Pakistan and Sri Lanka

Since 1947—8, Pakistani—English poetry and Sri Lankan—English poetry have diverged from Indian—English poetry and each other in their aesthetic and critical functions chiefly because of their specific national situations. When Pakistan was created in 1947 it was defined as an aggregate of two regions — West Pakistan and East Pakistan — separated by nearly one thousand miles; in 1971, helped by India's military intervention, East Pakistan broke away to form the independent nation of Bangladesh. Pakistan was originally conceived of as an autonomous homeland for the subcontinent's Muslim population, consisting of the descendants of immigrants from West and Central Asia and of Indian converts to Islam since the eighth century. It was launched as a constitutional parliamentary democracy, but its new constitution in 1956 characterized it as an Islamic republic. Before, as well as after, 1971, Pakistan's population has been almost entirely Muslim, but beneath this religious unity it is irrevocably multilingual and multi-ethnic. The most widespread mediums of communication are Urdu (the republic's official language) and Punjabi, while Sindhi, Pashto, Baluchi and Brahui serve as mother-tongues for regionalized ethnic minorities. In this mix, English is the preferred language of Westernized professionals, businessmen, educators, artists, journalists and bureaucrats, who make up a postcolonial elite that is far more cohesive and exclusive than its counterparts in India and Sri Lanka. Given this background, the contemporary Pakistani writer tends to be a bilingual Muslim: as Alamgir Hashmi has noted, his identity is now equally entangled in English and an indigenous language.

For many poets in English, the search for a distinctive national identity in the past fifty years has led to a new literary archeology. Daud Kamal and Taufiq Rafat in particular, and Zulfikar Ghose, Hashmi and Adrian Hussain more broadly, have directed their verbal excavations at Pakistan's rugged landscape, which changes rapidly from icy mountain and fertile river-valley to desert and seashore; and at its extraordinary pre-colonial history, from the first Indus civilization to Alexander's march, Greek colonization, classical Buddhist art, and multiple Muslim conquests. In unearthing a buried land as well as buried past, Kamal confronts the ruins of Mohenjo-daro; Ghose celebrates the cultural diversity of the ancient period, suppressed in the present; Rafat and Hussain build symbolic spaces filled with animals and animal violence; and Hashmi dramatizes epic journeys and migrations from the Caucasus, Anatolia and the Trans-Oxus region.

At the same time, some Pakistani—English poets have pushed this national landscape into a more cosmopolitan frame. Among the cosmopolitans are Hashmi, who travels frequently to the West; Hussain, who was born in India, was educated in Europe, and is a muhajir or immigrant in Pakistan; Salman Tarik Kureshi, whose father is a Pakistani Muslim, but whose mother is an Australian of mixed Kashmiri and German descent; and Shuja Nawaz who, like Ghose, is a diasporic writer living in the United States but also, unlike him, is an enthusiastic 'born-again expat[riate] Pakistani' (Coppola, 1998, p. 217). In his Landscapes of the Mind (1997), for instance, Kureshi re-examines the legacies of British colonial rule from the viewpoint of a bi-racial Pakistani, like the diasporic Pakistani—Welsh scholar and autobiographer, Sara Suleri; whereas Ghose, Hashmi (in A Choice of Hashmis Verse, 1997), Hussain (in Desert Album, 1997) and Nawaz (in Journeys, 1998) explore the experience of dislocation, itinerancy, emigration and nostalgia in different perspectives, pitting the divided self against anchored memory and indeterminate identity against the certitude of knowledge in a transnational context. In this elaboration, however, Pakistani—English literary culture has been dominated by male writers to a much greater extent than either the Indian—English or the Sri Lankan canon. In The Far Thing (1997) Maki Kureishi — who, like the novelist Bapsi Sidhwa, is a woman from the tiny minority of Parsis in Pakistan, and is married to a Muslim — focuses on gender issues within the dialectic of tradition and modernization in her immediate domestic, social and political environments. Like other Anglicized women writers in her situation, however, she continues to be relegated to the margins of the contemporary Pakistani literary economy.

Separated geographically from the mainland but connected intimately to it by 2,500 years of history, Sri Lanka has a multicultural society in which racial, ethnic, religious and linguistic boundaries coincide to a greater degree than in Pakistan. The demographic majority on the island-nation consists of Sinhalas, almost all of whom are Buddhists in the Theravada tradition, and whose mother-tongue is Sinhala, an Indo-European language that has been the republic's official language since 1956. The largest minority is made up of the descendants of old and new immigrants from southern India (going back to the thirteenth century), whose mother-tongue is Tamil, and most of whom are Hindus. One small minority consists of Muslims, who also speak Tamil, and whose religion has been a presence on the island since the first Arab traders landed there in the eighth century. Another small minority is made up of Sinhalas and Tamils who have converted to Christianity: it includes old converts to Roman Catholicism, who appeared under Portuguese domination between about 1510 and 1658; and later converts to various Protestant denominations, who emerged first during the Dutch ascendancy of 1658—1795, and then during the British colonization of 1795—1948. The tiniest minority consists of Eurasians — called Burghers in this context — who are descended from Portuguese, Dutch and British intermixtures with Sinhala, Tamil and other indigenous populations, and are predominantly Christian.

In the decades since the decolonization of Sri Lanka in 1948, this distribution of identities has contributed to the formation of three large bodies of writing, in which the size of a community is not necessarily proportionate to its share of power in the social, economic, political and cultural spheres. One is a literature in Tamil, mostly linked to Tamil nationalism in the northernmost portions of the island; another is a literature in Sinhala, which unifies the Sinhala—Buddhist majority; and the third is a literature in English, produced and consumed by a relatively secular and cosmopolitan community of Burghers, Christians and Anglicized Sinhalas and Tamils, most of whom come from the landowning and professional classes in and around the island's urban centres and port-cities, and many of whom are now scattered in the Sri Lankan diaspora around the globe.

If post-Partition Pakistani (and now Bangladeshi) writing in Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali and English has been shaped by adversity under a series of military dictatorships and turbulent civilian regimes, then the new literatures in Sri Lanka have been stimulated by a series of violent populist upheavals in its democratic-socialist system. Four moments have left a particularly deep mark on Sri Lankan literary consciousness in the second half of the twentieth century: communal riots between Sinhalas and Tamils in 1958; discriminatory changes in national policy in the early 1960s that triggered an exodus of the Burghers to the West; an armed insurrection against the state in 1971, engineered by an extremist left-wing organization that included both Sinhalas and Tamils; and the beginning of a civil war in 1983, between Tamil nationalists around Jaffna and the Sinhala-majority national government, which has continued into the new millennium. Separately and together, these events have influenced the lives, careers and imaginations of such Anglicized writers of Sri Lankan origin as Michael Ondaatje, Rienzi Crusz and Jean Arasanayagam (all Burghers), Yasmine Gooneratne, Rajiva Wijesinha and Romesh Gunesekera (all Sinhala), and Shyam Selvadurai and Ambalavaner Sivanandan (both Tamil).

Where early post-Independence Pakistani poets in English seem to excavate an uninscribed proto-historical landscape in order to domesticate it in a modern Muslim national imagination, the Sri Lankan poets mostly confront a natural environment that is always already too thickly covered with the discourse, mythology and architecture of the island's long-standing, disparate religions. Thus, between the 1940s and the 1970s, Patrick Fernando (a Luso-Lankan of Catholic background) meditates on a richly Christianized topography; George Keyt and Jean Arasanayagam (both Burghers, the latter married to a Colombo Tamil man) explore the light and dark contours of a Hindu landscape; and Lakdasa Wikkramasinha (an Anglicized Sinhala) maps out the Buddhist hinterlands of history as well as the imagination. At the same time, such poets as Fernando (in his Selected Poems, 1984), David Craig and Yasmine Gooneratne also chart the social and economic landscape of the first quarter-century since Independence, in which a modern, urban and secular prospect is imprinted all over with traces of Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian England - reminding readers that the first modern novel in Anglicized Sri Lanka was by Leonard Woolf, written while he worked there as a British civil servant between 1904 and 1911.

Until the late 1970s much of this poetry emphasized control, decorum and aesthetic balance in closed metrical forms. With the eruption of the civil war in 1983 and the continuation of the insurrection begun in 1971, however, it gave way to a more omnivorous, experimental and ambitious literature, much of which grapples aesthetically and critically with the violence and terror unleashed on ordinary citizens by 'two incompatible ideologies, both seeking legitimation', one affirming 'a Sinhala, Buddhist nation' and the other an independent Tamil diasporic homeland (Kanaganayakam, 1998, p. 54). While the prose and fiction of this phase have justly received most of the international attention - from Romesh Gunesekera's Reef (1994) and Yasmine Gooneratne's Pleasures of Conquest (1995) to Ambalavaner Sivanandan's When Memory Dies (1997) and Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost (2000) - the poetry, such as Derek de Silva's or Jean Arasanayagam's, especially the latter's Trial by Terror (1987) and Reddened Water Flows Clear (1991), has been no less consequential. Ondaatje's poetry is discussed in chapter 23 on Canadian poetry. But the civic turmoil may have overshadowed important literary aspects of this body of writing in the final years of the twentieth century, such as the singular contribution of Sri Lankan women writers to the national canon. While Arasanayagam and Gooneratne are well recognized now, such figures as Anne Ranasinghe - who was born in Germany between the wars, escaped to England as a child, lost her family in the Nazi death camps, but survived to write poems from a hybrid Sinhala-Christian position that are unique in modern South Asian literature - remain unjustly in the shadows.

Since 1947-8, Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan poets have quarrelled intensely with the English language. As late as 1976, R. Parthasarathy complained about his 'tongue in English chains' (Parthasarathy, 1976, p. 80); and, as early as 1965, Lakdasa Wikkramasinha foreshadowed both Parthasarathy and the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo' when he professed angrily:

I have come to realize that I am using the language of the most despicable and loathsome people on earth; I have no wish to extend its life and range, or enrich its tonality.

To write in English is a form of cultural treason. I have had for the future to think of a way of circumventing this treason; I propose to do this by making my writing entirely immoralist and destructive. (Gooneratne, 1979, p. 6)

Nevertheless, these writers have continued to produce poetry and prose in English, even when their bilingualism or multilingualism has offered them alternative literary mediums. On a parallel plane, many postcolonial South Asian poets have also rejected the colonial origins of their writing, and have dismissed their predecessors of the pre-1947 period. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, for instance, has argued that the subcontinental poetry in English 'written between 1825 and 1945 ... is truly dead. Later poets have found no use for it, and a literary tradition is of no use to anyone else', so that, in his view, 'The origins of modern Indian poetry in English go no further back than' the moment of Independence (Mehrotra, 1992, p. 1). But the writers who deny the continuity between the colonial past and the postcolonial present practise the very aestheticization of South Asian discourse and experience in English that their precursors in British India invented more than a century ago. What is equally remarkable is that, consciously or unconsciously, they also continue to engage in the dialectic of critique, counter-critique and self-reflexive critique launched by early nineteenth-century prose writers, even though the objects of their critical—poetic imaginations are now very different: ethnic identities rather than racial divisions, male dominance rather than European colonization, civil war rather than religious conversion, separatism rather than balkanization, and self-contained nations rather than expanding empires.


Alphonso-Karkala, John B. (1970). Indo-English Literature in the Nineteenth Century. Mysore, India: Literary Half-Yearly, University of Mysore.

Biddle, Arthur W., Gloria Bien and Vinay Dharwadker (eds) (1996). Contemporary Literature of Asia. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Blair Press, Prentice Hall.

Coppola, Carlo (1998). 'Some Recent English-language Poetry from Pakistan.' Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, 29: 203-20.

Das, Sisir Kumar (1991). A History of Indian Literature, 1800—1910. Western Impact: Indian Response. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Das, Sisir Kumar (1995). A History of Indian Literature, 1911—1956. Struggle for Freedom: Triumph and Tragedy. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

De Souza, Eunice (ed.) (1997). Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Dharwadker, Aparna, and Vinay Dharwadker (1996). 'Language, Identity, and Nation in Postcolonial Indian English Literature.' In Radika Mohanram and Gita Raj an (eds), English Post-coloniality: Literatures from Around the World. Westwood, CT: Greenwood Press.

Dharwadker, Vinay (2001). 'The Historical Formation of Indian—English Literature.' In Sheldon Pollock (ed.), Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dharwadker, Vinay, and A. K. Ramanujan (eds) (1994). The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Gooneratne, Yasmine (ed.) (1979). Poems from India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore. Hong Kong: Heinemann Asia.

Haq, Kaiser (ed.) (1990). Contemporary Indian Poetry. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press.

Hashmi, Alamgir (1996). 'Prolegomena to the Study of Pakistani English and Pakistani Literature in English.' In Radika Mohanram and Gita Rajan (eds), English Postcoloniality: Literatures from Around the World. Westwood, CT: Greenwood Press.

Hashmi, Alamgir and Malashri Lal (eds) (1998). 'Postindependence Voices in South Asian Writings.' Special issue of Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, 29.

Kadir, Djelal and Vinay Dharwadker (eds) (1994). 'Indian Literatures: In the Fifth Decade of Independence.' Special issue of World Literature Today, 68.

Kanaganayakam, Chelva (1998) 'Dancing in the Rarefied Air: Reading Contemporary Sri Lankan Literature.' Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, 29: 51—65.

King, Bruce (1987). Modern Indian Poetry in English. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

King, Bruce (1991). Three Indian Poets: Nissim Ezekiel, A. K. Ramanujan, Dom Moraes. Madras: Oxford University Press.

King, Bruce (ed.) (1996). New National and Post-Colonial Literatures: An Introduction. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kulshrestha, Chirantan (ed.) (1980). Contemporary Indian English Verse: An Evaluation. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann.

McCutchion, David (1969). Indian Writing in English: Critical Essays. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.

Mehrotra, Arvind Krishna (ed.) (1992). The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Naik, M. K. (1982). A History of Indian English Literature. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Nelson, Emmanuel S. (ed.) (1993). Writers of the Indian Diaspora: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Parthasarathy, R. (ed.) (1976). Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Srinivasa Iyengar, K. R. (1973). Indian Writing in English, 2nd edn. New York: Asia Publishing House.

Australian Poetry

Was this article helpful?

0 0


  • iida
    Why toufiq rafat wrote thinking of mohanjo daro poew in english rather than urdu?
    3 years ago

Post a comment