in the works
Prince of alienation
A word about letters
"I'd like to think that all the characters are facets of my persona"
Author H.M. Naqvi talks to The News on Sunday about his novel Homeboy, seekh kababs and more
By Huma Imtiaz
Writing is no easy task. Authors often share horror stories of discarded drafts, long nights spent stringing sentences together, the fear of rejection and not writing well enough to meet their self-imposed standards. Years pass in their toil to produce a novel.
However, H.M. Naqvi, author of the recently published Homeboy, wrote a novel in Class 5. "I don't remember the title," he says, "but it was inspired from Gulliver's Travels. It was quite a feat at Class 5, I stapled pages together and folded them to make it appear to be a book."
Naqvi, who has been writing since he was six, says he primarily wrote short stories. "The only novel that I've completed is Homeboy, which I wrote between 2003-2007."
Homeboy, Naqvi's first novel, revolves around three characters -- Chuck, Jimbo and A.C. -- and how their lives change in the aftermath of 9/11 in New York. Naqvi says he does not quite remember the genesis of the novel. "What I do remember is that I was in New York, and there was a lot of anxiety and the way I dealt with my anxiety was to write. Whether it was about historical vicissitudes or any experiences that I had, that's why I write."
"I started writing Homeboy in downtown Manhattan in a place called CBGB and I wrote the first few lines on the back of a cocktail napkin. Two weeks later, I retrieved the napkin from my pockets when I was emptying them. When I transcribed the few lines, I felt that I could continue writing, so it kind of whimsically evolved. It started off as a poem; I didn't have the ambition to write an entire novel, so slowly and gently it happened."
Each character of Homeboy resonates with the reader, whether it is A.C.'s charm and sarcasm, or Chuck's nostalgia for Pakistan or Jimbo's unwillingness to confide in his father, Old Man Khan, while attempting to keep his relationship with his girlfriend Duck together. What characters came first to Naqvi when he was writing Homeboy? "The characters that first came to me were A.C. and Old Man Khan; perhaps the two most animate characters. I would like to think that all the characters are facets of my persona, so I have an A.C. in me and an Old Man Khan in me. Having said that, there are also parallels of people I have come across. And as I wrote I wanted the characters to have an archetypical resonance, so that anyone could read the book, whether its' here in Pakistan or in the US, and they could find that they have come across people like these."
In a time when 9/11 literature, music and films have taken over the world of arts and culture in the last five years, one wonders if he was worried about Homeboy being dubbed as yet another 9/11 book.
"When I started writing Homeboy, there was no 9/11 literature in 2003. It was a very unusual and unique project. Since then, there has been a profusion of 9/11 literature; there's been Ian McEwan, Joseph O'Neal, etc. I think that every historic event produces a body of work, whether it is World War I or World War II, Partition, Vietnam, etc, so this is the role that an author has to supplement reportage. By the time Homeboy was published, I knew there would be comparisons, but again writers are still writing about World War I, Matt Parker still writes about World War II…Homeboy is not the first novel about this or the last.
One often hears of publicists, agents and publishers trying to force the book into a category, and at times, even the book art. I ask Naqvi whether that was hard to deal with during the publishing process.
"I think of Homeboy as a coming of age story, like Huckleberry Finn or the Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps my first novel would have been a simple coming of age story as most first novels are but I was contending with a changed socio-political landscape as a background. I convinced my publishers that it was more a 9/11 novel. In the cover of the American edition, the book cover has New York in the background but the boy's eyes in the foreground. So symbolically, the cover represents my understanding of the novel. When HarperCollins was publishing it, they asked me whether I wanted a cover. I have always had a relationship with visual art and so I thought it would be exciting to have a Pakistani artist design the cover. I asked several Pakistani artists to read the book, and I forwarded their slides of the canvases to HarperCollins and they picked the one that they thought had. So Faiza Butt, who is this very hot contemporary painter, had done a canvas that depicted the narrative on canvas. And the cover works because the American cover strikes you when you walk into a bookstore from afar; Faiza Butt's cover is appreciated the closer you are, you can feel the texture of the painting."
Growing up, Naqvi read everything from J.R. Tolkien to Patras Bukhari and Nabokov and later, contemporary American fiction. "Now I've been re-reading J.M Coetzee, I've read Naipaul and have just picked up an Urdu novel called Kai Chand Ke Talay Asmaan by Shamsur Rehman Farooqi."
Naqvi describes his gruelling writing schedule. "While I worked on the novel I used to work till 6 am, wake at 2 pm, have breakfast at 3:30 pm. Then I'd nap till 6 pm, and have a second session from 9 to 11 pm and then have dinner and so on."
"So weren't you working while you were writing?"
"I have been unemployed for so many years save several semesters teaching at Boston University. At BU they'd given me a morning class, which I couldn't take because I wasn't up in the mornings, as a result they were good enough to give me an evening class. I usually work in two places, my home in the morning and my second sessions are usually outside, I need to get outside. In Cambridge, there was a chai khana where I would hold office in the afternoon and evening. Its similar in Karachi, I have one session during the day and then at night."
As a reader and book critic, one often comes across the reference to Pakistani food, usually seekh kababs, in most books written by authors of Pakistani origin; Naqvi too dedicates paragraphs in his book to seekh kababs. When I ask him about the reference, he says, "I think eating is integral to our collective identity. When I think of what it means to be a Pakistani, Nihari, Karhai, Daal and Aloo ki bhujiya are integral to it, as is Qawwali and other more traditional markers of identity. I also think that food has not been written innovatively in South Asian literature for some time. Open any book written in the last ten years and you get a waft of tamarind from the pages, and I wanted to turn that on its head," he laughs, "Maybe my next project will be a master of spices!"
"Well, Ashwariya Rai was the Mistress of Spices, so if you were to write this book and it was filmed, who'd you get to play the Master of the Spices?" I ask. Naqvi says, "It would be a masculine take on the culinary art and I would think somebody like Shaan or Rangeela if he were alive could have played the role that would have been a different take on it."
Since Homeboy was published, Naqvi has been working on short stories and reportage. One of his recent articles, published at GlobalPost.com, is a wonderful travelogue on his trip to the Nani Mandir in Balochistan. "I have started a longer project as well, but I don't know where it'll take me."
Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan and can be reached at email@example.com
The journal is reflective of the seriousness with which academic work in being taken these days
By Sarwat Ali
Edited By Dr Sadat Saeed
Publisher: Shoba e Urdu Government College University, 2009
Price: not mentioned
Postgraduate studies are characterised by research and analysis as against undergraduate studies that concentrate more on passing down already available knowledge -- not necessarily encompassing knowledge creation. The long tradition of serious scholarship at Government College, now Government College University, has been demonstrated repeatedly with the publication of the journals brought out by the various postgraduate departments.
Tahqeeq Nama, the journal of Department of Urdu edited by Dr Sadaat Saeed, a well-known and recognised scholar of Urdu is reflective of the broad interests of the editor through the variety of articles pertaining to various aspects of linguistics and literature.
The heartening aspect of the writings is that very few have been written by already well-known writers and scholars, as most of the articles are by a younger age group.
The article on the auditory imagery of Faiz Ahmed Faiz by Riaz Qadeer is quite informative for it takes into account the other aspects of poetry than pure meaning. Actually meaning should not be searched for in a verse or in poetry, it should be the sum total of artistic aspects that should be able to offer a more effective communication.
Usually poetry is taken as a glorified substitute for statements. Poetry is not a statement; it encapsulates the metaphor, imagery, rhythmic patterns, stresses, and its musical fallout as all these convey the total impression of the verse or the poem. It is more likely that all these fall in order but it is also likely that they do not -- then the poem or the verse opens itself to multiple level of interpretation which explore the interplay of all this with the state mental worth of the words or verse.
Similarly, another informative article is about the etymology of words by Afzaal Ahmed Anwar. It is one of the essentials of linguistic researches, but as we all know, our dictionaries fail to track down the origin of the words. In all dictionaries, for example of English, one of the fundamental requirement is to trace the origin of the word -- for in tracing down the origin is the true meaning of the word. The only function of the dictionary is not to give meanings to the words but also to give the number of meanings and state reasons behind the variety of meaning. It then can be scanned back to the actual source of the word.
In Urdu, unfortunately, it is not a normal practice and the said article on the words that we use and their original meanings and origins is a sociological study of how foreign words have been appropriated and given a slant that is local.
Then there is a patent criticism of poetry, particularly our poetry, being removed from the day to day reality and presents a much-mediated version of life around us. There have been calls to decipher the stylised expression and relate it to the events or significant events that take place to mould human consciousness. Whatever the merit of this argument, for there is merit even if it is partial, the article Pakistani Ghazal Ke Istaare o Ishare Aur Asre Shuaara by Dr Muhammed Kamran gives a view on how in poetry the events that happen on daily basis are reflected in our idiom of poetry.
Iqbal has been written to death in Pakistan and the scholarship has conditioned round his political correctness. In this country, his vision has been restricted to the fact that he was only responsible for creating the design of this country called Pakistan. Iqbal's vision of good was not limited to a set of people but to mankind in general. He saw embedded in the historical consciousness of the people the chances of addressing the fundamental problems that have always bedevilled mankind.
One such problem is of creativity and energies that lie hidden in mysteries of inspiration. This is indeed one of the most entangled areas of human existence and poets love grappling with the impossible. Dr Shafeeq Ajmi's article on Iqbal's aesthetics has been seen through the eyes of Rafiuddin, a typical approach that has restricted Iqbal to an understanding of religion as interpreted by an individual. This has been pointed out as a case study of the limitations that have been imposed on Iqbal by those who see him in a particular light. There is nothing good or bad in cinema (Iqbal had been dismissive of cinema) as there is nothing good or bad in the other forms of art, it is the content and its formalistic compulsions that make it so.
There are a few articles like by Dr Muhammed Haroon Qadir on the inadequacy of the research that has been conducted and the need to do more. The value of these articles lie more in establishing a correct methodology of research, particularly in literature and the arts. Some have been highlighted like the works of a great poet or classics that need to be looked at again with this new approach. Similarly, there is a fresh look at the classics not of literature but of criticism that have been studied in the light of the recently-acquired critical tools.
The article on Iftikhar Jalib by Muhammed Iqbal Kamran too is a peep into the past when the poets of new sensibility and a corresponding idiom appeared to be so fresh and groundbreaking. In hindsight, probably they did not leave the impact that was expected or that was felt in the age or period that they lived in. Now it seems they are only relevant to the people who had known them personally. Overall, Tahqeeq Nama is a good effort that is reflective of the seriousness with which academic work in being taken these days. It should be taken just as seriously for tools and canons of criticism to be established independently of the western prototypes from which we have derived our own rules and principles.
What distinguishes Mazharul Islam from the rest? A new book on his life and work tries to find out
By Altaf Hussain Asad
Kahani Mazharul Islam Hai
By Dr Safia Ebad
Mazharul Islam conjures up a world where there is melancholy, loneliness, and acute alienation. His characters are quite unusual as they are constantly in search of purity in this otherwise impure world. Purity in all emotions is their main concern, which makes them misfits in our system that is based on sheer hypocrisy. Mazharul Islam is a rare phenomenon in Urdu, as there is hardly anyone around whom one can compare with him. Dr Safia Ebad has evaluated Mazharul Islam's genius in a very well written book Kahani Mazharul Islam Hai.
Usually local books written on personalities can be very drab reading due to various reasons. The foremost reason is that such books are written to earn M.Phil or Ph.D degrees. A vast number of such books are not easy and illuminating reading at all. Writers usually try to finish these books in a hurry, cramming the book with mammoth facts.
Ebad is not one of them. Many years ago, she chanced to read a book of Mazharul Islam. That book mesmerised her to say the least. She became a passionate admirer of his fiction and read everything written by Mazharul Islam. That is how the desire to evaluate Mazharul Islam developed in her. There was no academic compulsion at all. That is how "Kahani Mazharul Islam Hai" was born. The book is an attempt to probe what distinguishes Mazharul Islam from the rest of the Urdu writers.
Divided into eleven chapters, there is hardly an aspect of Mazhar, which she has not touched upon. Mazhar does not believe in sloganeering, as words are sacred for him. He pays utmost care in choosing the words. There is no effort to use highfalutin words to harass the readers. As he himself stated many times, he learnt the art of story telling from the potter who kneads the raw earth with his fingers in a deft way. When he applies such caution in choosing words, it is natural that his prose is not detached and cold. Rather it is velvety as well as aromatic. He is an idealist at heart who unmasks the nasty faces of the hypocrites who prosper a lot in our society. Not only merely embellishing his prose with symbolical words, Mazhar is almost pitiless in his attack on those who have made our lives polluted.
Ebad has inserted the quotes from his books at many places to give the narrative a more authentic tone. A character in his book Baaton Kee Barish Mein Bheegti Larki graphically depicts the dilemma of our terror-stricken age: "O mother I am tired now. I am running out of patience now. I can't see the state of our city now. I am being suffocated. Ignorance and deprivation is spreading in the city. We are being made to dance like monkeys with the butts of the rifles". Now we do not need to learn rocket science to decipher the underlying meaning of these words. These prophetic words capture our tormenting experiences in this age. Without sounding political, he has successfully alluded to the malaise that haunts our lives.
A recurring theme is his works is his longing for suicide. His characters yearn for suicide, as they cannot tolerate sullied life no more. Ebad has dedicated a full chapter on how Mazhar got fascinated with suicide. Mazhar believes in suicide for suicides sake only; suicide for any other purpose is loathsome for him. Death is as alluring for him as is life. A character of his says, "Life is an afternoon snatched from deaths pocket." Ebad has given the excerpts of an interview of Mazharul Islam in which he explains his infatuation with death: "Death is sheer purity. No one has been able to pollute death. You can sully your life, your society and the whole world. But you cannot sully death. I often thought of committing suicide when I was young and I even tried once but was rescued".
Ebad has tried to let the author speak at many places, which really adds to the advantage of the narrative. Due to the innovative style of Ebad, the reader feels great thrill in evaluating Mazharul Islam. The only novel of Mazharul Islam Muhabbat Murda Phoolon Kee Syymphony also comes under the scrutiny in the last chapter. Dr Safia Ebad, who teaches Urdu in a college, has really shown great promise in the genre of criticism.
By Kazy Javed
Two cheers for Fakhar Zaman
President Asif Ali Zardari was in tune when he invited some 300 participants of the International Conference of Writers and Intellectuals on Sufism and Peace held recently over lunch at the President's House. The participants had come from all over the world. Hobnobbing with them, one could get the impression that they were happy for getting an opportunity to spend a few days in the country that is mostly known for religious fanaticism.
Attired in traditional Sindhi dress, the president highlighted the role Sufism could play in humanity's struggle for a peaceful world. Presenting Sufism as the wonderful antidote to religious extremism, he told writers and intellectuals, who had come from 40 countries, that Sufism purified the human soul and created an environment where the dark forces of terrorism could not find any space to grow.
The president's words of praise for Fakhar Zaman for arranging the conference echoed the feelings of the late Benazir Bhutto who, inaugurating the first international conference of writers in Islamabad in 1995, asked Fakhar Zaman to organise such conferences 'frequently.'
Therefore, Fakhar Zaman was happy. He had fulfilled the desire of his leader by holding the second international conference after 15 years. However, he was also convinced that the philosophy and teachings of our great Sufi saints could greatly help us in defeating the gruesome forces of terrorism. Sufism, he averred, preaches universal love, peace, harmony and pluralism -- all the good things that we have lost.
Almost 50 foreign delegates who spoke at the conference supported him. The speeches or the papers of Pran Nath Nevile and Dr. Fatima Hussain of India. Dr. H. Agus Maftuh Abegebril of Indonesia, Vito Saliemo of Italy, Muzana V. Pskhn of Russia, Peter Curman of Sweden, Jouisou Ep Nefati Zohia of Tunisia, Niki Marongou of Cyprus and Eliam Amidon of the United States were particularly applauded. However, in my opinion Madam Jaana Kristina Nikula of Finland, Jack Hoste of Ireland, and Tulasi Diwasa Joshi of Nepal were the best speakers.
The conference provided me with joyful opportunity to come across many old friends. Tang Mengshang, head of the Chinese delegation, who is a friend since the days he was a student at Lahore's University Oriental College, was there. Meeting Munir Ahmad Badini was a pleasure beyond words. He is a former student of the Punjab University's Department of Philosophy and has published 45 novels as well as three collections of plays in Balochi.
Holding of two international conferences of writers in the face of formidable odds is an achievement of more than ordinary importance. Through these events, Fakhar Zaman provided writers and intellectuals of the world with the rare opportunity to assemble under one roof and raise their collective voice for peace and pluralism. However, Fakhar Zaman has many more feathers in his cap. He organised 10 other regional and international conferences of writers in Pakistan, India and Britain under the banner of the World Punjabi Congress during the 1990s, which played an important role in promoting peace in our region and developing cultural relations between India and Pakistan.
The loss of Agro Sahib
When I met Taj Joyo, secretary of the Sindh Language Authority and a noted cultural activist of Sindh, at the writers' conference, he had saddening news for me. I inquired about my old friend Ghulam Rabbani Agro and he told me that Agro had passed away some days ago.
My last meeting with Agro took place last December, when he came to Lahore to attend a meeting of the Iqbal Academy's Board of Directors. We spent a whole evening together talking mostly about the ancient history of the Indus Valley. He looked healthy and gave no indication that the hands of death were soon to take him away.
Ghulam Rabbani Agro was a greatly respected figure of Sindhi literature. He is counted among the pioneers of modern Sindhi fiction, and appeared on the literary scene in the early 1950s. A close friend of Sheikh Ayaz, he served Sindhi Adabi Board for about four decades and played a pivotal role in making the Board the leading centre of research and publication on language, literature, history and culture of Sindh. Later, he also served as Pro-Vice Chancellor of the Sindh University and Chairman of the Pakistan Academy of Letters.
Bano Qudsia was all praise for Ayesha Khan's debut volume of short stories, Dyar-e-Ishaq, when it saw the light of day a few years ago. She expressed the hope that if Khan continued to write she "will soon become a bright star of our literary world."
Well, Ayesha Khan has not ceased writing and her second collection of short stories has now hit the bookstands. It is titled Umeed-e-Bahar and has been published by Ilam-o-Arfan Publishers of Lahore. The 160-page book carries only four short stories but they do make us realise the wisdom of Bano Qudsia's judgement.
Shahzad Nayyar's maiden book of poetry has been published by Kaghadhi Paerahen publishing house under the title Barfaab. It carries nazms and ghazals but as the three eminent poets -- Amjad Islam Amjad, Wazir Agha and Ahmad Nadim Qasmi -- point out in their comments printed on the dust-jacket of the book, Shahzad Nayyar's nazms are more engaging than his ghazals.