of the pure
“In 1967, I
attended a session of Federal Union of Journalists in Dhaka. My friend,
Salahuddin Mohammad, the renowned intellectual, journalist and former
president of Dhaka Press Club, was accompanying me. On our way from Dhaka to
Chittagong in the Green Arrow train, we encountered a Bangladeshi couple
sitting at a distance of about a few inches. With likely suspicion, disgust
and anger in their eyes, they inquired: ‘Are you here to visit your
colony?’ Those words pierced through my heart like a sharp knife,” says
Masood Ashar, perhaps the only acclaimed Pakistani short story writer to
have brought into fiction the sheer discrimination and the economic plight
of former East Pakistan.
He recalls how the
Bengalis resented the vast sums of foreign exchange earned from the sale of
jute from East Pakistan which were spent on development projects and defence
in former West Pakistan. “The Bengalis argued how this money could have
been used to eradicate poverty and illiteracy, and to supply food and
shelter to the rapidly growing population in East Pakistan. I was deeply
moved by the perilous poverty and the deplorable conditions that I
witnessed. Hence, many of my short stories revolve around the people of
former East Pakistan.”
His short stories have won
critical acclaim. Despite using symbolism, he deals with important subjects
in a subtle and profound manner. His story ‘Bela Nayi Re Joldi Joldi’
(There is no time, hurry, hurry) is about the army action in Bengal in 1971.
The Bengali words were taken from one of Nazrul Islam’s poetic
masterpieces. Another story ‘Daab aur Beer ki Thandi Botal’ highlights
the difference between the psyche of Punjabis and Bengalis.
“It was a common belief
in former West Pakistan that Bengalis were greatly influenced by the Hindu
culture. What I observed was the opposite — Bengalis were more Muslim than
the people in West Pakistan.”
Ashar condemned the army
action and emphasised that East and West Pakistan believed in their own
versions of truth. His book ‘Apni Apni Sachai’ on the same subject was
notably praised by Faiz Ahmed Faiz who decided to get it translated and
published in ‘Lotus’ magazine.
Born in Rampur in 1931,
Ashar spent almost two decades of his early life in India. It was not before
1951 that he decided to migrate to Lahore. In 1954, he joined Daily Imroze;
being a progressive he shared an affinity with the ideology of the paper. He
was transferred to Multan as resident editor in 1968 where he lived for
almost 19 years. Being one of those journalists and writers who had signed a
petition protesting against the martial law regime of Ziaul Haq and calling
for immediate restoration of democracy in 1983, he lost his job and was on
the dole for about two years. He was later reinstated to his job at Imroze
when Benazir Bhutto came into power.
With an illustrious career
in journalism and writing, he is currently the editor of Mashal, a
Lahore-based publishing house. This is exactly where we sit and talk, in his
study-cum-office, amidst hefty bookshelves laden with books on history,
philosophy, literature and politics. The office is a short walk from the
main Garden Town road. The rectangular room harbours a plain timbered desk,
an over-sized chair and half a dozen unpacked boxes of books scattered
around the floor. At the opposite end of the room, a narrow window welcomes
thin tree leaves inside. Cluttered his desk are a couple of magazines,
books, journals, photographs and a pile of papers.
Holding a copy of
‘Power, Fate and Fantasy’ by Michael Oren, he speaks to me slowly and
“I spend most of my time
reading books. The problem with the younger generation is that they don’t
read extensively. In our times, we used to read world literature; these days
reading is nobody’s priority. The problem lies with the education system.
The teachers also have become more money-minded.”
“Technology is also
impacting the reading habits. I own an e-book reader and I download plenty
of books to read. The preference of most of the youngsters, however, is to
spend time on social networking websites like Facebook, Twitter or else
watch some TV shows.”
Criticising the absence of
literary activities and public forums, he says “The writers, intellectuals
and scholars enjoyed a considerable amount of freedom till a few decades
back. They would gather at tea houses to discuss the burning issues of the
time and read out whatever they had written which was later critically
analysed. Unfortunately, this culture has gradually diminished.”
We discuss the role of
literature in social change and development. Literature, just as any other
art form, holds a mirror to the society. Though we, as individuals, might
turn a blind eye to social ills, literature exists as a reality check to
what is going on behind the closed doors or right before our eyes that we
fail to see. Charles Dickens agitated for social change and was in a way an
influential social reformer. Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’
deals with the crucial issues of racial inequality and rape while also
addressing the questions of class, compassion and gender. Harriet Beecher
Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ helped create a revulsion against
slavery that made possible the Amercian Civil War.
The discussion compels me
to ask if he thinks the role of literature is subversive and anarchist
rather being revolutionary.
“A writer is not a
missionary. He does not only create a relationship between the individuals
and the society but connects it with the entire Universe.”
Masood Ashar thinks it
really depends on how the story is portrayed and how the readers interpret
it. “Ghalib’s poetry has been interpreted in many different ways by
various people. Gopi Chand Narang’s book titled ‘Ghalib’s Thought,
Dialectical Poetics and the Indian Mind’, recently released by Sahitya
Akademi, explores how Mirza Ghalib defied all existing postulations. This is
entirely a new way of analysing his work. So, a good piece of literature is
one that can be analysed in many
different ways in different eras.”
Talking about Progressive
Writers Association (PWA), he stresses that it played a significant role in
changing the society. The writers and intellectuals disillusioned by British
colonialism initiated the formation of PWA. “The movement being
anti-imperialist and left-oriented continued to inspire people through their
writings — advocating equality while lashing out at social injustice and
ignorance. There was a notable shift from Romanticism to Realism. The
writers portrayed an authentic picture of the marginalised masses through a
realistic expression. Those were the days when realism was the hallmark of
literary writings focusing on freedom of expression and human rights.
Realism introduced fresh vigour, imagery and structure to the writings while
the substance of ideology turned literature into a social tool in the
The progressive writers
believed in social realism which soon became superfluous and, hence, the new
trend of symbolism was introduced. Symbolism doesn’t communicate as well
as realism does, says Masood Ashar.
He condemns the growing
phenomenon of fundamentalism which he thinks has adversely influenced
literature, education system and educational curriculum in Pakistan. In his
short stories ‘Ikiswin Sadi ki Pehli Kahani’ and ‘Biswin Sadi ki Akhri
Kahani’, he reflects how religious fundamentalism and religiosity are
transforming a pluralist and secular society which is being held hostage by
Islamic extremist doctrines and gender-specific discriminatory laws. The
fundamentalists use women as their prime target for imposing their Islamic
ideologies. “I have also written a couple of short stories on gender bias
and women rights.” His short story ‘Mai Bohat Khush Hoon’ is about an
activist woman who in the midst of marriage and motherhood duties is forced
to sacrifice her dreams and continues to assure herself that she is happy.
In the middle of our
conversation, Masood Ashar abruptly picks on the famous book by Manto
‘Stars from Another Sky’ that I am carrying with me. ‘Stars…”
includes translations of Manto’s brilliant collection of character
sketches originally published in ‘Ganjay Farishtay’ on film industry
icons like Ashok Kumar, Nargis, Naseem Bano and Shyam. Masood Ashar suggests
I should read it in Urdu which is far more potent than its English
translation by Khalid Hasan.
Our discussion diverts to
Saadat Hasan Manto. I am eager to know if he thinks PWA was biased against
“PWA at that time was
greatly influenced by the Communist Party of India (CPI). Urdu writers and
Marxist thinkers like Sajjad Zaheer would direct the writers. Comrade PC
Joshi, the General Secretary of CPI, was somewhat moderate. After World War
II, however, many Left-Wing extremist groups joined the CPI which adopted
the path of taking up arms. Comrade Randivey emphasised the use of arms to
bring revolution. This left wing extremism was proving to be pernicious for
literary writings. The extremists were of the view that literature should
create a rebellion in the people. However, the PWA focused on writings that
was a non-conformist and bold writer. He exclusively wrote on social taboos
like sex and prostitution which earned him the wrath of contemporary
writers. Manto depicted stark reality in the rawest form. For him the truth
was truth no matter how bitter or harsh it was.”
Expressing his own
differences with Manto, Ashar almost contradicts himself. “He was
self-centered and would easily have disagreements with other writers. He
also had differences with Qurratulain Hyder and Shafiq ur Rehman. Makes me
think if there was any Urdu writer Manto did not have differences with.
Upendranath Ashk, in his essay on Manto, ‘Manto Mera Dushman’ discusses
comprehensively his querulous nature. The diversity and differences, in my
opinion, however, help the literature flourish.”
Talking about the future
of Urdu language and literature, he says “Urdu has a bright future in
Pakistan. Languages are not static but dynamic. Urdu is, thus, influenced by
many languages. The people of subcontinent communicate in the same language
except for some minor differences. Those who think that Urdu will die in
India are wrong. The mellifluous Urdu poetry and the Indian Film Industry
would keep the language alive. There are no critics of the caliber of Indian
Urdu critics like Gopi Chand Narang, Shamim Hanafi and Waris Alvi. Their
work is truly par-excellence.”
Kamila Shamsie is his most
favourite Pakistani English writer. “English writers are doing really well
but English writings target a particular class; the writers should think
about reaching the wider Pakistani audiences.”
He informs that Mashal’s
books have been put on the website for free download — something that no
other book publisher in Pakistan has yet done. This gives access to the
diaspora of Urdu readers all around the globe. The books focusing on
education, modern thought, environment, popular science and human rights
provide a unique opportunity to reexamine the contemporary understanding of
democracy, secularism and liberalism.
“I am old and
not in good health so won’t be able to write for you, sorry”. These were
the words of Shafi Aqeel that I remember from the last telephone
conversation I had with him. Yet I kept insisting that he take out some
time, and do an article on art in Urdu for an online art publication.
Reluctantly, he made the
promise but both he and I knew well it might not materialise. Not because he
would not be there to write it but because he was too frail.
I did not realise that the
hope of having the article would soon be extinguished by the angel of death.
But, like the last vision of a person, the last words of an individual stay
forever as the essence or epilogue to a vast body of memories.
I had a brief, formal,
almost superficial, relationship with Shafi Aqeel. But in those few
encounters (not meetings), he was frank as a friend he had known for years.
On the other hand, my
response to his clear, candid and clever comments remained restrained and
respectful. Because the moment I saw him or picked the phone to call him,
the image of a young student emerged in my mind — of a boy living in a
small town of interior Sindh with limited exposure to art except the weekly
edition of daily Jang that he eagerly awaited, particularly the writeups in
the section on art and artists written by Shafi Aqeel.
Those articles on art,
perhaps for many like that boy who could not access books on art or visit
galleries and exhibitions, were a great service by Shafi Aqeel which, in my
opinion, is neither recognised nor appreciated fully. Only because he wrote
in Urdu in a newspaper that was read by people who don’t go to art
galleries or have any say in the matter of art. Thus Shafi Aqeel remained an
obscure, rather peripheral, figure in the realm of mainstream art.
Yet the contribution of
Shafi Aqeel is unmatched. Because he tried to establish a connection between
the art produced in society and the discourse on it in a language used by
the majority. Whatever was conceived, created and perceived by the artists
and viewers was discussed in the same diction that most makers, viewers and
commentators felt comfortable with. Along with regular columns in Jang on
art, Shafi Aqeel wrote a number of books on significant Pakistani painters,
which include Dou Musawwir, 2003 (Bashir Mirza and Ozzir Zuby); Chaar Jadid
Musawwir, 2006 (Ahmed Pervaiz, Ali Imam, Anwar Jalal Shemza and Kutub
Sheikh); Pakistan key Saat Musawwir, 2011(Sadequain, A.S. Nagi, Hanif Ramay,
Eqbal Mehdi, Ghulam Rasul, Abrar Tirmazi and Gul Muhammad Khatri). In
addition to these Aqeel published two volumes of art reviews and criticism
on different artists, like Tasveer aur Musawwir, 2007; and Musawwiri aur
These books, quite unusual
in terms of information, approach and vocabulary, provide a different and
unique insight into the minds and personalities of some of the best creative
figures of Pakistani art. Aqeel had long, intimate and informal
relationships with them; his prose reveals that level of closeness and long
links, details which never bore the reader or make them disinterested.
Hence passages with
anecdotes about Ahmed Pervaiz walking in the streets of London with torn
canvases in his neck, his last days of loneliness and misery, his addiction
to hash and alcohol, and his tragic death, help understand the descent of an
artist, who enjoyed success and fame in his heydays but became a solitary
figure at the end.
Shafi Aqeel’s accounts
of Pervaiz, BM, Sadequain and a few others seem much like parts of a novel,
in which the author has resurrected larger than life characters of these
real people. So the reader while going through Aqeel’s books has an
uncanny sensation — of being in the presence of these painters, who may
appear odd, unstable, obsessive, and mean. Yet, despite these shortcomings
(or perhaps because of them), they were capable of producing works of
significance, originality and imagination.
Shafi Aqeel’s style of
transforming/treating an artist from our history into a living being is
based upon his dialogues with him. The books and chapters on artists include
numerous discussions with them which help in fabricating truthful sketches
of these individuals. The most important aspect of these verbal portraits is
Shafi Aqeel’s neutral position and natural tone. So the pieces on his
friends in no way are adulating texts; his unbiased criticism adds to
illustrating the actual person behind the persona of the painter. How the
artists were obsessed with women, booze, money, fame, jealousy and contempt
for their contemporaries are all disclosed but through words of a friend who
adores these endearing indulgences, rather than from a self-appointed
righteous writer ready to dismiss these human traits.
The element of love that
is witnessed while he was writing about his talented friends, even if he
describes some of the worst scenarios, was an unforgettable feature of
Aqeel’s personality. Irrespective of a person’s social or financial
status and experience in the art circles, he was eager to connect with
genuine people form his surroundings. His eye to discern art was as active
as his insight to discover geniuses among his acquaintances.
In his two volumes of
collected newspaper articles, one comes across a range of artists,
significant for their contributions, thoughts and styles.
No matter if you read
about A. R. Nagori, Jamil Naqsh, M. F. Husain or F.N. Souza, it is the voice
of Shafi Aqeel which is heard through his subjects, friends and fellow
That voice was permanently
lost on September 6, 2013. However it is still alive, ringing and relevant
in my mind and in his books too, which comprise a valuable compendium on
Pakistani art in a Pakistani language. Even though he is no more with us, he
still breathes through his words which are shared by all of us and ensure a
life of immortality for Shafi Aqeel.
Institut in association with Annemarie Schimmel Haus organised an evening of
music to celebrate two occasions — the 200th birth anniversary of one of
the most important European composers Richard Wagner and the unification of
Germany that took place about 23 years ago.
Two German artistes,
pianist Stephan Rahn and soprano Judith Maria Mayer, along with Pakistani
pianist Usman Anees played and sang the music of Wagner and Lizst in an
hour-long programme on Oct 11 in Lahore.
Richard Wagner represented
something quintessentially German and it was no wonder that he was selected
for the occasion compared to a whole galaxy of music composers that Germany
or the German-speaking lands produced.
Take the Germans out of
the equation and precious little remains of true value in the classical
music of Europe.
Wagner was so German that
he was chosen by the right wing as their cultural symbol. His writings may
have been more reflective of his views but his music was supreme and paved
the way for many of the musical experimentations — like that of atonality
in the 20th century. Gradually he also veered to the idea of music drama
where the music or the musical score was seen to be firmly placed under the
thematic structure of the drama. His idea or vision of making music
subservient to the unity of the play served films well as it was able to
carry the leitmotif through a number of artistic means like plot, character
and locale to its logical end with music being only one of the factors or
variations in the entire artistic scheme.
Since he was able to set
up his own opera house it was easier for him to sustain this experimentation
over a period of time without harassment from the patron or the impresario.
Before that, as he wrote operas following the mainstream classical tradition
of placing the note above all else, he was considered to be the last of the
many greats that the tradition had produced. His understanding of the role
of music as part of an overall performance grew over time.
It has happened many times
in history that the work of an artist/artiste or one part of the work is
unfurled as if fulfilling the political vision of that section of the
population. An artistic endeavour actually transcends these ideological
constraints in the end but due to political compulsions the arts are
Wagner too went into the
background after the Nazis lost grace and power after the world wars — for
he was seen as racist in character especially in carrying an anti-Semitic
In the performance, the
first number Wagner’s ‘Overture to Rienzi’, was a four-hand piano
piece by Stephan Rahn and Usman Anees. It set the tone for the rest of the
concert by highlighting the dramatic effect so conspicuous in the
composer’s works. Then Judith Mayer joined Rahn for the second piece,
‘Wesendonck lieder’, a song for a solo voice and piano, comprising five
poems meant for female voice.
Her controlled and
powerful voice rendered ‘The Angel’ following it with ‘Stand still’,
‘In the greenhouse’, ‘Sorrows’ and ‘Dreams’. In ‘Stand
still’, the strength of her voice was mingled with softness as she struck
both the high and low notes with effortless ease. In ‘Sorrows’, she sang
the higher notes with great facility, and in ‘Dreams’, for the effect
that the lieder needed was first created by scene-creating piano-playing of
Rahn but was matched by Mayer’s voice.
Wagner wrote very few solo
works. ‘Sonata for the album of Madame M W’ being one of them was played
by Rahn, who seemed to be fully immersed in it. Mayer again sang to her
heart’s content Franz Liszt’s five songs as she changed the order to
follow a sequence of slow numbers gradually leading to the crescendo.
Since the first number
mentioned on the list ‘Lorelei’ had more drama, it was shifted to number
five. What began with ‘Bells of marling’ was carried on with ‘Poisoned
are my songs’, ‘Thou who art in heaven’ and ‘It must be a wonderful
thing’ justifiably ended with ‘Lorelei’. The shifting of moods by
virtue of the notes that she touched was quite impressive.
Usman Anees presented
Franz Liszt’s ‘Isolde’s Love Death’ on solo piano. Before the Anees
family, it seemed that Pakistan had no piano player worth the name but now
we have a full family that has specialised in playing piano, especially the
western classical music scores.
Ijaz Anees, an engineer,
was sent to Moscow to get training for the setting up of the Steel Mill in
Pakistan. Besides his official work, he was so besotted by music,
particularly the piano that he decided to learn it. He took to it like duck
takes to water and after years of apprenticeship, training and practice was
able to play complex classical musical pieces on it.
Anees was not content to
be a piano player himself but trained and educated his sons to play the
piano as well. His sons, Asad and Usman, play the piano like professionals
and the family appears to be the only unit that can boost of handling the
intricate musical expression of the instruments.
Usman Anees is currently
doing a fellowship in music composition from Trinity College Cambridge.
Obviously, it is difficult
for them to make a living as Pakistan does not have a proper piano playing
tradition or culture. Instead of playing the piano they also do piano tuning
and repair work to make ends meet.
In our tradition, piano
was played in theatre and films as part of the background score or in
interval pieces during film vocal numbers. Some like Ustad Sadiq played
raags on the instrument exploring its registers through the various tempos.
Since the instrument does not have the capacity to play the meends, it
required great skill to evoke the rasa of the raag — but it was achieved
to some extent by the virtuosity of our musicians.
declassified letter by Pakistan’s first law minister, Jogendra Nath Mandal
written in 1950 is one of the most depressing documents that I’ve ever
He resigned and departed
for India a few years after Independence, but his letter documents the
deliberate policy of discrimination and racism set in motion in the
nation’s initial phase — and carried out in the name of religion.
Since I am, sadly, an
ignorant person, I did not realise that the country’s first law minister
was a Hindu — or that he left in such a state of despair and disillusion.
Tarek Fatah brought the
letter to my attention in a tweet. It was interesting in itself but even
more interesting was the response when I retweeted it: the usual knee-jerk
reaction from young (mostly PTI) believers to the effect that one should
refrain from sharing negative things about Pakistan.
Instead of attempting to
understand the history or context of the document, they started attacking
India and then it all descended into a slanging match between them and their
Indian counterparts. Which, of course, rather missed the point — that the
seeds of religious racism and bigotry were sown very early on in
Pakistan’s history, and that these laid the foundation for the state
policy of oppression and communal hatred that exists till today.
In today’s Pakistan,
your best chance of survival is if you are a Punjabi, Sunni, Muslim male,
who wears his religion on his sleeve and beard. Violent tendencies are
helpful too. Any other group remains vulnerable — even if you belong to a
powerful sub-group like the army or bureaucracy or the TTP. Women who speak
out or are in powerful positions of change or leadership are always targets
of the misogynist believers as is anybody who is ‘not a Muslim’.
Over the years the
definition of who is or who is not a Muslim has been so distorted that large
sections of the population are being declassified by these self-righteous
fascists, who peddle religious ideology to consolidate their own bastions of
For example, it is totally
shocking that Azam Tariq, the leader of a group based purely on hatred and
whose party’s one-point agenda was to kill Shias, was deemed eligible to
run for office and then elected to parliament in 2003. Similarly, leaders
from mainstream political parties continue to refer to terrorists as
shaheeds and freedom fighters, and instead of condemning them they spin the
narrative that they are noble and pious fighters for a just religion. In
supporting such people, they support the idea that ‘non-Muslims’ are
The idea of inferior
beings is horribly dangerous and goes far beyond even the strictures of the
Hindu caste system. It is a shock when you hear of people who once occupied
high judicial office declaring that any zakat project should be limited to
Muslims, and any non-Muslims should not be eligible for this charity. The
idea that some people should have to declare their ‘status’ at every
turn is no less reprehensible than the Nazi practice of forcing their Jewish
citizens to wear the yellow star.
This sort of behaviour
extends beyond religion to what our holy warriors consider to be inferior
races: we saw it in the former eastern wing with the Bengalis and we see it
now with the Baloch. We see it every day with women and ‘minorities’.
Our first law minister’s
letter illustrates the origins and manifestation of this policy of religious
dictatorship and fascist control. It is a window into a history we might not
have known of, but should at least now strive to understand. Angry
exclamations from sponsored hacks and excitable youngsters mislead people;
denial won’t help us to acknowledge our own racism or question the state
policy that has turned us into a rabid, hate-filled, self-righteous mob.
But perhaps that is too
rational a thought? Better surely to foam at the mouth and convince yourself
that the path to heaven is strewn with the mutilated bodies of