By Dr Abrar Ahmad
Mubarak Ahmad and Pak Tea House were inseparable till both ceased to exist. Mubarak was an integral part of Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq also. One fine evening I entered Tea House to take my seat on a side table and ordered a cup of tea when some one whispered from behind, "order two cups. I'll pay!" followed by a hearty laugh. There he was, Mubarak Ahmad with glowing pink complexion, restless eyes behind thick spectacles, wearing a typical cap on the head and a worn out 'Dosteovyskian' coat. He always reminded me of the eccentrics of Dosteovysky's novels. -- an image that got stronger as years passed by.
Once seated, he looked for something in his pocket, hurriedly taking out his cigarette pack and a plastic container which he evacuated on the table. There were tablets all over -- so familiar to me. Vitamins, painkillers and diazepam (a sedative). He picked one of each kind, swallowed without water and started stuffing back his plastic bottle. Attaining composure, with an air of thoughtfulness, he would say: "I am forgetting your name!"
It didn't come as a surprise since it was perhaps the fiftieth time he said this. I would smile and remark, "This is the last time I am telling you my name". His face remained impressionless and I could never decipher whether he actually forgot names so easily or just posed. With the wink of his eye he brushed aside the remark and began talking in his typical vein. There used to be a new idea he wanted to convey each time. Then he would bring out vertically cut pieces of paper that carried his poems. He would begin reciting. By this time the table would be surrounded by quite a few writers who gathered around him. So Mubarak Ahmad was the focus of attention for the evening.
My first interaction with him dates back to 1983, when he recited a poem to us in a town's tea shop. The poem was enchanting and replete with tenderness and pathos since it was inspired by the tragic incident about Ashiq Hussain, who fell in love with Hema Malini, crossed the border, reached her residence and on being stopped from seeing her, punctured his eye balls with a sharp knife and probably died. I vividly remember his bright face all soaked in tears. He sobbed and his voice broke during recitation. That day I felt an immense liking for him which stayed till he died a few years ago.
He was born on July 24, 1925 in Gujrat where his mother Barkat Bibi Haya owned and ran a school in a grand building taken over by government during Bhutto's regime. He got married at the age of 18 but as he observed in the preface of his 'Kuliyat', he always suffered and had a disturbed family life.
'Zamana Adalat Nahin' was his first collection of poems published in 1965, earning him the repute of an excellent poet with modern sensibility. He was the same poet about whom Meera Ji remarked as early as in 1947, "If someone is closest to me in diction and literary ideology, it's Mubarak Ahmad" (Ahmed Bashir writing on the flap of Kuliyat-e-Mubarak). The book contained 18 poems but subsequent years had something totally different in store for him. He rebelled against all conventional art forms and chose the role of being the loudest advocate of prose poem. The experimental era to which he belonged was of lofty ambitions and juvenile errors but it finally succeeded in initiating the revolution of taste and imaginative renewal which led to relative clarity about the new trends we witness today.
But it wasn't him alone. Iftikhar Jalib, Mohammad Salim-ur-Rehman, Gilani Kamran and Qamar Jamil along with a few others proved far more effective tools of change though Mubarak Ahmad also remained closely associated with charged theorisations and arguments initiating endless discussions. Still he had his own manner of doing things. He called himself 'ummi' (not formally educated) and a 'clown'.
He couldn't properly argue so he took to issuing sweeping statements and paradoxically had humble poetic works to offer. He harboured within an element of strangeness which was reflected in his lifestyle and more importantly in his poetry. He was a poet to the core and led a non-conformist's life despite hardships. He reminds me of the proverb, "The whole world steps aside for the man who knows where he is going!"
When around 1998, he finally succeeded in getting his works published titled 'Kuliyat-e-Mubarak', his excitement was spectacular. He proudly declared it as the greatest book of poetry ever created in any language. He never doubted the validity of his claim.
He was a product of a wholly intuitive preference, developing according to the law of his own temperament. These traits surfaced at an early date, soon after the publication of his first collection (1965). He believed in high seriousness in literature but knowingly or otherwise never took himself or the trade so seriously.
As a person he remained highly energetic and youthful till his last days. He was lively enough to quickly fall in love. To him the female authors primarily Sara Shagufta, Azra Abbas, and Kishwar Naheed to a lesser extent, were the major poets of our times. No male author could ever impress him to that extent. He had his own methodology of evaluating a work. An interesting comparison is included in the preface written by him where he has compared himself with Rashed, Faiz and Nasir Kazmi by applying mathematics and counting the number of lines per poem etc.
When Sara Shagufta visited Lahore he was the most restless contender to host her. Quite interesting tales surround the incident. Later, when she committed suicide in Karachi (1985) he was terribly shattered and became an all-time mourner and advocate of her excellent poetry. In another volatile phase in 1990s it suddenly dawned upon him that the salvation of mankind rested in democracy and he had come to revolutionise the world. He turned into a great admirer of Benazir Bhutto and wrote countless poems. Now he was writing the manifesto of 'World Government'. This proved his last emotional excursion. I often think that he was fortunate to have been saved from the gloom encircling the entire country after the brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
Guilt dominates the theme of postcolonial writings and migrant literature: guilt of being white or brown
By Sidrah Haque
In a recent article, Uzma Aslam Khan discussed how the moral justification of the 19th century colonising white man was 'civilising' the native, whilst the moral justification for 21st century imperialism is 'liberating' the native. Khan goes on further to define the neo-Orientalist, a brigade of hyphenated writers (Pakistani-American, Anglo-Indian, Afghan-American) who subscribe to the "the West saved me, and so can it you" philosophy. Hence, what was previously Kipling's white man's burden, whence exotic East was explained in simpler, xenocentric terms to its western citizens -- awaiting fresh news along with their cargo of spices and teas -- has made way to the freshly-scrubbed army of brown men and women who now go about explaining this odd, vague Oriental island.
Postcolonial literature is very much about guilt. It was a guilty thing. Whether it is Barbara Kingsolver flat lining the Colonists, attaching a portion of guilt to her silent, shopping-bag totting fellow Americans to the misadventures carried out in Belgium Congo in the name of Civilian Advancement, or even if it is Gabriel Garcia Marquez penning down pokerfaced stories on the unpeopling antics of Imperialist Warfare (carried by the then Banana Company). Or even if they be modern day hyphenated writers that chop off their roots, writing on the oppressions of the east and the freedoms of the west, guilt dominates the theme of these postcolonial writings and migrant literature: guilt of being white or guilt of being brown.
Colonisation is still going on, only it is not the traditional boatload of crusaders arriving at supposedly 'empty lands' from which to pillage, or feed the slave trade. Colonisation continues on in the form of military, political, financial and cultural strings that are pulled to control the 'Lesser World'. The Washington Consensus that gives the right to the Bretton Woods Institutes to maintain a level of control over structural adjustment policies, dangling out the promise of aid, crippling today's third world countries. WTO neo-liberalist agenda ensures that in the name of Globalisation, government support is withdrawn to third-world farmers that need it the most, in order to provide a 'level playing field' with the Big Boys up west, who can afford the research and developmental cost of high-yielding varieties. Country can be invaded under a half-baked alibi that most of the world did not believe, yet not a single person could halt. Sub-Saharan Africa is not expected to reach poverty alleviation goals or complete primary enrollment by the next 140 years. The guilt should very much be there.
From the heap of hyphenated writers, emerges Khaled Hosseini. As wildly endearing as Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner, was, his latest offering failed to fling itself atop reader's hearts. It failed to claim itself. Mere platitudes will only take one so far. However, heart can be taken from the world that Hosseini pens around himself, the Kabul of his Books. No matter what critique his stories may fall prey to, Hosseini was undoubtedly born to tell stories rather then to fix bones, or cure coughs. Whether it is the fertility of the Indus that teems over to feed the land and the people with this virility: the people of the subcontinent are above all, great storytellers.
Telltale signs point towards a continuance in Hosseini's books: the orphanage manager with chipped eyeglasses, Zaman, makes an appearance in both books. The Taliban continue their savagery in a sequential manner. And the Capital falls over twice.
The mind goes back to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, or even Gabriel Garcia Marquez's imaginary Macondo that was the backdrop of so many of his tales. Khaled Hosseini could be to Herat what Thomas Hardy was to Dorset -- "the historian that observes and recreates a freely imagined land", as Albert J. Guerard wrote in his preface to Return of the Native. There is no stopping Hosseini from creating a series on his imagined towns and townspeople, filling in the backdrop to a disintegrating land; perhaps a tribute to what his heart calls home.
Hosseini and others must write on: they must plough the soils of their lands to uncover a fairer picture of what is brown. The neo-Orientalist agenda that is dominating the markets and bookshelves must stop or must stop being read. Cultural impeachment is at stake, and it is up to the responsible writers to come out of their grottos and explore the vast shades of being brown. That is perhaps the fairest thing of all.
I don't know about you but it happens to me again and again. Whenever I switch on the television to watch snooker or tennis (the only two things worth watching left in the world) in which I desperately want one side to win, the fact of my switching on to watch will almost certainly make my side play worse and start losing.
Life's vagaries I suppose. We are all governed by superstitious beliefs. It is my belief that it is not my ineptitude but divine intervention that stops me from knowing how to operate a video-recorder even though I have been taught the method by several people, including my eight year old daughter. Other patently false ideas which I now believe in, are: (i) that when I ring up the speaking clock, the first thing I will hear the voice say is "... and ten seconds." (ii) that the phone will stop ringing when I get to it.
All the classier books on literary criticism like 'Subjectivity and Structuralism' begin with some such esoteric quotation as "nihilism...Oh nihilism" Xiang Hue (12th century)". This is done to convey the impression that the author's scholarship and this understanding of various philosophic studies is profound. I went through the Oxford Dictionary of quotations in the hope that I pick something that might give this column a touch of class. Alas! I couldn't find anything appropriate.
Quotations can be found in dictionaries; quotes only live through a press cuttings file. When Shakespeare says "Discretion is the better part of valour" it is a quotation, but when Woody Allen says "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it by not dying" it is a quote. A quotation can outlive its source but a quote remains tied to its source.
Those who find space in the Oxford Book of Quotations belong to the higher echelons of novelists, dramatists, historians, philosophers, musicians or musical composers like Thomas Beecham. Woody Allen is an exception. He is now gaining more popularity for his one-liners than his films. People use one-liners without thinking it necessary to describe the source. Look at Oscar Wilde. How many people have seen his play, 'A Woman of No Importance'? Hardly anyone in my neighbourhood. It is therefore not known that in the play Wilde describes fox-hunting as "the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable", a remark we utter frequently.
Mark Twain immortalised himself not through his 'Adventures of Tom Sawyer' but through his many cracking one-liners: "What a good thing Adam had. When he said a good thing he knew nobody had said it before."
The best stuff has all been done. We, hacks, keep pressing on with our scribblings in the hope that we may, one day, strike lucky and come out with a devastatingly witty phrase that we would be remembered by.
I write best in my sleep; the style is lucid and the writing is witty, revealing, evocative and invariably, elegant. It's a pity that apart from the odd word, I cannot recall much of, this ingenious prose in my waking hours.
In the mid-twenties an American professor asked Bertrand Russell about his style and influences that had gone into forming it. Russell explained that he had spent his youth in a cultivated, old fashioned atmosphere reading Shakespeare, Scott, Shelly and Keats and picking his way through his grandfather's library. Later, at Cambridge, he had read Gibbon, Goethe, Swift, Racine and Corneille and that from his practice of reading aloud he had acquired a sensitivity to prose rhythms. From the age of sixteen he had formed the habit of turning a sentence over and over in his mind until he had a combination of brevity, clarity and rhythm. "Brevity, especially, I always desired. I wrote very carefully with many corrections, until I passed the age of thirty. After that I felt that my style was formed for good or evil. Style counts fundamentally... to ignore style is to make of life a succession of jolts and jars, a football scrimmage instead of a dance".
When I first read this I bristled with indignation. I am now reconciled to what he said. How could I have developed a style in prose? I didn't have a grandfather's library to go through -- and I never went to Cambridge. By the way, did Russell know that the last line would be picked as a quote for the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations? Probably. He was a wily old bird.
The aesthetic relativism of our age compels us to believe that everything is up for whatever interpretation we put on it and that every response is as valid as any other.
Not so long ago the surface of a piece of sculpture that had been placed at the entrance of what was, for a short while, called Kucha-i-Saqafat (Culture Alley), was scratched by some unruly characters. When I pointed this out to the sculptor he was philosophic about it. He didn't mind, he said. At least it showed that people felt something.
To feel something assumes that feeling something is better than feeling nothing. I am not sure that I subscribe to this notion. There are times when feeling nothing is infinitely preferable to feeling something. When I look at the purposeful destruction of women's faces on billboards I become worried about the unbridled freedom that the zealots now enjoy in many parts of our country. Should they go on defacing posters because they 'feel' something?
Not to feel, we fear, is not to be alive. We dread ennui and indifference as evidence that there is something wrong with us. Agony aunts are inundated with letters saying, "What is wrong with me? I feel all empty inside". The advice they dole out is invariably couched in cliches.
I remember the time when we were studying T. S. Eliot. Our chat in the Coffee House often centred on how empty we felt. We would quote Eliot:
"We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Our dried voices when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless."
We loved that. And we, believed we understood his poem, 'The Hollow Men'. We were inhabitants of an abandoned land and the others were all living in a superficial world.
These days we are told all the time to feel something and believe something, not just believe anything, but believe in the right belief. Our school teachers should be at pains to point out those ills which proceed from the minds of men who feel too much -- men who ransack libraries and hack and slash beautiful images carved in stone.
Better to feel nothing. The world may be coming to an end. If it does, I would rather it ended with a whimper and not a bang.