People & Society

Read pray love: Inside the enigmatic world of Urdu digests

Updated 20 Mar, 2017 11:48pm
Photo by Tahir Jamal, White Star
Photo by Tahir Jamal, White Star

You might have seen them lined up over a footpath or against the dusty walls of an unfrequented bookshop. You might have seen them peeking out at you from wooden carts outside colleges or railway stations. You might even have some at home. These Urdu-language digests are instantly recognisable from their arresting cover art; portraits of ornate women striking seductive poses against a background of snakes, skeletons and dashing youths in fedora hats.

The bad news is that this cover art never has anything to do with the stories inside. The good news is that the stories are far more outrageous.

It is hard to reduce these digests to any particular genre; they vary from collections of essays on current affairs to embellished historical retellings, from realist fiction to escapist fantasy. One story might start with a journey through Africa, involving voodoo priests that can summon hurricanes, another might present a slice of life drama over the last wishes of a dying woman, while the third may spend its entire length explaining Mahmud Ghaznavi’s bathing habits while he laid siege to the infidel city of ... wherever.

The first of these monthly publications to attain mainstream readership was Lahore’s Urdu Digest which started in 1960. It was modelled consciously on the internationally acclaimed Reader’s Digest with its current affairs articles interspersed with jokes and illustrations. Other monthly paperbacks soon sprang up in imitation, such as the more news-oriented Sayara Digest, but it was the Karachi-based digests dedicated to fiction that really pushed paperback publishing into the realm of popular culture, reaching Urdu readership in places as far away as London and Lucknow.

Karachi’s inspiration for serialised fiction was the tremendous success of Ibn-e-Safi, whose Jasoosi Dunya had already made waves in India before he migrated to Pakistan in 1952. His fame across the subcontinent can be summarised in a single anecdote: at the launch of the Indian edition of his 1963 novel, Dedh Matwalay, a certain Lal Bahadur Shastri was in attendance. He would go on to be the second prime minister of India just a year later. Ibn-e-Safi’s popularity had sparked the establishment of numerous outdoor bookstalls and miniature libraries where you could rent and read his books. These places fuelled a demand for affordable and accessible fiction — a demand that paperback digests and a new generation of adventure and detective writers would fill.

Perhaps the most prolific of these writers was Karachi’s Mohiuddin Nawab. His most famous series, Devta, ran for 33 years in the monthly Suspense Digest from 1977 to 2010. Introductions to Devta claim that it is the longest saga ever committed to paper. It is hard to verify these claims, but the digest mentions a total word count of 11.2 million (consolidated in book form, the series amounts to 53 volumes) and compares it to lengthy works by Marcel Proust and 40 volumes of an undecipherable Japanese series.

Devta starts with our protagonist and narrator Farhad Ali Taimoor recounting his childhood. He is an orphaned youth who is taken from his village in Sheikhupura to the city of Lahore by his paternal uncle, on the pretext of adopting him, but really to attain his father’s considerable land by sleight of guardianship.

Farhad’s cousins mingle with high society at a private college while he gets sent to a government school. They dress well and live off his wealth while he sleeps on the floor. They entertain society friends for drinks and badminton while he isn’t allowed company. When he is a little older, the society girls look at him with an unbidden yearning because he has ‘the height of a mountain and the strength of iron’, where they are used to soft, talkative boys.

One day he gets into a fight and beats up his cousin Ghazala’s boyfriend. That night his cousin invites Farhad to her bedroom, saying he has ignited a flame inside her that is begging to be quenched. Farhad looks at the ‘shameless’ Ghazala with both arousal and disdain.

The disdain wins and he refuses sex.

Ghazala cannot believe it. Nobody has said no to her before. She starts screaming and, when the household comes to investigate, she tells them that Farhad tried to force himself on her. He is unceremoniously kicked out of the house.

He goes on to live with his paternal aunt, whose husband is dead. She and her daughter are both seamstresses who live in poverty because the uncle ate up their portion of the inheritance too. Here, Farhad is told the truth about his uncle and makes his formal vows of revenge. Figuring that he has no hope of justice in a legal system that protects the status quo, Farhad opts instead for more supernatural means. He has heard about people with extraordinary abilities and starts researching thought projection. The mental training involves staring into a flame until its smouldering image is etched into the mind’s eye. The reward is the ability to induce hypnotic suggestion.

The aunt’s daughter, Zarina, is unmarried, in the prime of her youth and struggling with her own sexual desires. She obviously falls for Farhad the minute he walks into her home.

Perhaps fittingly for Pakistani pulp fiction, you have to make it past 50 pages before Farhad has a fling with anyone who is not a first cousin.

By the end of a hundred pages, Farhad has gotten his revenge by taking over the minds of his relatives. Now a powerful telepath, he uses his powers to win at poker and swindle people — but his life of petty crime is short-lived.

He attracts the attention of powerful authorities and is recruited by a spy agency to fight preternatural enemies of the state. Other people who have attained special powers are known as devtas. There is a man who can turn invisible, another who can control fire, and a lady with iron nails, called Sonia, who loves clawing people’s faces off.

Suspense Digest still publishes various series by Mohiuddin Nawab. He is part of a celebrity list of regular writers mentioned on the first page. The publication is one of the largest-circulated monthly digests in Pakistan. Its first issue was published in January 1972; the latest has come out this month.

The longevity of both the series and his own career as a digest writer came as a surprise to Nawab. “I started contributing to digests when I was very young and bored,” he says in an unassuming tone. “I had read a book on telepathy and didn’t know what the response to a story on it would be like. It was overwhelmingly good. Every month Suspense Digest received hundreds of letters asking what will happen next and that is what kept me going all these years.”

Suspense Digest, like most of its ilk, runs for 250 to 300 pages per issue and has a circulation that has historically oscillated between 50,000 and 150,000. In a country with problems of both literacy and language – Urdu itself is hardly universal – these figures are more or less what constitute popular readership. No digest, however, has yet matched the 250,000 circulation figures reached by the now defunct Karachi-based Sabrang Digest in the late 1970s.

Agents and booksellers get misty-eyed, remembering how new issues of Sabrang used to disappear off the racks and how people paid in advance to book their copies. The digest was the first Karachi-based publication to make serious inroads into Lahore’s market as well.

A group of publishers in Lahore’s Urdu Bazaar tell me how “people would try to bribe us to hoard copies for them.” The greed for the digest was so great that some readers would request booksellers to tell others that they had run out of copies.

Sabrang Digest was the creation of Shakeel Adilzada, who migrated from India to Karachi in 1957 and came to live in the Soldier Bazaar mansion of renowned Urdu writer and poet Rais Amrohvi. That home was also inhabited by one of Urdu poetry’s most iconic names, Jon Elia, the younger brother of Rais Amrohvi. It was with Elia that Adilzada first started working on the Amrohvi family’s Alami Digest.

In addition to his editing and advertising duties, Adilzada also contributed short stories to the largely fiction-based digest. Among his unlikely fans was Bollywood legend Mina Kumari. She was married to Kamal Amrohvi, the famous film director and part of the Amrohvi clan who had stayed behind in India, where Urdu digests enjoyed a niche popularity.

Adilzada met her once in Mumbai. She expressed great admiration for one of his short stories; he expressed great admiration for all her films.

Sabrang Digest materialised when Adilzada felt he needed to carve out his own legacy in the business. “12 years I worked for Alami Digest,” he explains. “Eventually, I realised that nothing there was my own. My name was sometimes among the acknowledgments, but never among the editors.”

While still at Alami Digest, he had gained a reputation for being a perfectionist. People called on him to seek his opinion on grammar, definitions and the general intricacies of the Urdu language. He says he once convinced the great Krishan Chander to write a short story for Sabrang, only to send it back unpublished because he felt it didn’t meet the standards of his digest.

Such was his obsession with content selection and attention to detail that Sabrang rarely came out on a specific day in the month. Sometimes it was delayed by a few weeks but, more often, by a few months. This fastidiousness at the cost of commercial interests landed the digest into financial trouble and, eventually, led to its closure.

Despite these hurdles, Adilzada accrued a loyal and long-term readership, some of whom – journalists and media-men such as Sohail Warraich, Mujibur Rehman Shami and Rauf Klasra – are trying to crowdsource funds required to get Sabrang Digest back in print.

Also among his fans, and now among his list of close friends, is acclaimed journalist and author Mohammed Hanif. In his short stint with the Pakistan Air Force, Hanif considered Sabrang mandatory evening reading, hidden away from the prying eyes of hostel wardens.

Hanif says an entire generation of people learned about the world, literature and history through Sabrang and similar digests.

Many of these digests carried sections on foreign literature in translation, including stories written by the likes of Kafka, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham, O Henry, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. There were short stories and excerpts from local writers as well. The model was successful because it was much cheaper for someone to read snippets of Saadat Hasan Manto or Chekhov in one of these paperbacks than to go out and buy hardcover books.

But at the heart of Adilzada’s cult of admirers weren’t the stories he selected or got translated; it was his personal magnum opus, the as-yet-unconcluded saga known as Bazigar.

Bazigar is the story of Babar Zaman Khan, narrated as a fictional autobiography, who lives an uneventful 16 years of his life in the city of Gaya, Bihar, before running into 13-year-old Kora at the local train station, a girl who claims to be a Buddhist pilgrim from the Himalayas.

She is the most resplendent vision he has ever laid eyes upon and it soon turns out that she’s actually on the run. Kora is heiress to a tribal chief in Tibet and embroiled in a dispute over succession. Assailants from a rival tribe repeatedly try to kidnap her and during one such attempt, Babar manages to stab three of them to death before being beaten unconscious by the fourth. By the time he wakes up, he’s been apprehended by the police for murder. He is given a sentence of seven years, escaping the death penalty only because of his youth.

In jail, he meets Bithal, a career criminal who becomes both his mentor and lifelong friend. When Babar is a free man again, he thinks of what he should do with his second life. There is only one thing he really wants to do: find Kora. And he is unwavering in his belief that she is still alive.

Kora was abducted sometime in 1975 and for the next 25 years of the story’s irregular serialisation, she remained abducted.

“People often beg me to conclude the story. They say many fans of the serial have died and others who have grown old wish to see it end in their lifetime,” says Adilzada.

As of the last published chapter of Bazigar, the story has moved forward many years. Babar is now part of Bithal’s gang but still clueless about Kora’s whereabouts. The writing is more mature, more philosophical, brimming with musings on the nature of power, love and violence.

The change in narrative tone obviously reflects the change – three decades’ worth – in the writer. “It is very difficult to write long serialised sagas. You age every year but the characters don’t age with you. What was a fictional child in 1975 might still be very young today while I am now an old man.”

The story is set in pre-Partition India. Location wise, it draws from the entire length and breadth of the subcontinent. We are transported to many cities, to many historical places, and we meet people of every caste and creed. There are detailed descriptions of Buddhist beliefs and rituals.

During the initial decade of its popularity, the plurality of religious and cultural beliefs found in Bazigar stood in stark contrast to the policies General Ziaul Haq’s government was implementing at the time. Sabrang also carried series such as Inca and Aqabla, which centred on Native American and Arab paganism, respectively. These were tales of evil spirits, possession and summoning supernatural powers. They were all considered deviant writing.

“At first, [the government] didn’t attack us directly. There would only be columns written in newspapers, such as Nawa-e-Waqt, calling me a preacher of Hinduism and a spreader of evil,” Adilzada recalls. “[The government] didn’t want to shut us down — it wanted to change our content.”

Mard-e-Momin, as the needlessly good dictator was called, wasn’t oblivious to the popularity of the digests and considered them a good medium for promoting his brand of religious instruction. He once called Adilzada to his residence to talk business.

“He asked me why there were faces of women on the covers. He told me to use pictures of men instead, and to tell more religious tales.”

When Adilzada refused to humour the genial advice, the supply of paper for Sabrang’s printing press was halted. “In those days you had to apply to the government to get newsprint or you had to buy it from the black market, which I did for the rest of General Zia’s tenure.”

The Zia regime became a litmus test for popular fiction digests. The ones that could afford to, paid bribes to the official and unofficial enforcers of morality. Inam Raja – artist, illustrator and the person behind most of the provocative covers of Sabrang – tells me how distributors had to bribe representatives of a prominent Deobandi madrasa in Karachi to be able to put Sabrang issues on public display in the city’s Binori Town neighbourhood. Every other territory had similar moral racketeers who needed to be paid off.

The digest owners who couldn’t budget bribery into their expenses did not last very long. The sexually explicit ones came under severe scrutiny. The message was the same for all of them, change the content or start putting together hefty pay-offs.

Perhaps the best way to explain the tale of sexually explicit digest fiction is to compare the fate of two iconic digests of the 1970s — the right-leaning Hikayat Digest, published from Lahore and run by a former Pakistan Air Force pilot, and the politically unaligned Alif Laila Digest, published from Karachi by Humayun Iqbal. This comparison also sheds a little light on the difference in the literary appetite of these two cities.

Car bhi gha’ib. Shalwar bhi gha’ib. Dupatta bhi gha’ib (The car was gone. The shalwar was gone. And the dupatta was missing too).

These are the first lines of a story from Hikayat Digest, a story that is allegedly a real-life account of a police officer, Ahmad Yar Khan, who is called in to investigate a half-naked body lying next to some tyre tracks outside a village. The title of the story, unsurprisingly, is Car, Shalwar aur Dupatta. Ahmad Yar Khan was one of the many pen names of Hikayat’s founder and editor in chief, Inayatullah.

Inayatullah became famous for his fictionalised war stories – tales of bravery from the frontlines of Pakistan’s numerous skirmishes with India – but also for his lurid tales of moral decadence. For instance, in the September 1970 issue of Hikayat, among racist and xenophobic tales of a Hindu/Bengali alliance – Banya Aur Bengali – there is also a story called Mein Kisi Ki Beti Nahin (I Am No One’s Daughter).

This time, the first-person autobiographical narration is by a woman. As a girl, she is sent to an English-medium school where the coeducation environment is flagrantly un-Islamic. In addition to the English alphabet, exposure to Western books and movies soon start destroying her moral compass.

When she is 16, she loses her virginity in the back seat of a car. When she comes home past midnight that day, nobody asks where she has been as her parents are negligent, too absorbed in their own social lives to watch over hers.

She is the child of a corrupt bureaucrat and so is the boy with the car. Soon, she grows weary of all the lust on leather and instead starts dating a boy whose father owns an entire hotel — a hotel that rents by the hour, of course.

If you are still wondering if this is possibly a tale of one vice leading to another, she goes on to get addicted to marijuana, pornography, gambling and tops it all off by having a rambunctious affair with a white foreigner in Islamabad. This last act being the pinnacle of her moral degradation.

That she settles on a life of prostitution afterwards almost comes as an anticlimax as far as the judgemental tone of writing is concerned. Inayatullah’s stories paint a simple picture of a simple world: bad things happen to Muslims who lose their way and they deserve it.

The chapter titles even spell it out for you. Sharm-o-Hijaab Uthne Laga (The Veil of Modesty Began to Lift), leads to Pandra Dinon Ki Suhagan (Bride for a Fortnight) which culminates in Mein Kanwari Maa Bananay Wali Thi (I Was About To Become An Unmarried Mother), begging the all-important question Ye School Tha Ya Chakla (Was this a School or a Brothel)?

People who are too rich or too poor inevitably become bad. Moderate is the only morally right amount of wealth to have.

But while self-righteousness is ubiquitous, it is just the skeleton of these stories. People who drink, cheat and fornicate meet untimely ends, but only in a few pages at the beginning or the end; the meat of these stories is still the drinking, cheating and fornicating itself. This was erotica made guilt-free.

On the other hand, Humayun Iqbal wrote sexually charged fiction with no judgement and a lot of flair. Iqbal’s coup de grâce was running a series in his Alif Laila Digest about a woman of mystery, intrigue and considerable means, Sabiha Bano, who was also a lesbian.

The series, called Chhalawa, ran for three years and gained considerable popularity, enough to make Alif Laila’s circulation jump from 5,000 to 40,000, by the end of its run. As with the deceptive autobiographical nature of other first-person digest stories, many readers were convinced that Bano was real and wanted to meet her.

Even in 2010, when Mohammed Hanif translated an excerpt from Chhalawa into English for the Life’s Too Short literary review, his effort revived a considerable wave of interest in this somewhat forgotten racy past of Urdu fiction.

Sabiha Bano starts her tale by telling us she likes picking up girls in public buses. She selects them by the suppleness of their figures, the fullness of their lips, the cascading coils of their hair and the melody of their voices.

Her first seduction is Farah. Within two days of their initial encounter, she whisks Farah to the bedroom of her palatial house and offers the girl orange Squash, spiked with brandy, to ease the mood. What follows is two pages of sweaty, heaving metaphors.

Throughout the series, descriptions of arousal range from oceans slowly rising in tide to embers radiating unbearable heat. Climaxes are the tremendous crackle of thunder just before the soft pelting of rain. Not everything is euphemism, though. There are paragraphs that start with kissing the nape of someone’s neck and end with ‘honton se honton ki sargoshiyan mukammal ho chuki theen’ (‘Thence culimnated the mute conversation of lips with lips’).

As the story progresses, there are more trysts and affairs for Sabiha Bano. She wears pants and prefers sherry over whisky. When she is not browsing buses she drives a Mercedez Benz. Her enemies call her Chhalawa, a seductive spirit that can inhabit the bodies of women and lead men to their ruin.

Alif Laila Digest never made it beyond General Zia’s dictatorship, though that had as much to do with financial problems as with state-enforced censorship. Running a risqué fiction publication was proving to be expensive and, unlike Inayatullah, Iqbal didn’t try to market morality, nationalism and religion to ensure subsistence. Though in past interviews Iqbal has cited health concerns for why he initially discontinued the digest, his friends (which include Adlizada) blame the financial demands of an era which was realigning commercial tastes. The advent of satellite television in the 1990s was the start of a revolution in middle-class entertainment driven by cable networks, computers and the Internet which affected the circulation of all Urdu digests. To cope with the falling demand, many digests turned to religion. Not in the sense of praying for better days but in the literal sense of publishing religious content.

Two former editors at Hikayat Digest tell me that sometime during the first panic of dwindling readership, they inadvertently discovered the secret for future success. “By simply adding a religious segment with historical anecdotes, quotations from scripture and scholarly advice, we found our circulation almost doubled in a few months,” they explain.

The digests that survived both Zia and satellite television are the ones who have since followed this formula. More than a decade after its inception, Suspense Digest started carrying Islamic history pieces and essays on morality. “We also introduced more self-censorship to make sure the content did not offend valuable contributors,” one of the editors of the magazine tells me over the phone. By “contributors” he mostly means advertisers who contribute a large chunk of his publication’s revenue.

Agents, distributors and sellers, too, started screening the type of content they wanted to be seen dealing in. Urdu Bazaar in Lahore is almost bereft of detective and adventure digests now. An overwhelming majority of printers and publishers deal in religious material — everything from pamphlets and circulars to extensive volumes of books. The commercialisation of religion has produced a lucrative industry and digests simply can’t afford to miss out.

Sex sells but so does spirituality. One is intermittently clamped down upon by the state while the other is thoroughly encouraged. The only digests to have thrived during this time of technological upheaval and religious commerce are the women-oriented ones which specialise in domestic sagas and which have seamlessly merged with cable television to produce a cyclical culture of best-selling fiction and record-breaking drama.

Though publications such as Khawateen Digest and Pakeezah Digest started in 1972 and 1973 respectively, they enjoyed only middling success in their first two decades. They mainly contained coming-of-age romantic stories that literary scholar Mohammed Hassan Askari once somewhat harshly dismissed as “vapid fiction that is simply pandering to a growing college-educated female readership”.

These stories involved first loves, sexual transgressions, betrayals and, inevitably, marriages. The women would often fall in love with a good-looking, rebellious man who would promise many things on the condition of physically intimacy but renege on all of them. That basic content hasn’t changed much over the years but the stories have keenly kept up with changing times and commercial demands.

For instance, Anjum Ansar’s Kaanch Si Larki (The Glass-like Girl), which started publication in Pakeezah Digest around 2007, portrays the trauma a young girl has to go through after someone photoshops pictures of her on the Internet, falsely implicating her in a relationship with an older man.

Other stories revolve around the pitfalls of cellular romance, of late night calls from unknown numbers, of harassment, of being bombarded with text message poetry. The male digest writers haven’t written anything as much in tune with modernity. They are also significantly older than the female writers; the regular contributors to Suspense Digest are all over the age of 50. On the other hand, Farhat Ishtiaq is already a heavyweight of the women’s digest writing scene at the age of 35. Two of her series – Humsafar and Mata-i-Jaan Hai Tu – have been televised to critical acclaim.

Humsafar broke television viewership records during its initial run in 2011. It is a melodramatic affair about an arranged marriage that eventually blossoms into love, only for the protagonist’s mother-in-law to poison the marital bliss in the classic role of a domestic villain.

The queen of digest writing, however, is undisputedly Umera Ahmed. At 38 years of age, she has a dozen televised serials under her belt, which have been aired in over 20 countries, including the award-winning Zindagi Gulzar Hai and Shehr-e-Zaat.

Zindagi Gulzar Hai started as a Khawateen Digest series in 1998, when Umera Ahmed was fresh out of college herself. The story centres on the life of a middle-class girl, Kashaf, who is attending an elite university to better her station in life and falls in love with a somewhat spoilt upper-class boy called Zaroon. Their unlikely relationship entails a lot of negotiation of class and privilege, with God often acting as a mediator, to whom Kashaf addresses her angst-ridden diary.

Eventually, some form of compromise is reached whereby Zaroon gives up some of his elite extravagances and liberal ways, while Kashaf gives up her professional ambitions and settles for an ideal material and spiritual life — a happy marriage.

For Ahmed, marriage is the divinely ordained path to spiritual and material happiness. In La Hasil, also published in Khawateen Digest, the economically and morally precarious life of a former escort girl finds meaning and stability through marriage. These stories uphold traditional religious and middle-class values in modern urban settings and are described by the various women I have talked to as being “intensely relatable”, “the kind of fiction I can’t get anywhere else” and having “characters I can recognise in real life”.

Others of course disparage them for perpetuating patriarchal conventions and regressive ideas about women’s lives. Curiously, some women who don’t care for traditional domestic tropes are also regular readers. One of them gives me a compellingly simple reason for being among that unintuitive demographic: “I just read them because they’re the only new things being published in Urdu”.

In all that has been stated so far, there is little that is unique to Pakistan. Pulp fiction and romance novels around the world have enjoyed a similar flirtation with guilty, scandalous delights that run into problems of censorship and lack of commercial viability beyond certain eras.

The only thing that sets digest fiction in this country a little apart is the conscious insistence on language.

Prologues and forewords in many digests take pride in catering to their audiences in Urdu. Introductions to Ahmad Yar Khan’s tales in Hikayat Digest boast that detective fiction is no longer to be considered a realm of the English language only, and that sifting through smoky rooms, unravelling intrigues and courting seductive women can be done by Urdu-speaking people as well.

It is no coincidence that the moral values framing these tales about criminality and sexuality are decidedly middle class, then. Urdu, after all, is primarily the language of Pakistan’s urban middle class.

These stories judge elite excesses and rural provincialism alike. Characters from villages are made to speak a broken mixture of their provincial language and Urdu idioms, while the elite have foreign-sounding nicknames and often contain English words in their dialogues. Both income groups are also portrayed as possessing a weaker moral fibre, likelier to indulge in wanton sexual escapades.

To be sure, sexuality has never been absent from Urdu literature but with Manto, Ismat Chughtai or Wajidah Tabassum, there was the accompanying cultural critique and deconstruction of gender and politics. Their stories were heavier to process; sexuality was often an argument or indictment of social attitudes.

The digests are breezier reading by comparison, which is why they have often been accused of being trashy, frivolous and without any redeeming qualities — sometimes, even by the digest owners and editors themselves. Almost all of them talk about Urdu fiction in the age-old dichotomy of literary and commercial writing, of adab and tafreeh.

Some writers and critics that I contacted expressed incredulity at being asked to pontificate on digest fiction. Others made a polite exit: “You’ll have to talk to somebody who has actually read them”.

One of them, however, Lahore-based writer and critic Saleemur Rehman, despairs at the attitude of dismissing digest fiction as something irrelevant to the larger world of Urdu literature. He is of the opinion that the digest culture did a great service to the Urdu language by generating interest in reading and writing — something that he says is entirely lost on government-sanctioned literary committees and the writers who constitute them.

“Good fiction in Urdu is dependent upon the ability to make a living out of writing. That is something commercially popular digests were able to help the writers with,” he argues. Saleemur Rehman also feels that digests can bring together a fraternity of Urdu readers and produce identifiable community spaces.

In any women’s digest, for instance, the letters section can constitute upto the first 20 pages. One such section in the February 2014 edition of Shuaa Digest started with a note from the editor saying how a veteran writer, much loved in the Shuaa community, had fallen ill and was in need of the readers’ prayers. Other readers were commiserating the recent loss of a contributor’s father. Pakeezah Digest has a dedicated section called Behnon Ki Mehfil, essentially an online women’s forum in print. Some editors even say that older women write to them to find suitable girls for their sons.

Most digests contain poetry sections where readers can send in compositions which either appear towards the end of the issue or in boxes alongside the main stories. This is a conscious effort at increasing readership; a third of any digest’s letters section consists of people’s queries about the acceptance or rejection of their poetic endeavours. Many writers of one digest are also avid readers of another, sending in plot analysis and advice on future trajectories other stories could take.

There is a democratisation of literature here that is absent from the highbrow literary publishing industry — not always to literature’s betterment, mind you. Some of the poems read like shampoo instructions. Inclusiveness, however, has resulted in fostering a loyal readership.

The presence of such dedicated Urdu readership is why some people suggest there is a mutually beneficial, organic and even material relationship between digest literature and highbrow Urdu literature. Digest fiction has produced an economy of readership which highbrow writers and publishers have also grown to depend on.

Sang-e-Meel Publications in Lahore, which has published some of the most important Urdu-language works of the last 30 years, has also published digest writers – such as Abdal Bela, a popular writer of historical fiction and Razia Butt, who writes digest stories, novels and stage plays – to no shortage of profit to the publishing house itself. It is the same story with Ferozsons Publishers and Ahmed.

This is why Adilzada calls Urdu digests, “a ladder to serious Urdu literature”.

This relationship seems even more symbiotic when you consider that some digest writers, such as Asad Muhammad Khan of Karachi, who wrote tales of black magic and ancient history, went on to author well-reviewed literary works. In Khan’s case, a collection of short stories called Ghussay Ki Nayi Fasal was published in English translation by the Oxford University Press and has been lauded by scholar and writer Asif Farrukhi.

Urdu columnist Masood Ashar introduced me to Khan’s literary works, saying how he is “a good example of a writer who took the fantasy and adventure elements of digest fiction to a more conscious prose in his short stories”. On the general literary merits of digest fiction, Ashar says, “Nowhere else has the first-person narrative in Urdu been used as frequently, as densely or as adeptly than in digest fiction.”

Characterisation is another strong point of serialised fiction. Readers get back to their favourite stories mostly to follow the exploits of memorable characters. The plot is often considered secondary. Serialised stories also translate well into television screenplays.

“Keeping the reader hooked is a big part of being a successful digest writer. It wasn’t surprising that a lot of them worked in television as well,” explains Ashar. This digest and television union isn’t a recent phenomenon either. Popular PTV serial Jangloos, which aired in 1989, was based on Shaukat Siddiqui’s digest serial of the same name.

It is surprising, then, how little has been written or said about the hundreds of digests that continue to print thousands of pages worth of popular fiction, and continue to provide a good launching pad for both literary careers and commercially successful television dramas. There seems to be an unpaid debt that the world of ‘adabi’ Urdu owes to these digests, and when that debt will start to be repaid is anyone’s guess.

Originally published in Herald's April 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.