Underground library in Rajasthan has over 900,000 books with seating capacity of 4,000 people.

Understanding India’s Anthropology Through Their Literary Writers

Literature has always been the best insight into the human psyche while the author has been the silent observer. A good writer can make you feel pain, grief, love, happiness, lust, and greed; they can make you feel the truth of what they observe. One of the well known Indian writers, Salman Rushdie, once said, “literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart.”

India has been blessed with a vibrant culture and a very problematic history. There is an endless number of books that talk about the Gods, Maharajas, the British Raj, and of course the partition of India into Pakistan and India. Throughout this history, there have been only a few writers who focused more on the stories of people and society and brought to light the animalistic instinct within humans. Naturally, their words and their stories were not appreciated by many, but these Indian writers managed to form their own niche within Indian literature and are still appreciated for their talent.

Angarey – The Burning Embers in Indian Literature

Anthropology and literature
Image source: Amazon India

Four passionate Urdu writers who had obtained education at prestigious universities decided to combine their love for writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence, into one book. Angarey was a collection of nine short stories and a one-act play written by Sajjad Zahir, Rashid Jahan, Ahmed Ali, and Mahmuduzzafar. This book served as a turning point for Urdu and Indian literature as a whole and was the first step that led to the formation of the Progressive Indian Writers Association.

Angarey was an unexpected slap-in-the-face literary piece that took society by storm. It questioned social, political, and religious institutions to the extent of being banned, and all except for five copies of the book being burned to a crisp. The book was critical of religious practice within the Muslim community as well as the British rule in India.

Progressive Writers’ Movement

Clearly, neither the religious community nor the authorities were happy with this publication. After being published in December 1932, it took no time for newspapers and editorials to criticize the book and eventually for the book to be banned by the authorities. Mahmuduzzafar wrote an article in the Leader that led to the establishment of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. An excerpt from the article clearly denotes the writers’ frustration at the public outcry with Angarey and a call for writers with a progressive outlook-

“The authors of this book do not wish to make any apology for it. They leave it to float or sink of itself. They are not afraid of the consequences of having launched it. They only wish to defend ‘the right of launching it and all other vessels like it’ … they stand for the right of free criticism and free expression in all matters of the highest importance to the human race in general and the Indian people in particular… Whatever happens to the book or to the authors, we hope that others will not be discouraged. Our practical proposal is the formation immediately of a League of Progressive Authors, which should bring forth similar collections from time to time both in English and the various vernaculars of our country. We appeal to all those who are interested in this idea to get in touch with us.”

Author Sajjad Zaheer focused most of his stories on unfair religious practice, sexual desire, and repression, and highlighted the damaging effects of religious restrictions in society. Rashid Jahan and Ahmed Ali were mostly focused on women’s issues. However, a Muslim woman writing about the unfair practices of the Muslim religion and the treatment of women within society was even more criticized.

Rashid Jahan

Photo of Rashid Jahan
Image source: Caravan Magazine

Named one of the pioneers and a rebel in Urdu literature, Rashid Jahan’s writing portrayed her frustration with a society that treated women like they were an object to be admired. She has been called Urdu literature’s “first angry young woman.” Her commentary on the unfair treatment of women especially in the Muslim religion led to a lot of outrage specifically against her.

Jahan raised questions against the practice of multiple marriages within Muslim communities, the role of a wife in marriage, and society’s constant desire for a male child. A writer, doctor, and founding member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Rashid Jahan was seen as a free woman by some and everything a woman should not be by others.

Her work was not just limited to the pages of a book but her plays such as “Pardeh Ke Peeche” and “Aurat” were performed in public. The sheer confidence she displayed was something that Indian society was not ready for. Jahan took real-life incidents and observations and converted them into social commentary. One of Jahan’s most well-known followers also came to be known as a popular figure in Indian literature, Ismat Chughtai.

Ismat Chughtai

Ismat Chughtai
Image source: Outlook India

One of the biggest names in Urdu literature in her time, Ismat Chughtai made her own place amongst a pool of male Indian writers. She came from a fairly liberal household and was the youngest of ten children. Her older brother Azim Beg Chughtai was an established fictional writer who wrote romantic stories, something Ismat grew to dislike as she learned more about writing. Her inspiration and role model was one of the founding members of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Rashid Jahan.

Chughtai had the pleasure of meeting Jahan when she began associating with the Progressive Writers’ Association in 1936. She was completing her degree in Education at Aligarh Muslin University and during this time came across Jahan. Jahan’s writing and perspective of society, religion, and the confidence with which she spoke about the unjust treatment of women, inspired Chughtai to look beyond the façade of Indian society.

Her writing gives you an insight into the nitty-gritty details that you may not think are worth observing or writing about. However, through such stories, Chughtai was preaching to a society that was not prepared to listen. Chughtai’s stories were deemed blasphemous and an insult to the Quran.

Over the years, Chughtai’s writing flowered and along with that, the problems grew too. A short story released about a Begum she met in Aligarh, led to a huge controversy a trial for Chughtai. Lihaaf, the story of a woman who is stuck in an unhappy marriage and finds sexual solace with her female help. The story was published in a literary journal based in Lahore which then was part of India. The story was about the sexual awakening of Begum Jan and is told through the eyes of a little girl.

Female sexuality is taboo in Indian literature. However, writings about female sexuality never led to court trials because they were not written by women. Chughtai was condemned for the story and even summoned to Lahore High Court on charges of “obscenity”. Indian society was not ready for talks of lesbianism but writers such as Chughtai were not going to back down.

Despite being a controversial story, Lihaaf, changed how people saw female Indian writers. Chughtai was unafraid and confident in herself. Her stories told the truth about society and more importantly about people. Human desire, grief, servitude, childhood, and the suffering of women were depicted in simple words, in a language that anybody could understand; Ismat Chughtai was a pioneer of literary realism and humanism.

Saadat Hasan Manto

Anthropology and literature: Photo of Saadat Hasan Manto
Image source: Wikipedia

One of the strongest voices against the partition of India, Saadat Hasan Manto is known for stories that are honest and brutal. Born on 11 May 1912, Manto lived in Ludhiana, Punjab, and was always very proud of his roots. By the age of 21, he was producing Urdu translation of French plays and became a part of a local newspaper.

His passion for writing led him to become a part of the Progressive Writers’ Association where he met a talented group of friends, namely, Noor Jahan, Naushad, Ismat Chughtai, Shyam, and Ashok Kumar. Later, this group went on to become big names in Indian literature and the Indian Film Industry.

Manto was known to be a writer who would simply write what he saw. Some of his earlier works such as Kaali Shalwar, Dhuan, and Bu, take a closer look at the human psyche and highlighted the horrifying circumstances people were dealing with. Manto had already been tried on charges of obscenity for these stories in India but was exonerated.

The partition of India tore apart Manto as he had to be pulled away from his roots, his lifestyle, his friends, just because he was a Muslim and was now forced to live in a different country. Grief and pain began to define Manto’s stories as well, and the truth became even more gruesome. He had to go through trial on charges of obscenity again in Pakistan for his stories Khol Do, Upar Neeche Darmiyaan, and Thanda Gosht.

Khol Do was Manto’s take on the violence that took over when the partition of India was announced. He alludes to the violence, not between two religious communities but the animalistic nature of humans. Revolving around a young girl named Sakina and her father who get separated during partition. The appalling end to the story was deemed unacceptable.

Thanda Gosht made things much worse. A story revolving around the communal violence in 1947 India. Themes of jealousy, violence, and rape, make up the story. The chilling storytelling and hints of necrophilia were condemned by the people and the authorities in Pakistan. Manto became an outcast in his society and his longing for an undivided India led to an array of problems.

Anthropology and literature: Book cover for Toba Tek Singh by Saadat Hasan Manto
Image source: Penguin India

One of his finest works is still considered some of the finest literature and is still a part of the course for literature students in India. Toba Tek Singh, the story of mentally ill inmates at an asylum in Pakistan who are to be transferred to India after the partition. The satirical story brings forth the problematic relationship between India and Pakistan through the tragic story of an inmate called Toba Tek Singh.

While Manto was always ridiculed by the right-wing part of the society, he was always celebrated by the left-wing Marxists. However, Manto was never interested in dirty politics. His desire was to go back to where his life was, where he felt complete.

Amrita Pritam

Anthropology and literature: Amrita Pritam
Image source: The Seer

It will be a crime if I don’t mention Amrita Pritam when talking literary humanism. One of the most celebrated Indian writers, Amrita Pritam is a popular name in Punjabi literature and has won some of the most prestigious awards in the country for her work in Punjabi literature.

Being a renowned author, poet, and essayist in 20th Century India, Amrita Pritam is always remembered by her two most heart-wrenching pieces, Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu, an Ode to the Punjabi Poet Waris Shah, and Pinjar, a novel.

Considered one of the most remarkable works of Indian literature, Pinjar was a novel released in 1950 that revolves around the story of a Hindu girl named Puro during the partition of 1947. During the partition, the girl is abducted by a Muslim man and is subject to a life she didn’t ask for. Religious violence and the inner turmoil of the girl’s character are what make this story stand out.

Vijay Tendulkar

Anthropology and literature: Vijay Tendulkar
Image source: Goodreads

Outside of the Indian Independence movement and Partition, a stalwart of Indian literature, Vijay Tendulkar was known for his representation of society through unique human subjects. A playwright, screenplay writer, and political journalist, Tendulkar was an award-winning writer known for his social commentary.

He has been awarded as well as ridiculed for his writings. He wrote on subjects such as domestic, sexual, and communal violence. His plays have been some of the most popular in Marathi theatre and have garnered a lot of criticism over the years. However, literature and theatre enthusiasts from all over have marveled at the intricate and innovative ways Tendulkar presented such gruesome topics.

Sakharam Binder, one of Tendulkar’s most famous works was banned in India. The story presents the character of Sakharam who does not abide by societal rules and thinks of himself as an honest man. The play has an uncomfortable storyline that brings to light the issue of enslavement of women in post-colonial India due to societal norms. Sakharam’s character gives shelter to women who have been discarded by their husbands and keeps them as domestic servants and sex slaves. However, these women are free to leave but with nowhere to go they are stuck and helpless in this violent situation. The repercussions of such an arrangement eventually lead to Sakharam’s doom.

Tendulkar’s portrayal of social issues led him to become one of the most sorts after names in Indian theatre and literature.

Indian writers that changed our perspectives

India is a culturally rich country that is filled to the brim with talent. There are several Indian writers who still try to make a difference through their stories. Whether it is openly talking about social issues or highlighting those issues that never see the light of day. Famous authors such as Arvind Adiga, Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin, Arundhati Roy, Khushwant Singh, have mastered the art of storytelling.

Looking at a country through the eyes of writers like the ones mentioned in this article gives you a complete picture of what the country used to be and what it is now; it shows the changes that have taken place over the years and the countless changes that have not happened over the years. Whether it is history, politics, violence, religion, or social issues, a country’s writers always have a lot to say.

Leave a Reply