A new voice on the scene

I recently had the chance to read a couple of short stories by Nain Sukh, a relatively new name on the scene of modern Punjabi short fiction. I have been told that his book of short stories is about to hit the market or already has. I eagerly await its arrival and the reason is none other than his two good short stories published in the July and August issue of Pancham of last year. The story published in the August issue is titled Khu Pya Vaggay and that’s the story I read first.

The main thrust of the story was that the life of the poor remained wretched under the colonial rule and the narrative fleshed out a system where natives are pitted against each other irrespective of their cast and religion. Although the story also zoomed in on the issue of corruption when the system doesn’t represent the needs of common people, it really lays bare the physical and psychological trauma the native population had to bear.

The story opens with a tragicomic description of Ladha Changar, Lalu Sahni and Sundar Gagra running after each other with the intent to kill but even the author doesn’t know who’s in the lead and who’s trailing. The main scene is where the three are being punished as they have been ordered to assume a rooster position while Saheb Bahadur — the white master — has ordered his native servants to spank non-stop the raised bottoms of the lowly three. In the middle of the story it turns out that the real culprits were the white man’s servants and that Saheb eventually catches them.

The second story, published in the July issue, is titled Nang Rang and narrates the predicament of a Hindu man, who manages to slip back into his ancestral land, the newly carved territory called Pakistan using wit and presence of mind, despite the fact that he is not circumcised. It is an interesting idea that has been played out before in what is often referred to as Partition Literature. The real power lies in the idea that a human being’s genital becomes a metaphor for religious intolerance and stupidity. In a very comical sequence, the protagonist learns to play the system to his advantage too, as he begins to show up at different neighbourhood mosques to convert to Islam, again and again.

Nain Sukh has showed tremendous promise by these two stories and as I said earlier I am really looking forward to reading his first collection. The strong points of his fiction so far seem to be his control of and intimacy with the Punjabi language, and the ease with which he could situate stories in a bygone era and not make it look riddled with clichés. The other strong point is the clarity of what he wanted the story to achieve. Having said that, I feel it is important to point out that both stories are not only male centric but work within an unconscious patriarchal mindset to the detriment of the stories and complexities these stories are attempting to scrutinise.

Let me explain a bit. It is not uncommon to create the grand narrative of a nationalist struggle against a colonial oppressor in a man-to-man encounter as if women were silent spectators. The lack of insertion of women characters in the first story, either white or brown, is indicative of such blindness. An interesting example from a Hindi cinema comes to mind. A French friend of mine who taught cinema once spoke to me about the movie Lagaan and praised it as a good anti-colonial movie. I had found the movie to be very sexist and full of problematic clichés typical of commercial cinema. I pointed out a crucial scene to her, when the British woman explained to a bunch of native men and one woman how cricket was played so they could beat the white masters in their own game. The camera panned across the serious looking faces of men who were trying their best to understand the rules and tricks of the game. The only person who was incapable of paying attention was the heroine, and it turned out she was more interested in being jealous, that the white woman was going to steal her stud. This is a patriarchal and sexist mind at worst. Nain Sukh must avoid falling into similar traps.

The second story actually brings that problem to the front. The protagonist encounters a loose woman on a packed bus and she beckons him to follow her to her house. She gives him milk and asks him to visit her again as her husband is away on certain days. She takes off her clothes and waits for him, but as soon as she notices the extra skin, she refuses to have sex with him, finding it beneath her to let a non-Muslim mount her.

This is problematic on several accounts. On a very basic level, this suggests the writer sacrificed the complexity of the female character to his agenda of exposing religious bigotry. This is also suggesting that the author has not explored the power and complexity of sex. Religious, ethnic, caste or racial barriers have not stopped people from abducting and raping the women belonging to other religions or races. Nor such differences have stopped women from accommodating men of different religion and skin. Nain Sukh should have allowed the female character some agency.

I believe the story would have been stronger if he had allowed the sexual transgression to take place and then see how the bigotry might have played out. The author’s choice of making a loose woman rejecting a Hindu man hints at that he has already lain a negative judgment on her character, while it is equally plausible  to view her as a brave woman instead in a sexually and artistically stifling environment.

The author is eventually judged by both the choices he/she makes or omits. Whatever is added or omitted has to have the author’s deep and lasting engagement. My single advice to the writer is to break out of a patriarchal mode of thinking and the result will be a line of wonderful and brave women modelled after Heer, itching to enter his stories.


Divided we fall

The State of Islam:
Culture & Cold War
Politics in Pakistan
By Saadia Toor
Publisher: Pluto Press, 2011
Pages: 256
Price: Rs 1495

Rise of religious right in Pakistan is an ultimate upshot of the steady tug of war among liberals, nationalists and leftists.

From August 11, 1947 till today, there is an incessant conflict of ideas among numerous groups regarding liberalism, Pakistani nationalism, ethnic or geographic nationalism, religious fundamentalism, sectarianism, secularism and socialism.  The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had delivered his historic speech in the First session of Constituent Assembly of Pakistan three days before its birth on August 11, 1947 in which he expounded his vision regarding the state, identified major governance problems along with his inclination towards parliamentary liberal democracy.

At least one member of that assembly showed discomfort at the speech.  The member was Chaudry Nazir Ahmad, representative of the religious right and Federal Minister for Industries in Liaquat Ali Khan’s cabinet.  “I remember we talked about it amongst ourselves. And we decided to talk with Jinnah about his speech so that we could understand what he meant? Some people said that Jinnah rejected the concept of an Islamic state,” said Ahmad. Another public disagreement was expressed by Khawaja Shahabudin, the younger brother of Khawaja Nazimudin and federal minister for Information and Interior in Liaquat Ali Khan’s cabinet. Another example of early days was Khan of Kalat who advised Jinnah to impose Shariat in Pakistan but Jinnah flatly refused.

“Jinnah called me at Karachi after August 14, 1947 and I remained his guest for 22 days. I told him to declare Pakistan an Islamic state. After listening to this he asked me, how I can do this? I explained that I did it in my state (Kalat) for the last 10 years.” He answered “Kalat is your state but Pakistan is not my state. Here we have people with diverse opinions. People have their own constituent assembly. That assembly has right to frame the constitution.”

By January 1948, Jinnah had started thinking about replacing his prime minister. According to Hussein Imam, member Central Working Committee of Muslim League and member of Indian Legislative assembly from Bihar, Jinnah was ready to replace Liaquat Ali Khan with Ghulam Muhammad in April 1948. After the death of Jinnah, Liauqat Ali Khan, Ch Muhammad Ali, Sir Zafrullah Khan, Maulana Shabir Ahmad Usmani, Maulvi Tameezudin and Abdur Rab Nishtar had planned to include the Objectives Resolution in the future constitution yet the liberal Finance Minister Ghulam Muhammad with the help of some assembly members undid their plan. A compromised formula materialised from the tug of war between liberal Muslims and the religious right under which the Objective Resolution found a place in the preamble.

One can read this whole story in a book based on interviews of 13 people who met Jinnah under the title Quaid e Azam aur un ky Rufaqa published by National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research Islamabad. That compromise formula worked till Zia’s era and the Objectives Resolution remained not only in two initial drafts but also was accepted in the preambles of all three constitutions namely 1956, 1962 and 1973. It was Zia who altered it in favour of the religious right in the mid 1980s which not only shifted the balance towards fundamentalism but also changed the social fabric of the Pakistani society.

Interestingly, conflicting ideological groups had their own reservations against parliamentary liberal democracy in the 1940s. South Asian communists and socialists were against parliamentary democracy under the notions of anti imperialism and anti colonialism. Pakistani progressives inherited such notions and remained reluctant to support liberal and democratic forces. Liberal democratic Pakistan was not their goal but they wanted a red revolution by force not by vote. In July 1957, Pakistani progressives rejected liberal democrat Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy and formed National Awami Party (NAP) whose core issue was the national question. Unfortunately, NAP supported Iskander Mirza right from its birth in West Pakistan assembly and did moves against Shurawardy’s government. NAP failed to bridge the gap among liberals, democrats, progressives and nationalists.

The formation of the PPP in late 1960s was the first attempt to alienate liberal democrats and progressives, an unprecedented event in the political history of Pakistan. Unfortunately at that time the left was divided between pro Chinese and pro Moscow groups. In spite of many common points, progressives, liberals, nationalists and democrats failed to have an alliance on minimum common points.

In her book The State of Islam: Culture & Cold War Politics in Pakistan,  Saadia Toor tries to explain how the struggle among Marxists, democrats, liberals and nationalists was influenced and eventually engulfed by the agenda of the religious right. She rightly criticised cold war politics and war on terror to shed light on the domestic and international processes behind the global rise of militant Islam. Yet she missed the Pak-India cold war especially after the mid 1960s.

Like many left-leaning intellectuals, Toor has criticised Bhutto yet ignored General Yahya’s regime who not only introduced the first orthodox education policy (1969) printed under the signatures of Air Marshal Noor Khan but also hired jurists to write the future Islamic Constitution for Pakistan. She also failed to mention imperial interests in the breakup of Pakistan, an angle often missed by progressive intellectuals under the influence of the Bengali resistance struggle. Like the 1946 election victory of AIML, it was Punjab again, that voted against the tide and chose Bhutto in the 1970 elections. Due to that landslide victory Bhutto managed to control Sindh too. Balochistan and NWFP voted for NAP and partly for JUI (an expelled group of JUH in 1946).

After December 20, 1971, there was a chance to have an alliance among progressives, liberals, nationalists and democrats yet the secular and nationalist NAP prefered to support an Islamic political party, JUI and voted for Maulana Mufti Mahmud who had only 5 seats in the NWFP assembly. The only sane and rational voice in NAP was Ghous Baksh Bizenjo who tried his best to bridge the gap between NAP and PPP. Alas, he failed and then Baloch never allied with Wali Khan till today.

In the 1980s, the MRD was a relatively good umbrella for vacating the anxieties among progressives, liberals, nationalists and democrats, yet the formation of ANP in 1986 again mesmerised many progressives and nationalists that they could unilaterally challenge the evil forces. Bizenjo and his Party, PNP, reluctant to join ANP. In the early 90s both ANP and PNP leaderships joined the PML and Nawaz Sharif. They had severe criticism on the PPP on the basis of betrayal from nationalist, progressive agenda yet by joining PML they exposed themselves.

Left groups and political parties other than ANP and National Party (new form of PNP), have no say either in electoral politics or at the popular front. Yet Toor tries to cite them out of size due to her own preferences. Without having a popular base, no one can challenge the rise of fundamentalism in Pakistan yet.  The Left can only bridge the gap by raising a common agenda based on minimum points which protects liberalism, academic freedom, diversity and continuity of democratisation at district, provincial and federal levels in Pakistan.


The State of Islam: Culture & Cold War Politics in Pakistan is available at Readings



The theatre does not demand the services of an army of technicians, huge machinery and a network of distribution. It remains a much cheaper and, more importantly, a practical vehicle for original ideas. Originality is not a saleable product. What people want to buy in art, as in ice cream, is something very like what they have enjoyed previously.

The theatre has always been an outlet for authors who demand the freedom to write what they want in the way they want. In the films you find that you have to alter the ending of your picture because the producer does not like it, or the producer’s eleven-year old daughter, whom he adores, did not like it when Daddy screened your picture for her one evening. (In television, the same sorts of factors apply, only now the Boss’s daughter is a creature called The Sponsor, also eleven years old, or “our public” who is only nine. “Oh our public wouldn’t stand for that” you are told).

The third trump card in the theatre’s hand is audience participation. People get tired of sitting at home and staring at the telly. It is true that they can go out to the movies. But being part of a movie audience is an experience different from being part of a theatre audience. In the cinema your reaction doesn’t affect the movie which was probably made several months ago and several thousand miles away. Whether you laugh or cry, whether you eat a toffee and crackle the paper or whether you go to sleep, the film goes on.

But at a live performance the reaction of the audience is all-important. It makes or mars a performance. It is a fact that a good audience evokes a good performance and a bad audience gets the performance it deserves. As a member of a live audience you have a responsibility to contribute to the occasion. You switch off your mobile phone so it does not disturb your fellow spectators. You do not carry out a conversation with your companions; you refrain from unwrapping crinkly chocolate and you try to suppress your coughing bouts. All of this requires more effort than is required at the movies where you bear no artistic responsibility. It is my belief that we value more and enjoy more those experiences that demand effort. We do not always want to make the effort. The fact that it is so little trouble is one of the great attractions of the cinema.

A performance just cannot be both significant and easily absorbed; unless you can make an effort the significance passes you by. The theatre appeals to that minority of any evening’s pleasure-seekers who are prepared to make an effort. Such an audience will attract the most serious and self-respecting writers and performers, the people whose work is daring, original and — let me not mince matters — too good for the mediums of mass distribution.

The theatre will continue to enjoy prestige greater than that of the mass mediums. The prestige derives partly from tradition; the theatre being older-established has the respectability of age, and partly from snobbery, from the very fact that it is not any longer a mass medium. The theatre demands more of its audience and being, as it were, hand-made, not mass-produced; it is a more exclusive commodity.

I said earlier that there are modern dramatists whose works have been so powerful that they may eventually attain classical status. Let us pause here to think which modern authors are candidates for such status. Again I shall confine myself to drama written in English.

It is often said that a work cannot be regarded as a classic until it has survived about a hundred years from its first production. How many of the English playwrights will remain to be in the theatrical repertoire a hundred years from now?

Two names that come immediately to mind are George Barnard Shaw and Eugene O’ Neill.

Shaw was a scourge for producers and actor-managers. During his life he never allowed any director to make the slightest deviation from his written instructions about the stage business. When he learned that a line had been deleted in the American production of Androcles and The Lion, he threatened to have the play taken off.

O’Neill was not so tyrannical, but even he was reluctant to have his lines excised. O’Neill has a great poetic insight into human nature although, for a poet, he expresses himself in a tortured manner. O’Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night alone will make him live.

Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are three other American dramatists who are more than likely to achieve classical status.

Of the 20th century English and Irish dramatists, Oscar Wilde and Sean O’ Cassey are top of my list which is huge: Barry, Galsworthy, Priestly Rattigan, Osborne, Ayckbourne, Stoppard and that over-publicised but underestimated master, Noel Coward. How many of these will be valued by posterity is hard to tell.

There are other reasons: the theatre makes greater demand on its practitioner. To give a really good performance of Lear or Macbeth, Peer Gynt or Antigone, is a far greater feat than acting any conceivable part in a film. I am not trying to belittle cinema acting. Acting on the screen makes complex demands and very few actors can fulfil these demands, but they are not as exacting as the demands of the stage (Think of the enormous stamina you need to play Lear who is fourscore and upwards. I have never seen an eighty year old actor playing Lear. Olivier played it when he was 72 but that was on television which meant that he could have a break in between scenes).

The most ambitious actors and directors will not be satisfied with the comparative ease in which success can be won in the other areas. Charles Laughton, Alec Guinness, Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, at the peak of their world renown as film stars, gave up engagements worth million of dollars to go to Stratford, Ontario, or Strafford, England to play classical parts for a pittance. Actors realise that it is vital to prove and refresh themselves in the theatre.

In our country theatre is necessary as a nursery for talents of many kinds as a seedbed for ideas. The theatre is a symbol of the fact that there is still such a thing as Dramatic Art, that drama is not just one more industrial product, canned and attractively packaged and sold to an eleven-year-old public.


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