are rarely discussed then you should read “humara cash hai” by Aneesa Saleem. In her series she discusses recent events of our country.
    I think you should conduct a survey and I’m sure you will find that people generally remember fiction compared to non-fiction.
    Writers such as Umera Ahmed has written a lot novels which discuss the problems of our society and trust me these stories are far more appealing to the readers compared to romantic ones. Umera Ahmed’s famous novel ‘amer bail’ has discussed the problems of the bureaucracy of Pakistan.
    You have also written that women do not feel comfortable reading romance stories written by men, i guess men who use female pseudonyms themselves do not feel comfortable in writing stories for the digests.
    There are English romance novels by Daniel steel you have not criticized her work. It is just that reading Urdu digest has been considered an activity done by bored housewives or by girls of tender ages and there is this image formed by people and I think a responsible journalist would rather do a research on the topic than taking the general view of the society.

    P.S. I think your argument was highly off balance and in a few places you contradict your own staements. Recommend

  • Jawairia
    Sep 10, 2010 - 7:55PM

    Still waiting for a response from the writer.Recommend

  • vp bakshi
    Sep 18, 2010 - 11:48PM

    Wajida Tabassum has been underplayed in the article.Reading her since sixties,I respect her a lot and place her beside Munshi Premchand. Her story ‘Teen Janaze’ is an excellent portrayal of decadent Muslim rule in Hyderabad under Nizam. Whatever she wrote went straight like an arrow to a sensitive heart. Dont know if she is still there. If she is my respectful Salaam to her. If not I wish her lasting peace in the grave. Recommend

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