Evolution of Literature in Pakistan in the 20th Century

By Jannat Asrar 

Pakistan’s literary landscape has been greatly influenced by Urdu poetry. Pakistani poets wrote powerful yet controversial pieces during and after the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent which resulted in censorship, imprisonment, and social isolation. Poets of the time saw bloodshed during the partition and instability after; this is reflected in their work. Their unique perspectives on political upheavals and feminist ideas continue to gain recognition today, and change the course of literary art in Pakistan. As the country goes through different political challenges, it is important to see how and why the poetry that was once hailed as controversial is now accepted. This article explores four writers whose work and resilience is admired, as the country faces similar challenges today. 

Sadaat Hassan Manto (1912-1955) is one of the first names that comes to mind when talking about controversial post-partition artists. His work was ahead of its time due to his portrayal of the harsh conditions of partition, his social satire, and open criticism of the political system. Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh is a sardonic play on what unfolded during the 1947 partition of the Indian Subcontinent when people had to flee the land they grew up on. He depicts the violence and injustice that followed the partition, and is one of the very few who talked about these horrors at the time. 

However, Manto is not the only controversial writer of post-partition Pakistan. Kishwar Naheed (1940 – Present) wrote about gender issues such as social injustice and lack of rights for women. Naheed in We Sinful Women uses sarcasm to illustrate how the word ‘sinful’ is used to enforce stereotypes on women. The artist writes about how women who dared to speak have been silenced and isolated, while men are praised for sinful acts. Naheed’s exploration of the “sinful woman” also resonates with the broader political context exposed by another renowned Pakistani poet: Habib Jalib. 

Exploring themes from feminism to capitalist injustice, Habib Jalib’s (1928 – 1993) work expressed his distaste for the authoritarian rulers of Pakistan, who set up a poor framework for future leaders. The title of his poem Dastoor roughly translates to ‘Constitution.’ Jalib wrote about state oppression and revealed the feelings a Pakistani must have been experiencing while under authoritarian rule. He reiterates that he refuses to accept a system that promotes censorship and state violence. By critiquing the constitution, he revolutionised the literature of his time. Dastoor empowered people to speak up about military rule and the ill-treatment of citizens through the constitution. 

Freedom of speech continues to be curtailed and the people continue to be stifled under the political instability. Nonetheless, these poets allowed the public to speak and think for themselves, when the political and social system did not allow them to practise their basic human rights. Their poetry serves as a reminder to the people struggling today to fight and persevere through the current overwhelming challenges like inflation, an unjust judiciary, and an unstable political system. 

Illustration by Mithalina Taib

Jannat tackles the work of post-partition writers in Pakistan.


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