The Urdu language is only associated with one thing in the country today, and that is — its Muslim population. It is not long before anyone leaning towards it, out of sheer curiosity or interest, gets apprehended as a ‘traitor’ or ‘anti-national’. Although a minority does lament the death of the language and the loss of its previously rich and vibrant literary culture, it is left tearing its hair out in frustration because of utter neglect of this matter by the government. The majority of the country on the other hand, is too busy debating locations of said temples and mosques based on information from mythology to even notice the demise of the language.
In a time of intolerance, communal disharmony and dissent, we look back at a few Indian Urdu authors, whose works were way ahead of their times and who pioneered the stimulating literary discourse in Urdu due to their unconventional and nonconformist writing styles and their association with the Progressive Writers Movement in the country.
I. Saadat Hasan Manto
Manto did not believe in writing delightful stories for the sake of pretending that the society he lived in was an idealistic one, full of rainbows and unicorns. His writing is fiercely honest, to the extent of discomfort for the weak-heart and was also something that he got into trouble for a lot over the course of his life. His works capture the displacement, turbulence and violence in the country post independence and that earned him the title of the ‘Bold Chronicler of the Partisan Era.’
His stories portrayed scandalous individuals (considering the time they were published in) like prostitutes and alcoholics and the women in them were presented without making judgements on their ‘character’ or distinguishing them from his representations of men. Manto wrote about taboo themes of killing, slaughter and rapes in the post-partition era and explored ideas of lust, sex, poverty, corruption, hypocrisy, strife, moral decay et al. through his work and presented them to his readers, loaded with satire and irony with a pinch of self ridicule. The controversial author was recently re-introduced to the Indian masses through the Bollywood film Manto. His infamous short story, Toba Tek Singh also made its debut on silver screen in 2017. Other famous works of his include Khol Do, Dog of Tithwal, Thanda Gosht etc.
II. Ismat Chughtai
Chutghai wrote in a time when female writers writing about or for women were seen as something that crossed the boundaries of what the public considered moral or respectful. She was undaunted by the consequences of not conforming to such standards and went ahead to be known as on of the first feminist writers of the country .
Her stories depicted strong and individualistic female characters from all social backgrounds, exploring ideas propagated by the society through their own experiences. The author wrote about illicit topics like homosexuality, prostitution, paedophilia and female sexuality during a time when a woman indulging in any discussion of this kind was considered nothing short of an abomination and hence, she was tried for obscenity on several occasions. Her work questions gender roles, the idea of monogamy and what is and what isn’t considered ‘honourable’ by the majority. Chughtai is known for never sticking to one particular format while writing, she tried her hand at short stories, novels, sketches and radio plays. Her writing is perfectly able to represent the complexity of a woman, her desires and the hypocrisy that existed and still exists in the society. Her most famous works are Lihaaf, Til, Gainda et al.
III. Kaifi Azmi
Azmi is recognised as one of the finest Urdu poets of the modern times. The writer started off by writing love poetry and ghazals but after becoming a part of the Progressive Writers movement and the Communist Party of India, he moved towards socially conscious poetry. He is said to have brought about a revolution in Urdu poetry with his work which is a combination of romantic idealism and sympathy for the exploited classes which delights lovers of the art form from all age groups and fuels the imagination of aspiring poets.
His poetry highlights the exploitation of the subaltern masses and conveys his hopes for the creation of a new and just social order after the break down of the existing power structure. His style of writing is traditional and he expresses emotions through use of metaphors and rich imagery, often urging the readers to take radical action out of passion against communalism and religious fundamentalism and for the rights of women. His cinematic work is known for its simplicity and endless optimism. He is also the lyricist behind famous Bollywood songs like Chalte Chalte and Kar Chale Hum Fida. His most famous poems are Aurat, Makaan, Daaera, Saanp, and Bahuroopni.
IV. Qurratulain Hyder
Hyder known to have brought a unique narrative style to vernacular writing with history being main theme in her writing and is credited for helping the novel become a serious genre in Urdu literature. She didn’t believe in writing about superficial social issues but was instead in search of basic cultural values and explored the impact of cultural changes of lives of people through her work and her bold and experimental writing style.
Her portrayal of female characters with sovereign thoughts and emotions represented their feelings as the second sex in the society and introduced the readers to their psyche. The central characters of her stories are mostly afflicted and alienated women who ultimately face tragic ends. Her stories grapple with themes like moral degradation of the society, hollow socio-political values, class difference, inclusive nationhood et al. and are often nostalgic of the tradition that united the whole subcontinent as a single unit once upon a time. Her most the famous work is River of Fire.
If you liked reading this article, we suggest you read: