Modernism in Urdu Literature: A Talk

“Spoken words hold more significance than the written words,” said Prof. Khalid Jawed the renowned Urdu fiction writer, during a panel discussion held as a part of the two-day International Conference organized on 25-26th February, 2023, on “100 years of The Wasteland, Ulysses and Jacob’s Room by the Department of English, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. Though he was quoting Marques in the context of modernist writings, his words attest to the importance and relevance of holding such events also which provide an opportunity to the scholars and learners to pay more attention to the spoken words, listening to each other.

Prof. Jawed (Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi) has a number of awards to his name, including the prestigious JCB Prize which is considered ‘India’s most valuable literature prize,’ for his work Nematkhana in 2022 (translated into English by Baran Farooqi with the title Paradise of Food).

JCB Prize is awarded annually with a prize money of ₹2,500,000 (US$31,000) for the writer and ₹1,000,000 (US$12,000) for the translator if the winning work is a translation. Introducing the author, Prof. Mohammad Asim Siddiqui, the organizing secretary and chairperson, Department of English, as well as the moderator of the session, briefed that he is the first Urdu writer to bag this award. His works have increasingly found a way into the curriculum framework of various universities as well as have excited the research interest of scholars across universities. Another notable work by him ‘Maut ki Kitaab’ has also been awarded by Uttar Pradesh Urdu Academy.

Prof. Sami Rafiq presented a beautiful mug to the author as a souvenir of the conference, setting the event in motion. Prof. Rafiq is a translator, creative writer and a poet, and has recently published a book entitled Woman in the Trees which is a collection of her ‘poems on climate change and nature’ whereby she shares her encounters with the nature in a gripping style, drawing the attention of the readers to the interrelationship between nature and humans and the need to preserve the same. Prof. Jawed also received the copy of a dissertation from a postgraduate student, Bushra Zaman, of the Department of English, AMU, who has recently completed her MA dissertation on his popular work Nematkhana.

In the panel discussion focusing on the works of Prof. Jawed as well as Prof. Anisur Rahman, another author of repute both in English and Urdu from Jamia Millia Islamia, Prof. Siddiqui talked about the dark humour and black magic found in the works of Prof. Jawed and called him ‘the Anurag Kashyap of Urdu literature’ taking a dig at the filmmaker for projecting a dark world in his films. The comment was met with affirmation and a witty retort by the author who said that Anurag Kashyap could rather be called ‘the Khalid Jawed of Hindi films.’ He also compared his works with international naturalistic fiction.


Responding to the question asked by Prof. Siddiqui about the impact of European Modernism on Urdu fiction, Prof. Jawed commented that modernism has been a germination ground for almost all kinds of writings, discussing the modernist trends found in the writings of Qurratulain Hyder, Saadat Hasan Manto, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, etc. While discussing the influence of James Joyce and Gabriel Garcia Marquez upon his writings as well as the writings of other Urdu writers, he talked about magic realism and the element of ‘city,’ and said that it is inevitable to get influenced by the prominent literary currents of one’s time. Mentioning the influence of Virginia Wolf and T. S. Eliot on Qurratulain Hyder and N. M. Rashid, Prof. Jawed confirmed that writing long verses in Urdu became a trend only after Eliot and it was under his impact that N. M. Rashid deliberated on creating meaning in a meaningless world. While acknowledging the influence of Eliot on Urdu writers, he remarked that Kafka is even a greater influence and should be discussed as such.

Prof. Anisur Rahman’s recently published book “Hazaar Rang Shaairi,” a collection of Urdu poems (by more than 70 poets) from 16th century to the present, selected, edited and translated by him, was also discussed at length. Prof. Mohammad Asim Siddiqui called the book ‘the best reference book for Urdu poetry’ with a comprehensive picture of the history of Urdu Literature, and said that his translation captures the original rhythm of Urdu poetry. Discussing his book, Prof. Rahman talked about the balance between poetics and practice and said that the ideas should not only be theorized, but should be put to practice by writers. Commenting upon the structure of the book, he emphasized upon the ‘periodization’ which, according to him, is very important to understand the literary history and the literature itself. Special attention was placed on the last section of the book entitled ‘Womanistic Feministic Writers’ which includes works by women Urdu poets. He talked about the confessional nature of women poets, comparing Kishwar Naheed and Fahmida Riaz with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Prof. Mohammad Asim Siddiqui expressed his pleasure for including Zahida Zaidi (former professor, Department of English, AMU) and Sajida Zaidi (former professor, Department of Education, AMU), the only women writers from India, others being from Pakistan.

Qurratulain Hyder remained the dominant topic of the talk on women Urdu writers who was discussed in terms of the techniques employed by her in her fictional writings. In response to Prof. Siddiqui’s question whether her works could be said to have been characterized by the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, both the panelists unanimously negated the idea. Applauding her for her novel approach and presentation, panelists characterized her works rather by flashback technique, free association of thought and interior monologue. Employing an analogy (to explain the idea of ‘Stream of consciousness’) of a boat let loose on the waves without a rudder, completely on the mercy of winds, which drifts here and there without any sense of direction, Prof. Jawed said that her works do follow a definite direction, and hence cannot be categorized under the said technique – a hallmark of the seminal modernist writers like Joyce and Woolf.

Concluding the discussion, Prof. Khalid Jawed said that modernism is not something static, it is a continuous process. He maintained that modernism is a ‘consciousness’ which exists beyond the temporal, spatial and linguistic boundaries. Prof. Anisur Rahman, reiterating that today’s reader is an informed reader who is more inclined towards the comparative reading and so are the writers, said that in as diverse a country as India is – linguistically and culturally – with 24 official languages and thousands of dialects constituting a rich reservoir of literature, there is immense scope for the translation and comparative studies here. He also presented a copy of his book Hazaar Rang Shaairi to Dr. Zoya Zaidi, a poet who writes both in English and Urdu. Prof. Mohammad Asim Siddiqui ended the session by extending his gratitude to the panelists for the lively discussion on such a varied range of topics and writers.


  1. Hello Dr. Khatoon!
    I missed attending this panel discussion, but your report has given a very comprehensive idea of the event.
    Thank you for this lucid write up!


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