The term ‘South Asian Literature’, at first glance, seems deceptively simple. However, when you start to unpack it, it becomes apparent exactly how vague and vast that term really is. This is partly due to the fact that South Asia itself is a huge space- both geographically and culturally. It also remains unclear what should be classified as literature and what shouldn’t- and you have a recipe for confusion. One thing, however, is clear- South Asia has an incredibly rich literature to offer. But what exactly is it? And why is it important?
Let’s start with the basics. South Asia refers to the southern section of the Asian continent. It consists of (in alphabetical order) Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Sometimes Myanmar is also included. Merriam- Webster defines the word ‘literature’ as “the body of written works produced in any particular language, country, or age.” South Asian Literature therefore, consists of the body of written works produced in these eight (or nine) countries.
This is where the problem arises. India alone is the most linguistically diverse country in the world, with more than 150 languages and many more dialects. The other countries too, have several languages, many of them with established literatures going back centuries. To attempt to cover the history of the literature of every language in the span of an article, or indeed a book, is not possible. Add to this the problem of history. South Asia is home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations, and therefore, the history of its literature is extremely complex and very long.
Therefore, in this article we cannot examine all the literature of all of South Asia. What we will do is look at a broad overview of its development in a particular time period.
While people have lived in civilizations for thousands of years in South Asia, the identity ‘South Asian’ is still relatively recent. Nation states only became dominant in the 19th and 20th centuries, as did the demarcation of the countries that make up this part of the world. It can be argued that the idea of South Asia only got picked up in anti colonial struggles, and the post colonial period.
When it comes to anti colonial struggles, the role of literature must not be underestimated. Powerful ideas and revolutions were carried out, and the words of poets and thinkers were often catalysts. From Tagore to Faiz, the literature of resistance is a very strong strand within South Asian Literature.
While much of this literature is anti-colonial in nature, it also includes other resistance movements. Most of these countries have had major political turmoil over the past century, and their literature very strongly reflects that.
In India, the first type of resistance literature that must be discussed in the 20th century is what was written during the freedom struggle. From Sarojini Naidu to Rabindranath Tagore, poets played an important role in the fight for independence. It is important to remember that this kind of literature emerged in a variety of languages, not just in English and Hindi. Many regional poets and writers composed works that are now considered classics.
Post independence, India gained freedom from colonial rule, but that did not mean that it was smooth sailing. In the 70’s, during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, literature of resistance saw another rise.
These are only examples of political resistance. There have been many great writers who have been associated with social movements. For example, Savitribai Phule and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar finally brought the issue of caste into the forefront with their powerful writings. The women’s movement in India, too, had its own set of writers and activists like Kamla Bhasin. There are endless examples of poets and writers who have been associated with social and political movements of some kind. All of them have contributed to India’s rich history of resistance literature.
Of course, South Asia cannot just be reduced to India. In Pakistan, the reign of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq inspired some beautiful literature in protest. This includes Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who wrote several scorching poems against authoritarian rule. In Sri Lanka, the conflict between the Tamil speaking minority and Sinhalese majority produced some very fine poets and writers. Bangladeshi independence did the same, with beautiful and evocative poetry, plays and books. A good example is Shamsur Rahman, whose deeply nationalistic poetry of rebellion is now synonymous with Bangladesh. All in all, we have seen that during and after colonial rule, the literature of resistance was a very strong trend in South Asia.
Themes in Contemporary South Asian Literature
Love, Feminism, Storytelling and many other aspects cut across South Asian literature and bind it together.
Various countries of South Asia and their variants of feminism have much in common with each other. This is no doubt due to the cultural similarities that have been almost uniformly patriarchal. However, the region has a rich history of feminist literature breaking stereotypes and challenging gender norms. Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf, for example, was a work that broke many taboos, and talked openly about women’s sexuality in 1940s Pakistan. Even before that, Indian writer Rokheya Sakhawat was trying to make a space for women’s voices in literature through Sultana’s Dream. In Afghanistan, the dangers faced by women daring to speak out are much more profound. However, Afghan women have written and continue to write defiantly beautiful works. Daughter of Rabia is a good starting point to explore this literature- it is an anthology of different Afghan women’s writings.
Despite the fact that South Asia is by no means a homogenous society, overarching similarities in cultural norms has meant that the feminisms, and feminist literatures of these countries also have much in common.
The concept of storytelling is very important in this part of the world, and many of these cultures have a very strong oral tradition. For example, most folk traditions are rarely, if ever written down, and are transmitted through oral storytelling. Even Mahabharata and Ramayana, the two epics of Indian mythology, were transmitted through word of mouth and the act of storytelling. In Urdu, the tradition of Dastan- Goi, the performance of a story, has seen a revival in recent years. Dastangos like the late Ankit Chadha, whose untimely demise was a big loss, have played a big role in popularizing the form and bringing it to modern audiences.
Because traditions of oral storytelling by definition rely on the spoken word, not many of these stories are written down in the original. There have been, however, efforts over the past few decades to preserve this cultural heritage by recording these stories or writing them down. Many folk artists, and even non folk artists are inspired by these stories, and as a result their work is in some part derived from them. This is a distinctive and important feature of South Asian literature.
Arguably, the theme of love is universal, and found in every literary tradition on earth. South Asian Literature also has many kinds of traditions when it comes to love- from romantic poetry to epic plays, from sexual love to spiritual love. Again, it is impossible to generalize the whole of South Asia. However, from Mirza Ghalib to Gulzar, love is another theme that has a long and varied history in the region’s literature.
In terms of both form and genre, South Asian literature is extremely rich in variety. Every kind of poetry, prose, drama, fiction or non-fiction can be found here. What’s more, it can be found in a large number of languages. What we must look for is writing that is distinctly South Asian. That is, it recognizes South Asia as a single cultural unit, rather than a group of different countries.
It is this idea that has gained sympathy amongst many writers and intellectuals today. When ‘South Asia’ is referred to as one unit, the many cultural and historic similarities are acknowledged. This also means that the history of the literatures of various parts of South Asia is also connected. Therefore, with this approach, what we see is not a separate literature by the writing of one subcontinent. Indeed, many awards, associations and festivals have been set up to facilitate the flow of ideas between these countries and to celebrate their common legacy. Writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists and thinkers are now recognizing that political boundaries are artificially drawn, and especially when it comes to art, the boundaries are porous. Of course, this idea is not without its critics, but it seems true that there are unmistakable commonalities between these countries.
Perhaps the biggest celebration of this is the DSC Prize. Set up in 2010, it is an extremely prestigious prize set up exclusively for fiction writing in South Asia. Another event that brings together artists of the region is Film Southasia, a film festival that takes place in Nepal and invites non fiction filmmakers from all over South Asia to showcase their work. The South Asian Alliance for Literature, Art and Culture set up by Saif Mahmood offers another example.
Much recognition is coming to writers from this region. The many well-known and highly respected authors From the region including Vikram Seth, Taslima Nasreen, Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Mohsin Hamid, Jerry Pinto …. the list is way too long for this post. Most recently in the news were Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell for “Tomb of Sand” for which they won the Booker International. And Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka won the Booker in 2022 for his book “Seven Moons of Maali Almeida“.
South Asia is an important site when it comes to literature. Though it is politically and socially diverse, the countries of this region share an important bond which is reflected in their cultural and literary legacy. We hope this article has made it easier for you to understand what is meant by the term ‘South Asian Literature.’