Arbab-e-Zauq was not established to counter Progressive Writers' Association'
word about letters
Texture of dreams
Naiyer Masud's macabre, dreamy tales have remained impenetrable to readers and critics, baffling yet mersmerising them alike
By Bilal Tanweer
Often the finest ideas are received with a resounding silence. And usually, the reason is the inability of the audience and critics to place the new ideas within the conventional parametres of understanding. Naiyer Masud appeared on the landscape of Urdu fiction in 1971 when he published his first short-story, 'Nusrat'. According to Mohammad Umar Memon, "Some Urdu critics praised his work, in casual newspaper columns or in coffeehouse banter, but none of them could tell the reader what was good or bad about it, or even where it led. The message, the meaning, the experience remained elusive."
Thirty-six years later, Naiyer Masud has affirmed his place in the annals of Urdu fiction as one of its finest short-story writers, but the absence of serious critical comments on his work is conspicuous only by its absence. This is also an indication of the stagnancy in Urdu literary criticism, which has remained far behind its intellectually vibrant and constantly evolving Western counterpart. In Masud's case, however, the reason for the lack of cogent criticism also lies in the nature of fiction that Masud has produced: it eludes supervening ideas and its dreamy character is unlike anything else in the realm of Urdu literature.
Written as monologues, the stories centre on the experiences of one character. The impenetrable nature of Masud's fiction is supplemented by the lack of any cultural or spacio-temporal context -- unnamed protagonists, narrators with unknown ages, unidentified places and social settings. The only anchorage for the reader lies in the extremely familiar symbols: of trees and foliage, descriptions of buildings and their architecture. In an interview with Dr. Asif Farrukhi, Masud admits it as being deliberate.
"My effort [is] to suppress spatial and temporal specificity. Which is why I don't use personal names, except for perhaps three or four in all my stories. Perhaps even once or twice the name of a city has crept in. I do not refer to religion either. In 'Simiya', for instance, I've deliberately refrained from using the word qabristan; instead, I've used the word murda maidan [ground for the dead]. And why? Simply to avoid an overt reference to a Muslim cemetery. If my stories don't correspond to a recognizable time or place, this is entirely on purpose; that they should be beyond time and place…"
Masud's work is often compared with the likes of Kafka and Beckett. It is a valid parallel, I believe. Masud's work, at some level, is reminiscent of 'Waiting for Godot'. Masud's characters make the choice to wait for things to happen, for time to pass and inaction is the highlighted action. Masud's protagonists are like Estragon and Vladimir who evade choices, constantly attempting to bypass questions about the worthiness of these choices -- which, as we know, is the impelling force behind making of choices. In 'Ganjefa', for instance, the protagonist says,
"[…] I started to sneak out looking for work, but I didn't know the first thing about how to find work. I just roamed around as I used to and then came back home. After a few days when I went out I didn't even remember that it was to look for work."
It is also valid, I believe, to understand Masud's work in the existentialist streak, though there is a catch. In Masud's work, the theme of essential meaninglessness of existence pervades and forms a strong undercurrent in his writings. However, it must be noted that Masud's characters, unlike Camus' Sisyphus, do not 'negate the gods and raise rocks'. Rather, they avoid the whole activity of fundamental questions. In 'Nudba', Masud opens his story as follows:
"I have spent my life in fruitless diversions. And these days I spend most of my time wondering what, if anything, I have gained from them -- which is my latest, perhaps final, perhaps even most fruitless diversion."
This is a crucial difference between the life-affirming existentialist writers like Camus and Sartre, and Masud. In one of his interviews, Masud acknowledges that "he is more interested in being than searching for meaning". Because of this attitude, the sterile atmosphere which enamours Masud's stories is further deepened.
Richard Kearney, in his wonderful book, 'The Wake of Imagination', while commenting on the existentialist imagination, notes: "The greatness of the absurd creator lies in the fact that he no longer presumes to produce universal truths. He is content to produce myths -- albeit 'myths with no other depth than that of human suffering and, like it, inexhaustible'."
This observation can be illuminating in understanding Masud's fiction. Indeed, his work can be best understood as interplay of intertwined myths -- all invention, all futile, all passionless -- created without a sense of time and place.
And yet there is one theme, of death and decay, which can be considered as the hallmark of his fiction. Most of his stories are about decaying humans whose deaths are inevitable. His tales carry a trademark macabre flavour where death hovers over the settings and narration like a ghost which is not content with its acknowledgement by the characters, but seeps into their lives, and at an unpredictable moment permeates the characters completely. Throughout the story, death's leash, long and taut, plays a role in defining the story. Herein also lies Masud's strength. He never lets death overpower life, or life to see death too blatantly -- lest it ceases to function. The prose remains subdued, and allows death to remain invisible yet omnipresent. It seems almost as if the author creates room for death, and when enough is created, death comfortably sits in place of characters without a noise. Death, usually, never comes as a surprise in Masud's stories, and even when it is abrupt, it is portrayed unmindfully.
Voices experimenting in Urdu post-realism have found a mature exponent in Naiyer Masud. From his fold have emerged ideas and subjects that were not present in Urdu fiction. More importantly, Naiyer Masud's fiction takes a sensibility that's also largely absent from the language. Without doubt, his is one of the most original voices in Urdu fiction -- one that deserves much greater intellectual consideration than he currently receives.
'Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq was not established to counter Progressive Writers' Association'
By Dr. Abrar Ahmad
Professor Ashfaq Bokhari, author of 'Lyallpur Kahani', discusses his book and Urdu literature
The News on Sunday: In 'Lyallpur Kahani' you revisited the past of the city. Was this research inspired by a personal longing for the past?
Ashfaq Bokhari: It is a common impression. My respected friend, Prof. Ghulam Rasul Tanvir, always puts this question, 'Were you actually there?' In fact Lyallpur is not the source of 'Lyallpur Kahani'. It was the mysteriously harmonious flow of waters in the area of 'Bar' which caught hold of me. Water is not only the source of life, it brings along civilisations at social structures. I've labelled the sounds produced by the flowing water as 'Deewan-e-Aab' and labelled 'hydro- connotations' to the symphony it produces. It is definitely a new stratum of creative perception. We are settlers at Lyallpur, not actually belonging to this part of the land. But this locale is my reality now. The dust of the streets and bazaars of this city has enveloped my heart.
The inspiration behind writing on the city is the same nostalgia which one develops after getting accustomed to the environment he lives in for years. With passing age, the feeling of getting consumed with one place gets intensified. I feel, there is a river flowing within me. That's why perhaps I have equated my life with a river, an ever-flowing river. As Romain Rolland wrote: "I have conceived and thought of the life of the Hero and the book as a river". Same holds true for me.
TNS: Do you think the British rule was a positive influence?
AB: I am not reluctant to admit my admiration for the British rule, and I express it frequently in my book. But we must remember, Lyallpur was named after the then-governor Punjab, Sir James Lyall. Imagine how barren and lifeless was this land of 'Bar', with its resources so clearly visible yet unexplored. It was the administrative and constructive capabilities of the English, coupled with hard work, which developed an efficient canal system, railways, health and education services, and consequently sowed seeds of prosperity and civic society in the region. Why we shouldn't we thank them? Although their imperialistic motives cannot be overlooked either. They kept looting the wealth of the subcontinent but who owned it prior to them? Rajas, Maha-rajas and the aristocracy, not the common man. Those areas of Pakistan where the British didn't set their feet, remained deprived of a reasonable human situation.
TNS: The narrative in the book is fluent and captivating. Why didn't you go to fiction straightaway?
AB: You are referring to the diction and the fictional element in my work. I have never tried my hand at fiction or poetry in that sense, primarily due to my professional academic commitments. As the Head of Urdu Department, Government College and now G.C.U Faisalabad, my preference has always been towards passionately teaching M.A. Urdu students, particularly those who are inclined towards fiction. I always enjoy fiction by re-living it.
In December 1997, I had to undergo heart surgery and was confined to a bed for the long time. One fine day, suddenly as if someone whispered to me to open the book of 'Lyallpur Khanian'. The moment I started reading, I could clearly see the shining glimpses of the city. Everyday a new story caught hold of me and augmented my trance. I was like Alice in wonderland. When I stepped towards the forgotten times, it was mist all around but I didn't stop and conceived Lyallpur as a bright coastal city with its arms ready to embrace me. It was like the lap of mother. A. Hameed's intense sensitivity and emotionality accompanied me, and I found myself visualizing and feverishly writing column after column, which appeared in local dailies, 'Gharib' and 'Awam'. My book is in fact the collection of these columns. No single person can uncover such a vast area, I do admit this but I wrote what I could, as Stephen Leacock said, "Every Professor has his life's work. Sometimes he does it, and sometimes does first."
TNS: Its almost a unanimous inference that the Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq was established to counter and compete with the powerful progressive writers' movement? You categorically declare it a misconception. Would you expand on this?
AB: One only needs to follow what the leader of the Halqa, Meera Ji did during his life time. There has never been any direct opposition by the Halqa against the progressive writers. In July 1940, Halqa published an anthology of selected poems which include the progressive writers like Josh, Faiz, Qasmi, Matlub Farid Abadi, and Makhmur Jalandhari, all regular members of the Anjuman. It's a grave misconception that Halqa was established against the progressive writers.
TNS: The phenomenon of writer-historian is emerging forcefully on the literary scene. Don't you think, this can end up in distortion of history?
AB: There is no basic difference between a historian and the fiction writer, both being the integral part of the caravan of the civilization. The only difference is their manner of writing. Francis Bacon writes:
"The parts of human learning have reference to the three parts of man's understanding. History to his memory, poetry to his imagination and Philosophy to his reason."
Modern Urdu novel is replete with resonance of history, that too with tremendous success. Twentieth century is often referred to as the century of knowledge and democracy. Quratual Ain Haider's novels 'Aag Ka Darya', 'Aakhir-e-Shab kay hamsafar', 'Seeta Heran', 'Housing Society', while Jamila Hashmi's 'Dasht-e-Soos', all belong to the same tradition, where history and fiction are beautifully blended together. 'Lyallpur Kahani' is a fiction with historically correct references. No distortion of history has occurred here.
TNS: What are your comments on contemporary Urdu literature?
AB: Such pronouncements are the job of big critics, not me. Only Hassan Askari could have the courage and self-assigned authority to declare, 'Urdu literature is dead' at a time when greats like Manto, Krishan, Sajjad Zahir, Saher Ludhyanvi, Faiz, Makhdoom, Meera Ji, Rashed, Quratul Ain Haider, Ismat Chughtai, all were writing at their prime. I am an ordinary teacher and student of literature. However, I can observe that 'taghazzul' from our ghazal, 'story' from our fiction, 'impartiality' from research and 'courage' from criticism are all gone -- and the major reason is dictatorship. Zia-ul Haq's ideological dictatorship proved to be disastrous for Urdu, in fact, an anti-revolution. Adab for Aakharat was promoted although the resistance literature didn't fail to emerge as a counter-phenomenon. Thanks to the powerful international print media, our writers are now climbing out of this deeply dark pit.
TNS: Do you think our society is returning to the book reading habit? What should be done to improve our situation?
AB: We need to make efforts to improve the situation. In education boards, more enlightened scholars must be inducted. Our books need revision. We are still using old works. If you ask a post-graduate student of Urdu about Mir, he would immediately quote a couplet from his 50-year old textbook by Dr. Syed Abdullah. This is also indicative of the level of current scholarship.
A word about letters
By Kazy Javed
We are familiar with Bhartari Hari through one of his couplets translated into Urdu by Allama Iqbal in his book 'Bal-e-Jibreel'. Many of us enjoyed the couplet but no effort was ever made to ascertain details of Hari's life and work. Two Indian scholars, Gori Shankar Lal Akhtar and Jay Krishna Chaudhry, translated Hari's Sanskrit poetry into Urdu many years ago. They also penned brief notes on his life and time.
Some historians of literature believe that the first Urdu translation of Hari's poetry was made by Prohat Gopi Nath. It was published from Bombay in 1894. Perhaps, Allama Iqbal had come to know the poet through this translation.
Now Dr. Akhtar Shumar, a noted teacher, critic and poet who has, among other publications, eight collections of Urdu and Punjabi verse to his credit, has compiled a book under the title 'Bhartari Hari: Aik Azeem Shair'. The book, published by the Beacon Books of Lahore and Multan, carries selected verses of Hari taken from Gori Shankar Lal Akhtar and Jay Krishna Chaudhry's translations. Dr. Akhtar Shumar has contributed a long-drawn critical appreciation of the life and works of Bhartari Hari.
Hollywood's fascination with the lives of British writers has not faded. A recent newspaper reports that Jane Campion, the New Zealand born scriptwriter and director, who won the Academy Award and Palme o'Dor at Cannes for best screenplay in 1994 for 'The Piano', is getting ready for directing a biopic on the early 19th century English poet John Keats. Keats is remembered as much for his poetry as his tragic love affair with Fanny Brawne that ended in Rome in 1821 with his death. He was 25 at the time of his death.
Jane Campion has chosen 'Bright Star' as the title of her film. The title "comes from a love poem for Fanny Brawne which Keats wrote in the flyleaf of his copy of the works of Shakespeare. It begins: 'Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art.... It finishes with the following memorable lines:
"Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender taken breath,
And so live ever or else swoon to death"
Keats encountered Fanny Brawne in 1819 and fell in love with her with a consuming passion; a love whose "only safety valve was his poetry". Ailing with tuberculosis, his health kept failing while he assiduously nursed his dying brother. It was during this period he produced his finest works, which include: 'Ode to a Nightingale', 'Ode to a Grecian Urn', 'The Eve of St Anges' and a number of sonnets. Keats spent the last year of his life in Italy because of its suitable climate. He wrote many letters to Fanny Brawne from Italy, which reveal some of the extraordinary intensity of love he had for her.
Jane Campion is focusing on these letters which have been translated in many languages. An Urdu translation of these letters was published in the form of a book in the late 1970s under the title 'Keats ke Mohabat Namay'. Many of Keats' poems have also been translated into Urdu and published in various literary magazines.
Saqib Rizmi, a progressive writer and literary critic, translated about a hundred poems of English romantic poets and published them in a book titled 'Shelley, Keats aur Byron ki Numainda Nazmain'. The book was published by 'Aaina-e-Adab', Lahore in 1985. Its preface was written by Faiz Sahib who praised the translations. Rizmi's book carries a brief introduction of Keats and 24 of his poetic pieces in translation. The famous sonnet 'Bright Star', too, has been included.
Two cheers for
Punjab government has announced the Best Book Awards for 2001 and 2002. Poet and art critic M. Athar Tahir's Calligraphy and Calligraph-art has won two prizes: the Best Publication as well as the Best Book Prize for 2002. The book was published in deluxe edition jointly by the Pakistan Calligraph--artists Guild and UNESCO Pakistan. Sardar Assef Ahmad Ali, the former foreign minister who is known for his love of books, while reviewing the book termed it as "the most beautiful book published in Pakistan till date."
Athar Tahir's book postulates an original thesis about the confluence of western and Muslim aesthetics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It traces the various elements from traditional Islamic calligraphy that were transformed under the influence and catalysts of Western art and led to the emergence of a new international genre in contemporary art: Calligraph-art.