Mohammad Khalid Akhtar's '2011': Satire for Old Pakistan, a Prophecy for Naya Pakistan

Akhtar's dystopian satire has a power, prescience and timeliness which George Orwell's classic '1984' could not have.

When famed Pakistani writer Mohammad Khalid Akhtar (whose birth centenary is being celebrated in 2020) wrote his much-neglected novel Bees Sau Gayara (2011), regarded as Urdu’s first social and political satire back in 1950, 70 years ago this month, the model of George Orwell’s Airstrip One in his famous novel Nineteen Eighty Four was before him in newly established Pakistan. Yet 70 years on, it is the risk of government overreach, creeping totalitarianism, the policies of newspapers, the system of educational textbooks, the tactics and wilfulness of ministers and repressive regimentation of persons and sexual behaviours in Naya Pakistani society which has now given Akhtar’s dystopian satire a power, prescience and timeliness which Orwell’s classic probably could not have.

It has had a largely neglected and marginalised run as a work of political prophecy, unlike its British counterpart, even in its author’s birth centenary year. This, despite the fact that there are no other contenders in public awareness from its era, at least in South Asia. 2011 is obviously a Cold War book, but the Cold War ended 30 years ago. What accounts for its astonishing neglect and staying power simultaneously, 70 years on?

Akhtar went against the grain in conceiving of Pakistan as a totalitarian state 70 years ago, in the same manner and at the same time his contemporary Orwell envisaged the shape Britain could take in the future.  Yet 2011 is obviously a fantasy. A fantasy meaning writing in which the writer, by the force of his observation and the high flight of imagination, sometimes pulls the future into the present and presents circumstances and events in the manner of prediction before us.

In Urdu literature, one does not find any systematic writing of this nature before 2011, although we do see this type of style in the writings of a few writers. First of all, we find samples of this with Muhammad Husain Azad, especially his essay Shohrat-e-Aam Au Baqaa-e-Davaam Ka Darbar (The Court of Popularity and Immortality), which is a beautiful example in this connection. Then one also finds an excellent use of this very imaginative style in Mirza Farhatullah Beg’s Dilli Ka Aik Yadgaar Mushaira (A Memorable Mushaira of Delhi).

After Akhtar’s book, one also finds a bit of a cautious tradition in the making in this regard. For example, Rafiq Hussain’s short story Aaina-e-Hairat (The Mirror of Wonder) is an interesting work in this connection. A column of Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi Aah Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi (Alas Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi) is also a link in this series and then with Mohammad Khalid Akhtar; his published essay in the journal Funoon titled Tazkira-e-Ahl-e-Lahore (Memory of the People of Lahore) consisting of two parts also assumes the colour and form of fantasy, in which along with talking about the art and personality of a few famous writers and poets living in Lahore, the death of a few of them has also been predicted. In addition, one finds in various short-stories, dramas and films something of a colour of fantasy. Though in this genre, after 2011, there is no systematic publication apart from Naseem Hijazi’s Sau Saal Baad (After A Hundred Years) and Sufaid Jazeera (The White Island).

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2011 is something very near a novel due to its structure, arrangement of events, plot, dialogic style, suspense and illustration of social problems. Mohammad Kazim has indeed deemed it a systematic novel, which has been given the form of a fantasy in a metaphorical manner. Mohammad Khalid Akhtar himself too has referred to it as a novel at many places. For this reason, we will discuss and analyse this work in the genre of the novel.

This fantasy of Mohammad Khalid Akhtar has been written in imitation of Western writer George Orwell’s 1984. This is a result of the writer’s innovative disposition and singular imagination that till now it is a unique and unparalleled creation of its type in Urdu literature. Kanhaiya Lal Kapoor, the eminent Urdu satirist loved this style so much that he wrote expressing his wish to be the writer of this novel. Ibne Insha deemed it as ‘delightful satire’.

On the other hand, Akhtar’s contemporary Mohammad Kazim, collectively analysing Akhtar’s art said so about this fantasy:

‘In our new country, the brand new democratic rule was going through stages of experimentation. The free and careless atmosphere of democracy had given birth to an agreeable attitude towards government and politics, with which sensitive temperaments could no but be influenced. An atmosphere of every sort of freedom and waywardness carries the same sort of impression for a satirist, which the morning breeze has for the flowers of the garden. He finds the instigation for his critical beauty therein and his art continues to find new forms of expression. These were the conditions in which Mohammad Khalid Akhtar wrote his novel ‘Bees Sau Gayara’, which was ostensibly a fantasy but actually a good-natured but strong satire in metaphorical style and on this basis, a totally novel thing in Urdu literature.  

The formalities, display and traditions in the protocol of governments which have continued since time immemorial; and the styles of ministers and the manners of thinking and working of new democratic governments, which can be seen even today everywhere; all of them are the subject of ‘Bees Sau Gayara’. In addition, a special religious mentality, the uncompromising image of the woman and purdah among the people, the style of working of the political parties, especially the Communists, and the groupings of writers and their mutual disputes, all of these aspects of life at the time come under the target of the act of sarcasm and satire.’ 

In this fantasy, Akhtar while narrating the tale of the tour of the president of an imaginary 21st-century state ‘Yoknapatawha’ (clearly inspired from William Faulkner’s fictional Mississippi county) to another state ‘Maznine’ as told by himself, has beautifully unveiled the paucities and perversities of society. One also finds an attack on some Eastern manners and a deep satire too on the Western mode of life; the blind race of materialism in which humanity and sincerity began to depart and which made human life to be all but a machine, crushed human feelings and emotions and struck a huge blow upon social, moral and cultural values.

All this was definitely very painful for a sensitive man. Before this, Allama Iqbal’s poetry too expresses this tragedy with great intensity. In this work, one finds the struggle of great powers, the exploitation of smaller nations, female emancipation, rebellion against religion, so-called pir-worship, Western democracy, socialism and imperialism, conflict on the basis of colour and race, the Westernisation of Muslims, the prejudiced manner of India, the efficiencies of assertive leaders and the arms race between various great powers which, by spending millions billions on it is bringing human life closest to death.

In short that the topics which the Allama (Iqbal) had made the target of satire in his poetry, are seen to be discussed in a slightly different and delightful manner by Akhtar. Allama Iqbal had been educated in Western institutions; he had observed its subsistence very closely, therefore he had given us news in his poetry about the Western civilisation committing suicide with its own dagger. Over there Akhtar too had closely studied their culture and society through Western literature. He also had the chance to visit Europe, therefore he adopted the style of fantasy to narrate his point of view about Western society. His skill lies in the fact that the metaphorical style which he adopted at the beginning of the book, he maintained with great success till the end.

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According to Akhtar’s own point of view regarding literature, he seems to be convinced of literature for life at all times and he is of the opinion that what use is that literature which does not possess the razzle-dazzle of life.  Then this is also a reality that despite all his purposiveness in literature, Akhtar is romantic by disposition; and this romanticism is reflected in nearly all his writings. In this book too, his romantic style can be clearly felt in that when the world is destroyed on a large scale in the struggle for firearms, he feels the greatest regret for the destruction of France, because France is famous throughout the world for culture, civilisation and art. Vide an extract:

‘The destruction of France was truly the biggest tragedy, the culture and morals of the French, their literature and art were unique in the world. They had made the worship of beauty and woman a ‘cult’ and in my opinion it was the sole one nation which knew how to love women.’

He praises the Africans in that they know how to preserve their literature, music and culture. In addition to 2011, Mohammad Khalid Akhtar also attempted to write pure romantic novels because on the last page of 2011 there is an advertisement for a novel named Shahanshah Ka Ghulam (The Emperor’s Slave), about which it can be opined that this novel will be helpful in removing literary suffocation and darkness to a great extent. Akhtar is convinced of bringing back the romantic period in Urdu literature.

But with the passage of time, his idea and ideologies changed, so he destroyed the manuscript of this novel even before publishing it. When Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi dedicated his maiden short-story collection Chaupal to Akhtar, he also included a few extracts of his letters along with it, which too indicate Akhtar’s ideology of writing. One of these extracts goes such:

‘Literature should be a mirror of life but life is bitter and some colour in it is needed. If sugar is coated over a quinine tablet, even children swallow it.’

In this book, the writer has also made the struggle between the blacks and the whites a topic of discussion. Since the beginning, the whites have had a prejudiced attitude about the blacks and especially in South Africa, when the blacks were deprived of all human rights, Akhtar developed a vengeful manner against this prejudiced attitude. This is the reason that in this book, the writer has shown the blacks ruling over the whites in an imaginative manner; and who have made a law in their land that when a white man sees a black man coming before him, the former should immediately ‘take the oath of allegiance’ by kneeling on the ground.

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One also finds Akhtar’s progressive tendencies in this work, as well as a romantic point of view, but within both these points of view, his manner is greatly balanced. In this novel, he has made the poets and writers who display extremism in the two aforementioned tendencies a target of satire. For example here are his view on the romantic movement:

‘The advent of the existing literature happened because there were women in Maznine. A few women, whose glimpse they could sometimes see in their quarter would make them crazy and captivated, and they would think many a night the things they would do with them should they obtain them. Therefore they started writing short-stories. In these stories, they fearlessly began to write all those things which to practically perform they neither had opportunities nor ability.’

At some places, his manner has become quite harsh due to the negative effects of this movement; and a manner of rage and hatred has emerged in his satire.

‘A few short-stories of that period like ‘Behind the Brassiere’, etc created an excitement among young Mazninians and many writers became famous like renowned prostitutes.’

Though Khalid Akhtar seems closer to the progressives than romanticism, but here too he does not tolerate extremism, because of which literature becomes all but mere propaganda. He writes about such people, ‘Many writers of this school are truly sincere, but most of them are those who wish to be accepted. These last in my opinion are some third-class drummers.’

In this book, we also find a direct reference to some eminent progressive poets; the parodies of Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Noon Meem Rashid are there without mentioning their names, wherein there is just a harmless parody of Faiz’s poem; while there is a light suspicion of satire in the parody of Rashid. For example, Faiz’s poem:

‘Muj se pehli si mohabbat meri Mehboob na maang
Main ne samjha tha ke tu hai to darakhshaan hai hayaat’

(My love, do not ask me for that old love again
I had felt that with you around, the world would be luminous)

Mohammad Khalid Akhtar wrote:

‘Mujh se pehli si aqeedat mere Manato na maang
Main ne samjha tha ke tujh main himmat hogi
Magar yeh mera khayal ghalat tha’  

(My love, do not ask me for that old affection again
I had felt that you will possess courage
But I was wrong in my imagination)

Then a piece from Noon Meem Rashid’s famous poem Intiqaam (Revenge):

‘Ik barahna jism ab tak yaad hai
Ajnabi aurat ka jism
Mere honton ne lia tha raat bhar
Jis se arbaab-e-vatan ki bebasi ka intiqaam
Voh barahna jism ab tak yaad hai’

(I still remember a naked body
The body of an unknown woman
All night my lips
Took revenge for the helplessness of my countrymen
I still remember that naked body)

Now see what Akhtar does:

‘Aaj main le kar rahoonga intiqaam
Kiyaask main rehne vaaliyon kin aa-rasai ka
In sab rangeen honton vaaliyon se
Le kar rahoonga intiqaam’

(Today I will definitely take revenge
From these kiosk-inhabiting women for their failure
From all these with coloured lips
Will definitely take revenge)

This is a complete satirical work, in which one finds very lively and grand satire on various aspects of life. The Westernisation of the Arabs, the wilfulness of the rulers of great countries, the Marxist system, newspaper policies, the educational curriculum, philosophy, historians, police, the strategies and stupidities of ministers; all of these have come under the range of his scalpel-pen. He has also mentioned sex but his manner related to sex feels tired.

Then one also finds in the same novel a very beautiful portrait of human psychology; he has shone a light upon various psychological aspects of Man. A person Mogilevich who destroys the whole world due to selfishness is mentioned in the following words: ‘Our most powerful feeling even more powerful than sexual desire, is the desire for power and fame; to rule over other humans and to order them here and there.’

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At another place he writes: ‘Every single person is selfish and every single person is a sadist; everyone of us too has a Mogilevich present within us.’

At one place, while describing women, he writes:

‘Women are so empty-minded and silly that to win them, high philosophy, literary taste or grand conversation and Josephic features do not work. Their preferring a male is dependent generally upon that man patting the mustaches or some similar absurd habit.’

Akhtar has maintained an air of suspense in this novel from start to finish, though to explain the situation of the world 60 years ago on the strength of imagination is itself an astonishing thing. The language of this novel is of general conversation, in which there is a very fearless use of English words as well. Some sentences indeed feel wholly like a literal translation. This is the reason Muhammad Kazim thinks that to translate Mohammad Khalid Akhtar’s works into English is perhaps the easiest task in the world.

Englishness pervades every vein of this work. Perhaps this is because he thinks in English and writes in Urdu. There is a rebellion-like manner in the matter of the structure of his sentences and his language and description. He has done all of this intentionally, because according to him, to acquit an obligation with the ‘strange atmosphere’ of his world needed an erroneous and astonishing language. He writes: ‘Urdu has for too long been treated as a pure virgin. I do not regard Urdu a so sensitive as to be unable to bear a bit of informality and ill-manneredness.’

So as justification for using such type of language, he gives examples of Quratulain Hyder, Sir Syed and Shibli Nomani, etc. who present these things for the expansion and evolution of the Urdu language. In my opinion, any language accepts only those rules of expansion and evolution which are natural, otherwise words used in the taste for fashion or innovation become a cause of strangeness and alienation for any writing. Had Mohammad Khalid Akhtar too kept the natural demands of language in mind rather than following a few exceptional examples, this first-ever fantasy in Urdu literature would have been a masterpiece in every way.

And as far as the question of its ‘strange atmosphere’ and astonishing readers is concerned, so these qualities should be there in the plot, events, characters and milieu of any work, not in the language.

This is a novel of fast tempo and consistent plot, in which events move forward with great speed. In it, all the force has been spent on the actions and pauses of the characters. In most of Akhtar’s works, the whole story generally revolves around characters. Eminent humourist Ibne Insha had written on the flap of Akhtar’s novel Chakiwara Main Visaal (Love in Chakiwara) that the renowned characters of Akhtar Chacha Abdul Baqi and nephew Bakhtiar Khilji prior to this, meaning in Chakiwara Main Visal, are seen in the form of Qurban Ali Kattar and Mr Changezi. But in my opinion, both these characters even before that appear in Akhtar’s fantasy 2011 as Mr Popo and Sgt. Buzzfir. The same simple-naturedness, the same naivete, the same idiotic actions; their new projects and schemes and failures. In addition to these two main characters, the characters of F.L. Patakha, Hoot, Chhota Kabo, Bada Kabo, Vazir-e-Jhoot (Minister of Lies) and Vazir-e-Jahalat (Minister of Ignorance) are important.

Khalid Akhtar never lets purposiveness in his writings disappear from sight. Perhaps the reason for this is his guru Robert Louis Stevenson’s quote that: ‘And a well-written novel calls out and repeats its purpose and responsibility from every chapter, every page and sentence.’

Akhtar’s ideas about the Muslim nation in this novel are very enlightened and he is very optimistic about international Muslim unity. He has named the Muslim world as ‘Islamistan’. In short, 2011 for all its wonders and defects and strangeness of language is a singular and unique work of Urdu literature, which Akhtar too was very fond of. He writes at a place, ‘’2011’ which I wrote in a narrow and dark flat of Karachi, is the most prized of my books.’

Then in one of his essays, while discussing this fantasy in detail, he writes:

‘In 1950, I wrote a fantasy ‘2011’, influences by Orwell’s ‘1984’. I wrote ‘2011’ with a poison-dipped pen in rage. It is said to be a fantasy but actually a satire on the national circumstances, political scene and society of that time. Despite the defects of language and narrative, I had this kind of feeling that my book is good. Upon my prompting, the publisher sent a copy to Kanhaiya Lal Kapoor in Jalandhar. Kapoor realized what I had written under the cover of fantasy. He wrote to my publisher in a letter that ‘2011’ is the first political and social satire in the Urdu language and would that he be its author. That is, I got a reward for my labour. I no longer felt bad that most of the readers do not get what I want to say.’

That’s Akhtarian. And it’s no longer a prophecy. And 70 years later in Naya Pakistan, that no longer feels like a very large if.

Note: All translations from the Urdu are by the writer.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, activist, book critic, and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is the President of the Progressive Writers Association (Anjuman Taraqqi Pasand Musannifeen). He is currently translating Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s ‘Bees Sau Gayara’ into English and can be reached at [email protected].