Zia Mohyeddin column
A primer for the small weird loves
By Aasim Akhtar
"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that it is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that it is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"
In practice this has meant that poets quote Dickinson and proceed to write poems from which will and caution and hunger to accommodate present taste have drained all authenticity and unnerving originality. Kyla Pasha has chosen to take Dickinson at her word.
In High Noon and the Body (poems), Kyla Pasha appears to be a writer much concerned with looking over her shoulder at her past and bringing it back to the future. Reading the slim volume divided into three sections gives a sharp sense of how Pasha has developed and refined her signature tune of personal, regretful, laconic intimacy, apparently so artless and colloquial, actually so crafty and controlled.
High Noon and the Body introduces a poet at once hyper-contemporary and archaic, erotic, indecorous, and extravagant. Pasha’s poems seek outrageous avenues of access — funny, vernacular, ulterior — to the heart. Freedom of verse, freedom of love, certainly but Pasha has employed those old liberations for new exploits: hers is an imagination free to pass through all the locked chambers of association — and, in its delight in doing so, grants the poet freedom to find herself. Pasha’s work is larkish, unseemly, and riddled with joy, and these poems are not plainspoken, but luminous, impenitent, promiscuous: A brilliant sack of silk and ink and wilfulness.
Honesty is a term sometimes used to applaud want of discretion, but Pasha’s emotional openness in this book is in no sense a display. The intensity of loss, provoked afresh by tiny details is somehow wedded to the intelligence and won by the imagination. The book includes harrowing recitals of the facts — "News of you/cracking in the chest reached me/today as I spent the morning/painting my face in the mirror." — alongside metaphysical explorations such as "I see you swelling/in infinitesimal portions, mere patches/of deeper colour." This is one of Pasha’s finest poems, where the imagination moves out of the body and into the world, before returning to ordinary life.
On occasions, Pasha proclaims an anarchic pastoral, the rotting fertility of which leaves the urban in a weak tea-coloured light. Her poetry, overflowing with images of natural demise and decay, is dismissive of despair, glows with a kind of rank local merriment, and enjoys a similarly merry paralleling of archaic with contemporary. She loves a good local drama; much of her poetry takes a dramatic monologue or ballad form, which allows an objective perspective on a speaker, at the same time preserving the intimacy of a one-to-one exchange. Here the self is always a story, and it is a story that saves a lost or ghostly self and, against the odds, becomes what survives of us. Her poems are laden with unforgiving nature with speakers who go down to the root, or the grave, and speak, full of life, from what should be a place of the dead; as a poet, she sets resonating, simultaneously, a selfless faith in nature’s long view and a human fear of the brevity of things. Her melancholia, calmly meditative, is both lyrical and practical, and always frank.
The earliest poems set a tone that persists throughout the collection (though in an increasingly expansive form) — short jabs of expressionistic imagery drawing heavily on the natural world; taut, compact lines; stanzas held together more by internal rhyme and assonance than by metre. The influence of European models is very evident. There is a strong vein of brooding romanticism that echoes the later generations of expressionists — the symbolist poems of Mandelstam. There are also links to poets such as Emily Dickinson and Poe, lending her poetry that strange European/North American fusion quality. Tightly controlled and carefully measured, the poems are almost entirely devoid of any specificity. Few poems happen anywhere other than in an archetypal landscape, a realm of mythical significance.
It is a landscape of labels, signifiers, rather than things. And there is a persistent concern with the eye, and with looking. These motifs recur with such frequency that there is a strong sense of repetitiveness, but in reality it is the sound of a young writer grasping around for her voice and her subject.
For all her stylistic trappings, Pasha can be a much less forbidding poet than one might expect. For one thing, she is as willing to be funny as she is to experiment, and does a nice line in avant-garde jokes such as the neat Apologies to Suicides.
Slight as it is, the poem, which one has already read before realising that one has been told to do so, manages to say something useful about the demands and processes of reading, to tell a home truth about authors’ egos, and to be endearingly polite. Similarly, Jesus Never, whose period feel necessitates the rare presence of some old-fashioned syntax, can make post-modern treatments of language an entertaining prospect.
Pasha is continually fascinated by signs of the self’s dislocation, whether in distorted mirrors, the body or in language. But there is nearly always the presence of a contrary drive towards understanding and coherence. And it’s the tension between the two that often makes her work far more rewarding than a simple diagnosis of the post-modern condition or pieces of undirected linguistic innovation. Moreover, there is a political edge to her enterprise, an attempt to avoid writing becoming just another commodity and to construct a space where the discourses of power can be re-examined.
Pasha at times writes with intensity, "…we’ll probably sit softly/over tea and talk about nothing that we can say", observing "We know from words/that winter is, at bottom, a glottal stop …". The poems near the end of the book — which are closer to prayers or love poems — have intensity in abundance, particularly those that lament the dead, and tease the living.
"All I have is beginnings/and middles as if that is hope
And happiness, as if nothing/will end again, as if I needn’t worry.
But I worry I’ve lost/how to close things and so I/ won’t remember how to die."
Are these poems placed at the end to the book to signal a movement or development? We shall have to wait for the next book to know. For the moment, Pasha prefers to wear a resilient face, and to keep her voice jaunty. She moves through the lives she invents with a kind of casual confidence which her characters sometimes briefly share, like "Sylvia talked of tulips and white hospitals" and Addams.
It is hard not to find that assumption of freedom heady. Even if, in this particular poem, the character is hardly given Pasha’s approval, that readiness to move on is intoxicating. It teaches an odd, contemporary post-feminist courage; and perhaps that is the source of Pasha’s popularity.
That Pasha turns life into art seems, in these poems, psychological imperative rather than literary ploy: the poems substitute the repeating cycles of ritual for linear progressive time. The poems’ tense playbacks and freeze frames — their strategies of control — delineate chilling certainties and immutabilities. Which means, of course, the poems are driven by what they deny; their ferocity attests to the depth of their terror. Everything is a trick, the poems tend to say, everything is art — everything, that is, can still change. This is Pasha’s way of saying the reverse: in these poems, everything is harrowing and absolute and deadly real.
One for posterity’s sake
A useful reference book, for an objective view on the troubled India-Pakistan relationship — and how it casts a long shadow on the foreign policy priorities
By Sarwat Ali
Usually it happens that most quoted documents, declarations, resolutions and communiqués are only a part of the entire text. These quotations selected on the basis of suiting a particular viewpoint are picked out of the context and are not fully reflective of the entire text.
In the past, some of the crucial documents have been tampered with — and certain portions deleted. It is rare that portions are added to but this practice is not fully unknown. For posterity, the edited text then becomes the complete document and the reality is masked, censored and doctored. The original text brushed under the carpet is destroyed or sealed in some vault to be discovered many centuries or even thousands of years later.
Even in our short history such a thing has happened not once but many a time. Much of the history therefore is distorted or viewed from a certain point-of-view to appeal those who matter.
Countering this tendentious approach, Dr, Mohammed Zubair has taken the trouble to publish some of the important and critical documents in full for an objective reading. It is quite condemnable.
The focus of these documents is independence from colonial rule and the subsequent Indo-Pakistan relations. Some of the documents have had great historical impact, while others, no less important, have cast their long shadow on the difficult and tense Indo-Pakistan relations.
The first document in the book is the Lahore Resolution, popularly known as the Pakistan Resolution, actually passed on March 24, 1940. It also contains the much-debated Quaid’s speech to the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947 which was subsequently edited — it was perceived to be contrary to the direction being set by the Objective Resolution passed two years later as an intended preamble to the constitution. That constitution never got made. It was only left to an unelected body to frame a constitution and impose it, and this 1956 constitution was abrogated by the 1958 Martial Law imposed by Iskander Mirza.
The Quaid laid the founding principle of not mixing personal religious beliefs with the political status of an individual. He also in the same address at the end thanked the Americans for all they did for Pakistan becoming an independent country. It was Woodrow Wilson who had advocated the principle of self-determination for the colonies. The British colonies then particularly took heart and sought inspiration from it.
In the post-War World scenario, Roosevelt saw no place in the world for the huge British Empire and actually called for its decolonisation. The liberation of the colonies from the British rule and the new emerging cold war division of the world after the World War II offered a choice for the newly-independent countries and Pakistan opted for the American block — primarily due to the close relationship that appeared to be emerging then between a non-aligned India and the Soviet Empire.
The collection also includes in toto the famous 1930 Allahabad address by Dr Iqbal which is considered to be the founding document of the new state which came to be called Pakistan in 1947.
When read in its entirety it appeared to be a defense of the concept of a nation-state as against the medieval concept of the Caliphate. By keeping the example of Turkey which reinvented itself on the basis of the nation-state against the overarching concept of the Caliphate, the debate appeared to have then tethered between an independent state for the Muslims in India or a multi-national Caliphate which had quite a few followers in the subcontinent. There seemed to be a need to distinguish between the concept of the nation-state among the Muslims. These concepts had to be developed and then crystallised — which thinkers like Iqbal were busy doing at that time. The question therefore was not whether a county from within India could be carved out but what would be its relationship to the Caliphate or the Empire.
The book included invaluable documents like the Now or Never and Bangistan pamphlets by Chaudry Rehmat Ali, the Cabinet Mission Plan, Rajgopal Achariar’s Formula for Hindu-Muslim Settlement in 1944, the statement made by Tara Singh on June 3, 1947 which many think led to the blood letting of partition in the Punjab, a whole lot of documentation of the Kashmir problem, including the Instrument of Accession on October 26, 1947, the initial resolutions of the Security Council, Liaquat-Nehru Pact, the Indus Waters Treaty, the declarations regarding Rann of Kutch and Tashkent, the Six-Point Formula of the Awami League, Indo-Pakistan war in 1971, Instrument of Surrender, Simla Agreement, Formation of Saarc, Lahore Declaration, Islamabad Summit and Declaration of Social Charter and Musharraf-Manmohan joint statements.
A very useful reference book for those wanting to find an objective view on this troubled relationship between two warring countries and how it casts a long shadow on the foreign policy priorities and internal polity of Pakistan.
The most baffling opening sentence
For years, it has been my practice that while reading I scribble a line or two, which I find puzzling, (at the back of an envelope or any other scrap of paper that I can lay my hands on) in the hope of unravelling it one day. God alone knows how many of my jottings have gone astray. Fortuitously, I have come across John Sutherland’s book, ‘Curiosities of Literature’ which has not only answered some of my queries, it has enriched me considerably.
John Sutherland, Professor emeritus of English, and an expert on all things bookish, has written a brilliant book about the oddities of literature and litterateurs. His revelations about who can lay a claim to being the worst novelist, how Pottermania is leading to a soaring rate of childhood obesity or why Carlyle’s wedding night was a disaster, are seriously funny. ‘Curiosities’ has helped me survive many an insomniac night.
One of the most intriguing chapters in ‘Curiosities’ is about the worst English novelist ever. Before going into it I would like to digress a little:
There was a time when my friend, the late, Ibn-e-Insha, and I began to compile a dossier on the worst Urdu novelist. Not too many Urdu novelists were around at the time so it wasn’t difficult to narrow the list. M. Aslam, was the winner, though Asi Ramnagri was a close second. I wanted Munshi Teerath Ram Ferozepuri to be considered but in Insha’s opinion writers of detective fiction did not merit to be included in the list.
I am talking about the early 50s when both of us worked for the news department of Radio Pakistan. In those days the news bulletins were first written in English and then translated into Urdu. I was a junior sub-editor entrusted, occasionally, with the task of ‘drafting’ minor news that were to be included in the main bulletin; Insha was one of the junior translators who prepared the Urdu bulletin.
Insha wrote romantic poetry. (He was to become the Art Buchwald of Pakistan later). Our mutual passion was literature. I lived in his neighbourhood and, often, we would walk all the way from Guru Mandir, our meeting point, to the Radio building on Bunder Road, discussing Dos Passos and Dostoyevsky. I had, by then, read Huxley, Hardy, Dickens Galsworthy, Upton Sinclair, Steinbeck and less than half of ‘War and Peace’. Insha coaxed me to read Gorky, Ehrenberg and Sholokov. He thought it was time I became acquainted with what he called non-bourgeoise literature.
Back then to the ranch. Sutherland reveals that in the dark days of the 1940’s, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and some other high profile literary luminaries would meet in their favourite pub, ‘Bird and Baby’, and take it in turns to read from the works of a novelist they considered to be the worst ever. The one who could read longest while keeping the straightest face, would be declared a champion.
The novelist they had chosen to be the worst ever was Amanda McKittrick Ros, an Irishwoman born in 1860. Miss McKittrick’s real name was Ann Margaret. She borrowed ‘Amanda’ from the heroines of the Gothic fiction she loved, and added Ros as a plummage. Ross was the name of her husband, but she knocked an‘s’ off to imply (as some commentators have suggested) associations with the aristocratic de Ros family.
Amanda McKittrick Ros wrote several novels between 1895 and 1905 with titles like ‘Helen Huddleston’, ‘Donald Dudley’. Nobody ever paid any attention to her work until a humourist, Barry Pain, made fun of her gauche, mushy prose. She hit back by calling him a ‘cancerous irritant wart.’ When Barry Pain died she wrote a poem rejoicing that there was one less ‘pain’ in her life.
Aldous Huxley formed a Ros-club which met often to relish the stylistic flights of Amanda Mckittrick Ros’s quaint imagination. Ros was so deluded by the attention paid to her that she wrote: "Aldous Huxley is the only critic who understands my writing". Her most devoted reader, she fondly believed, was King George V, who, she claimed, had 25 of her novels in his library.
According to Sutherland the most baffling sentence in any literature is the opening paragraph of ‘Irene Iddlesleigh’, one of her novels:
"Sympathise with me, Indeed! Ah, No!
Cast your sympathy on the chilled
waves of trouble waters; fling it on
the oases of futurity, dash it
against the gossip of; or better still,
allow it to remain within the false
and faithless bosom of buried
I would be happy to sit at the feet of any scholar who can purport these lines for me.
Even after nearly a hundred years McKittrick Ros continues to top the list of the worst novelists. A website dedicated to the search of the ‘most awful novelist’ considers her to be the champion, well ahead of the poet, James McIntyre, a Canadian, who was the author of such works as ‘Ode to the Mammoth Cheese,’ which opens
"We have seen the queen of cheese
Lying quietly at your ease…"
My jottings are, at times, cryptic, like "Gulosity – neologism – Johnson referring to himself?" I remember now that at the time I scribbled this I thought I would ask Merlyn Thomas about it. Thomas was an Oxford don, and a Johnsonian scholar. I had once been his lodger. Alas! he died soon after I had written the note.
The Concise Oxford will tell you that ‘gulosity’ means ‘greediness, voracity, gluttony’. All these words are attached to the great — some say the greatest — lexicographer, Dr Samuel Johnson. Macaulay said of Johnson, "The old philosopher is still among us rolling his head, drumming his fingers… tearing his meat like a tiger." He wrote this from historical accounts, 50 years after Johnson’s death.
Referring to Johnson’s lust for food, Sutherland informs us that Boswell, Johnson’s amanuensis and biographer — and an uncritical admirer of the lexicogpher — had actually observed him eating a meal:
"When at a table his looks seemed riveted to his plate; nor would he, unless when in very high company, say one word, or even pay the least attention to what was said by others till he had satisfied his appetite, which was so fierce and indulged with such intense-ness, that while in the act of eating, the veins of his forehead swelled and generally a strong perspiration was visible".
Boswell must have wondered how a savant like Johnson who had spoken with great contempt of gluttons could indulge himself with such ferocity. Sutherland points out that ‘gulosity’ (coined by Johnson) is a fine neologism, "but it is clear that when Dr. Johnson looked into his mirror he did not see Dr. Samuel Gulosulus". More of such paradoxes, anon.