Literature, digital media and the youth

Digital media can be instrumental in reviving the literary heritage of our region

Aqsa Ijaz March 17, 2016
The writer is the American Institute of Pakistan Studies’ Junior Fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

There is not, and there should not be, any denial of the fact that this is the age of digital revolution, which has its unique dynamics. On the one hand, the digital communication is bridging gaps between people across various geographical locations, bringing them closer by sharing knowledge, stories and many other things in the cyberspace, and on the other, it’s also creating a transcultural consciousness on a broader level of quotidian understanding of which knowing the ‘other’ and engaging with it more meaningfully, is the most important phenomenon. Whether this ‘other’ is outside of one’s culture or within it, the digital age of such transcultural transactions in the fields of arts, literature, science and communication, has not only given us the accessibility into other people’s point of views and emerging discourses of all kinds, but has expanded our ability to empathise and appreciate the possibility of the parallel worlds, which can be lived simultaneously through our own uniquely lived experiences.

However, there is always the flip side of the coin as well. In his rather sincere piece published on these pages, titled “Literature: the digital divide”, Tariq Mahmud further expanded upon the notion of the supposed ‘digital divide’ between the older and younger generation in Pakistan: an observation that Ayesha Siddiqa verbalised while introducing Jamila Hashmi to the crowd of many interested and mostly middle-aged audience at the Alhamra Arts Council, Lahore. In his piece, Mahmud argues: “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”. As much as I enjoyed this piece and the writer’s keen sense of the subcontinent’s rich literary history, I could not help but notice the overtones of a certain brand of ‘otherising’ the younger generation and the demands of living meaningfully in the contemporary era.

Ignoring the implied meaning of such arguments that undoubtedly puts forward the apocalypse of the younger generation because of a disconnection with the history and the local languages among other cultural values, it is interesting to note that there isn’t much that is being done to introduce and integrate the so-called younger generation into the literary and cultural heritage of the subcontinent. Having taught at, at least three premier universities in Lahore over the past four years, I do not recall a single course that I had taught that didn’t result in a notable transformation in my students’ understanding of literary and cultural history of South Asia, and the sub-continent in particular.

As a young academic myself, I teach a range of courses in literary and cultural studies to the students that come to the classroom from a variety of social backgrounds. Whether it is my literary courses such as Classics of World Literature, Modern Novel and Literary Theory or, the courses in cultural studies like Culture and Identity, Communication Studies, Introduction to Translation and Modernity and the Transforming Self, my students have proven themselves most interested and most thorough in bringing new insights into the ‘unknown’ books like Kala Pani by Moulana Jaffar Thanesari, an autobiography of a former jihadi who witnessed his own transformation through a unique dialogue with English language and its formidable literature; Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening, an autobiography of a laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize and a former judge in Iran, who remains most vocal and critical of human rights today; Waris Shah’s Heer, a classic of Punjabi Literature and many other figures of the subcontinent’s literary and cultural history that I include in my courses. Contrary to the reservation that the young don’t read and hence don’t know anything about the literary gems of the subcontinent, I find that the problem is with the academics, teachers and parents who themselves have no inclination towards the literary history of the subcontinent. I wonder how many universities in Pakistan module their literature courses in a comparative-historical way that could give the teaching of literature an altogether new and much-needed dimension of critical dialogue with the contemporary history and the so-called local languages?

One of the most significant books of our contemporary Urdu fiction that I always recommend my students to read, is a remarkable novella called Sifer se Ek Tak: Cyberspace k Munshi ki Sarguzasht by Mirza Athar Baig. Unlike any other Urdu novelist that I have read so far, Baig has most creatively engaged with the phenomenon of digital age and cyberspace in the unique context of Pakistan. Instead of blaming the Internet and resultant import of Western values, this book weaves a story of a human subjectivity in Pakistan’s local context and studies the formation of the protagonist who, on the one hand, belongs to the most peripheral area of the country and serves as a kammi to a feudal family of Salaars, and on the other, emerges into a transcultural consciousness through his gradual understanding of the digital technology, which is hardly imaginable to someone belonging to the lower class. After reading this book, my students bring out some brilliant insights and genuine questions that can be developed into original pieces of critical work if guided sincerely and with an open mind.

Nevertheless, instead of making the Internet and digital media a scapegoat for our own lack of constructive efforts to integrate the young generation into the rich literary heritage of the subcontinent, the focus of our academics, the curriculum designers, filmmakers and writers should be to find creative ways to not only introduce the young with the multifaceted past of this region but to enable them to engage with it in new ways; the ways in which the digital media could be more than just a dividing factor between generations. In other words, it would be more productive to work with the digital component of the contemporary life, while not separating literature as a property for a certain kind of people: who think Literature vs Digital World and who do not have digital lives or any participation in the digital world. The digital media itself can be instrumental in reviving the literary heritage of the region and can be read into through various new perspectives. After all, it is always a new perspective, a unique angle, that gives our existence a whole new meaning.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 18th, 2016.

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Ahmad | 8 years ago | Reply Bravo ....quitly awesome and mind boggling. Well narrated and highly contented article indeed
Ev Liddle | 8 years ago | Reply This is quite interesting. Please allow me to add to this conversation. Have you heard about Binfer? It is an easy way to share digital media.
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