word about letters
Ajmal Kamal, a man of many literary feats, talks about his passion for literature and lack of political inclinations
By Bilal Tanweer
Walking into Ajmal Kamal's office is a strange experience. Located in the heart of one of Karachi's busiest shopping centres, the office space was so hushed that the low monotone of Ajmal Kamal's voice was easily audible. In my books, this is a no less than a minor achievement. The ambience of the office was warm and inviting, and in the afternoon, while sitting next to the balcony lined with potted plant, it made a perfect setting for a literary conversation. And it was here, in a conversation spread over two meetings, I interviewed the man of many literary feats and the editor of the quarterly 'Aaj'.
Ajmal Kamal, besides being a recluse, is also the owner of City Press. His major recent publication, 'Karachi ki Kahani', has created a stir in local book-reading circles. Published in two-volumes, 'Karachi ki Kahani', marks an event both for its literary value and for the novelty of the endeavour, for it embarks on a journey of 'the art of writing the city'. Unfortunately, this art has received scant attention from the writers of the city. Other considerations aside, the book is important for mapping the various narratives that come together to compose Karachi's fuzzy identity.
Besides being humble, Ajmal Kamal is also exceedingly self-effacing. He offers no grand pronouncements nor any profound ideas while explaining his life and life-long endeavours. He does not portray himself as though his life is some great marvel, nor does he flout the standing his journal has earned among the Urdu literary circles. He speaks of his life as a series of minor contingencies without any magnitude. However, his simple ways are deceptive and not without insights. So, when I asked why he turned to publishing and writing, he responded, "I think writing is the extension of one's self as a reader. Once you have read enough, you feel a need to share it with others who would appreciate it. And hence, I turned to translation".
During his student years he was always interested in literature. "I wanted to explore many things besides my studies (engineering), but I guess that was not allowed," he says. Consequently, he went the oft-trodden path and after earning degrees in metallurgical engineering and business administration, he worked at NDFC for a good ten years. Soon after he realised that it was not his calling. And so literature, which had been looming large in his personal life, came to the fore and he published a volume of translations of Milan Kundera's work in 1987. It was well-received and encouraged by its reception, Ajmal Kamal launched 'Aaj' as a regular quarterly two years later.
But when the literary landscape was inhabited by high-quality journals like 'Savera', 'Funoon' and 'Mah-e Nau', why the need for 'Aaj'?
"Urdu literary journals came as packages", says Kamal. "They had a selection from across a range of literary genres: critical essays, short-stories, poems and letters. So, I felt the need for a new kind of magazine. What I had in mind was the idea of a 'little magazine', with a narrowed focus and which usually publishes one genre of literature. Such magazines are common all over the world but we did not have them here. It also suited me because I had an interest in world literature and wanted to present it as a single phenomenon. Therefore, my magazine has always been an amalgamation of original Urdu writing and translations."
But is there a serious readership of translations, especially literary translations, in our part of the world? Ajmal Kamal says there is. "Generally speaking, it is correct that translations respond to a demand from readers, so one often sees a period where there is a surge of translated material, but I feel that the demand for literary translations is growing. By that I do not mean that there is a huge boom of sorts, but only that within the limited readership of translations, there is an increase in demand; and the readers are also becoming quality conscious".
So far the journal has published literature in many languages. There has been a wonderful range of translated writings published in this magazine for the Urdu readers. Among these are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino and Orhan Pamuk. Fiction from Persian, Arabic and Hindi receives emphasis in this publication.
"Frankly speaking, translations helped to sustain our magazine because high-quality original writing in Urdu is unpredictable, and one cannot leave the fate of a magazine to that", says Ajmal Kamal while telling me about the hazards of indulging in the publication of periodicals. "Either you have to compromise on quality or you have to make the publication irregular. But drawing from world literature means that you always have material. This results in good, uncompromised standard and brings out the magazine regularly".
His modesty also came on the surface when I asked him about his political inclinations, "I have never been involved in political activism, and therefore, I find myself at a loss of words when asked to define my political commitments", he smiles. "The major reason is that I began my college at a wrong time, the year when Zia-ul Haq took power and imposed the 1977 Martial Law." On being asked if he considered himself a staunch humanist he shook his head, "I would not call myself a staunch humanist, because staunch would imply that I have been active for a particular cause, which I haven't. Nevertheless, my understanding of politics is heavily influenced by Marxism and class-analysis."
Ajmal Kamal's yet another achievement is his publishing house, City Press, continues to sell high-quality low-priced books, despite growing commercialism. City Press has over a 100 publications to its credit and unlike the Urdu publishing industry, these publications are very well produced and composed. Book covers are painted in almost all the cases with a decent paper quality, fonts are well-chosen and the books are relatively free of typing errors. But since it caters to a niche market and sells at a low-price (perhaps the lowest of all the major publishers), I naturally asked if it earns enough to sustain him?
"Well, my publications generate only enough to help me keep going with the next edition. That is what I do 'Aaj'; sales from one edition finances the next issue. 'Karachi ki Kahani' has been published in the same manner and the bills will be paid to the printer over the next six months. Similarly, bill for the English edition of 'Karachi ki Kahani' will also be paid over the next six months".
What about yourself? "Well, I try to keep things simple for myself. I find teaching jobs, for instance, I am currently teaching a course on Urdu literature in Indus Valley School of Art. Previously I taught a course on environment in a madrasa as well. I also write for various South Asian publications which sustain my personal life".
Ajmal Kamal says that he strives to simplify his life, after experiencing a few close-shaves with death, "I have seen death closely more than once, last being in 1999, when my appendix burst while travelling. I survived, but now I know how to live better".
Harris Khalique, the remarkable contemporary Pakistani poet, refers to Urdu as 'the boundless language of a limited people', and compares writing in it to writing first love-letters that no one will read. Indeed, in the afternoons when Ajmal Kamal busies himself extending his self-reading, only a few of us savour his efforts over a period of three months, appreciating and applauding him for a service he is rendering to Urdu and its readers.
There is a deep respect that takes form in hearts for people who, to quote Faiz, 'Do what they love and love what they do. They are our heroes albeit those who despise trumpeting'.
History and identity
By Kazy Javed
Where do the roots of our history lie? Do they go back to the ancient Indus Civilisation or should we look elsewhere?
This question has been under discussion in our literary and intellectual circles since 1950s. Rightist political and thought leaders have always insisted that our history has nothing to do with the pre--Islamic history, society and culture of the areas that now form our country. Our history, they claim, started in the second decade of the eighth century when Muhammad bin Qasim invaded and captured part of Sindh. This event opened the Muslim chapter of Indian history.
The message of this claim is loud and clear: they want the Muslims of the South Asian region to believe that they are the descendants of the conquerors that invaded this part of this region during the last 12 centuries and being so they are not rooted in this land.
Poet Sheikh Ayaz was perhaps the first to challenge this view. He refused to alienate himself from the land of his forefathers. He asserted that the ancient civilisation of Indus valley as well as the pre--Islamic history of this land is our heritage; it is an essential part of our collective identity. His point of view was soon accepted by a considerable number of Sindhi writers, journalists and intellectuals.
Punjabi intellectuals were perplexed by Sheikh Ayaz's claim and did not quite know what to make of it. How can we own the pre-Islamic past of the land we live in, they asked. However, with the passage of time many minds have changed. There are now some people who believe that nations do not hang in vacuum. Their roots lie in their lands. Faiths and religions give us new ideas, standards and values. They can change our present and future. But the past remains outside their domain. Hence the past of our corner of the globe is our past. We cannot alienate ourselves from it.
The issue of ancient history that had remained confined to literary and intellectual circles has now reached National Assembly where religious parties recently raised a storm over the official proposal to teach the country's ancient history in schools. Members of the six-party opposition group, MMA, also staged a token protest walkout over the inclusion of chapters on Hinduism, Budhism and the Emperor Chanderagupta Maurya in the history textbooks. The walkout was led by Farid Ahmad Piracha, an MNA who received university education during Zia days and was also elected president of the Punjab University Students Union on Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba ticket.
The fact of the matter is that many of our religious writers, scholars and intellectuals fear that the ancient history of Pakistan does not fit with their concept of history. They believe it was darkness everywhere before the advent of Islam; it was Islam that introduced light and civilisation. The Quran on the other hand carries many references to earlier civilisations. The study of advanced Indus Valley and Gandhara civilisations cannot obscure the glory and excellence of the last message of God. It will enhance its significance and will go a long way in helping us making peace with ourselves.
Among the many literary events of the past fortnight is the 200th birth anniversary of the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Main Historical Society of Portland, the small city where he was born in 1807 and which he described in his poem 'My Lost Youth' as 'the beautiful town that is seated by the sea' has planned a number of events in connection with his bicentennial celebrations.
Longfellow served Harvard as a professor of modern languages and literature for many years. His debut book of poetry, 'Voices of the Night' was published in 1839 and brought him a lot of fame and respect. About a dozen other collections were published during the next four decades. Longfellow died at Cambridge, Mass, on March 24, 1882.
The publication of the 35 year old Lahore-born Mohsin Hamid's second novel by the Penguin Books is another event of considerable literary importance. The Reluctant Fundamentalist has seen the light of the day seven long years after the appearance of his first novel 'Moth Smoke'.
In his new 184--page novel, Mohsin Hamid has narrated the story of a young Pakistani, Changez, who left Lahore to study and finally settle in New York. He gets a well--paid job there 'assessing ailing companies ripe for takeover.' But the fateful events of 9/11 change his life. His pragmatism dies out. His dreams are shattered. He is treated with suspicion and considered an 'unkind alien'. He rediscovers his eastern roots and turns to Muslim fundamentalism nourishing hate for the American way of life. Finally he leaves the US and returns to Lahore.
Changez's story has been told in a long drawn-out monologue delivered to an unnamed American.
Mohsin Hamid's new book seems to be supporting Professor Huntington's views about the emerging clash of civilisations. But it will almost certainly help him in getting himself established as the best--known Pakistani novelist in the West.