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Does literature emanates from culture?

M Omar Iftikhar

WHILE culture is the highest form of social consciousness adopted and followed by society, literature – on the other hand – originates out of culture representing the society’s ideas, principles, views and expectations. Culture is also the customary belief and social norm as depicted and followed by various groups of the society, regions or parts of the world. Literature, therefore, is a part of a culture that authors’ innate observations of life idealize, manifest and promote. Culture is perhaps born when individuals in society display a collective consciousness towards a certain thought. This collective consciousness inadvertently adapts to or negates an idea. For instance, Saadat Hassan Manto discussed in his stories the limitations women faced in the Indian subcontinent and later in Pakistan.
The culture dominance during Manto’s era was for women to be confined to their homes and not to indulge in any manual or practical work outside their homes. He used this cultural aspect – considered a taboo at that time – to pen stories narrating women’s struggle against the system linked to the culture. On the other hand, Asrar Ahmad also called Ibn-e-Safi, showed through his writings a culture never existent in the first place. Known for his detective stories based on science fiction, Ibn-e-Safi used mystery and adventure as his forte. The Pakistani culture was not exposed to this genre but Ibn-e-Safi’s realistic appeal made readers become acquainted with it. Therefore, Ibn-e-Safi created a sub-culture based on fantasy, futurism, and adventure. Manto and Ibn-e-Safi show that while literature comes out of the prevailing culture (as in the case of Manto), at times culture manifests through literature that is appealing and compelling to read (as in the case of Ibn-e-Safi).
Literature is also the process of communicating a society’s ideas and ideologies with the world. Ibn-e-Insha, Patras Bukhari, Bano Qudsia and Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi are the case in point. Where Ibn-e-Insha and Patras Bukhari used satire and humour to reveal the subtleties of the Pakistani society, Bano Qudsia and Ashfaq Ahmed resorted to using society’s innate thoughts in their writings. Raja Gidh by Bano Qudsia is an Urdu classic revealing how class differences prevent a man from marrying a woman as the man’s family values refrain him from marrying someone outside of his caste system. Ashfaq Ahmed, on the other hand, used his writings to induce moral values especially through his publication, Zavia. He explained the very basic of life’s values with profound dedication. Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi was a league of his own who mastered the art of humor and satire to entertain the readers while positively provoking their thoughts. The above-mentioned authors possessed an instinctive and a flawless ability to use humour, satire or a mix of both in their writings.
While Pakistani literature is broad in terms of narration and appeal, the majority of the elements constituting our literature emerge from the society itself. Ibn-e-Insha and Patras Bukhari used satire and humour to portray the facets of our society’s individualistic and collective chronicles. Similarly, Bano Qudsia, Ashfaq Ahmed and Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi also showed the lighter and at times a serious side of life. Closer to reality and true in essence, their stories aptly reflect the society and the citizen’s views on life explained with a combination of maturity, logic, wit, and hilarity. Again, their literary thoughts were derived from cultural norms and values. Patras Bukhari’s celebrated story Kuttay takes note of how stray dogs behave which is explained with an apt description of their conduct on the streets. No writer before Patras illustrated the behaviour of these four-legged animals with such jocularity. Patras, in his story, Marhoomki Yaad Main, explains with absolute merriment the efforts the protagonist (himself) faces when riding an old, beaten up bicycle that brings him much public embarrassment. This story again depicts the depth to which Patras Bukhari observed his society and culture and penned a realistic and humorous account. Ibn-e-Insha in Urdu Ki Aakhri Kitaab presents a collection of essays and stories emerging from and illustrating the culture and social norms of that time. Interestingly, the ideas and emotions presented by these writers were not only true during the time when they were penned but hold their ground even today.
— The writer is a freelance columnist based in Karachi.