A word about letters
Story with a context
A strong debut that desists from the temptation of over-dramatising life in Pakistan to pander to a curious foreign audience…
By Jazib Zahir
The Wish Maker
By Ali Sethi
Publisher: Penguin Books 2009
Local literature aficionados yearn for books written by Pakistani writers with recognisable characters and circumstances. This summer, the void is filled by The Wish Maker, a debut novel by young Ali Sethi who has weaved together a family saga that unfolds amid the political turmoil in the background.
While the book was initially launched in the west, the plot is almost entirely set in Pakistan spanning the better part of the 1990s. Everything from references to roads perennially under construction to the wonder of dish antennae mushrooming across roofs is likely to resonate with those of us who have been around to witness it.
The story kicks off with the protagonist Zaki Shirazi returning to the motherland after a brief stint in college in the United States. He is preparing for the marriage of his cousin Samar Api. The plot gradually fades into flashback mode and the rest of the story traces how the main characters have reached this juncture in life.
Three major characters occupy the spotlight in turn and we learn about their challenges, their fears, and their aspirations. All want the best for themselves and their loved ones and are willing to bear obstacles to achieve their goals. First up is the protagonist's mother who is an outspoken independent female who has raised her child alone. She demonstrates a journalistic bent and it is here that we are introduced to the political turbulence of the period, and how their life continues with these concerns in the backdrop. This early portion of the book churns out a flurry of characters and the story does begin to lose its vitality at some points.
However, the plot regains momentum as Samar Api shifts to the centre of the stage. Her aspirations revolve around finding her soulmate or her "Amitabh" as he is referred to throughout the book. Along the way, she copes with false starts, the need for her actions to be shrouded in secrecy and westernised friends who have a tendency to mislead her.
The story really seems to come to life in the final third when Zaki Shirazi becomes the centre of activity. From being a background figure in the early sections of the novel, he now leads us on a journey through his school days where he learns about friendship, discipline and the setting of life goals. The descriptions of characters and their idiosyncrasies are at their most vivid as we feel the story culminating in a climax.
The multiple arcs of the plot are handled intelligently allowing interest to be sustained with the variety of emotions being dealt with. Frequent references to Bollywood movies are made reflecting their significance in the lives of the Pakistani middle class both as a source of entertainment and inspiration. The drama itself is interspersed with philosophical moments, quite akin to a Bollywood production.
While political happenings are frequently alluded to throughout the book, from the pressures of Islamisation to disillusionment with attempts at democratisation, they never contribute to the crux of the book, a fair reflection of how the working class retained a vocal opinion of politics without being actively involved in this period.
Other writers attempting to give insight into the world of Pakistan have explored before the major themes of the book such as generational conflicts and class distinctions. Nevertheless, The Wish Maker is saved from becoming stereotypical by some unique features. One is the detailed descriptions of geographic localities within the city of Lahore including the airport, M.M Alam Road and residences within Cantonment and Defence. This vivid imagery is bound to please those who have witnessed it themselves and intrigue those who have not had the opportunity.
The incorporation of political events into the plot is also meritorious since we view all events through the simple and naïve prism of a growing child who cannot fully grasp the implications of the turmoil. This gives the story a context in which to grow without letting it be bogged down in pessimism that would come from an adult perspective in this period.
Finally, the story gives special insight into the activities of the youth in contemporary times. From the excitement surrounding the opening of western restaurant franchises in Lahore to social events hosted at farmhouses in the outskirts of the city, the author is able to give us a more recent and youthful peek into life in Lahore than other writers have managed in their works.
Overall, The Wish Maker is a strong debut and should prove to be popular among avid readers. It desists from the temptation of over-dramatising life in Pakistan to pander to a curious foreign audience. In addition, it does enough to leave readers with sanguine feelings about achieving wishes even in difficult circumstances.
The Wish Maker is available at The Last Word, Hot Spot Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore
Dr Sohail Ahmed's writings are a testimony to his intimate knowledge of all the artistic and literary developments round the globe
By Sarwat Ali
Majmooa e Sohail
By Sohail Ahmed Khan
Sang e Meel
Dr. Sohail Ahmed Khan was one of the ablest teachers of Urdu Literature. He held teaching assignments at the Oriental College and then at the Government College University before his sudden and untimely death a couple of months back. In addition, it was not difficult to guess as to why he was respected and liked by his students, for the publication of his collected works, Majmooa e Sohail gives us an ample proof of that.
This collection of his writings gives an encyclopaedic sweep of the breadth of knowledge so very essential for a teacher of literature at the higher levels of education. The collection consists of his published works Alamatoon ke Sarchashme, Tarzain, Dastanoon ki Alamati Kainaat, Yung ke Nafsiati Nazriat, Tarfain, Tabeerain and Sairbeen. If the first of his writings were published in a book in 1981, the last was in 2000. It seems that none of his writings was published in the last decade of his life.
This may seem unlikely because Sohail Ahmed Khan was fully involved with the literary and academic life of the city and country. He was found everywhere, in the thick of discourse, at book launches and debates that characterised the literary landscape of the country in the first decade of the twenty first century. His involvement was not restricted to what happened among literary and academic circles in the city and the country, but also what happened in the world at large. To most Urdu writers and poets he was probably the first introduction to a bigger wider world. His writings were a full testimony to his intimate knowledge of all the artistic and literary developments round the globe. He brought that rich knowledge to his students and inspired them to look at things in a wider and bigger perspective. After going through the various articles, it becomes clear that the people he admired most too were those who had a catholic vision based on their vast reading and scholarship.
Hs first inspiration and teacher was Sajjad Baqir Rizvi who was known to tap sources other than the traditional ones, and then Muzaffar Ali Syed, considered by many to be one of the most well read persons in the country. His indebtedness to Muzaffar Ali Syed was stated and obvious. His whole approach to literature was thus not parochial and he laid the pitch where all kinds of trajectories could be played. As it is, the leading critics of Urdu have been deeply indebted to the disciple that emanated from Western sources, and despite the trends at a more myopic and narrow approach seen in recent times, his was always a more liberal and an open ended one. More open ended now than ever before, because the capital of world learning considered to be the West for centuries gave some leeway in the early twentieth century to Moscow , but in the last few decades with the world becoming culturally multi- polar, the choices have spread from China to Latin America to Palestine to Africa. The canvass was wider now than ever before and demanded a teacher or a critic abreast of all these developments and trends.
His quest also seemed to be of linking the past wit the present. The great fund of our traditional literature-- more in the form of medieval romance and legends-- had been cast aside with the onset of colonial domination. But during the course of the twentieth century, efforts were made anew to dig deep into the symbolical structures and mythological layers to arrive at a more complete understanding of the working of the human consciousness. His writings on the myths and our dastaans were truly very monumental, as he had brought to light the significance and relevance in an age that was struggling to readjust itself to a postcolonial age.
His understanding of the arts was not only limited to the written word. He seemed to be well immersed in the world of the visual arts and music. His writings on Shakir Ali, the surrealist painters and Amanat Ali Khan, the classical vocalist clearly showed that he had more than a passing fancy for these forms of art.
His writings on Rubin Dario, Antonio Machado, Juan Raman Jimenez, Rafael Alberti, Georg Traki, Saint John Perse , Ezra Pound, Goncharov, Fernando Pessoa, Cavafy, Lorca, Neruda, Kafka, Lafcadio Hearn, Hermen Hesse and Andre Gide were ground breaking, as most of these names were not known to readers of Urdu literature. It was left to the likes of Sohail Ahmed Khan to introduce these writers to the local readership and thus create an academic and intellectual climate for the fertilisation of literary and artistic ideas.
He was also quite at home with the latest writings in the local languages. In this book, one finds exquisite pieces on Nazeer Qaiser, Sarwat Hussain, Jamila Hashmi, Majeed Amjad, Muneeb ur Rehman, Nasir Kazmi, Munir Niazi, Farooq Hasan, Enver Sajjad, Riaz Ahmed, Saleem Ahmed, Akhter ul Emaan, Aziz Ahmed, Intezaar Hussain, Hasan Manzar and Nayyar Masood. Using his vast knowledge and understanding, he wrote about some poets and topics that have been written to death. His article on the symbolism in Iqbal carried with it certain freshness and his articles on Ghalib too were more in the nature of discovering the formative principles of his sensibility. These were neither adulatory nor very dismissive but presented as an argument to establish a stated position.
By Kazy Javed
Writing for friendship
Fakhar Zaman belongs to the angry generation of the 1960s and has learnt many things from the intellectual gurus like Bertrand Russell, Satre, Franz Fanon, Kafka and Camus. His dissatisfaction with the system is not confined to novels, plays and poems that he has written during the past fifty years. He has also been playing a notable role in politics to achieve his socio-political ideals.
Author of some thirty books in English, Punjabi and Urdu, he has served as the chairperson of the National Commission on History and Culture with the rank of a federal minister and is now chairperson of the Pakistan Academy of Letters for the second time. In the past, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made him Senator and Benazir Bhutto appointed him as the president of the Punjab Wing of PPP. Zia-ul-Haq did not put him behind bars, but five of his books and his magazine Wangar, the first-ever weekly in Punjabi were banned.
Fakhar Zaman is read and respected in Pakistan and India alike. Three years ago, I travelled to Chandigarh with him and was amazed to see dozens of Indians who had come from various villages and towns of East Punjab carrying welcome banners to receive him at the Wahga Border. He deserved their warm welcoming smiles, as he is the only Pakistani writer who has played a significant role in improving relations between our two nations.
In acknowledgement of Fakhar Zaman's literary, intellectual and political achievements, the Pakistan government gave him the Hilal-e-Imtiaz while the Indian government honoured him with Sharomani Award on Literature this year.
In connection with these prestigious awards, the World Punjabi Congress hosted a reception for Fakhar Zaman at the Punjab Institute of Language, Art and Culture. There were many to present flowers and others to pay tribute to him. Hamid Akhtar, Masood Ashar, Azhar Javed, Dr Salim Akhtar, Bahar Begum, Saeedullah Chaudhry, Shaukat Ali and Afzal Shahid were prominent among them.
Waris Shah is widely acknowledged as the greatest and most popular poet Punjabi language has produced. Professor Siddiq Kalim is all praise for him and says that Waris Shah had good knowledge of the people whom he depicted. He felt the very throbbing of their hearts. He, thus, became their representative poet. It is the unified sensibility which is the hallmark of his experience. The characters that he portrayed in his epic Heer Ranjha are whole men and women. Their experiences are an amalgam of not only feelings and emotions, but also of their thoughts and beliefs as well as observations.
The deep understanding of men and society, fine poetic qualities, wit and humour and a notable secular approach towards life have greatly helped him in providing us with a classic.
However, little is known about the legendary poet. It is sometimes claimed that Waris Shah was born in the middle of the 18th century in the village of Jandiala Sher Khan, some sixty kilometres from Lahore. In his poem, he introduces himself as a disciple of Pir Makhdoom Shah of Kasur. Nothing is known about the pir. However, Waris Shah's epic speaks volumes of its creator's knowledge of history, religion, Sufism and social customs of the Punjab. It also presents the poet as being well versed in Hindu folklore.
It is widely assumed that Waris Shah created his masterpiece during his long stay at the small town of Malka Hans, which now falls in Pakpattan district. The folklore tells us that he had fallen in love with a local woman there.
The Hope Press of Lahore first printed his epic, usually titled Heer Waris Shah, 145 years ago. Dozens of publishers have brought out the book since then. However, none of them had any regard for Waris Shah's original text. Instead, many of them garbled it to make it more reader friendly. It is said that these publishers hired the services of some poetasters to ghost write verse in the name of Waris Shah, which were included in the editions they published.
Historian and researcher Sheikh Abdul Aziz Barrister, who edited Heer Waris Shah with meticulous care some eighty years ago, concluded that only four thousand of some eleven thousand couplets that we find in various editions of the poem were from the pen of Waris Shah.
I tend to believe that there is nothing wrong with it. Waris Shah is a people's poet and such things do happen to such poets. Their poetry becomes the property of the people and people keep making their own contribution to it.
Anyway, Zahid Iqbal does not agree with me. He has recently come up with Heer Waris Shah which Malawati Shairaan da verva an 850-page volume that aims at pointing out forged verses from genuine verses.
Waris Shah's 211th annual Urs was observed at Jandiala Sher Khan in the last week of July. The Punjab Arts Council organised a seminar to mark the occasion while the Lahore Arts Forum that has presented more than 1500 programmes during the past twenty years, organised Heer recitation at Alhamra Cultural Complex. The Laikha, a biannual Punjabi research journal edited by Dr. Nasir Rana, has brought out a special issue on Waris Shah to pay tribute to the great poet on his 211th death anniversary