to the real
By Ameem Lutfi
TNS: Simple question to begin with: why Urdu?
Daniel: As with anything, it is a coincidence as much as anything that has led me to Urdu as opposed to, say, Swahili. But, beyond that, the vast range and variation of the language has always made it irresistible – and challenging. I am a fickle person and my mind tends to wander. So it is fortunate that Urdu's pastures are wide enough for me to graze without having to look into other fields. Linguistically, the range of grammatical and spoken variation is enough to keep even a native speaker on their toes. English may vary a bit from, say, California to Virginia, or even New Zealand to Australia, but this is nothing compared to the difference between the language of say Lucknow and the villages surrounding it. To the speaker of Urdu, it might seem a simple matter, but even understanding a Bollywood movie can be a great challenge. Bombay Bhaiyyas speak a Hindi-Marathi mishmash but serenade their romantic interest in high-register Urdu. Village babus elide their syllables, flatten their vowels, ravage their z's, and make even English words incomprehensible while dealing with high-pitched, high-society types with suspect names like Malhotra and Broganza who always seem to speak at a lilt. And I love it. It is clichéd but variety is the spice of life, and the amazing expanse of language that comes under the heading of "Hindi-Urdu" has kept me hooked, and probably will do so for the rest of my life.
Even on a literary level, Urdu has a reach that few languages can claim. As a truly composite and cosmopolitan idiom, it is integral to an immense number of traditions. Within the corpus of Urdu Literature you find the powerful expressions of an Urdu-speaking community infinitely larger than that projected today. Bhajans to Krishna find space alongside cries for help to Ali in countless Qawwalis, while Urdu translations of both the Quran and the Ramayan are available. Though I started learning Urdu coincidentally, it was the beauty of the language that has made me stick to it.
Julia: I think Urdu as a language reflects South Asian culture more generally. I have always been fascinated by the history of Urdu and how that history affects the way people mix words from different languages. Basically as a research student, one studies history, literature, or contemporary culture and politics and I feel that knowing Urdu is necessary for me to see how all of these fields interact.
TNS: How do you think studying Urdu in America, a country that apparently has nothing to do with Urdu, is different from studying it in India or Pakistan?
Daniel: I personally am a lot more comfortable studying Urdu as a literary subject in the US (not just as a language to be learned in order to bargain better or show-off at restaurants) than here because I am accustomed and I appreciate the academic rigour or set of principles of criticism being used here. I am often frustrated by the scholarship that I encounter on Urdu works produced in the subcontinent. Many of them only seem to be repeating the plots of novels and poems to save the reader the trouble of actually reading the whole book. Of course, it might be a bit ethnocentric to say that my own nation's style of criticism is the best, which I do not want to do, though I often feel that literary scholarship in South Asia is often less rigorous or probing than I would have hoped for.
Julia: I have benefited a lot from my classes in the USA, but speaking Urdu in Pakistan and India is what makes learning Urdu fun. Studying Urdu in the USA has helped me to understand the language grammatically, but I have learned much more about how people actually use the language studying and traveling in South Asia.
TNS: Despite an abundance of Urdu literature the field of Urdu literary studies continues to remain critically underdeveloped. I mean you barely ever find literary criticism of any merit on any thing that is not written by Ghalib, Faiz or Iqbal. What do you think is the main reason behind this dismal situation?
Julia: One of the major factors I think is that not a lot of students are getting into the field of Urdu Studies. I guess this situation is mainly because of the place Urdu Studies occupies in popular perception. The public continues to scoff at non-English literary studies and people have this attitude where they assume that "he's only doing a degree in Urdu because he was rejected by every other department. Plus I feel that writers writing in English don't pay enough attention to articles and books being published in Urdu.
Daniel: At some point, you have got to stop blaming colonialism for everything, but I do think that the lack of literary criticism has to do with the strong tradition of Urdu literary exchange being torn apart by colonial politics – the destruction of Delhi in 1857, the promotion of a "new, modern poetry" supported by the likes of Azad and Hali, and, of course, the Partition. Even if, as some have argued, before these events the tradition of literary criticism in Urdu was weakened, the complete disruption of networks of communication and collaboration gave little room for reform and growth to occur. This dislocation of the Urdu literary community, much like the Urdu speaking community (especially in India), has resulted in the decrease in the writing and reading of Urdu.
But it may also be that there is a sort of nostalgia that drives the average "Urdu lover" and critic to praise Ghalib to the skies but prevents them from taking seriously anything written in the 20th century. How many books need to be written on Ghalib and Iqbal while the modern Urdu poet and author starves for a readership?
TNS: An annoying question to end with: where do you see yourself in the future and where do you see Urdu in the future?
Julia: Well, I hope to continue traveling to Pakistan and India to do my research and work with scholars here. As for Urdu, people can be very pessimistic about the 'future of Urdu,' but both in Pakistan and India people talk, write, joke, sing, and argue in Urdu. The Urdu language is so intertwined with South Asian culture that I cannot imagine a time when people don't raise their children speaking Urdu. I think though that it is especially important that people continue to value Urdu as a language of political and artistic expression.
Daniel: About my future, I really don't know. Maybe I will get into teaching as well I am sure something will come up. All I really want is to be able to support myself while doing something I am passionate about.
Yad Kay Muntakhib Afsanay
Mansha Yad is a celebrated short story writer – present on the literary scene for almost fifty years now. He started his career during the 1960's – an era that was astir with controversies. The demand of intellectual judgement and the quest to find alternate techniques of writing were more intense. The freedom of expression due to the military rule was severely curtailed. In literature obscurity was becoming bolder than clarity could. Since uncertainty and weariness dominated, the era proved ripe and sufficient for a philosophical literary expression. Resultantly, symbolic modernism paved its way into our literary paradigm. It infused a new life into our otherwise conformist, dull creative pursuits. Iftikhar Jalib, Wazir Agha and Shams-ur-Rehman Farooqi fought the case well, stressing on giving vent to their feelings through abstract modernism. Foreign literature was abundantly translated and the urbanised writers, in particular, proved more prone to meet the demands of a new theory. In the short story, we witnessed artful abstraction and meaningful symbolism becoming dominant. Naturally fierce criticism ran parallel to all this, condemning the absence of a sequential plot. It was also alleged that the modernists are driving the readers away from fiction and poetry.
Mansha Yad refused to kowtow to this new idol and remained averse to symbolic and abstract expression. Story telling remained conventional and conforming in his case. That's why he chose to be one of the "reasonable" of the time. His prime focus remained on the events he witnessed and the characters he met in rural settings with enhanced emphasis on the extremely poor. His exceptional command and subjective flavour moves the reader who gets carried away in a trance. Deeply humane and sensitive to the human sufferings of love and poverty, he creates a haunting atmosphere. His feverishly charged narrative unfolds a personal involvement and nostalgia although the tenacious adherence to these themes becomes his privilege and handicap at the same time.
He has been consistent as an author and his creative voyage has remained reasonably horizontal – without any significant dip or spike, consequently succeeding in achieving and maintaining a level where his contemporaries failed to reach. The fiction of this kind is pleasantly readable but the problem remains here that not much space is left for imagination. These offerings are so categorically "real" that one feels handicapped to go for some multiple or varied interpretations.
Mansha Yad exercises an enviable grip and a competent craft on whatever he intends to say. Essentially a progressive he does not let his class consciousness turn into propaganda material. About his craft, he has stressed that he equates himself with the traditional "dastaango" – the traditional storyteller around whom people gather and respond immediately in approval or disapproval to infuse liveliness in the two way exchange. If we further examine his work, we find that he sticks to the simple plane of a literature of reason, giving sound to the stifled voice of sensibility and instinct. He conveys the unmasked and the rational criticism of values to a point where it impairs the very reason of living in such an exploitative feudally dominated rural atmosphere. Seen in a bigger perspective, he is a direct descendant of the authors like Prem Chand and Ahmed Nadim Qasmi but has his own strengths and weaknesses.
The book includes his most applauded stories – an intelligent representative selection. The preface written by Dr. Iqbal Afaqi is quite a detailed account of the Urdu short story with specific focus on each piece, utilizing a reader-based impressionistic method. But he has enthusiastically consumed his energies to pronounce Mansha Yad as the greatest author of Urdu fiction, simply a hilarious inference. Such sweeping statements do not serve any useful purpose. The close contemporaries of the author like Khalida Hussain, Anwar Sajjad, Balraj Menra, Surrinder Prakash and Rasheed Amjad are summarily dismissed in a couple of sentences while Nayyar Masood and Asad Mohammad Khan are not even mentioned. Instead he has lifted Mansha Yad above and beyond every other contemporary writer and has equated him with the greats like Prem Chand, Manto and Bedi. He did not stop here. Interestingly he found faults with all of them in one or the other way with an intention to prove that Mansha Yad stood clear of all such artistic limitations.
In support of the narrative style of fiction writing, he cites the example of The Alchemist referring to the worldwide popularity of the novel as an argument against symbolism and abstraction. Unfortunately the esteemed critic fails to identify how symbolically Paulo Coelho has utilized a simple story to put in philosophical observations of eternal human reference. Resultantly, we find a battery of quotable quotes in this quite short novel, which primarily became the reason of its popularity.
Mansha Yad is a significant author receiving well worded acknowledgment by almost every major critic of the subcontinent including Waris Alvi, Gopi Chand Narang and Muzafar Ali Syed and that should be enough and sufficient. Whether there is a space for abstraction and symbolism in the short story and whether subjectivity and private language can lift our fiction to unprecedented heights is a question not to be addressed here. Prejudiced attempts to elevate a genuine author to unimaginable heights are more harmful than beneficial.
Youngsters, in Britain are now armed with lethal knives. Seventeen teenagers in London alone have died this year, and it is reported that violent offences have more than doubled throughout the country. I heard one social worker telling a television news reporter that the streets of London are now so dangerous that eleven-year olds are scared of moving to secondary school and risk being stabbed or shot.
It is now reckoned that one in four young people carry knives, not because they are aggressive but because they are fearful of aggression. These kids are being told if they cannot defend themselves, then no adult should be expected to step in on their behalf.
The debate that is now raging in the press and on television is about the measures to be adopted by adults when they are confronted with a group of children fighting with knives: should they be the good Samaritans - or walk by? I haven't heard anyone talk about where these children get their knives from or why these weapons are not taken away from them in school. Are their parents not aware that their boys (and sometimes girls as well) are in possession of dangerous weapons? Are the parents helpless?
A recent documentary made by an 18-year old girl (and nominated for an award) shows that girls and boys as young as eight have been recruited into a gun carrying gang. One nine year old turns to the camera and proudly boasts, "I'll take out my pistol and bust your knees in, the next day you're on the floor bleeding". It's no less macabre than the teen-age zealots form Wana beheading a European hostage in the name of Islam.
There have been terrible stories in the press recently about people who intervened in a fray and paid with their lives. The official advice is: 'do not get involved.' Teenage knife-gangs know this and so they carry on beating and slashing their victims to their satisfaction. It's not just boys who go around flashing their knives; there are girl gangs as well. Every passer-by is afraid that if he (or she) jumps in, he might end up with a knife between the shoulder blades.
"One of the reasons, why we have lost our have-a-go attitude," says a former MP, "is not because of fear of criminal but fear of the police." There have been numerous occasions, she asserts, when people have intervened and then found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Cherie Blair, the wife of the much derided ex-Prime Minister, who served as Chairman of a commission on street violence, claims that knife attacks are far more common than the official figures suggest. She has called for greater police presence. Youngsters she, thinks, would continue carrying knives as long as they saw little risk of punishment.
Mrs. Blair - she prefers to be known by her maiden name Cherie Booth - has come in for a lot of flak. Her critics point out that she spent ten years living in Downing Street - married to the man running the country - while violent crimes were rising sharply. Her comments, they say, expose Tony Blair's failure to deliver on his famous promise to be 'tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime'.
Has London then become as unsafe as the streets of Chicago in the heydays of Mafia rule? I doubt it, but nobody that I know wishes to visit a public area in the dark. There is such a hazy understanding of what there is to fear that the tendency is just to fear everybody to be on the safe side.
You might think that in 'knife-Britain' all is doom and gloom. Not so. Theatrical history was made in London two weeks ago when the revival of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger opened at the Jermyn Street Theatre with the black actor, Jimmy Akingbola, starring as the angry young man. My thoughts rushed to my own production of the Osborne play in which I played Jimmy Porter exactly 50 years ago. I would have dearly wished to attend the opening night (if only to see how much better or worse it was than my own effort) but I had to be in Washington that very evening.
Anyway, it pleased me to learn that a black actor had been cast in a pivotal role. Jimmy Porter, the anti-hero, was the highly articulate young man of working class origin who railed against the class-ridden society with such ferocity that it shook the staid theatrical world of post-war England. The play shot Kenneth Haigh (the original Jimmy Porter) into stardom and it made John Osborne into a dramatist of stature.
Mixed casting, or what is now known as colour-blind casting, has come a long way. I remember the time when black and 'coloured' actors (meaning Asian or Lavantine) were only cast as 'dirty foreigners.' Quite a few eyebrows were raised when I was cast in my first Shakespearean role way back in the sixties.
Colour-blind casting made a quantum leap three or four years ago when the black actor Adrian Lester was cast as Henry V at the National Theatre. Not everyone approved. Those with a dyed-in-the-wool attitude argued that Henry V was a very English king and should, therefore, be the sole prerogative of English actors. Indeed, Henry is one of the most chauvinistic parts Shakespeare has never written. Producers and directors - and all actors whose skin is not white - thought that Henry was a figure from long ago in history, that most people had no clear impression of his life and that Shakespeare's poetic version of his life should be able to accommodate a non-white actor as should any other Shakespeare play with the exception of Othello because in this play Shakespeare deliberately contrasted black and white.
Does it mean then that no role should any longer be the province of one skin colour? I doubt it. Colour-blind casting becomes trickier when it comes to real people in the modern age. I am pretty certain that no matter how adventurous a director or an impresario is, he would not consider casting a black actress as Queen Victoria or Florence Nightingale, unless he is producing a burlesque show. Colour-blind casting would remain confined to the classics. I hope I am wrong. A black Jimmy Porter would open the door for non-white actors to play other meaty parts.