Pakistani fiction hijacked by English language writers

Published: November 7, 2010

If Urdu literature remains restricted to ancient bookstores and libraries it may die out

Why is it that I can access Francis W. Pritchet’s English translation of Intizar Hussain’s Basti on the net but find nothing about the original Urdu novel? The only Pakistani fiction that is making its way on the internet is either written in English or is translated into English from Urdu. Thus a majority of Urdu fiction stays locked in the black and white pages of books – out of the reach of potential readers.

The world now knows contemporary writers like Nadeem Aslam, Muhammad Hanif, Kamila Shamsi and Daniyal Moeenuddin as representative Pakistani writers because English books can easily be accessed. But veteran names like Amjad Islam Amjad, Iftkhar Arif, Mustansir Hussain Tarrar and Shehzad Hassan are out of sight as their work stays walled in the national language and a single medium of print.

The issue with the phenomenon is that a minority is being considered representative of Pakistani fiction by the world at large. Consequently emergent is the restricted and myopic view of Pakistani society.

Having come across Granta, a recently released literary publication I was surprised to find that most of the pieces are not what could be considered representative of Pakistani fiction. The works included were either originally written in English or had been lucky enough to get translated into English from Urdu and thus catch the eye of editors of the magazine.

The call of the day is to transfer information about Urdu fiction on to the internet as much as possible. Websites like are making a difference. More attempts like this one need to be made, by literary academies, writers, teachers, critics and students of Urdu literature. Translating Urdu fiction into English is a job better done by Pakistani writers who have a better understanding of the language and the soil in which it cultivates rather then writers from the West.

Fiction that fails to translate into this new universal language is doomed to a forsaken death.


Nazish Zafar

Senior Associate Producer programming at Express News.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Wasio Ali Khan Abbasi

    The greatest problems faced by young writers is acceptance in the society. Despite having a great grasp of Urdu, little support is found in terms of academics and access to knowledge. In school years alone, out of several subjects only 1 is in Urdu and rest all are in English. Even when you go to the internet, more than 90% of the information you want or will come across is in English.
    I am myself a victim of this change during the later years of my school. I had a pathetic English writing and verbal skills, often no sense could be drawn from the sentences I wrote. In Urdu, however, I was second only to teacher herself and often enough they found my work even better than their own. When finally I was warned by the headmistress that I could be failed and subsequently expelled from School and can never pass O levels examinations with that language skills, I had to focus all my energies towards English and forgo Urdu. For the past 9 years I have only focused on English and have done wonderful until I came across and bought Bano Qudsia’s “Raja Gidh”. The book reminded me why I loved Urdu so much in my earlier years.Recommend

  • parvez

    Nice piece. Have you posted this in on an Urdu language site ?? Recommend

  • Aisha

    “Awareness” is was what we lack nowadays for our Urdu Literature. How many newspapers and magazines actually report the publishing of any new Urdu lit in market ? only to name a few … Also as you have mentioned about the Pakistani writers writing in English or simply doing translations of Urdu works, it is their moral duty as well to introduce Urdu Lit in the International front not just by translations, but also by making use of their exposure and introducing Urdu Fiction/ Poetry to those markets.Recommend

  • mansoor butt

    very well written piece Nazish! I have observed and experienced that the literary academies are full of politics, favoritism and jealousies.There is bust little hope for urdu fiction in this situation to grow n reach out to world.Recommend

  • mubeshra

    agreed. the sad part is that libraries are few and though book stores are emerging slowly, the overall interest in reading is on a decline. those who are reading, are not aware of veteran writers; reason being us shying away from urdu in general and finding english an easier read.Recommend

  • Haji G

    Excerpts from english classics are part of our english curriculum at scholl. need is to introduce urdu classics in schools as well.Recommend

  • Faizan Rauf

    you dont get to read much of urdu fiction on net. Your urdu teacher is only little less ignorant than students are. You hardly ever see any programming on tv dedicated to urdu wrtings. where does urdu literature find its place after all? The national tv once had shows like Khiraj e Tehseen etc where u could get to know of veteran writers along with other artists of Pakistan. A literary show airing these days called Raat Gae hosted by Wasi Shah is very sub standard. nice subject brought up by Nazish.Recommend

  • farhat khan

    Nazish ask this mummy daddy class about Amjad Islam Amjad and Mustansir Tarrar and they stare back at you as if you have grown a horn on head. They need to be told what maturity and depth these writers have. Far better than J K Rowling and Paulo Coelho.Recommend

  • Ghausia

    I blame our education system, we’re tauht such difficult Urdu that it makes most of us run from reading Urdu fiction, plus, Urdu is sidelined quite a bit due to the assumption that we don’t need to learn our native language and thus more focus is put on English. To some extent, I understand why; Book-reading just isn’t given that much importance, and thus its is totally up to the teachers to teach students English as parents never bother to encourage kids to read outside of coursebooks. But equal focus has to given on learning out mother-tongue. Perhaps Urdu literature with footnotes and meanings on each page like ‘key-books’ of English literature would help?

    I have the sudden urge to go read Iqbal now.Recommend

  • Mariam

    Urdu books are rarely available on net, sadly.Recommend

  • Mehreen

    hahahaha @parvez.

    and what are you TALKING about?? granta is a magazine printed across the world…they do specials on different countries all the time and its always printed in english so people across the world can read it. did you actually want there to be urdu articles in there? even YOU are writing in english.

    don’t blame it on english and other writers “hijacking” the market. blame the qaum ke log who are failing to step up. they need to write stories which are accessable to more people. every time i’ve tried to read an urdu novel, it’s always either been about marriage, rishtay or some sort of anna karenina “bad character woman learns a big lesson” preachy moral story. if urdu writers stepped up, i’d def read more of their stories. its their own fault they’re not bringing their A game to the table. people are too busy trying to get into engineering or medical to give literature a chance. Recommend

  • Taha Kehar

    Urdu Literature has the unique potential of sharpening sensitivities and providing insight into situations all of us encounter in some point in our lives. It represents our political heritage and quite aptly explores relevant social issues. But in doing so, it narrows the amplitude of its grasp to the sub-continent alone. English on the other hand, is a colonial heritage which has grown to personify a range of distinct cultural experiences and has therefore acquired the status of a global language.
    Writers in Urdu have put the language to much avail in expressing the importance of key political ideals and various social conditions. Although there is a vast array of literary works available with beautiful rendering of cross-cultural experiences, writings in English come forth as more appealing simply because they expose writers to a much wider demographic.
    As someone who takes a keen interest in both Urdu and English literature, I find the former to be more enthralling and the latter to be diverse and powerful. Recommend

  • Mehreen

    ^ What he said. Recommend

  • Thinking

    hmmm…nice post Ms Zafar.

    I dont say that we should discourage the young english writers who recently have taken away the breath of their readers not only in Pakistan but in other parts of the world too. But the same time we should consider to bring forward the real literature of Pakistan which is due to in Urdu has not taken any attention till yet.

    Good Work !Recommend

  • Nadeem Zafar

    The point raised is good..but shows a lack of research and homework. Why no mention of a single institution being run by state..responsible for promoting Urdu literature..Akadmi Adbyat..Muqtadra Qaumi Zuban…??? They get millions in funds..what have they done? Ironically…Amjad Islam Amjad and other prominent literary figures have served at these organizations..drawing huge cheques..and funds..and they themselves did nothing!!! Iftikhar Arif spent his whole life on govt payroll…!! Recommend

  • IZ

    So if I can just read between the lines of what the author of this post is saying here it is:

    “I can easily rip-off Pakistani authors who write in English by illegally downloading digital copies of their work from the internet but its more difficult to rip-off Urdu writers whose work is difficult to find so I have to actually buy their books instead, thereby actually making sure they receive some small amount of income for their hard work. This is annoying and someone should do something about it.”
    And we wonder why literature is struggling in our country?Recommend

  • Maahi

    I live in India and a student of Urdu Lit in Dehli University. i have to agree 100% with the author. The point isn’t about ripping off material from internet, but we have to agree that internet is today’s tool of info. Sadly i hardly can stay updated about contemporary scene in Urdu lit. Not just fiction, but the linguistics, the history, the Literary Criticism information about nothing is to be found online.
    @IZ I use online dictionaries and encyclopedia very often. You expect me to buy them all and prove myself honest?? I guess the wikipedia too is being sold somewhere at some bookshop????Recommend

  • Asifa Kumail

    I am a follower of Pakistani writers writing in english and they are writing superb. But i have been lucky to be reading lots of urdu lit too. And i truly feel sad when most of my friends from college are totally ignorant about what gems of fiction are being created in Urdu. They won’t read books and ask for some ‘quick’ intro to my favorites. I could show them Amjad Islam Amjad’s play Waris and Anwer Maqsood’s Aangan Terha. Thanks god they had dramatized some brilliant works to convice my friends that fiction in urdu is very competitive and rich. And worthy of being brought on international front.Recommend

  • Zahid Mughal

    Agreed with Asifa. I wouldn’t have known Faiz and Habeeb Jalib, had they not been sung by famous singers. So literature needs to be incorporated in mediums of communication other than books sometimes. Author advocates for internet this time and is justified.Recommend

  • kitaab ka keera

    Couldn’t agree more with Taha Kehar . Nice post Miss Nazish!!Recommend

  • IZ

    @Maahi. You have written: I use online dictionaries and encyclopedia very often. You expect me to buy them all and prove myself honest?? I guess the wikipedia too is being sold somewhere at some bookshop????
    The author of the article has written: Thus a majority of Urdu fiction stays locked in the black and white pages of books – out of the reach of potential readers. Needless to say, the majority of Urdu fiction is not in dictionaries nor in thesauruses. Sites like wikipedia provide free content. If the author of the article is asking for more websites that provide free Urdu literary content, well, I would fully support the move. But unless the authors specifically agree to provide their work for free, then putting it up on the web is a copyright violation. In Pakistan intellectual copyright as such is virtually non-existent, which is why there is a virtually non-existant cultural scene. Why have Pakistani writers in English prospered? Because they can sell to English-speaking markets abroad. Why has the Pakistani music scene prospered? Because they have found a market in India. Until intellectual copyright is respected in Pakistan, it will be difficult for a literary culture to flourish in Pakistan.

    I don’t want to be completely negative on this point, and just present criticisms, but we need to get beyond the culture of constantly asking why things are not presented to us on a platter. A website devoted to the promotion and web-publishing of Urdu literature is an excellent idea, but to achieve its broader objective of promoting an Urdu literary culture rather than just providing pirated copies of books and depriving writers of (an already pittance) of royalties. Perhaps it would be possible for the author of this article and like-minded people such as some who have commented on this article to set up such a site, possibly with help of a grant, either from the Pak government or a donor interested in promoting the arts in Pakistan. Such a site where book reviews, biographical articles, and short stories from reputed authors are published in a proper manner. Again with permission of authors, start presenting e-book or audio-book versions of some of their classic works which are downloadable through subscription service. Some possibilities are to approach the Arts Council, or Urdu Departments at large universities like Karachi Uni or Punjab Uni to make it a cooperative effort, or maybe apply to HEC or foreign donors like Goethe Institute, Alliance Francaise, British Council or USAID for a grant.
    Sounds too complicated and don’t have the time/interest to go through such trouble? Okay, how about a second option. Start your own Urdu literary blog. Get a bunch of interested people involved to write for it. Hopefully it will draw interest from like-minded inside and outside Pakistan and become an interesting source of information/opinion about Urdu literature.Recommend

  • Benish

    A thought provoking post… However if u notice, world knows Tolstoy, Chekhov, Marquez and other great foreign writers becasue of the blessing of translation. Few people can read Russian or Spanish or Portugese, but English, the universal language has served the book lovers across the globe a great deal. We pakistanis shud also wake up and get our brlliant pieces of literature translated itno this universal language to reach out to a larger audiance.

    Personally, I believe that Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s “RAAKH” is far far better than Kamila Shamsie’s “The Burnt Shadows” in explaining the post-partition saga. But the problem remains with the limited readership to understand the former.

    Further, we we hardly find gud fiction writers and/or poets in Urdu language anymore. It seems, beside other spheres of life, we as a nation are getting deteriorated in this beautiful field as well.Recommend


    Nice of luck Recommend

  • sufia

    actually…i wouldnt agree with the above comment…our tv channels are doing a lot to promote urdu literature…many novels have been adapted into plays on channels such as ARY and HUM, with a huge fan following, recent ones including meri zaat zarra e benishan, and currently parsa. the name of the novel and the author are promoted along with the drama itself.

    however, the problem is more lack of access. you cant find these books online easily, its a hassle getting to urdu bazaar, street vendors and thela walas have either gone out of existence, or they dont have the books you want. the prominent book stores such as liberty have a very limited range of urdu books…i havent even been able to find the complete version of the feroz ul lughat at liberty for crying out loud and its been a year me trying. what they do have are language tapes to teach urdu to those who are not familiar with the language. with this situation what do you expect?Recommend

  • Peter

    I am writing on behalf of Ben Wood.
    Ben has recently started his own fiction story site called Army of Puppets. Recommend