You shouldn't judge a book by its cover... but sometimes you can't resist
By Fizzah Hussain Rizvi
Ever wondered what it is that compels you to buy a strange book by an unknown author? For me if it's not an interesting name, it's always a beautiful cover. Now I know we have all been advised by the wise to never judge a book by its cover for looks, most often than not, are deceptive. True, but what is one to do if one tries her best to avoid reading the story synopsis and comments on the back page (or anywhere else) to approach a new book or author without any preconceived ideas or with what Aldous Huxley called the "virgin mind"? There isn't anything else to rely upon, now is there? Couple that with a child like fascination for anything pretty on paper and you have a perfectly hopeless case.
Though I consider myself extremely lucky as most of such obsessive compulsive purchases have proved more than worth it, but I definitely have had my share of major anti climaxes. The most recent one being a novel called The palace of fears by Alev Lytle Croutier (who?) which promised to be "an enchanting tale of love" with an absolutely fantastic classic painting 'In the harem' by Jean Jules Leconte du Nouy on the cover. Waiting to be enchanted I read and read but... let's just say that the content quality of the book was inversely proportional to the cover.
I, however, refuse to let a few such mishaps bog me down. Whether it's a photograph, an illustration or just an abstract splash of colours, an aesthetically pleasing cover is bound to beckon most book lovers to at least pick the pretty thing up once and get introduced. Needless to say, 9 times out of 10, I have come home with the above mentioned pretty thing and as stated earlier, these beauties have very seldom disappointed me. Once or twice in a while doesn't count anyway.
As a student I always found all text book covers carrying a very special message for us poor souls already stuck in a draconian environment; 'you are not here to have fun, you are here to be miserable' they seemed to be screaming out to me. This was (and still is) especially true of books from our local text book boards which, it seems, are very carefully designed to achieve the above mentioned goal. Taking a look at the recently revised and revamped English books (Compulsory and Literature) for FA part 1 revealed that though the looks and contents of the literature course books have improved to a satisfying extent but the compulsory English books remain as tacky and tasteless looking as they were 10 years ago. Coming in contact with such depressing entities every day must be useful for reminding these young impressionable minds that life is, indeed, not a bed of roses.
If you were one of those nerds at school who enjoyed reading the abridged versions of all those English classics (the only ones pleasing to the eye) in the literature courses and unlike the rest of the cool lot, have retained that love, you'll probably agree that it's a pleasure shopping for classics. They are published by a number of foreign publishing houses and each one has a unique look. Out of all those available in Pakistan, Penguin popular classics (British) are not only extremely affordable but always carry some very interesting classic paintings from around the world on the cover. Particularly mentionable are the ones on Jane Austen's Emma ('Interior' by Pieter Christoffel Wonder), George Eliot's Mill on the Floss ('Water mill at Gillingham' by John Constable) and Oscar Wilde's Complete Short Fiction ('Narcissus' by a follower of Leonardo da Vinci). It may sound paranoid (and like major publicity) but I have never bought a classic from any other publishing house to date.
From foreign classics to recent Pakistani outings, Taboo -- the hidden culture of a red light area by Fauzia Saeed is a one of its kind research on Lahore's Shahi Mohallah. Contrary to the popular subcontinent image of prostitutes and their lives, it is honest, scathingly realistic and does not judge or defend. What's truly amazing about this book is the fact that all these factors are very clear from its title page. An ordinary looking plump young woman sits on the floor wearing a georgette shalwar kameez tying her huge 'ghungroos'. There is nothing like the proverbial prostitutes found in our literature and movies about her. There are no bright colours, decked up girls and intricate designs used, like on the cover of Louise Brown's (a British academic) research work on the same area called The Dancing girls of Lahore -- selling love and saving dreams in Pakistan's ancient pleasure district. Brown obviously fell for the typical image of the area and its residents as far as the cover page and naming the book is concerned. Period.
I was thrilled when recently I picked up Tresspassing by Uzma Aslam Khan whom, I must confess, I had not heard of before. It's a thick book with a delicious chocolate coloured hard bound cover with shocking pink, lime green and turquoise yarns of thread lying on an old shelf pictured on it. I have successfully avoided reading the back page comments till now but could not resist reading the writer's profile who was found to have written a novel called The story of noble rot prior to this one. I plan to start reading this beautiful and inviting book very soon and if it's as good as its pretty cover, it'll be a classic.
Sharif Kunjahi's contribution to Punjabi expression
By Dr Afzal Mirza
I first read some Urdu poems of Sharif Kunjahi in one of the magazines of the progressive writers movement which was at its peak during the first few years after partition. The movement which was initiated just before World War II was inspired by the rise of communism in Soviet Russia and the sensitive young men of that period saw in it the emancipation of the wretched of the earth. The economic depression of that period had its effect on India and famines, unemployment and poverty loomed large throughout the country. The younger generation that had experienced hardships during the period saw the panacea to their economic problems in implementation of the socialistic order in their newly independent countries.
In Pakistan therefore the young writers joined the movement in large numbers and soon Progressive Writers Association (PWA) became the most active literary organization of the country. Sharif Kunjahi who had already started writing poetry on themes related to the predicament of common man also joined the movement after the partition and wrote prolifically in Urdu. But soon the government which had decided to support the anti-communism forces in conjunction with American agenda of the cold war period came down with a heavy hand on PWA and not only was the association banned but its main office-bearers were arrested. Sharif Kunjahi who was away from the main center of activity however continued with his literary work silently now concentrating on his Punjabi writing for which he had already made a name in pre-partition Punjab.
I remember having met Kunjahi sahib for the first time in early 1950s when our Government College teacher and famous leftist writer Safdar Mir tried to revive the Punjabi Cultural Society. It is a pity that in many write-ups on Punjabi movement in Pakistani Punjab the contribution of Safdar Mir is totally ignored. I have a feeling that had he not revived the Society and mobilized the young writers like Asif Khan, Raja Rasaloo, Akmal Aleemi and the undersigned and started holding weekly meetings the Punjabi movement would not have made strides as it made during the later period. At its meetings he would invite people like Abdul Majid Salik, Sharif Kunjahi, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ustad Daman, Ahmad Rahi and others and Board Room of YMCA would bustle with activity when a meeting of Society was called. Here in one of the meetings I met Kunjahi sahib. He came out to be a modestly dressed person totally unpretentious and a typical Gujrati with a short trimmed black beard. In that meeting he presented a paper on Punjabi linguistics. I think early recognition did not come Kunjahi's way because though he started writing in 1930s, like Majid Amjad he published his poetic anthologies much later after partition. Secondly he chose to remain away from Lahore for a long time. In his memoirs Kartar Singh Duggal has mentioned a lot about Prof Mohan Singh a contemporary of Kunjahi who is considered as a pioneer of modern Punjabi poetry but Kunjahi is missing. In his paper entitled West Punjabi poetry: From Ustad Daman to Najm Hosain Syed published in the Journal of Punjab Studies University of California well known Punjabi activist Safir Rammah has aptly highlighted the contribution of Kunjahi in these words,
"Until Partition, Sharif Kunjahi was the only Muslim poet who can be classified as a modern poet. Sharif Kunjahi started writing poetry in 1930s at about the same time when Prof. Mohan Singh introduced secular themes and a new style in Punjabi poetry. Most West Punjabi critics rightfully credit him as the pioneer of modern Punjabi poetry along with Mohan Singh. While Mohan Singh is acclaimed by East Punjabi critics as the poet who ushered Punjabi poetry in the modern era, Sharif Kunjahi's role as one of the pioneers of modern Punjabi poetry is not widely recognized in East Punjab. One reason could be that Sharif Kunjahi is not a prolific poet and has published only two anthologies of his poetry, both long after partition. He started writing poetry in early 30s but his first collection of Punjabi poetry Jagraate (sleepless nights) was first published in Gurmukhi in East Punjab in 1958, and wasn't published in Shahmukhi in West Punjab until 1965. It contained only 37 poems. His second anthology Orak Hondi Lou (dimming light) was published in 1995. Mohan Singh's first anthology of poetry Sawe Patter (green leaves) on the other hand was published in 1936 and was immediately recognized as a ground breaking book, and it is still among the most well known poetry books by East Punjabi writers in West Punjab."
As pointed out by Rammah the variation in scripts of Punjabi language practiced in the two Punjabs has been a big handicap in the introduction of the writings of both the Punjabs in the respective intelligentsias.
As is evident from his name Kunjahi was born in 1914 in a small town of District Gujrat known as Kunjah. His father Ghulam Mohyuddin who was a teacher and poet himself named his son as Mohammad Sharif. Sharif's grandfather was also a poet therefore poetry was in his genes. For me, introduction to Kunjahi came from late Prof. Ali Abbas Jalalpuri who taught philosophy in Government College Lahore. Shah sahib (as Jalalpuri was generally called) had an amazing memory and would narrate old anecdotes combining quotes of great philosophers. Incidentally Jalalpuri and Sharif Kunjahi were classfellows who attended school at Jalalpur Jattan.
Sharif Kunjahi had once disclosed to his friends why he joined progressive movement. Actually both the friends (Jalalpuri and Sharif) had a common interest in philosophy and psychology and Sharif's leanings towards progressive writers movement were due to his study of Karl Marks and Bertrand Russell. Actually he was a great admirer of the latter. Besides this he had also studied Freud, Adler and Jung with great interest. That had an effect on his thinking as a young writer. He was drawn away from old dogmatic schisms and started thinking in terms of secularism.
Though an Urdu poet to begin with, Kunjahi soon realized that best sentiments could only be conveyed in the mother tongue so he gradually switched to Punjabi altogether. Explaining why he switched over to Punjabi he once said, "Gradually I came to feel that the fragrance of this region is present in me but not in my Urdu poetry. With this feeling I distanced myself from Urdu gradually. Every language has its own emotional and intellectual ambience which influences the writer and overtakes him completely. The emotional ambience of Urdu poetry is different from from Punjabi poetry. Not only is Punjabi poetry different from Urdu, but also Persian poetry and even Punjabi mystical poetry is a different experience from Persian mystical poetry."
After his wife's death in 1980 he gave up writing poetry and devoted himself to research and translation work. His translation of Holy Quran in two volumes and translation of Iqbal's poetry were widely acclaimed. His research in Punjabi linguistics tracing the foreign influences, similarities and parallels is also of very high standard. Commenting on his poetry Safir Rammah rightly remarked, "Kunjahi's poetry is a complete break from the qissa and Sufi traditions. Even his earliest poems have all the elements of modern poetry: secularism, expression of individualist experience, awareness of social and political changes around him. Without being overburdened by excessive symbolism or extreme emotions, Kunjahi's poetry is a realistic and balanced expression of his social consciousness in a relatively simple and straightforward manner. He played a crucial role in setting new directions for Punjabi poetry and opened the doors for post-Partition poets to move away from the traditional style of writing poetry.
Towards the end of 16th century there were few English Catholics of any means who had not considered going into exile. The number of Catholics who had left England ran into tens of thousands. Ireland was rebelling against Protestant England and the new Philip of Spain was preparing another Armada. "No one knew for certain", Miss Asquith points out, "whether dissent or loyalty could prevail". The regime's spy network was so strong that people dared not discuss things openly.
It was in this climate of seething hostilities that Shakespeare produced, arguably his greatest work. According to Ms. Asquith, Hamlet is a man who, more than anyone else, embodies a covertly disaffected group of what "we would call England's intelligentia". She is probably right when she says that Hamlet is based on Sir Philip Sidney, an intellectual giant who epitomized the very best of Elizabethan England, and whose writings remain 'profoundly secular despite his strongly religious nature'.
Sidney has been traditionally portrayed as the quintessentially Protestant hero but Ms. Asquith's research shows that he was a discreet Catholic fellow-traveller. He died mysteriously at the age of 32. In describing Sidney his biographers usually quote Ophelia's description of Hamlet:
"The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's eye, tongue, sword
Th'expectancy and rose of the fair state
The glass of fashion and the mould of form
The observed of all observers"
Sidney died when Shakespeare was 22, but his disciple, Greville, who had taken upon himself the mission of fostering the cult of Sidney, was known to Shakespeare and he could well have supplied him with a string of details linking Hamlet with Sidney.
Ms. Asquith describes these links graphically: Sidney had a habit of jotting down ideas on notepads in the oddest circumstances. "He was wont even while hunting to take Table book out of his pocket and write down his notions as they came into his head". Hamlet does exactly the same. As the ghost leaves him in the first Act his instinct is to take out his tablets and note that 'one may smile and smile and be a villain.'
There are other close similarities. Sidney was prone to melancholic lethargy alternating with bursts of energy. Hamlet too, is subject to sudden demonic fits of rage alternating with manic bursts of energy. Sidney was loved and admired by his countrymen and Hamlet was loved of what Claudius calls 'the distracted multitude'. Like Sidney, Hamlet is sent away from his country by a treacherous king to be killed.
She argues that by the time Shakespeare came to write Hamlet he had become increasingly dominant in expressing his indignation at the folly of England in choosing rabid Protestantism. William Cecil, Elizabeth's Secretary of State, policy maker and key advisor, had died. Shakespeare could now take a stab at him by portraying him as Polonius.
When she dissects the world's most famous soliloquy (To be or not to be) she finds that it is a debate about the morality of revolt. The momentous decision for Hamlet is whether to risk damnation by taking life -- a mortal sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church -- and by taking life to escape the persecution that would be inevitable in the fiercely anti-Catholic Tudor era. Seen in this light, the speech addresses other significant, unanswerable questions of Shakespeare's time: the oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, the law's delay, the insolence of office etc etc.
What matters to us is not who Hamlet is modelled on -- or Polonius, for that matter -- but what the play conveys to us. And it certainly moves us today as intensely as it has, generations of playgoers, in the last four hundred years. Shakespeare dwells upon all the ethical and moral issues of his age and expresses (in a divinely written speech) the agony of a thinking man. The question he asks still haunts us in our age. Is it moral to rebel against a tyrant? Is it a duty?
It is hard to believe that Shakespeare's entire dramatic energy was spent in countering Protestantism or that his sole purpose was to write drama glorifying Catholicism. No man who takes up a religious cause can create a Hamlet, an Othello or a Lear. If Shakespeare had written to a propagate a cause, his conflicting characters would have been his mouthpieces and not so sharply delineated and individualised.
Ms.Asquith is far too astute an analyst to suggest that either. Indeed, when she examines Ophelia's relationship with Hamlet in which a subtle exploration of spiritual issues of the day is integrated with a failed love affair, she writes that the 'Get thee to a nunnery' scene 'typifies the delicacy with which Shakespeare blends the political and the universal'.
Nearly every one of Shakespeare's fellow dramatists underwent some form of danger ranging from imprisonment, exile and even death. The imprisonment -- as in the case of Kyd, the author of Spanish Tragedy -- was accompanied by torture. And yet Shakespeare who, in hidden language, activated 'the call of the resistance' in nearly all his plays, never fell foul of the authorities. The reason, she says, is that Shakespeare's dramatic structure and his motives become a drama of soul and its protagonists (following the hidden code of England's post-Reformation vicissitudes), become so multi-faceted that they universalize their struggles in resonant language distilled from centuries of humanist Christian thought.
Shakespeare's cautious artistry was so great that his hidden language remained undetectable to succeeding generations that accepted the official version of English Reformation. The subterfuge was essential if he and his work were to survive. He was writing in a climate more dangerous, more oppressive than anything experienced by his predecessors His greatest concern was that the true history of the age would never be told. He needed to find a new method of writing, one capable of recording the whole unhappy story of England's political and spiritual collapse against the background of a regime for whom the slightest topical reference was justification enough to imprison a playwright.
As a proof that Shakespeare pleaded for the cause of the recusants in most, if not all of his plays, she offers a clue that lies in a strangely insistent passage written by the editors in the first Folio published in 1623, which asks the reader to look beneath the surface of the greatest universal plays to something hidden below.
Ms. Asquith is of the view that when Shakespeare realized that even being the favourite court dramatist, he had not been able to exert any influence on the monarch -- James 1 who had succeeded Elizabeth -- to bring about a change in the official anti-Catholic policy, he gave up and retired in Stratford. From now on he would only produce ordinary drama.
Even if you do not agree with her arguments, Shadowplay (steeped in scholarship) is one of the most original and compelling works on Shakespeare. As a result of Clare Asquith's findings, Shakespeare's dramas begin to take on a significant new dimension.