Pakistani Literature

Conversation with Mushir ul Hasan on my book

25 March 2014

Last year, my book was released in Delhi. The video and transcript of the discussion have been uploaded now.

Mushir ul Hasan: I’m delighted to be associated with the launch of this book; however, I believe that the subtitle of the book could have been a touch different. ‘The impressions of a Pakistani traveller’ – immediately creates an image in my mind of the ‘distinct other’, and I think it is this sense that we’re probably trying to do away with here. One of the strengths of this book lies with the fact that it does try to bridge the intellectual and cultural gap that exists, or has been created, since both country’s gained independence in 1947.delhi-by-heart-cover21.jpg

I particularly noticed the fact that Raza doesn’t actually look at Delhi, its cultural profile and its social profile as an outsider or someone who hails from Pakistan. He demonstrates empathy and respect for the city and has knowledge of the city’s development and its growth. According to me, he relied on skill and intuition to study some of the features of this city – particularly those of you who have read the sections on the Sufi shrines. They’re not only informative to many readers, but evocative at the same time, and yet in a certain sense, they also represent, the true character and complexion of this diverse city. I would like to thank Mr. Raza for writing a book about ‘our city’; as it is a very lively, vivid and comprehensive narrative.

I would also want to bring to the attention of academicians, that in order to understand the book, one needs to draw a distinction between academic and journalistic writing. The thin line that divides the two is blurred nowadays, which is why I would be glad to recommend your book to my students to understand what eloquent and comprehensive writing is all about. The book has a considerable amount of interesting insights, with the exception of certain sections.

The book is incisive from the outset and it looks at a city through a holistic lens. To eloquently describe its history, its past and its present without having lived here is a commendable effort and I am lending my voice and my views, to the number of reviews that have already appeared in the newspapers, regarding the book. Almost all the reviews that I have read are very interesting and I do hope that this book will go a long way in familiarizing Raza’s countrymen and our countrymen with the vibrancy of this city, its multifaceted personality and the manner in which Delhi has grown over the centuries. Thank you once again, for writing such a good book.

Read full transcript and watch video on my blog “Delhi by Heart

Book Review: South Asia 2060: Envisioning Regional Futures

5 November 2013

My review for The Friday Times

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South Asia 2060: Envisioning Regional Futures is a comprehensive volume of essays edited by Adil Najam and Moeed Yusuf. Given the importance of the South Asian region, this book attempts to fill in a huge gap that has existed for decades. Discourses on South Asia for reasons well known, have been obsessive about all things security and in recent times terrorism. The editors note that South Asia “sits atop a globally strategic location” and gladly move on to other important topics, which makes this volume a useful contemporary reference. The introduction notes the immense potential for energy trade as well as the significant regional security implications for the world at large. This is why the future of South Asia is not just important to those who live in the region; it is duly a global concern. The 37 papers authored by 44 experts, in the volume trace the multiple futures and mercifully avoid the common fallacy of reducing South Asia to India and Pakistan and their bitter rivalries.

The introduction summing up the book rightly identifies that the idea of South Asia is a contested one and its ownership – political and economic – would determine the future. Commenting on the term Southasia introduced by Nepal based Himal magazine, the editors state: “…the future of the geography we know as South Asia will depend, at least in part, on what happens to the idea of Southasia. We are not in a position to say what that will be just yet, but it is clear that the aspiration of Southasianness is entrenched more deeply in the South Asian mind than we had imagined. It is an idea that our regional politics has often rejected and fought against. But the resilience of the aspiration suggests regional politics may eventually have to embrace it.” Thus the emergence of Southasia, a regionalized identity, will be a political process and the book suggests that there is no one course or prediction to hold it.

In this context the paper, the paper by US based Pakistani historian Manan Ahmad Asif entitled “Future’s Past” contends that though the immediate history of Pakistan and India might broadly be cause for pessimism (such as the violent partitions of ’47 and ’71), there is nevertheless a greater, storied and shared history that can be recalled in order to realize how communities in South Asia can peacefully co-exist. (more…)

Understanding Contemporary Muslimness

1 November 2013

A review of Naveeda Khan’s  book Muslim Becoming published in “The Book Review

I wanted to learn what it meant to know Islam in Pakistan and why this knowing was so easily brushed  aside.

It is a welcome addition to the rather scant literature on  Islam, identity and Muslimness in contemporary Pakistan. Khan begins by presenting a debate between four librarians of differing religious persuasions. Deep within the stacks of the Provincial As- sembly Library, four men take part in a dis- cussion that highlights the marked differ- ences in their belief systems. Of the four, one is a Shia and the other three Sunni. Among the Sunnis, one identifies himself as a Deobandi, one as a follower of Ahl-e-Hadis sect, and the third as a Barelvi. Akbar, the follower of Ahl-e-Hadis school of thought, speaks at length of the superiority of their mosques as ‘they allowed laymen to give ser- mons and encouraged women’s participation in congregational  prayer’. Despite his reverence for mosque culture, Akbar is derisive of the thought of praying at the Prophet’s mosque in Medina.

It  is  commendable to  pray at  the Prophet’s  mosque, but it isn’t  necessary. Some among us have made it into a re- quirement by saying such things as, the Prophet is alive there, he can hear your prayers and he can grant you your wishes. Such claims are bid’a. One cannot pray there until such time as this bid’a has been vanquished… (more…)

A wonderful review of my book by Rana Safvi

10 July 2013

Here’s a lovely review written by Rana Safvi over at her blog

 

“Dilli jo aik shahar tha aalam mai intikhaab
rahtay thay hee jahaan muntakhib rozgaar ke
us ko falak ne loot ke weeraan kar diya
hum rahne waale hain usii ujray dayaar ke”

This poignantly beautiful poem by Mir Taqi Mir symbolizes Delhi and for me is at the heart of the book by Raza Rumi as he lovingly traces the rise and fall of Delhi in his book “Delhi by Heart”.

It is rare that one comes across a book with a soul and this is a book which is all heart. It is an outpouring of love by a Pakistani based on his visits here.
I am ashamed to say that as someone born and brought up in UP which is Delhi’s neighbour and on my many subsequent visits I have never seen even half as much of Delhi as this ‘outsider’ has done.

Raza not only lived in Delhi during his visits, he lives Delhi in this book.
He takes his readers through the glory days of Delhi to the later trials and tribulations.
Through his eyes I revisited the Khanqaah of Hazarat Nizamuddin Auliya, paid my obeisance at the dargaah and danced in ecstasy swaying to the qawwalis of his beloved disciple Amir Khusrau.
I ate the biryanis and kebabs at Nizamuddin Basti, learnt of the history of cuisines which were born there and licked my fingers at the end.
For someone interested in the Sufi silsilas this book is a must read as it’s a virtual commentary on the advent of Sufism in India along with being a tour guide to all the dargaahs and khanqaahs housed in Delhi. In fact the Sufi theme is central to the book but then that was to be expected from a Rumi! (more…)

The art of short story

10 June 2013

A review of Irshad Abdul Kadir’s recently published collection of short stories that I wrote for TFT

 

The gentle stories of Irshad Abdul Kadir have recently been published from India, adding another voice to the growing corpus of Pakistani writing. Kadir happens to be another of senior writers to have made a late entry in the world of fiction. Earlier, the beautiful, picturesque prose of Jamil Ahmad was introduced via The Wandering Falcon. Not unlike Jamil Ahmad’s story of ordinary lives invisible from the glare of mainstream media and discourse, Kadir’s stories are about the travails of common Pakistanis. A major dilemma with the characters in Clifton Bridge: Stories of Innocence and Experience from Pakistan is that they are neither aiming to espouse fundamentalism, nor thinking of planting bombs in their shoes, and thus remain marginalized in the global image of Pakistan.

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Kadir’s prose is simple and the structure of stories is taut, reminding one of the original art of storytelling when the frills of literary cobwebs were avoided to retain the originality of the theme and authenticity of a character. Luckily there is a wide range of characters in Kadir’s stories, and they are not restricted to upper-middleclass households or the domestic servants working there-in. Instead, together these characters weave the mosaic of contemporary Pakistani society with all its contradictions, ugliness and dynamism. From frustrated housewives to slum dwellers, and from large land owners to babus, Kadir uses little brushes and measured strokes to present a tale which is familiar and yet a discovery. A total of 10 short stories with every day themes enabled me to read the book in one go. In Clifton Bridge, the story that inspires the title, a family of beggars informs the view of the metropolis. Kadir’s portrayal of beggars living under a bridge is humanistic as well as fulsome, for it does not judge the dregs as the privileged classes tend to do across South Asia. Instead, Kadir gets under the skin of his characters and presents a tale of intra-group dynamics and how adversity brings its own strengths.

“Their first ‘home’ – a lean-to against the boundary wall of a cement factory came about when Rana joined the ragged duo. Peeru always remembered the first meal – boiled rice and lentils – prepared by her. She told him to call her ‘Amma’, and later enrolled him in classes at the factory mosque.” (more…)

A literary landmark

9 June 2013

A review of the Islamabad Literature Festival for TFT

 

 


literature festival in Islamabad sounds a contradiction in terms. A city better known for politicos, babus and palace intrigues also patronizes the state run literary establishment. The bureaucratization of literature has only stunted the growth of a literary culture in the capital. Oxford University Press (OUP) and its partners broke the conventions by organizing the two-day festival showcasing segments of Pakistani literature both in local and English languages. The greatest success of the event was the massive participation of people of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

 

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The Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF) was inspired by the annual event in Karachi, which has already set a benchmark for such multi-lingual events. Of course, the critique even this time was along the similar lines: that these festivals only cater to the English-speaking world and the ‘liberal class’ as someone confided in me during a break. Having said that there were sessions on Pashto and Punjabi poetry and many discussions on Urdu literature with luminaries such as Intizar Husain, popular writers like Mustansar Husain Tarar and Amjad Islam Amjad. The unassuming and mild-mannered Kamila Shamsie also joined in from the UK.

The most heart-warming aspect of ILF was the interest it generated among the students and young men and women. Halls were packed with university students and young professionals. For the first ever literary event taking place without state patronage this was quite a feat.

The organisers of the festival kept me busy throughout. On day one I hosted a session with the Left activist and LUMS academic Dr. Taimur Rehman on the class structure in Pakistan. I was quite surprised to witness huge attendance at the session. Taimur, an affable and enthusiastic conversationalist made rather insightful remarks on the way Pakistan was changing. He talked about his book and also the central role of caste in understanding how class as a construct exists in South Asia and the areas that comprise Pakistan. During the session he also challenged ‘Naya Pakistan’and explained to some of the youth how corruption as an issue could not be viewed in isolation and was a product of the class system. In a response to a related question Taimur assertd that “politicisation of corruption” was done during the various military regimes,” and thus the corrupt political system and corrupt politicians was a narrative that had gained much traction in the country (to the extent that the politicians were using it against each other). (more…)

Cover Story: Mahasin-i-Kalam-i-Ghalib by Abdur Rehman Bijnouri

8 June 2013

A review I did for Dawn

 

Such is the majesty of Urdu’s greatest poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) that his works continue to be interpreted in a discipline known as Ghalibiat. I was acquainted with Mahasin-i-Kalam-i-Ghalib by Abdur Rehman Bijnouri through my Urdu teacher at school, perhaps the only PhD degree-holder in my school at that time. His area of study was Ghalib and he would often quote verses and then, as a competent teacher, help his students understand them. Oxford University Press has reprinted the slim volume with an erudite introduction by Syed Nomanul Haq. In fact, it was Haq who re-introduced me to the text after decades in its correct and much more readable shape.

Bijnouri (1885-1918) was a leading critic of his times. While Shibli and Hali attempted to review and understand Urdu literature in the colonial context and made attempts to imbibe influences from the English language and also introduced a ‘modern’ sensibility in Urdu writing, Bijnouri took this forward by studying European languages and literatures and placing Urdu’s creative output in that wider cross-cultural context. Bijnouri’s paean to Ghalib therefore succeeds in showing the reader how the poet was a part of the global literary movements in terms of humanism and insights into human nature.

Mahasin-i-Kalam-i-Ghalib therefore comments on the various aspects of Ghalib’s poetry — its poetics, musicality, linguistic refinement and thematic complexities — with the help of European literary benchmarks. The commentary is not organised but for Urdu readers in the early 20th century India, this must have opened a new window to the world. For me, Mahasin remains a rather delectable collection of Ghalib’s best verses and for simply this reason it is a book which cannot be missed by anyone who has affinity for Ghalib’s poetic style.

Haq’s detailed and painstakingly well-researched introduction puts Mahasin in the larger perspective of Urdu literary traditions. On the issue of references that Bijnouri uses, Haq acknowledges the command over European languages that Bijnouri exerted and also makes us realise how this would be viewed by the readers. However, this is not a routine introduction for it also sets the record straight and is quite blunt at times.

Haq enables the Urdu reader to get the correct references used by Bijnouri while singing odes to Ghalib in the book. For instance, he corrects the name of a relatively unknown 16th century poet Ariosto who has been printed as ‘Aristo’ in almost all the editions published. But as an editor of this volume, Haq is not just looking at facts and minor details but takes the debate further and comments on how Urdu criticism and the poets and writers of the East have the tendency to use references from

western branches of knowledge in a selective manner: “Bijnauri saheb has worked here in the same manner as [Allama] Iqbal did in his Reconstruction [lectures] … wherever there was some light they used it to brighten their homes … the lesser and greater European figures who appealed were turned into allies and their ideas and quotes were copied, out of context sometimes, and without analysing the risks of contradictions or fallacies.” Haq ends his argument by quoting this timeless verse from Ghalib:

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I go along a little way with every single swift-mover

I do not yet recognise the guide

(adapted from Frances Pritchett’s translation).

Haq takes an even more iconoclastic step and gets into the linguistics of Ghalib. He refrains from making definitive assertions but states that Ghalib would often innovate and use language in the flow of his ideas. Somewhere in the essay he laconically remarks that Bijnouri Saheb should not seen as a critic nor Iqbal as a philosopher. I am sure that this would engender a debate within the literary circles of Pakistan and India.

Haq has also corrected almost every reference and explained the background of all the notable European thinkers quoted in the book. As a result, this edition helps the readers understand the context as well as the significance of the references employed in the volume. This is a great move towards producing ‘critical editions’ of Urdu texts which are missing in the subcontinent where inaccuracies are the norm.

At the end of his introductory essay, Haq points out how the current edition is a critical version. The parameters set should be a useful guide for [re]publishing other literary works. He has set a good benchmark for other researchers and publishing houses to follow.

Mahasin will remain a vital reference for all students of literature. It indicates how Urdu critics were attempting to understand their own literary heritage in colonial India. As Haq rightly says, Bijnouri’s work is an ode “in the search of understanding Ghalib”. By taking a dispassionate and often clinical look at the traditions of literary criticism, Haq has also initiated a major debate on the current crisis of criticism in the Urdu language which we inherited from uncertain colonial times. It is hoped that this work is widely read and understood to overcome the rather peculiar tradition of either crafting paeans or personal attacks as ‘literary criticism’ in Urdu and by extension in other regional languages.

For its sheer beauty and choice of poetry, Mahasin is a treat. For those who wish to get a better context of Ghalib’s poetry it enables a global comparison and presents a delicate interpretation of several complex verses that the master poet is well known for.

The reviewer is a writer and columnist

Mahasin-i-Kalam-i-Ghalib

(Criticism)

By Abdur Rehman Bijnouri

Edited by Syed Nomanul Haq

OxfordUniversity Press, Karachi

ISBN 9780199062133

146pp.

 

 

 

 

 

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