word about letters
Hamid is one of the select few novelists of Pakistani origin who have managed
to attain global prominence. His first book 'Moth Smoke' was translated into
ten languages and earned him several feathers in his cap including a Betty
Trask Award and the distinction of being a New York Times notable book of the
year. He has followed up this success with a second novel 'The Reluctant
Fundamentalist' that ascended to the top spot on the Barnes & Noble
best-seller list and was re-produced as a short story in the prestigious
has a resume burnished by stints at Princeton, Harvard Law School and
management consulting firm Mckinsey. While he has travelled much of the world
and currently resides in London, his Lahori roots figure prominently in his
work. He was kind enough to block out some time from his busy schedule and
tell us about why he writes, what 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' means to him
and how people feel about his work in Chile:
on Sunday: What place does writing hold in your life? Do you see it as your
primary profession, a serious hobby or just the best way you can bring some
change in our world?
Hamid: I have been writing novels for the past fourteen years, so I certainly
think of it as a profession. But for almost all of that time, I have had
other occupations as well. I have been a student, a management consultant, a
freelance journalist. Even now I have a part-time job in London, which I do
three days a week. It is difficult to make a living writing novels full-time,
particularly when you spend seven years per book, as I have. More than that,
I like the creative freedom that comes from having another source of income:
I can spend as mush time as I need and write precisely what I want without
worrying too much about the financial consequences. That said, writing is at
the core of who I am. It is how I best like to be alone with myself, how I
allow my imagination to play, and how I make my voice heard in the world.
you feel the title 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' was a controversial choice
and may leave the wrong impression on Western readers?
MH: If I
had thought that, I would have chosen a different title. The title of the
book tries to destroy stereotypes. Changez is not what people in the West
tend to think of when they think of a religious fundamentalist. At the same
time, like most Muslims in the West, he faces the suspicion that he might be
a fundamentalist. And he works in a corporate job that has its own sort of
economic fundamentalism. This term 'fundamentalist' is one that I think has
been overused and misused so much that it has become almost meaningless. The
novel tries to explore this.
'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' meant to describe the sentiments of the
typical Pakistani with Western exposure, or perhaps how you perceive such a
person should be, or someone else?
never try to write about a 'typical' anything. There is no such thing as a
typical Pakistani, or even a typical Pakistani with Western exposure.
Instead, there are millions of very different individuals. Changez is meant
to be exactly that: an individual. I think a novelist's job is to remind us
that the world is complicated. Trying to write about something or someone
typical is exactly the opposite: it is an attempt at oversimplification.
have mentioned that you wrote several versions of this novel before releasing
a final one. Were the underlying themes a constant or were they modified over
the period of several years?
of the themes were there from the beginning. For example, I finished the
first draft of the novel in July 2001, before 9/11, and at that time it was
about a Pakistani man who feels a tension between the place he comes from and
America, and between his corporate job and his sense of humanity. The novel
is still about those themes. But of course, some of the nuances around those
themes have changed in the novel over the years, and other sub-themes have
have chosen not to give the American visitor in your novel a voice. Is this
meant to be symbolic of our relationship with the United States in any way?
relationship between Changez and the American does reflect the relationship
between Pakistan and America to some extent, and indeed the relationship
between much of the Muslim world and much of the West. Both characters are
wondering about the other: are you a normal person like me or are you some
sort of killer who has come to do me harm? This mutual suspicion is
characteristic of our world today, and is something the novel tries to
reflect and play with. As for the American's silence, it reverses the normal
situation in Western media while suggesting that any one-sided conversation
is inherently biased.
Have you personally experienced discrimination as a Pakistani in the West
course. I have had the standard sort of multi-hour questioning at airports,
waited weeks for foreign visas, had the occasional racist encounter. But I
don't want to overstate any of that. These things happen in the world. I have
probably been subjected to less discrimination than most immigrants, whether
they are Pakistani or not, and by and large I have had good opportunities
abroad, professionally and socially.
you believe that non-Pakistani readers of 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' will
come away with greater empathy for Pakistani sentiments, or was that never
your purpose in writing this novel?
believe that this idea of 'Pakistani sentiments' is problematic. There are
many different Pakistanis and they have many different sentiments. As I said
before, a novelist's job is to complicate what has been oversimplified. So I
would like non-Pakistani readers to encounter something which is different,
which makes them think, which reminds them that stereotypes tend to be both
false and dangerous. And I would like Pakistani readers to have the same
experience. In the end, I hope the novel will give the reader greater empathy
for all people, whether Pakistani or not, by showing that we can understand
and imagine being someone very different from ourselves.
Amid the undercurrent of nostalgia throughout this novel are references to
the glorious past of the Muslim race. Is this a message you wish to convey to
the West, a tool to arouse pride in contemporary Muslims or something else?
think nostalgia is something natural. When we were younger, we felt we were
further from death, and so the past seems bathed in a positive light. But
nostalgia can be dangerous as well. Right now the world is changing more and
more quickly, and so people are particularly prone to nostalgia. Appeals to
the past, whether they come from American presidents or some Muslim leaders,
are dangerous because we cannot return to the past and pretending that we can
only make our current problems worse.
Your views are obviously shaped by your broad exposures in life. Do you feel
Pakistanis with more limited exposures can relate to your themes or do you
find them alienated from your writings?
tell stories. Enjoying a story does not require you to have the same
experience as the storyteller. When your father tells you a story of cycling
to school, you do not have to have cycled to school yourself to enjoy it.
Much of what makes stories interesting is hearing about things that come from
a different background, from different experiences. So I would hope that the
appeal of my novels is not limited to readers who have experiences similar to
Novels written by expatriates in the United States who want to offer insights
into their native cultures seem to be all the rage. How do you feel you are
different from most writers in this category?
have no idea. 'Moth Smoke' was widely read in Pakistan. Pakistanis enjoyed
it. And I hope the same will be true of 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist'. I do
not think of myself as an expatriate explaining my culture to the people of
the United States. I think of myself as a person writing about things that
are fundamentally human. A French-Algerian film maker told me recently that
'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' could be his story. A Chilean magazine editor
told me once that 'Moth Smoke' could have been set in Santiago. I am pleased
when I hear things like that. It makes me feel I am doing my job properly.
parting words of wisdom for young Pakistanis looking to embark on a literary
things. First, read a lot. The best writers in the world are available to
teach you all there is to know about writing. They should be on your
bookshelf. Second, persist. Writing is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Novels
are the slowest art form: they take years to produce. So build your stamina
and learn how to endure. There are many clever people who think they can be
writers but to succeed they have to be stubborn enough.
by Oxford University Press, December, 2006
By Bilal Tanweer
balaa se hai'n jo yeh pesh-e
nazar dar-o deewaar
nigah-e shauq ko hai'n baal-o
par dar-o deewaar
Aijaz Ahmed, the renowned
literary critic, in an essay on Urdu poetry remarks that the movement of
thought in Urdu poetry, generally speaking, is from the fixed and concrete to
the intangible and abstract, while the opposite is true in English poetry.
For a poet thoroughly grounded in the Eastern sensibility, to write in
English presents immediately with such a paradox. And this grappling with the
abstract in a language which resists such movement, is one of the defining
features of this collection of Athar Tahir's poetry, Body Loom. This paradox
is the font of energy which paints these poems.
To illustrate, the opening poem of the collection, 'Dot', is worth
reproducing in full.
All begins in a drop or a
whether it tadpoles up to
or sits squarely below the
of a reed-pen, or carefully
above standing stroke,
filling their void,
or curves coyly wherever it
calling into question staid
it has accorded a measured
Indeed, in Tahir's poetry
it is not just the subject or the reference to the abstract; it is the
movement itself from the dot to the shape of an Urdu letter, which has its
own metaphysics. One finds this elevating his other poems as well, and hence
giving the poetry a 'meditative' state, to borrow a phrase from Muneeza
This is an important point
in the discussion of Pakistani poetry in English and bears a comparison with
other poets in English. Notable Pakistani poets in English like Taufiq Rafat
and Harris Khalique, even though their concerns and subjects have remained
local, have assumed a voice which suits a Western sensibility. This
especially applies to Rafat, whose poetry borrows its diction and voice very
heavily from Western poets like Auden.
Two influences are dominant
in Tahir's poems: One, the heavy streaks of mysticism; and two, calligraphy.
Many poems in the collection find their subject from the mystic notions and
are replete with spiritual content and meaning. Those that occur most often
are ideas of diving inwards to hunt for truth, and what can and cannot be
expressed. Here is one which touches on mystic notions of expression in a
voice which is distinct and original.
There the word rested on
just beyond meaning
Similarly, in poem,
'Silkworm', Tahir deals with another subject which typifies the mystic
attitude -- of a moth which burns its own flame; only, in this case, Tahir
has found another metaphor.
For forty days
it wraps itself in
with beam-thin string
to a small egg bringing
Taj's pearliness under full
moon out and in.
Can you or I spin
with our body loom
a grander monument to our
The other influence
difficult to miss in this collection is that of calligraphy itself. Athar
Tahir being a calligrapher of repute draws a lot from the craft, especially
in terms of subject, in his poetry. Reed and reed-pen is one of the recurring
symbols in his poems, and one of the most remarkable poems in the collection
is entitled 'Calligraphy'.
here it lifts its long neck
to new tensions,
here arcs its back
and scoops the emptiness
in praying hands,
here it flows mud-red
down a river-bed stirring
Tahir's poems come to their
strongest where they create images from the abstract, and at their weakest,
when they fail to achieve this quality. However, at other instances, like in
the poem 'Karachi', Tahir leaves his readers misplaced with ordinary images,
and ventures into a territory not his own.
Every few years one comes
to this sea-edge
city, sprouting beyond
as reluctantly as a
The book is a commendable
work. However, a note on the quality of book's production is due. The book is
poorly produced, and it seems that the publisher has attempted to justify the
overwhelming price by using extremely heavy quality paper and with a
hard-back jacket. Such is the case with book's binding as well. The font and
the jacket cover are not produced as tastefully as one would expect from an
author who is also a visual artist. Indeed, it is more than unpleasant to
have such fine text in between inferior covers.
A word about letters
By Kazy Javed
Master of ghazal
Only once did I make the
mistake of correcting a poet. I was sitting in Pak Tea House with friends
including the late Azad Kausri, Hanif Bhutto and Younas Adeeb when a young
poet approached us expressing the desire to recite his latest ghazal. After he
recited his piece to us, I pointed out an error in one of his lines. Not
pleased, he started an endless argument in his defence. I politely withdrew my
objection but the very next day I received a long-drawn-out letter from the
poet in which he once again tried to substantiate his position. Apparently my
criticism had disturbed him immensely.
Zafar Iqbal's case,
however, is different. He has always been open to all sorts of criticism.
Explaining his position, he said in a recent interview that he takes criticism
as a blessing and always tries to learn from those who criticise his poetry.
"I never try to defend my poetry because in my opinion poetry, and not
the poet, should defend itself. Its failure to do so amounts to its weakness.
At the same time, we should keep in mind that a piece of poetry is not
required to get a word of appreciation from all of its readers," he
Zafar Iqbal is a
trend-setter and has been described by a noted literary critic as the most
important poet of the post-1960 ghazal. He has considerably influenced his
contemporaries as well as the new generation of poets. It is often claimed
that ghazal writers of Pakistan and India can be classified into two groups;
those who learn from Zafar Iqbal's experimentation in his poetry during the
past forty years and those who abhor his influence.
Iqbal is a lawyer by profession but health problems have now kept him from
practicing law. His twenty volumes of verse, including two of Punjabi poetry,
have been published. But among his readers he is admired more for his first
collection of poetry published under the title 'Aab-e-Rawaan.'
Responding to a question
regarding his place in our contemporary literature the septuagenarian poet
said "I honestly feel that I am not much different from my
contemporaries. How can I be different from people while living in the same
society and undergoing the same experiences of life?"
Zafar Iqbal believes
that the nature, style and subjects of poetry need change. As a poet, he
tells, it is his duty to play a role in bringing change to poetry. "I
have been doing my bit in this regard and it has created many problems for me
because many people don't want things to change. They fear it. They think
change will harm them and banish them from the domain of poetry," he
asserts with a mischievous smile.
On being asked about his
message for new generation he answered: "My poetry is my only message for
the young people. It would not fail to give them the courage to experiment in
After playing a
significant role in promoting contemporary Urdu literature for 43 years, the
quarterly 'Fanoon' is dead. But its disappearance from our literary scene has
bred a new quarterly. 'Montaj' is edited as well as published by Mansoora
Ahmad, the poet who spent more than twenty years of her life serving Ahmad
Nadeem Qasmi with all her heart and soul.
As expected, the maiden
775-page issue of the Mansoora Ahmad's 'Montaj' is devoted to the memory of
Qasmi Sahib whose first death anniversary will be observed in the second week
of July. Besides dozens of poems, the 'Montaj'
carries not less than 110 articles written to pay homage to Qasim
Sahib. The list of authors includes old as well as new writers.
Earlier, the quarterly 'Adabiyat'
which is a part of the Pakistan Academy of Letters, published a special issue
in memory of Ahmad Nadim Qasmi. Many other literary magazines of Pakistan and
India have also brought out special sections on him. Dr Anwar Sadeed has
written in his letter published in the June issue of the 'Takhleeq', Lahore
that two of Qasmi Sahib's Indian admirers, Abdul Naeem Uzma and Yasmin Taranum
Naeem, have recently launched a literary journal under the title of Qasmi
Sahib's defunct journal 'Fanoon' from the South Indian city of Aurangabad.
Mansoora Ahmad says the
next issue of her journal will be out in September this year.
Former foreign minister
Sahibzada Yaqoob Khan is admired for many things including his unusual ability
for learning alien languages. I came across him at the President House where
President Pervez Musharraf had hosted a dinner for writers and intellectuals.
On being asked if he was interested in writing memoirs, he said he was writing
One of these things has
now been made public in Urdu translation through 'Al-Aqreba', a quarterly
literary journal published by Islamabad's non-profit making Al-Aqreba
Foundation. It is an article on the nature of imagination in which the worthy
author has discussed imagination's role in literature, arts and science.
'Al-Aqreba' is edited by
Shehla Ahmad and Mehmood Akhtar Saeed. Its current issue carries Saeed's
article on Munshi Nole Kishore, the legendary publisher who rendered Yeoman's
service in preserving classical Indian, Persian and Urdu literature.