writers and poets as well are very prolific in the earlier part of their
lives, but just give up writing altogether or their focus changes to
Leo Tolstoy stopped writing
after penning two great novels and later wrote about non violence, spiritual
quests and moral imperatives. Shahzad Ahmed wrote good poetry but switched to
translations and writing on psychology and physical sciences, while
Hajra Masroor gave up writing because she found raising children and
running a home a more fulfilling experience after marriage.
This should not be very
surprising and seen as very predicable because many women give up whatever
they are doing for home and children, but ironic in the case of Masroor as,
in her earlier works she was rebelling against the themes and ethos
associated with women in our milieu. The issues of segregation, joint family
and life confined to the walls in extended families figured less in her
works. The very subtle man-woman relationship as perceived by the women too
was not that predominant; instead the lure or the temptation to experience a
bigger world outside the high walls of the joint family system was much
In the second or third
decade of the twentieth century, Muslim women too had started to express
themselves. A distinction had to be made between women in general in North
India and Muslim women because this segment was more conservative and many
social barriers like purdah and staying indoors mere more rigidly enforced.
European women had provided
the prototype of being educated, enlightened and taking considerable interest
in affairs outside the four walls of the house. It was about this time that
the formal education of women was initiated in Northern India with the
establishment of a women school at Aligarh by Sheikh Abdullah.
Women were not supposed to
express themselves and their voices were not supposed to be heard let alone
their faces exposed or their writings read by namehrams. All this was hedging
at the limits of modesty and many a writer relished in the huge number of fan
mail that they received. This
was both an expose of the rigidly enforced segregation and the human foibles
that inevitably emerge.
Ismat Chugtai, who was from
the first batch of girls students of that school, chose an independent career
as a writer for herself and broke many a convention which had held back
Muslim women’s intellectual growth. Another one among the writers was Hijab
Imtiaz Ali who too had discarded many traditions of the Muslim ashrafia by
indulging in activities considered to be strictly the preserve of men. She
even flew an aeroplane when the machine itself was very rare.
Probably Hajra Masroor was
the second generation of Muslim women writers and a great deal of the path
had been cleared by pioneers like Rashid Jehan and Ismat Chugtai.
Born round 1920, three of
her many sisters were into writings they earned and nickname of the Bronte
Sisters of Urdu fiction.
It was also the time that
Marxism became popular and seized the imagination of many a creative writer
and the entire slant of fiction was determined by the understanding of
society seen through the prism of Marxism.
In the beginning, it was a
very broad-based movement and attracted quite a few adherents. It remained
very vibrant as long as it stayed broad based but the moment it started to
become prescriptive in a puritanical sense it started to see dissidence and
even rebellion within its ranks.
And then there was the
revelatory reading of Freud. Delving into the unconscious too had become a
favourite theme with writers and some tried to combine the two. This heady
mixture of Marxism and Freudian libido pouring down the pen of a woman was
bound to be iconoclastic and explosive.
Though, as time went by,
this sensational Hajra Masroor gave way to a more steadied person, intent on
looking at life in a wholesome way. She lost the bite and the sting though
she continued to reveal hidden aspect of our social existence which was
shocking at times.
Since three of the sisters
wrote, the critics have been prying to find similarities between the works
especially between Khadija and Hajra. Since both shared a common home and
relatives and the traditions of Lucknow and since both were inspired by
socialist realism the truthful depiction of the lives as lived by the
characters was one of their quests.
The realistic descriptions
of landscape, both physical and social, were dominant in the writings of both
but the treatment and development of the situation was different. Masroor,
in her later writings was relatively low-key and she wrote
realistically about the problems faced by the Muslim families in the third
decade of the twentieth century but it was not infused with a larger than
life aspiration to change the world through the enthusiasm of the main
characters. It was rather more descriptive and worked subtly in building
slowly on observations about things that seemed inconsequential and
unimportant, but were significant in understanding the ethos of a people. She
was very good in writing about the significant by arriving at it through the
Masroor was well-known even
before migrating from Lucknow to Karachi and then Lahore after independence
and was very close to the set of writers that adhered to this ideology like
Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and also helped him in editing Naqoosh.
Masroor published her first
collection of short stories, Chirkey and was followed by another collection
Hai Allah. Sub Afsaney Meray,
combining short stories from her six collections, was published in the 1990s.
She also wrote some plays
and a collection was published as Woh Log with a preface and introduction by
Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Imtiaz Ali Taj respectively. She wrote the story and
script for Suroor Barabankvi’s first movie, Aakhri Station, which she based
on her own work Pagli.
When S.M. Shahid,
the advertising guru, the music buff and one of Saleem Asmi’s best friends,
proposed to compile some of his journalistic writings in the form of a book,
Asmi brushed aside the suggestion. He thought they were mere “journalistic
pieces” that “did not deserve any serious reading” in Shahid’s own
So I thought when I got
hold of the book “Saleem Asmi — Interviews, Articles, Reviews”. Having
ignored it for a couple of weeks, I started reading, and it surprised and
involved me in an unexpected way. It ascertained the worth of serious
journalistic work such as Asmi’s in more ways than one. Unwittingly, a
review exercise turned into one journalist looking at another journalist’s
work, critically to begin with and ending up in wonder and awe at the
possibilities of what is understood to be a frivolous profession.
The book seems as if
someone has painted in broad strokes a picture of this country in the decades
past — drawing inspiration from its history, culture, literature, politics
and journalism itself. It is like a compressed high-quality short-course
that ought to be made mandatory for students of journalism and working
journalists alike. And we must thank S.M. Shahid for having made this
Saleem Asmi must be
breaking the path for the coming generation of journalists while doing
profile interviews, art and film and book reviews of the kind that he did.
This is foundational work that all of us then built on; only one feels, with
a hint of sadness, that instead of taking it forward we let those standards
of excellence erode.
Much has been made of the
first two interviews in the collection — with Faiz and Josh — and rightly
so because there are new insights and one feels being reintroduced to the two
poets in a refreshing way. The introduction of his interview with Faiz only
shows Asmi’s objectivity as a journalist. And that sense of him being
mercilessly truthful when it comes to his courage of conviction continues
throughout the book.
Personally, I equally
enjoyed the third interview with Malka-i-Mausiqi Roshan Ara Begum that was
conducted in her haveli in Lala Musa. It’s an endearing account of someone
who “relishes being a woman, a wife and a mother, as much as she relishes
being the undisputed queen of music.” Once again, Asmi’s knowledge of
raags, various schools, notation in Eastern classical music and a clear sense
of the greatness he was confronting makes it a sheer pleasure read.
One thing the book has not
done is to mention the exact date of the publication of each article. It
casually says “Most of these write-ups first appeared in The Herald and a
few other publications between 1978 and 1995”. This becomes a serious
handicap for the reader who can make wild guesses about the possible time of
the appearance of the article. In some cases it is easier because of an overt
reference but not so in most others. For instance, the reader does not get to
know when exactly was the Pakistan Institute for the Study of Film Art set
up, where he got to see so many of Satyajit Ray’s masterpieces.
Meeting “the old
rascal” is always colourful and equally so here. But what Khushwant Singh
had said about the Indo-Pak relations sometime in the 1970s is a sad reminder
of how we have not moved an inch from that time on. Note the ever similar
message when he says: “I do hope, however, that something will be done to
speed up normalisation. There should be exchange of newspapers and journals.
Then, there is a wide field in which we can exchange goods. This should be
The selection of articles
is remarkable; it is not just the breadth and scope but an affirmation of the
very fact that we have had singers and dancers and artistes of all sorts in
our midst who were respected and acknowledged by the mainstream media. The
interview with dancer Madam Azuri in her “shabbily-kept, two-room apartment
in a crumbling Pindi hotel” is instructive in how the society has
transformed over decades.
Madam Azuri recalls opening
a dance school in Rawalpindi in 1948 when all the maulvis of the town
“stood up against me… They delivered sermons in mosques and spread as
much venom against me as they could…” Sounds familiar. But what Azuri did
to avert the agitation may not sound as familiar today. She did a stage show
for the maulvis at Jadoo Ghar, “gave them a lecture on the divinity and
dignity of the dance. They liked the performance and the agitation was called
The six articles on artists
including Ghulam Rasool, Ahmed Pervez, Jamil Naqsh, Bashir Mirza, Haji
Sharief and Mansur Saleem defy the modern notion that journalists must not
attempt writing on art or that art criticism is the preserve of artists
alone. That Asmi was inclined towards art must have been an added advantage
but all of these come across as thorough, journalistic, readable pieces.
The benefit of hindsight
the book offers is immense. The author’s description of meeting Faiz in
1956 as a student when he was invited to the Karachi University is also an
indirect comment on today’s politically-illiterate students, hankering
after individual goals in their respective elite private institutions.
The book reviews picked for
this collection are a joyous and fulfilling read, almost commanding one to go
pick a Qurat-ul-ain Hyder before it’s too late.
All in all, it has been a
joy to be in the company of Saleem Asmi. What a giant of a journalist, one
Saleem Asmi — Interviews,
Compiled and published by
Price: Rs 500
The great thing
about this cat — the writing one — is that there are a thousand different
ways to skin it. In fact, you don’t have to skin it at all — and it
doesn’t even need to be a cat! What I mean, in the first instance, is feel
free to dispute or ignore everything in this introduction or in the articles
that follow. As Tobias Wolff puts it in his masterly novel Old School: “For
a writer there is no such thing as an exemplary life … Certain writers do
good work at the bottom of a bottle. The outlaws generally write as well as
the bankers, though more briefly. Some writers flourish like opportunistic
weeds by hiding among the citizens, others by toughing it out in one sort of
desert or another.”
This freedom is the
challenging perk of the non-job. If you are a tennis player any weakness —
an inability, say, to deal with high-bouncing balls to your backhand — will
be just that. And so you must devote long hours of practice to making the
vulnerable parts of your game less vulnerable. If you are a writer the
equivalent weakness can rarely be made good so you are probably better off
letting it atrophy and enhancing some other aspect of your performance.
Writers are defined, in
large measure, by what they can’t do. The mass of things that lie beyond
their abilities force them to concentrate on the things they can. “I
can’t do this,” exclaims the distraught Mother-Writer in People Like That
Are the Only People Here, Lorrie Moore’s famous story about a young child
dying of cancer. “I can do quasi-amusing phone dialogue. I do the careful
ironies of daydreams. I do the marshy ideas upon which intimate life is built
…” From the sum total of these apparent trivialities emerges a fiction
which succeeds in doing precisely what it claims it can’t.
Or take a more extreme
example:Franz Kafka. Was ever a writer so consumed by the things he
couldn’t do? Stitch together all the things Kafka couldn’t do and you
have a draft of War and Peace. The corollary of this is that what he was left
with was stuff no one else could do — or had ever done. Stepping over into
music, wasn’t it partly Beethoven’s inability to conjure melodies as
effortlessly as Mozart that encouraged the development of his transcendent
rhythmic power? How reassuring to know that the same problems that afflict
journeymen artists also operate at the level of genius.
A spokesman for the former,
I have written novels even though I have absolutely no ability to think of
— and no interest in — stories and plots. The best I can come up with are
situations which tend, with some slight variation of locale, to be just one
situation: boy meets girl. Other things — structure and tone — must, in
these severely compromised circumstances, take over some of the load-bearing
work normally assumed by plot. The same holds true for certain kinds of
non-fiction, those animated by — and reliant on more than — the appeal of
their ostensible subject matter.
This is another lesson: you
don’t have to know what kind of book you are writing until you have written
a good deal of it, maybe not until you’ve finished it — maybe not even
then. That’s the second sense in which the cat doesn’t have to be a cat.
All that matters is that at some point the book generates a form and style
uniquely appropriate to its own needs. Why bother offering readers an
experience that they can get from someone else? The playwright David Hare
once claimed that: “The two most depressing words in the English language
are ‘literary fiction’.” Remember this: literary fiction does not set a
standard that is to be aspired to; it describes a habit of convention that
people — writers and readers alike — collapse into, like a comfy old
Which, surely, is not such
a bad place to be. Except, for writers, the sofa should always be an
extension of the desk. Reading is not just part of your apprenticeship; it
continues to inform, stimulate and invigorate your writing life — and it is
never passive. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion recalls her
husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, rereading Sophie’s Choice by
William Styron, “trying to see how it worked”. To see how Styron
got away with it is the more interesting question in my and Martin
Amis’s view. (Styron’s novel was, for Amis, “a flapping, gobbling,
There’s a lesson here.
One’s reading does not have to be confined to the commanding — and
thereby discouraging — heights of the truly great. Take a look also at
what’s happening on the lower slopes, even in the crowded troughs. We tend
to think of ambition operating in terms of some ultimate destination — the
Nobel Prize or bust! — but it also manifests itself incrementally, at the
level of pettiness. To read a well-regarded writer and to find the conviction
growing in yourself that he or she is second- or third-rate, that, in Bob
Dylan’s words, “you can say it just as good”, is both encouraging and,
if acted upon, a niggling form of ambition. (If it is not acted upon it
becomes simply corrosive.)
As with ambition so with
practicalities. It’s a daunting prospect to sit down with the intention of
writing a masterpiece. If it has any chance of being realised that ambition
is best broken down into achievable increments, such as I will sit here for
two hours, or 500 words or whatever. Keep these targets manageable and you
will feel good about your progress, even if that progress is, inevitably,
The satisfactions of
writing are indistinguishable from its challenges and difficulties. It is
constantly testing all your faculties and skills (of expression,
concentration, memory, imagination and empathy) on the smallest scale
(sentences, words, commas) and the largest (the overall design, structure and
purpose of the book) simultaneously. It brings you absolutely and always up
against your limitations. That’s why people keep at it — and why it’s
far easier to give advice about writing than it is to do it.