Urdu writers have had their share of sadness. A language born with an empire’s decline, refined in cultural centers which were soon destroyed by colonization, remaining in the shadows even after independence and finally engulfed by West’s cultural invasion and globalization. From heart piercing sadness of Mir’s poetry to Ghalib’s exquisite and tragic expression of life and from discernible decadence in Mirza Ruswa’s Umrao Jan to Abdullah Hussain’s social realism, Urdu literature retained its melancholy through ages. In this context, lives of a few legends of Urdu are discussed in the following.

The queen of Urdu romanticism, Hijab Imtiaz Ali was used to fine things in life. Ugliness or darker side of life never made it to her stories. Her world and her stories were full of nature’s beauty and fine, artistic lifestyle. She was a romantic through and through and could not see the beauty of life scattering away. She was so perturbed with the atomic age that it made her write an award winning novel Paagal Khana (Mad House). In her later years, when her health was deteriorated, she went into deep frustration and could not accept the painful changes in her life.

Kishwar Naheed

Kishwar Naheed, a renowned feminist poetess dedicated all her life working against patriarchy. From her career as a government servant to her poetry and from way of living to philosophy of life she is a modernist, a rebel and a feminist. She is involved in social work since 1960. Kishwar has also participated in many political and social movements and struggles in the last half century. After retirement from lifelong government service, she used her provident fund and savings to start an NGO, providing livelihood to hundreds of underprivileged women by selling their exquisite handicrafts at good prices. When asked about her feelings for her great achievements and whether she is satisfied with the state of things, she said:

'It was a taboo to send girls to school for formal education fifty years ago, today they are engineers and pilots and serving in armed forces.'

However it deeply saddens me that even today, girls are beaten for desiring an education and their schools are burnt down by extremists.

Qurat ul Ain Haider

Urdu’s greatest novelist Qurat ul Ain Haider’s major area of focus remained conflict ridden Indian Subcontinent. All her life she emphasized cultural pluralism, religious tolerance and human values through her highly acclaimed novels and stories. Her works present tragic images of the ravages of political intrigue and its terrible consequences for the common man. However, state of things became more and more undesirable with every passing decade. In a short film made on her life by Sahitya Academy in her twilight years, she says with a great sadness in her voice:

'We are just like pawns in the hands of world politicians and we are helpless about it. Literature has no role in today’s world. A single bomb can destroy great libraries and art galleries. The philosophy in that art cannot save it. It is a great tragedy that power has remained in the hands of non intellectual people.'

In other words, the great writer was meaning to say that her life’s work didn’t have any significance in today’s world.

Saadat Hassan Manto

Faiz Ahmad Faiz

One of the greatest Urdu short story writers, Saadat Hassan Manto kept exposing hypocrisy, tyranny, bigotry, cruelty and false nature of the society with his masterpiece short stories. He explored the dark side of human psyche. Manto also did masterful political commentary. In his quest for truth and breaking false taboos, he earned a lot of criticism and hatred from people against his view of life. There was endless character assassination. He was also charged for writing obscene stories four times in British Indian and Pakistani courts. Life, which already wasn’t treating him well, was made a living hell for him. In extreme frustration, he started drinking heavily and succumbed to his own sorrows at the age of forty-three. Manto‘s non-conformist philosophy and untimely death immortalized him. He emerged as a legendary symbol of social resistance.

Faiz Ahmad Faiz was one the greatest Urdu poets of the twentieth century. Due to his leftist leanings and direct affiliation with Marxism in Pakistan, he had to endure long imprisonment and later self exile at the hands of successive dictatorial regimes. However, Faiz’s ability to see beyond the tragedy and his optimism knew no bounds. He wrote poems of hopes and dreams of a better future. Whenever he wrote about something tragic or tyrannical, there was a sharp streak of positivity and brighter side of things in it


Jaun Alia

Legendary poet Jaun Alia had always been a troubled soul. Besides being a famous poet, he was also a highly distinguished scholar. As life progressed he explored such depths of human condition and realities of life that it left him extremely bitter and disappointed. He became a critic of God, himself and everything between earth and heavens.

Gifted story writer, Ashfaq Ahmed made his mark in Urdu literature with his delightful stories at a very early age. Later in life, he was inclined towards mysticism which became his identity. He spread his views through television plays, stories and lectures and earned much fame and public following. His philosophy had a considerable impact on his audiences which made him a saint after his death. Today, Ashfaq Ahmed is heavily criticized for undoing Iqbal’s work and taking a common Pakistani back to the age of impracticality and superstition. Who knows what sadness or disappointment in life made him cross over to the realm of mysticism?

Great novelist Abdullah Hussain once said about his classic novel Udaas Naslein (Weary Generations) that:

'since its publication, to the book’s fortune and our misfortune every coming generation is getting wearier.'

Abdullah Hussain’s fiction is all about life being unfair. Major theme of all his stories is injustice in the society. Needless to say, with his sensitivity towards tyranny and atrocity, he was certainly disappointed with the state of things in his final years.

Kaifi Azmi with daughter Shabana

A number of progressive Urdu writers have had Marxist leanings. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sajjad Zaheer, Kaifi Azmi and Shaukat Siddiqi are a few big names. They also became active members of Marxist organizations. Apart from majority of Marxist writers who came from underprivileged backgrounds, there were a few who belonged to wealthy families. Great poet Kaifi Azmi was from an aristocratic family of northern India. He gave up his wealth and feudal position for the cause and lived a very simple life. These intellectuals dedicated their entire lives to the cause in hope of a red revolution. They suffered prosecution at the hands of British colonial masters. The great dream remained unfulfilled even after independence. With the end of Cold War and dismemberment of Soviet Union, communism became a lost dream in the pages of history. With a single political upheaval, work of their lives became meaningless.

In an interview given to BBC in 1970, legendry Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi claimed in his characteristic innocence and soft spoken tone, that there is no heartbreak or sorrow in his life. He’s the most loved poet of Punjab. A few minutes later, in response to another question he said:

'thinkers are cursed. It’s the tragedy of intellectuals that they die every day. They are committing a slow suicide…'