Literature and legacies

Published on 06 July 2023 Go back to The ACU Review
Storybook illustration by Lahori artist Imam Bakhsh

The place and perceptions of English literary studies in Pakistan.

By Javaria Farooqui, COMSATS University Islamabad, Pakistan

A colleague from the hard sciences once asked me: ‘So, what do you guys do apart from teaching stories? You don’t have to do actual research, right?’ Later, the lighthearted enquiry made me consider perceptions of English literary studies and its increasingly precarious future as an academic discipline in Pakistan.

It is nationally acknowledged that all budget cuts for the higher education sector translate into diminishing funding for humanities in general and literary studies in particular. But why do we need English literature as a discipline in universities, and what do we plan to achieve with research in this field? Where does the discipline stand – both in Pakistan today and in the global quest to resolve inequality and poverty, bring peace, and protect the planet?

Literature and legacies

Any attempt, however futile, to answer such questions must begin by acknowledging the postcolonial confusion and socioeconomic ambivalence surrounding the teaching and learning of English literature in Pakistan, and the social position of the English language. English is often thought of as a second language, but it is practically the first language for a small number of highly anglicised Pakistanis, the second language for a somewhat larger number of wealthy and highly educated people, and a foreign language for all other educated individuals. Overall, the language is seen as a legacy of British imperial rule and is often conflated with the discipline of English literature.

In fact, the popular perception of the discipline is so closely connected to the supposedly ‘superior’ social status of the language that students often enrol in English literature programmes just to get better acquainted with the English language. I often have students in courses of literary theory and other modules who are disappointed when they learn that there is almost nothing in the curriculum that can help them develop a native English accent. In Pakistan, having a stylish English accent is still considered by many as key to achieving a lucrative career, especially as a bureaucrat. A postgraduate degree in English literature has also worked well for young women from the middle and lower-middle socioeconomic classes as a form of resistance in our patriarchal society. With this degree, women have the chance of getting a better paid teaching job in schools and academies near their homes. Such jobs provide some modicum of confidence and stability to women who might otherwise not be allowed to have careers.

English literature became a recognised academic field in colonial India, even before British imperial authority formally began, and continued to enjoy a significant place in Pakistan after the Partition in 1947. Traditionally, university-level curricula for graduate and postgraduate degrees in the subject included canonical texts written by predominantly British and American authors. Plays of William Shakespeare, volumes of John Donne’s poetry, and novels of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and William Faulkner are still very visible in all institutional libraries and the dwindling number of public ones.

Change in curriculum occurred in the early 2000s, when works of Pakistani authors, originally written in English, started getting space among the canonical texts. The novels of Bapsi Sidhwa, Ahmed Ali, Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, and Daniyal Mueenuddin made their way into English departments and bookshops. Another change was the emergence of applied linguistics as a major subdivision in departments of English that were once devoted solely to the study of literature. Later, degrees in English language teaching made their way in the field, followed by more specialised programmes. However, all research under the banner of ‘English’ is equally ignored when significant issues of funding arise.

Embracing an interdisciplinary approach

Pakistani students and mentors of English literary studies tend to defend their discipline by maintaining a philosophical stance. Human beings, they argue, need to clarify what living is for and seek meaning for their existence. They may contend that the hard sciences tend to ignore the ‘human’ element and gloss over the finer points of life in favour of incontestable logic. And yet the sciences promote creative and critical-thinking skills too. This is not to claim that the philosophical defence of literary studies is useless, but it does gesture towards some lacks. Thinking about the meaning of life feels like a luxury when the quality of life is going down or when life itself is in danger.

One possible solution is to make literary studies more geared towards building a sustainable and fairer future. Teach stories but teach them in ways that encourage students to develop methods of questioning and decolonising established pedagogical patterns. And yet, this is not a straightforward proposition. As a student and tutor, I am not sure how far English literature can be confined to a lesser position in the broad field of literary studies and how much it would facilitate decolonisation. Many university students in Pakistan have an extraordinary attachment with, and perception of, nostalgia that manifests in their everyday lives. For many, it might not be possible to think of a literature syllabus without the token texts that my students and peers call ‘authentic’ and ‘real’ English.

However, we can and must enable and enrich the discipline in ways that will encourage researchers to forge far stronger connections with the sciences. Focus more on building bridges of knowledge between science and English literary studies, rather than emphasising the un-sciencey glory of humanities in general. The sciences provide information relevant to understanding the human condition, which can be used to enrich textual data and come up with more interesting hypotheses.

Telling stories is a very complicated phenomenon. The storytellers bear the torch of cultural heritage and generational wisdom that must be protected as we move into an increasingly difficult future, filled with tangible fears of growing inequality, injustice, and climate change. Instead of erasing English literary studies from the spectrum, sustainable pedagogical methods can be infused into the existing curricula. Pushing back literary studies cannot guarantee a better future, but pulling it up might.

Dr Javaria Farooqui is Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus, Pakistan.

Image: An illustration by the Lahori painter Imam Bakhsh, circa 1837, for the story Phoebus and Boreas © Fine Art Images/Heritage Images at Alamy.

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