depiction
Villainous women

Is it possible to create stories without child eating, evil witches  and malicious stepmothers?
By Qudsia Sajjad
For the longest time, as a child one wondered why the witch wanted to eat Hansel and Gretel in the story by Brothers Grimm. In his book ‘Teacher Man’, Frank McCourt mentions an incident where a student comments that such a horror story is an extremely unlikely tale for children. Yet, both the children were thrown out of the house by a step mother who had no love to give them and a witch, again female, who is ready to eat them.  

Secret of words
A set of metaphors and acute expressions that are fresh and contemporary
By Mahmood Awan
Joseph Brodsky wrote, “Memory is a substitute for the tail which we lost in the happy process of evolution”, while lamenting his exile and recollecting the world he left behind in his beloved St. Petersburg in Russia.
Idris Babur doesn’t lament his exile, but grieves the loss of language and civilisation, he dreams the undreamable. His debut collection of poetry       ‘Yunhi’ opens with a stunner “Khamosh Reh Kay Zawal-e-Sukhan Ka Gham Ke’ay JaiN/ Swaal Yeh Hay Keh YuN Kitni Dair Ham Ke’ay JaiN.” Idris has won this year’s  Faiz Ahmad Faiz Award for his debut book ‘Yunhi’.  

A fulfilling sojourn
Challenging taboos and useless traditions that muzzle freedom of thought widen the canvas of Arshad Meraj’s poetry
By Altaf Hussain Asad
Arshad Meraj started composing verse almost two decades ago. His poems adorned the pages of the prestigious Urdu magazines like ‘Auraq’, ‘Symbol’, ‘Funoon’, etc. attracting the attention of serious readers and critics alike. In these two decades he has published only two collections of poems. ‘Katha Neelay Panion Ki’ was his first book which received rave reviews for masterly crafted poems that are deeply entrenched in our locale.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

depiction
Villainous women
Is it possible to create stories without child eating, evil witches  and malicious stepmothers?

By Qudsia Sajjad

For the longest time, as a child one wondered why the witch wanted to eat Hansel and Gretel in the story by Brothers Grimm. In his book ‘Teacher Man’, Frank McCourt mentions an incident where a student comments that such a horror story is an extremely unlikely tale for children. Yet, both the children were thrown out of the house by a step mother who had no love to give them and a witch, again female, who is ready to eat them.

The children are at the mercy of adult females who happen to actively dislike them whereas, quite a lot of literary narratives simply idealise women’s love for children. On one hand, there is the narrative that dwells on a woman’s love for a child and on the other there is a counter narrative which seems to rebel against the former.

From Russian folklore to German, there is a witch who is ready to eat children. Whereas the male villains mostly look for pretty females to marry by use of force, the female villain is either so vain about her looks that she would eschew motherhood to retain her youthfulness; or, simply, find a reason to eat children on the slightest pretext. Again, an attitude not conducive to motherhood, or its glorification.

In books for adults, it is seldom that a mother’s love for children is under scrutiny. Still, way more women succumb to depression after having children. In her 2009 talk at BBC World book club, author Lionel Shriver commented that women can have a troubled relationship with children but that has never been explored in literature.

In her book ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, she creates a situation in which a child’s relationship with his mother is seen through the mother’s eyes and at that not a loving mother’s eyes. The outcome of this failure to love, if one may call it, is horrendous. The child in his turn becomes a psychopath.

‘Black Milk’, another recent title by Elif Shafak, explores the issue in greater detail by documenting what the modern woman may feel about the birth of an offspring. It seems that such narratives create a more detailed study of the witch who wanted to eat children even though they are almost always rescued by someone or by their own ingenuity. Metaphorically speaking, maybe these fairy stories are a cover-up for a woman who may have a love-hate relationship with her offspring.

Other than troublesome females, literature for children mostly has a curious set of villains. It is quite a test of well-written work to have a villain who is as bad — or as good — as a young child’s imagination can handle.

With Roald Dahl, most adults are totally foolish and are most of the time antagonists. What qualifies as villainy in Dahl’s world seems to be a claim to stupidity as an adult. At least, such is the case in Dahl’s work, ‘Matilda’.

Matilda is a young girl with telekinetic powers whose parents are dim-witted and indifferent to her talents and her headmistress gives abusive physical punishment. Here, again the gender ratio is two antagonistic females — her mother and the headmistress — to one antagonistic male, her father.

Coming back to fairytales, Cinderella has step sisters and a step mother as villain. Snow White again has a step mother for a villain. All these characters are villainous women. Baba Yaga, another witch in Russian folklore, eats children. ‘The Little Mermaid’ is again totally done in by a witch and another woman. Other than the mother-child relationship, these narratives also point to an arguably more primal emotion, that of jealousy.

So many examples of women being antagonistic to little kids might lead one to the conclusion that literary narratives are biased against women but such a generalisation is not possible.

In his work on criticism, Northrop Frye has elucidated the role of symbols, myths and generic conventions on creating literary meaning. He uses a word, archetype, to talk about recurrent patterns in stories. The archetype of woman as the child eating witch might be a symbol through which adult women have explored their relationships with children. With more and more women writers coming up, this area of a woman’s life will surely receive more attention and, hopefully, human beings will be able to understand themselves better in the stories they create to mirror their experiences.

For a twist on the older tales of women, Angela Carter has edited an anthology of work called ‘Wayward Girls and Wicked Women’ which explores women’s account of different phases in life without conforming to an imaginary ideal of what this account could be.

From the children’s perspective, the writer Alison Lurie has studied the phenomena of how children can become part of subversive narratives where adults are simply evil or mostly annoying and dim-witted. Children are also capable of having less than ideal relationships with their mothers, or fathers though in classics like ‘The Railway Children’ or ‘Little Women’, mothers and fathers are the most stable of creatures. But as we have seen, children’s literature is not always populated by positive adults.

It seems pretty open to debate what villains really signify in stories of children. But one can safely assume that they also have stories to tell. The question is, that without antagonists, evil witches, dim-witted parents and malicious step mothers, would the stories be as riveting or if they will lose their appeal. . If villains told their stories, how far would we be willing to go along with their twisted ideas of right and wrong. Only storytellers can experiment and tell us if villains can be redeemed. Only storytellers can experiment and tell us if that can happen.

On a lighter note, even in fairy stories the old conventions are being shaken. One has to thank the makers of ‘Shrek’ for letting the princess be a giantess and marry what otherwise would be the traditional villain. This sort of subversion shows us what archetypes we have been holding on to regarding fairytales, and the notions of good and bad with which most stories with villains concern themselves.

  

 

 

 

 

 

Secret of words
A set of metaphors and acute expressions that are fresh and contemporary
By Mahmood Awan

Joseph Brodsky wrote, “Memory is a substitute for the tail which we lost in the happy process of evolution”, while lamenting his exile and recollecting the world he left behind in his beloved St. Petersburg in Russia.

Idris Babur doesn’t lament his exile, but grieves the loss of language and civilisation, he dreams the undreamable. His debut collection of poetry   ‘Yunhi’ opens with a stunner “Khamosh Reh Kay Zawal-e-Sukhan Ka Gham Ke’ay JaiN/ Swaal Yeh Hay Keh YuN Kitni Dair Ham Ke’ay JaiN.” Idris has won this year’s  Faiz Ahmad Faiz Award for his debut book ‘Yunhi’.

I first met Idris 18 years ago at the Bhola Canteen of University of Engineering and Technology (UET) in Lahore where I was a newcomer and Idris was in the final year. Those days at UET, legends like Dr Khurshid Rizvi were frequent visitors not only to the campus seminars but to our rooms where Rehman Hafeez, Shaheen Abbas, Zulfiqar Adil and many of us spent our time not studying electromagnetics but poetic aesthetics.

Idris Babur is the most gifted poet of our generation; his diction, craft and innovation was unique from day one. He is not a poet of mere rhythm and rhyme, but a liberator of captive lyricism. Ghazal is a strange form of poetry, loved and not so loved at the same time. Support system of radeef and     qaafia is a survival kit for the empty brains and a challenge to the postmodern theme. Idris not only accepted this challenge but relished it, in his own words “Ajeeb Haal Tha Iss Dasht ka MaiN Aya Tu / Na Khaak Thi Nah Koi Khaak Udaanay Wala Tha”.

While reading ‘Yunhi’ one comes across a new set of metaphors and acute expressions that are fresh and contemporary. Collection of 67 ghazals mainly captures the years that belong to Idris’ student life. This is the period when he discovered his poetic potential and started a journey which was costing him every passing day. He writes and edits anthologies, translates Nobel laureates from Seamus Heaney to Wis?awa Szymborska and from Octavio Paz to Tomas Tranströmer and is still neglected by the literati.

Time, memory, dream and loss are the primary themes of this book. One sees varied shades of life and art in his poems that are often in the form of a dialogue with the world. Range of his subjects is diverse, clean from clichés not only in the subject matter but in the use of language and its music; “Darakht Subh Taaza Dam Thay, Hum Say Pehlay/Rasool Apni Baste’yoN Ko Ro Chukkay HaiN.”

In strict terms, exact rhymes and crisp sentences give birth to lyrical verse, which can be called the first step towards transformation. For Idris Babur    ‘Yunhi’ is the first phase to that transformation. The living legend of Urdu ghazal Zafar Iqbal who is blunt to the level of rudeness, has called Idris as the “model poet” whose poetry is not only the poetry of today but tomorrow. He further adds that Idris with his modern sensibility has discovered new dimensions of usual ghazal subjects.

Idris belongs to the short list of poets who have their own diction and unique sensibility. These are the poets who attract imitators and Idris got a fair share of such ‘technicians’ who picked up on his stuff with utmost urgency during his absence from the scene (even his presence doesn’t deter them) but failed to grasp the depth identified with him and his poetic world only.

‘Yunhi’ cleanses our soul, removes any hangings and this is the poetry which shields us from the onslaught of vulgarity; local and global, internal and external. Idris Babur’s verse ensures its readers that poetry is not dead, yet; “Iss Qadar Matt Udaas Ho, Jaisay / Yeh Muhabbat Ka aakhri Din Hay”

Mahmood Awan is a Punjabi poet who works and lives in Dublin.

[email protected]

Title:   Yunhi

Poet: Idris Babur

Publisher: Caravan Book House, Lahore

Pages: 127

Price: Rs220

 

 

 

 

 

 

A fulfilling sojourn
Challenging taboos and useless traditions that muzzle freedom of thought widen the canvas of Arshad Meraj’s poetry
By Altaf Hussain Asad

Arshad Meraj started composing verse almost two decades ago. His poems adorned the pages of the prestigious Urdu magazines like ‘Auraq’, ‘Symbol’, ‘Funoon’, etc. attracting the attention of serious readers and critics alike. In these two decades he has published only two collections of poems. ‘Katha Neelay Panion Ki’ was his first book which received rave reviews for masterly crafted poems that are deeply entrenched in our locale.

Meraj stands firmly on the soil where he was born and raised and he gels well the phraseology of the regional languages in his poems. For him a nazm is synonymous with love and life. He rationalises, “In nazm you need to dent the hollow tradition in order to keep pace with the changing times. Tradition takes you back in the bygone eras and then you are cut off from your present scenario. I have also avoided using ornate prose and have incorporated the words of Punjabi and other local languages”.

Meraj believes that Urdu should align itself more with local languages and dialects to be a truly national language. Urdu can gain little by associating itself with Persian and Arabic, he argues. “Punjabi, Seraiki and other languages are progressive languages and one can’t afford to ignore them if one wishes to weave a modern poem,” he says.

He believes that as long as a society is unable to do away with so called taboos it can never be a modern society. A creative writer, according to him, should try to challenge the taboos, and useless traditions that muzzle freedom of thought. That’s what widens the canvas of his poems as apart from love he also explores the socio economic themes in his poetry. The anguish, frustration, and disappointment of a modern man can be felt in his poems.

“The background of my nazms is rural Punjab but I also know that cities are expanding and we are living in urban environs. I am the citizen of semi-feudal society which is in throes of rapid urbanisation. So you need to have a multi-dimensional outlook under such conditions. A writer should need to keep all these things in mind,” he says.

Without being judgemental, Meraj builds up a strong case for nazm in the coming days. He hopes that more people will be writing nazm in the days to come as it is an urban genre like short story. “People want to get entertained and seek pleasure and ghazal serves the purpose fully. On the other hand, nazm and short story show you the mirror and we are not yet ready to see our image in the mirror. Nazm have always flourished in the societies that value rationality and progressive thought. However, I am very sanguine about nazm as urban environs will compel us to write more nazms and short stories,” he says.

Meraj is all praise for prose poetry too because he things that when you create something without rhythm, which is an essential ingredient of poetry, it’s no mean feat.

He says he is indebted to Dr Wazir Agha for his guidance and motivation as ‘Auraq’ polished his skills in the early days of his poetic career. Among contemporaries and friends he is grateful to Daud Rizwan for his support. Among his seniors he is beholden to the craft of Abdul Rashid, Anwar Fitrat, Abrar Ahmad, Masood Qamar, Waheed Ahmad, Javed Anwer etc. Of his contemporaries he alludes to the names of Husain Abid, Fahim Shanas Kazmi, Saeed Ahmad which in his opinion are doing a good job in the realm of nazm.

His most recent book which will be out within a week titled ‘Doston Kay Leye Nazmein’ is a tribute to his seniors as well as his contemporaries who made him what he is today. “You know you get influenced and then you try to carve a path that is completely your own,” he muses. “My poetic sojourn has been very fulfilling in the sense that I got a chance to rub shoulders with many a poet and writers and there were others whom I could not meet like the formidable Gulzar. In my new book I have told the story of my life through various friends and mentors. A poem on Gulzar is my humble tribute to that great verse wielder whose contribution to Urdu literature is enormous.”

 

 

 

 

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