Literature: the digital divide

Only way out now is to play around with print medium as its nature at times has been more powerful than its message

Tariq Mahmud February 22, 2016
The writer is an author and a former interior secretary. He teaches at Lahore University of Management Sciences

Lahore’s literary scene, during the past few weeks, witnessed some heart-warming events. These included an evening in the memory of Jamila Hashmi, renowned novelist and a short-story writer, the Faiz Aman Mela, commemorating the death anniversary of the great Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and last but definitely not the least, the Lahore Literary Festival. The latter two events are now regular annual features of the city’s life whereas the former event held special significance. In the past, some memorial lectures honouring Jamila Hashmi had been held but this year the organisers focused on an intelligently choreographed theatrical performance, which was based on her widely acclaimed short story, Sherry. In her opening remarks, Ayesha Siddiqa, the well-known analyst and the writer’s daughter, said that the occasion was an attempt to bridge the gap between the younger generation and Pakistan’s rich literary heritage. This premise is fairly well-founded.

Information technology and the new modes of communication have created a digital divide between the younger and the older generations, as well as taking the younger generation away from some of the rich and vibrant sources of our literary history. The internet and digital technology have overtaken the laborious print medium. The only way out now is to play around with the print medium as its nature at times has been more powerful than the message it tries to convey. In this regard, poetry is better placed than prose as the melody and resonance of a singer’s voice laced with musical instruments make the likes of Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz and Faraz permeable to a larger audience.

Renowned poet Fahmida Riaz, in her introductory address at the event honouring Jamila Hashmi, aptly dealt with the topic of pre-Partition Punjab, which was known for its tolerance and the co-existence of different communities residing in the province. She elaborated on how the literary works of yore featured the mingling of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh characters without there being any stereotyping. That spoke for the society that we once lived in, which suddenly erupted with bloody violence at the time of Partition. Hashmi, who was born in East Punjab, migrated to the western part of Punjab in her teens. As a student of literature, she took up creative writing at an early age and produced some remarkable stories and novels.

There is no denying the fact that the events of Partition reek of misery and bloodshed and show how the worst in humans can be brought out. But at the same time, the event also led to some of the finest literary works produced in the subcontinent, both in terms of poetry and prose. Whether it was Saadat Hassan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh or Khol Do, Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan or Amrita Pritam’s poetry, these are all deeply etched in the memories of readers even today.

People in our part of the world have always lived at multiple levels. This has been the case with the literary discourse as well. Scholars and writers in the subcontinent drew on varied sources and linguistic reservoirs. They realised the importance of Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit while enriching their literary genre. Rooted in local mores and ethos, they were deeply influenced by the civilisational tides emanating from the centre points of the Arab heartland. These streams permeated into the subcontinent through the fertile literary soil of Persia.

Jamila Hashmi, with her acute sensibility, understood the nuance of her times. Her literary canvass is diverse and thematically very wide. A variety of subjects caught her imagination, and she was able to portray them with consummate skill. One possible reason for this could be her exposure to modern knowledge, history, mysticism, feminism and political dynamics. Married to a scion of the spiritual family of Khanqa Sharif, a village on the outskirts of Bahawalpur, as a young woman from mainland central Punjab, she could readily internalise the ambience of southern Punjab and especially of the princely state of Bahawalpur. The state has one of the largest deserts in the country, popularly known as Rohi. Coincidentally, Rohi had also been the source of sustenance of the mystic poet Khawaja Ghulam Fareed, who produced great metaphysical works in his poetry. Jamila Hashmi produced authentic literature based on the ethos of ‘seraiki waseb’. Her novel, Rohi, was a specimen of a successful venture in this regard. Being from mainland Punjab, writing on the subject was a commendable feat. It distinguished her from her contemporaries, some of whom were of great literary statures. These included the renowned humourist Shafiqur Rehman, the writer of Mazeed Himaqatain and Shagoofay, and Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, who produced a masterly work in his novel, Chakiwara mein Wisal. Both of them belonged to the state of Bahwalpur, but there is not much on record about their forays into themes representing southern Punjab with its rich Seraiki lores and heritage.

Jamila Hashmi had a deep sense of history and understanding of mysticism, which she displayed while penning Dasht-e-Soos, a novel based on the tragic story of Mansur Al Hallaj, the mystic who stood unwavering in the face of torture. To his detractors, he was a heretic, to his supporters, he did not deny God’s oneness; he was only craving for a blissful union with the Omnipotent while annihilating his ego. The detractors prevailed and the mystic was executed at the banks of the river Tigris. Jamila Hashmi, while choosing this difficult theme, vindicated herself exceedingly well.

Coming to the evening held in Hashmi’s memory, Sheema Kirmani, with her ably assisted team, gave a spellbinding performance, which will be remembered for a long time. The setting was further reinforced by light and sound effects interspersed with modulated dialogue delivery. Each character was supported in the discourse through the narrator and engaging visuals. The story unfolded in a terse backdrop where a sudden visit of an unexpected guest from abroad causes ripples and tense moments in a small family, and brings to the fore the uneasy relationship between two sisters. There is joy for one sister and fears and apprehension for the other as both see their hopes and frustrations through the lens of this visit. The guest is none other than a pet dog, a reference point for one of the sisters to discover her innate feelings of love and empathy through a domesticated animal. She would always find solace in the company of the pet than that of a human being! It was indeed a bold theme to write about as well as to choreograph. It had, at the same time, much to offer to the audience in terms of depth and breadth of Urdu fiction.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 23rd, 2016.

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Canzeon | 7 years ago | Reply An excellent article where the undercurrent of very sublime feelings goes with the whole narrative. The big-wigs of local literature refrain from the mention of Jamila Hashmi as she was really great. Either they feel eclipsed by her brilliance or just ignore him out of they own inferiority complex. She is one of the greatest writers of the sub-content in terms of style and content. I am yet to come across the literary pieces of the quality of her three novelts, viz. lahu ka rang, zehr ka rang and Shab e tar ka rang (Apna Apna Jehennem) and short stories of Rang Bhoom especially Jadu Nagri. Kudos to writer for his erudition, literary taste and acumen for penning lucid scholarly articles.
Truthful Mole | 7 years ago | Reply Thank you Sir, for this wonderful article and for reminding us that an expanse of literature in Urdu is an indelible part of our literary heritage. We must make literature (especially Urdu literature) an important part of those literature festivals where popular culture and international politics take centre stage. In fact, why not discuss Urdu literature in English, if need be, to reclaim its space at public forums which are called literary and which are by and large conducted in English. Translations should be the obvious next step.
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