Urdu Literature Culture: Vernacular Modernity in the Writing of Muhammad Hasan Askari

Urdu Literature Culture: Vernacular Modernity in the Writing of Muhammad Hasan Askari

The series “Literatures and Cultures of the Islamic World” edited by Professor Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University and published by Palgrave Macmillan, promises to ‘put forward a critical body of first rate scholarship on the literary and cultural production of the Islamic world, from the vantage point of contemporary theoretical and hermeneutic perspectives without the prejudices and drawbacks of outmoded perspectives.’ It delivers.
Since its initial offerings a few years ago it has produced a dozen ground-breaking monographs dealing with a variety of topics drawn mostly from the Middle East and North Africa, and centered on Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish literatures, arts, and societies. In 2012, Urdu Literature Culture: Vernacular Modernity in the Writing of Muhammad Hasan Askari by Mehr Afshan Farooqi of the University of Virginia, one of Urdu literature’s most active and innovative scholars, was added to the roster. It carefully delineates the complex life, erratic career, vacillating thinking, yet substantial contributions to Urdu literature of Muhammad Hasan Askari (1919-78), today considered that literature’s first and premiere modern literary critic.

What might be looked upon as ‘literary criticism’ in Urdu prior to the twentieth century was basically of two types: first, descriptive discussions of individual writers–mostly poets–pointing out strengths and weaknesses in their works together with unsystematic biographical information; and second, commentaries based on the late nineteenth-century, didactic-utilitarian view of literature imported from Victorian English sources. Such criticism had few, if any, theoretical underpinnings or systematic logic, and could often degenerate into fault-finding or highly subjective pronouncements, as well as a dismissal of a writer or a literary work for personal, or spurious, or non-literary reasons.
Farooqi’s study rigorously analyzes the arc of Askari’s intellectual life, from precocious, gifted short-story writer and critic, to stalwart, some might say rabid, Pakistani nationalist, to disappointed, frustrated quasi-mystical “other” in a country which, only well after his death, recognized his genius. Erudite, acerbic, and remarkably well read in not only Urdu literature, but English and French literatures (especially the Symbolists), as well as history, philosophy, and psychology (especially psychoanalysis), Askari was a major force in transforming Urdu literary criticism in a period of less than two decades into an objective discipline based on solid  theoretical principles, which he had helped to define.

This was the heady period of the 30s and 40s when the Marxist-inspired ‘Progressive’ school of Urdu literature was ascendant. It started in the late 20s in England by leftist Indian students and communist Indian expatriates. Transferred to India by the mid-30s by a young, iconoclastic, highly westernized group of would-be litterateurs, it garnered strong supported morally and financially from, initially, the Communist Party of Great Britain and later the Communist Party of India (CPI). Fully committed to India’s quest for independence, the Progressives initially attracted many of the period’s best young talent, not all of whom were necessarily communists nor ideological in any respect. As time passed, the Progressives became increasingly strident and doctrinaire in their literary views, which were heavily influenced by Moscow-formulated artistic pronouncements. These espoused socialist realism, a doctrine more political than artistic, and required all art to serve the advancement of the political and social goals of the Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Many Urdu writers, despite their generally leftist orientation, among them Askari, disagreed and rejected the Progressives. While he remained on friendly personal terms with various Progressive writers, notably the poet Firaq Gorakhpuri (1896-1982) for whom he had–to the thinking of many unwarranted high praise, Askari directed some of his harshest opinions against the Progressives. He criticized them for their failings: for submitting to foreign literary dictates, for their narrow focus on the function of literature as, ultimately, economic uplift, for their lack of genuine commitment to Pakistan as a homeland for South Asian Muslims, and perhaps most scathing of all, for being shallow and imitative of western models, thus, derivative. His arguments were dazzling, often witty and sometimes snarky, expressed in powerful, elegant, and persuasive language.
Many of his finest writings–elegant, supple, sometimes trenchant but invariably incisive–except for Firaq Gorakhpuri (more below)–started to appear in 1944 in a monthly column, “Jhalkiyan” (Glimpses), in the prestigious literary journal Saqi (Cup-bearer; Delhi 1930-47; Karachi 1947-68; Askari writing for it till 1957). In these he reviewed latest books published in Urdu as well as English on a wide variety of topics, mostly literature, but also other disciplines, including politics, religion, art, mysticism, and psychology. Initially, an enthusiastic admirer of English literature and western thinking generally, he gradually came to address what he perceived as the severe damages–economic, intellectual, moral, and artistic–done to India in general, but to Indian Muslim culture, especially Urdu, through colonial subjugation.

A strong supporter of the establishment of the State of Pakistan, Askari immigrated there in 1947, almost impulsively, believing that Urdu literature would provide a major foundation stone for the establishment of a truly modern, viable Muslim nation and a genuine, modern Muslim identity. He worked strenuously in both his writing and his lecturing, and later his teaching, at this time to support the new Muslim state, often despite initial disappointments regarding short-sighted, impolitic decisions made by the ruling class. Such blighted hopes grew into disillusionment when assassinations and intense dissent between and among various political, ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups jockeying for power destabilized the country.  For Askari this it meant a reevaluation of his admiration of western thought and literature, a readjustment of his hopes for Pakistan, and, eventually, a renewal of his respect for the Islamic tradition from which he came.
Perhaps most disappointing for him personally in Pakistan was the branding of his kind–Muslims who left India for Pakistan–by fellow Muslims indigenous to the area with the term mohajirs, initially a neutral term meaning ‘immigrants,’ which then evolved into ‘refugees,’ and finally into ‘the others’/‘not us.’ These local groups turned on the mohajirs and wrenched power and influence away from them, most dramatically with the 1958 military coup d’état.
In this complex and prejudicial atmosphere, Askari turned away from his role as an enthusiastic and uncompromising champion for Pakistani integration, Pakistani Muslim identity, and an identifiable Pakistani literature with Urdu as its medium. He eventually withdrew into a space where he looked to Islam and its traditions to fill the lacunae resulting from his rejection of his earlier work, the West, and his various dreams for Pakistan. Here Askari was deeply influenced by the work of two intellectuals, one French and one Indian, an ironic reminder of the dual source upon which his intellectual makeup was constructed. He had read and praised the work of the French philosopher and metaphysician René Guénon (1886-1951), whose 1927 The Crisis of the Modern World sharply criticized the modern West for, among other things, having deviated from its Tradition (with a capital ‘T’), its stress on doing rather than thinking, its emphasis on Capitalism, its demand for innovation, and its embracing of individualism. Not surprisingly, Guénon offers high praise for the place of Tradition in Hinduism, Taoism, and Islam, thereby supporting Askari’s new thinking, which asserted that, as Farooqi summarizes it, “. . . moving away from tradition leads to confusion, insecurity, and perversion” (p. 44).

Later, Askari was attracted to the work and teachings of Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanavi (1863-1943), the “greatest modern Indian Sufi and Islamic scholar” (p. 260). The influential head of the religiously conservative Deoband seminary, Thanavi was a major figure in the revivalist movement in South Asian Islam,

which was influenced by the ultraconservative Wahabi movement in of the Middle East, especially Arabia. Toward the end of his life Askari regularly visited the local Deoband madrasa. Commenting on the effects of both of these influences on him, Farooqi states that Askari’s “last 15 years were spent in pursuit of esoteric connections between the mystic and the literary. In this search, he wrote brilliant, provocative essays, well argued yet so polemical that his marginalization was inevitable” (p. 170). Thus, there is both irony and poignancy, but no surprise to those who knew him, that, at the time of his death, he had begun an English translation of an important Urdu exegesis of the Qur’an.
With scholarly precision and critical acumen, Farooqi tracks the trajectory of Askari’s complicated intellectual journey, basing her account and analysis primarily on his plethora of critical essays. For the title of the first chapter, Farooqi borrows the motto of Askari’s (and her) alma mater, Allahabad University: “Quot Rami Tot Arbores–As Many Branches as Many Trees—The University of Allahabad and Beyond.” She places the shy, skinny, and–frankly, from all accounts and photographs–nerdy-looking Askari into his intellectual milieu, at the time one of India’s superior educational institutions, a hotbed of intellectual inquiry and activity created by dynamic professors and imaginative administrators, many of whom held doctorates from Oxbridge and the University of London. And, of course, exceptional, active, and engaged students eager of learn.

The core of this volume are Chapters 4 and 5: “’Jhalkiyan’: World Literature, Partition, and Rupture” and “The Illusion of Form and the Power of Tradition.” In these Farooqi organizes and analyzes many of Askari’s most important essays, often quite diverse and wide-ranging in subject, skillfully and imaginatively working them into a coherent, critical whole. Reflecting Askari’s broad intellectual interests, the essays posed perspicacious questions to both readers and writers on current topics as well as meditations upon the Urdu literature of the past. For example, the first essay is “The Problem of the Obscene in Art and Literature” from February 1944. Other important essays include “Moral Conformity in Literature,” “Muslim Writers and the Muslim Community-Nation,” “The Death of Urdu Literature” (a particularly eye-catching title and topic), “A Review of Twenty-Five Years of Literary Production,” and one of his last from 1957, “Capitalism and Self-Awareness,” to mention just a few.
Farooqi’s knowledge and application of contemporary theoretical literary principles–de rigueur for this series of studies–notably post-modern and post-colonial positions, enables readers to clearly follow this development. Because only a few of Askari’s essays are available in English translation, we are presented with a concise synopsis of the essay in question, followed by a discussion which places it in the broader Askari canon. She gives Askari generous credit (and praise) where it is due, but she does not shy away from showing where Askari’s remarks or analyses are incomplete or off-center, or, in the case of the poet Firaq, simply wrong.

Chapter 2, “Askari and Firaq: Personal Relations in Life and Letters,” discusses not only Askari’s highly adulatory pronouncements on Firaq’s poetry, but also addresses whether or not the poet/teacher Firaq–well-known in literary and academic circles at that time as being gay–had a sexual liaison with his young student, Askari. While there is no solid evidence as proof, it is generally accepted that they were involved sexually as well as intellectually. To counter the “Firaq myth” (p. 246) of poetic excellence to which various critics, including Askari, contributed, Farooqi opines that the introverted, laid-back critic, bedazzled by the tall, handsome, flamboyant poet with whom he may have been in love, was unable to objectively judge Firaq’s poetry. However, there are stalwarts of Firaq’s poetry who deny the gay allegation and who insist that his love poems are strictly hetero. Farooqi meets this challenge by giving a refined analysis of a well-known love poem by Firaq which most people would read as being about a man and a woman. Aided by queer theory, she effectively shows that the poem can also be read as an expression of  homoerotic desire and that such a valid reading in no way alters its essential quality as art.

While Askari’s reputation in Urdu literature lies in the field of criticism, he was also an innovative, bold short-story writer. For a period of about a decade (1937-1947) he published a total of eleven short stories. These and related matters concerning not just fiction but the broader subject of Urdu prose are the subjects of Chapter 3, “Fiction, Theory of Fiction, and the Critical View.” Two stories from his first of two collections, Jaizere (Islands, 1943), are his most important, complex, and controversial, both centering on the homoerotic introspections of two teenagers: in the first, “Slipperiness,” those of a young Muslim boy, and in the second, “A Cup of Tea,” those of a young Indian Christian girl. These were daring themes for the times, and their language and stream-of-consciousness style reveal Askari as a deft handler of the medium. Using the concept that the short story is the writer’s genre of choice to introduce new, controversial, and stigmatized subjects into the literary landscape, Farooqi offers an in-depth analysis of these two works and of the notoriety they brought Askari. Why he stopped writing fiction is not entirely clear, nor does Farooqi attempt to give definitive reasons. One is left with the impression that perhaps he felt that, as a genre, it was too indirect to have the impact on society he wished.

In sum, this volume is a major, ground-breaking piece of Urdu literary scholarship in English, which succeeds in introducing Askari and his works to a wide reading public beyond Urdu-speaking/reading South Asia. However, there are assertions in it with which some readers might disagree. For example, I do. At the time of Partition, a number of prominent Urdu writers left India for Pakistan. On p. 142 Farooqi names a number of Progressives who “opted” (her word) for Pakistan, including Sajjad Zaheer (1905-73), one of the founding members of that movement.  When I interviewed him (with his wife, the writer Razia Sajjad Zaheer [1917-79], present and intermittently participating) on Saturday, 20 July 1968 ,in New Delhi, I asked why he “chose” (my word) to go to Pakistan. He very courteously corrected me, saying that he did not choose to go there, but rather, that he was “sent” (his word) there by the CPI to organize a Pakistani communist party. At this juncture his wife quickly chimed in with surly remarks about the immense personal, emotional, and financial difficulties it caused the family, especially when he was imprisoned for several years for his alleged implication with the incompetently managed, quirky Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. Zaheer sat quietly, as if to let her have the final word on the subject.

In addition, some writers, mostly leftists (e.g., Ajmal Kamal in his critique of censorship of Pakistani Urdu textbooks and his criticism of Askari’s judgments against Partition literature) have argued that, due to his zealous support of Pakistan in those early years, Askari, whether he intended to or not, colluded with the fragile, awkward government to help create an atmosphere which supported, or even encouraged, censorship laws which suppressed challenges to or criticism of its authority. For example, the Public Safety Act Ordinance of October 1948, which was used to censor and shut down permanently or for a period of time a number of publications. Numerous newspapers were threatened or silenced. Literary journals were not spared. The first so treated was Savera (Dawn) in late 1948; then in 1949, most famously, the new, fiery Progressive journal Nuqush (Designs), which daringly published Saadat Hasan Manto’s allegedly obscene short story “Khol do” (Open Up); and even Adab-i-latif (Belles-Lettres), which had become relatively benign after Faiz Ahmed Faiz had left its editorship in 1946. Such charges against Askari–whether true or false or somewhere in between–could have been more fully addressed here. However, in the broad context of the book, its intent, and its focus as a whole, these points do not detract from the insights into and appreciation of Askari’s literary work so lucidly and engagingly presented in this volume.

Perhaps knowing that she would whet our appetite for Askari’s writing, Farooqi has translated a collection of his best literary criticism and short stories, which will be published shortly by Oxford University Press. Such a volume will be a fitting complement to this highly readable, informative, first-rate study.

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