There are no comparisons in a writer's life
One usually forms an opinion about an author's personality after reading their work, in some cases true to the tee, in some cases, completely off. But Nadeem Aslam is as intense as his work, both in his mannerisms and his personality. The author of three highly acclaimed books, the most notable Maps for Lost Lovers, Nadeem is all about the details. When we meet, we talk about Pakistani film posters and peacocks in Kallar Kahar of learning how to write Urdu with siyahi and takhts, conversations that are a far departure from the usual question expats ask, "how are things going in Pakistani politics?" Despite having lived in Bitain since he was 13, Nadeem remains firmly grounded, and has not severed, but he has cemented his links to the country via his writing. He is currently working on his fourth novel and spoke to TNS about his difficulties as a writer and what's on his iPod.
By Huma Imtiaz
The News on Sunday: After having published three books, how are things now going with you as a writer?
Nadeem Aslam: Three books as a writer, some things have gotten easy, some things have gotten hard. Now I know what needs to be done before I begin my novel, I know how to trust myself and not panic. I've done it three times, if I play my cards right I'll be able to do it a fourth time. Some things have gotten harder; I know that a book isn't something I do for myself, and it goes out in the world, that there is a response. Whether I like it or not, there is a tiny fraction of me thinking, 'what are people going to say about this?' The wonderful thing is that when you're an artist or you write or are trying to make art, you begin with those concerns. When I sit down to write, every concern, everyone in the world is in that room with me. Slowly as I continue to work, people and things begin to leave, and in the end, it's just me and the concerns aren't really there at all.
TNS: You went to an Urdu medium school, and barely spoke any English till you were thirteen, but that doesn't come across in your work. How was the transition to learning and writing in English?
NA: I really don't see that as a problem, the language. You learn. The transition was hard; you could say it's hard, it's easy. Sometimes your life doesn't seem so hard to you because there is no comparison. I was watching this film where this child is found to be dyslexic, and they explain to the child what it is, and that 2+2=4 he knew that, and the kid said "I knew that". The doctor tells him other boys and girls know that this is + sign and this is 2, they know how to do the math. And he looked at the person telling him this, and his eyes filled up and said, "but that's not fair!" For him the first struggle was to figure out the problem. The kid says I can do the math. Up until that point, he didn't know what that thing was to begin with.
Everyone to an extent has a certain form of dyslexia, and mine was this. Of course, there are people out there whose first language is English, therefore they write in English and their lives have been easier, and for me to say that's not fair and I had to learn it and it was hard and to get where I am, so it was both hard and easy.
TNS: All of your books have had characters who were older in terms of age – is it because they're based on people around you?
NA: That is true. All three of my books have to an extent been about disappointment, and the idea of disappointment is that you have to have lived a certain amount of life to accumulate disappointment. But the new book I'm writing about, there are no old people, and the main character is aged 19. So I think I'm going back to see how you get to get to that point.
TNS: Another central theme in your books has been persecution? Does that also come across due to personal experiences?
NA: It must be subconscious, I haven't ever thought of that – the story I want to tell, everyone has to have faced a certain amount of pain, and in The Wasted Vigil, everyone appears wounded and broken. I think I need to get happy thoughts!
TNS: When you're visiting Pakistan, how do you research for a book?
NA: Well, in terms of research, it'll be March when I will be in Pakistan, I'm going to write down March 2009 in my notebook, and then look out of the window and see what kind of blossom is on the tree, what kind of state the mango tree is in have the mangoes formed, what flowers are there… I have to be precise. I was looking at my notes from the last time I was in Pakistan. I sat in my balcony and an eagle went by, I saw how many times it beat its wings and if you see an eagle, it beats its wings and then it glides. As a writer I needed to be precise, as to how many times the eagle beat its wings before going into the glide.
TNS: Precision is very important to you as a writer. Why? Or is that a particular style?
NA: That might be because I want to go into the past, and a lot of those books are introspective. You can't just say that he stepped into the white hall and started thinking about the white charpoy that his grandmother used to sleep on. The white wall has to remind you of something, it's a transition, these are technical things that a writer does. There are writers who are very spare who I also love, and there are writers who are very expressive like Nabakov, and I love them as well.
TNS: Describe a day in Nadeem Aslam's life when he's in Pakistan.
NA: When I'm in England I like to sleep during the day and write during the night. But when I'm in Pakistan I can't do that, because I'm there to observe. I like to stay up late and see what kind of night sounds are there, how the sky looks like at night, how many stars are there. The last time I was in Pakistan I visited Gujranwala, Lahore and Faisalabad where my relatives are. I would get up very early, around four or five in the morning and I would write. By 8AM it gets boiling, so I write till about then and then I would sleep. I wanted to see the banks of the river Indus, I want to see the blind dolphins, the monuments and Moen Jo Daro, it was great. This time I go, I'll go to Lahore, go to Jahangir's tomb and wander around, and I'll be coming to Karachi as well
TNS: Who are you influenced by and what are you reading these days?
NA: I just finished Daniyal Mueenuddin's book, and I can't recommend it highly enough. It's a magnificent book, and he's a magnificent writer. In Urdu, I like Intizar Hussain and Mushtaq Yusuf Mir, wonderful prose stylist. In poetry, I like Habib Jalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Parveen Shakir.
TNS: So what's on your iPod?
NA: Ghazals, by Farida jee's voice, and I like some of the Punjabi folk music, Reshma, when she get's going is great.
Huma Imtiaz works as a correspondent for Geo News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Anwer Zahidi's book is powerful, where the memory of an old era disturbs the main character and, where the sounds and smells of old lane wield immense appeal
Mandir Wali Gali
By Anwer Zahidi
Publisher: Dost Publications, Islamabad, 2008
Price: Rs 175
Altaf Hussain Asad
The literary resume of Anwer Zahidi is quite impressive. His association with literature is life-long. The early literary ambience in his home proved to be a tonic for him. Syed Maqsood Zahidi, his father, was a poet and 'Rubai' was his preferred genre. So naturally Anwer Zahidi too followed the path of his father. Not only he, but his sister, Mahtalat Zahidi and his brother in law Asad Areeb, are also enriching the Urdu literature with their creative pursuits.
Taking great benefit from the very conducive atmosphere at home, Anwer Zahidi lived a life in which literature played a central role. At first, it was poetry which stirred his heart. 'Sunehray Dinon Kee Shaeri' was his first collection of poetry which he published in 1984. Since he was an avid reader of world literature, he translated poetry as well as prose from English to Urdu -- be it the poetry of Hermann Hesse or the autobiography of Pablo Neruda. He also translated selections from Iranian and Portuguese poetry into Urdu.
'Mandir Wali Gali' is his latest collection of stories which is also the book under review. 'Azab-e-Shehr Panah' and 'Mausam Jang Ka Kahani Muhabbat Ki' are his other two books of stories. While judging his latest book, one can state that, like any other creative writer, Anwer Zahidi is a dreamer. He thinks of a world where human values used to be sacred.
As the society is changing quickly, life is becoming unbearable for a creative artist. There is so much around that can hurt a sensitive person. Any man with average intellect can carry on his routine life. The onus of depicting ugliness of the society falls on the shoulders of writer as well as poets.
Anwer Zahidi finds himself at odds with the changing façade of life. When he sees so much disorder around him, he goes back in time and brings back the memories of the old era. Nostalgia is the basic ingredient of his stories. To tag him, a full time nostalgic would be not correct. His nostalgia is mild and it does not get jarring on mind. The aroma of old surroundings haunts him and he quite often finds himself in times of yore. Old age enthralls him a lot. The memory of loved ones with whom he passed his early life puts him in trance. But here one needs to remind the readers that he is not fully soaked in his past only. He knows well that time has to move on and no one can stop the movement of clock. He is not pessimistic.
'Jungle Kut Raha Hai' seems to be a simple story. But it is not the case. This story attains new meaning if one reads it a bit closely. It is a powerful attack on the bestial instinct of man who is destroying his abode with his own hands. Despite all the progress in science and technology, human being remains as deadly as it was in stone ages. Not much has changed over the centuries. Man seems to be an eternal destroyer. That's why he is always out to destroy this planet. With just one deadly step, he turns this lovely world into a virtual hell. Each era produces Halagu Khan of its own. Vetting another story 'Gumshuda Kahani', one comes in for more surprises. We all know that revolution brings gigantic changes in the society where it erupts. The old order is relegated and society wears a new look.
Anwer Zahidi scans a revolution with a different angle. At times the fragile human relationships undergo irreparable loss in the whole process. The above mentioned story revolves around the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Revolution separates an ordinary lover from his beloved. As everything becomes topsy-turvy in the wake of the revolution, another small revolution occurs in the lives of the lovers. This story shows how ordinary people become victims of a grand event. Surely, each revolution changes the course of many ordinary lives. 'Mandir Wali Gali', which is also the title of the book, is a powerful tale. The memory of an old era disturbs the main character of the story. The sounds and smells of old lane wield immense appeal on him. Life becomes a bit unbearable for him. But sadly, he is unable to bring back times spent in old lane.
This slim book consists of 16 stories which show Anwer Zahidi as a powerful craftsman. Deep study of the western literature has broadened his outlook. But his roots are firmly in our eastern society where there is dearth of noble values these days. Since he is a doctor by profession, he has an advantage of analysing life quite effectively.
Anwer Zahidi writes very beautiful prose. It is not loaded with too much metaphors and similes. 'Mandir Wali Gali' is an example of his artistic finesse.
hair in its place
The theatre of Raunaq,
Zareef, Murad, Karim, Abdullah, Ahsan et al. reflected a world where every
emotion was scrawled in greasepaint. Unlike today, actors were not afraid to
strike a part plumb in the middle; they mouthed their speeches like the
town-crier and they sawed the air with their gestures; they projected
themselves; there was no mumbling and none of what we call "whispering
into the collar." There was no attempt at psychological probing of a
character; actors acted to the hilt and nobody called them "ham."
The word had not yet assumed its theatrical connotation.
The theatre in which
the dramatic capabilities of our dramatists were sharpened grew almost
entirely in imitation of English drama of the time; indeed it was the model
of the decadent, Victorian theatre of the mid-nineteenth century.
The London theatre of
the 19th century was, unashamedly, straightforwardly theatrical, its
practitioners shunned anything that did not conform to the accepted mode of
dramaturgy. Classical acting, that is to say, whatever had come to be
regarded as classical acting, was full-blooded. The sets were
photographically realistic. Every hair was in its place. Towards the later
part of the century, the Lyceum became the temple of the British stage. Its
high pontiff was Sir Henry Irving, perhaps the greatest of the star
actor-managers. The actor- managers ruled over their empires. Declining age
did not deter them from playing a Romeo or an Orlando. Benson played Hamlet
when he was over 72.
The glittering stars of
the Victorian -- and later, Edwardian -- theatre could not care a tuppence
for the new-fangled Theatre of Ideas, which compelled actors to act in a play
as it was written. Irving told Sardou the French impresario (who presented a
lot of plays in the West End) that he had never acted in a play as it was
written and would not do so even if the author were the Archangel Gabriel.
refused to open his theatre to the new wave of playwrights, led by Shaw. Shaw
and others had to rely on private stage societies to present their work.
Their efforts were, of course, pooh-poohed by the theatre managements and the
And so the theatre, in
which ducks and drakes floated on "real" lakes, kept producing
make-believe melodrama. The playgoers loved it with all their hearts.
The only difference
between the London and the Bombay theatre was that in England, by the close
of the 19th century, the theatrical theatre found itself embattled with the
Theatre of Ideas. In Bombay, however, the spectacular Urdu melodrama had no
such challenge to contend with.
The productions of the
Parsi actor-managers (nearly as autocratic as Irving) were just as
over-theatrical and over-elaborated, but they were not ill-made. The
managements made absolutely sure that the musical comedies and tragicomedies
had the right quality of music and that the lyrics were joined to music as
music to text. Not only that: months were spent on creating the scenery and
the pictorial drop-curtains (always referred to as "drop-scenes" in
the published texts of Urdu drama).
The theatres of Bombay
may not have had the rococo interiors of plush, tarnished gilding, the
plastic caryatides and the cherubs blowing long, gold trumpets (although one
theatre, built by a wealthy Hindu merchant, was supposed to have been
modelled on the Adelphi), but
the words that resounded in the auditoria were thickly coated in gilt.
Here was a commercial
theatre of star personalities, a comfortable theatre whose patrons liked the
Grand Guilgnol. They loved the roguish swagger of their favourite stars and
they loved music that was in tune, scenery that was sumptuous, and costumes
that were gorgeous. Above all, they loved the grandeur of the theatre. Real
enthusiasts saw a play, more than once. A friend of my father, whom I
remember as a wizened, turbanned figure, had seen Hashr's Safaid Khoon more
than thirteen times.
Actors were cheered
vociferously and often rewarded for their histrionics on the spot. It was not
uncommon for the gay blades of the city to summon an actor to their presence
after he had "died" heroically. The actor would leave the stage,
step down and be given a golden ring, a necklace or hard cash, and plenty of
In the 1890's Hashr,
our 'Indian Shakespeare', was learning his ropes. His earlier plays did not
draw the crowds like Munshi Mehdi Hassan Ahsan's Chandravli, but Hashr's
innate flare for dialogue -- a mixture of prose and poetry -- and his command
over the language, his sense of making the lines speakable and to keep his
play moving, soon established him as a front rank playwright.
As a producer and
director he was no less flamboyant than his contemporary, Herbert Beerbohm
Tree, who ran Her Majesty's theatre in London. Like Tree, Hashr had a love of
the magnificent, the spacious and the grandiose. He spent lavishly on
creating scenic rampaging unrivalled in his time.
It is ironical that in
the 1890's, while the Urdu melodrama was wallowing in the bombast and bluster
of Ruritarian surroundings, Moscow was producing Chekhov's Seagull, a play
with that wonderful first act set in the ancient park of Sorin's lakeside
estate where a stage has been erected among the trees.
There, in the summer
evening, at moonrise over the lake, the girl, Nina, will act Konstantin's
play to a gathering of Sorin's guests. They are all there -- the flaunting
actress, the pitiful schoolmaster, the famous novelist, the world-weary
doctor, the doting uncle, the boorish property manager and his love-sick
daughter -- watching Nina struggle with the lines in a play that speaks of
"world grief", a play that the actress Arkadina's thoughtless
laughter must bring to an end.
Singing is heard far
across the glimmer of the lake. Slowly, the gathering moves into the shadows
until only the steward's sad daughter and a philosophic doctor are left on
the stage to declare themselves. It is an intensely moving Chekhovian coda.
In this act people
reveal themselves, their regrets and their frustrations. They are in mourning
for their lives; they desire passionately what they will never have.
The piercing moment of the play occurs in the fourth act when, like a
bird beating its wings against a glass window, Nina returns for a moment from
the dark and we see her as she stands, her life ruined by the caprice of the
I mention it only to
point out that at a time when our theatre was saturated in syrupy
sentimentalism, theatre in Russia had advanced from ostentatious realism and
exaggerated emotion-mongering towards understated psychological realism.
But let us leave the
Chekhovian subtleties and return to the celebrated Agha Hashr, and look at
one of his most popular plays, Nek Perveen (The Virtuous Perveen).
(to be continued)