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The party line

My exclusive interview for the Friday Times with Kamran Asdar Ali about his book and the history of the Pakistani left

Your book employs an interdisciplinary approach with literary texts playing a major part. What were the key reasons for adopting such a hybrid approach?

As I am trained as an anthropologist, my impulse has been […]

Guest Stars at the Long March

My article that appeared in Dawn. here.

THE enthusiasts for the long march towards Islamabad are justifiably feeling let down by the grand posturing, thundering rhetoric and the subsequent retreat from agitation outside the dreary citadels of power in Islamabad’s dark heart.

A Bastille, which was not meant to be? Interpretations abound and explanations are flowing in from the motley groups who ventured to change the contours of state-society relations. The lawyers’ movement is profoundly significant. It constitutes the finest historical ‘moment’ in our troubled history. However, many observers have hinted at its limitations and the problematic phase that the movement has now entered.

Unlike China, Pakistan’s long marches have been nefarious for their results. Orchestrated by political and non-political actors to undermine the democratic process, we are well aware of this stratagem. This time it was different, complex and refreshingly path-breaking alas with similar results: pressurise the beleaguered PPP government still trying to find the proverbial power-ground beneath its truncated legs. In that sense, the march was a roaring success. From the sloganeering against the much maligned Asif Zardari, to de-legitimising three decades of PPP’s valiant struggle against dictatorship culminating in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Irony, that all is now a forgotten snippet of history. What is indeed more pressing, as we are told time and again, are the sacrifices made by the honourable judges. Indeed they have altered the parameters of the state and perhaps buried the subordination of the judiciary to the all powerful executive. Well, one may ask what about Asif Zardari and his eleven and a half years in jail without a single conviction? Therefore the vilification of Zardari by anti-Musharraf sections of the media and by the historical long march is symbolic. It is a testament to the deep-seated middle class trend of demonising politicians and party politics that are prerequisites for democracy and means to establish the ‘rule of law’.

The opportunism of individuals and groups jumping onto the lawyers’ bandwagon is also alarming. It is most convenient to have been all-powerful army chiefs, heads of the ISI and former honchos of the civilian bureaucratic monolith and once the party is over, re-christen yourself as firebrand democrats. The patriotic Hameed Guls, Aslam Begs and Faiz Ali Chishtis and the neo-constitutionalist Roedad Khans and right-wing ambassadors (who slept while Afghans were killed for strategic depth), must be questioned by the anti-Musharraf movement for it was their historical culpability that undermined civilian governance. Is it not important that circumspection be exercised while letting them be the spokespersons of the new vanguard? If Zardari has to be isolated then these dubious characters must also be questioned. […]

June 29th, 2008|Journalism, Personal, Politics, published in DAWN|2 Comments

No bar to love

Christian Spurrier on the tragedy of Gramsci’s prison years as revealed in letters to his wife and sons (Guardian)

When I see the actions and hear the words of men who have been in prison for five, eight or 10 years, when I observe the spiritual deformations they have undergone, it gives me a cold shiver and I begin to doubt my own power to watch over myself.” So wrote Antonio Gramsci to his Russian wife Julka, two years into the prison sentence that ended with his death in 1937. Gramsci’s subsequent fame rests on his prison notebooks – political essays on fascism and capitalism written while in Mussolini’s jails. But his letters, of which there were more than 500, tell the story behind that work. And they are a remarkable account of imprisonment.

Arrested on November 8, 1926, aged 35, Gramsci was a Sardinian-born journalist and agitator who had fought his way to the leadership of the Italian communist party. He was famous for his campaigning articles and had worked closely with Mussolini in the days when Il Duce was still a socialist and editor of the worker’s paper L’Avanti. Perhaps because of this, from the moment Mussolini seized power in 1922, Gramsci knew his position was precarious. Aged 35, he was arrested on November 8, 1926 despite parliamentary immunity and sent to the prison island of Ustica, where he expected to spend five years.

His letters from Ustica are combative, optimistic and full of fascination at the strange new world into which he had been flung. He recounts seeing a pig arrested and treated as a felon and being instructed in the rivalries of the Sicilian and Calabrian mafias. He told his mother: “I felt I was living in a fantastic novel.” To Julka, he wrote: “We two are still young enough to look forward to seeing our children grow up together.” […]

June 13th, 2008|books, Politics, World Literature|4 Comments

Dear Che – A poem by K.G. Sankarapillai

A Poem by K.G. Sankarapillai

Dear Che

Dear Che,
you came to our university campus
in mid sixties
with a comrade and a modernist friend
with visuals of jungles past and present
with a vision of a new battle for justice.

Like a fresh wind of October
you joined us
moved us
renewed us
and smoothened our entry into history
with love, dreams and plans.

You told us about the sleeping rebel powers
of mountains and forests of the new minds;
quite often you talked of the day when
the Andes would become
the Sierra Maestra of America.

Our modernist friend said:
you are the red star over the world
tarnished by America;
you are the future of the world
crippled by America;
you are the Jesus of the modern age
crucified by America.

Although you remained evergreen in us
showed us the exit to the oceans
from the lyrical ponds of our
post Independent Indian youth;
the exit to the storm from the water lily breeze
of our weeping romantic poems;
dear doctor, you redefined us
living with us
living for us
living in us
passing the confidence of torrents into our deserts
weaving sunlit paths into our prodigal nights.

You brought world into our words
and future into our past.
You opened blast-furnaces for our ore. […]

Faiz, a Peaceful Revolutionary

This is in continuation of the splendid translation series undertaken by Mr. Anis Zuberi and contributed by JZ for this blog. Earlier posts can be found here here and here.

Drawing on the Persian tradition, the subject of Urdu Ghazal has always been about earthly or heavenly love. With the rise in social consciousness Urdu poets started using the form of nazm to address such issues like injustice, poverty, uneven distribution of wealth, highhandedness of the privileged, tyranny of rulers, exploitation by priests, etc. However, Faiz introduced protest and dissent as a regular subject in ghazal. He did it by keeping the ghazal’s traditional format but giving the lexicon of ghazal a different meaning. This has had such a profound effect on Faiz’s poetry that at times it is hard to draw a line between his ghazal and nazm. For instance, Hum ke threy ajnabi itni madaaratuN ke baad though written in ghazal form is also a topical nazm titled Dhaka se wapsi per, reflecting his deep emotions after he visited Bangladesh (former East Pakistan) in 1974.

He also discovered that whispering is more powerful then screaming and that became his hallmark. Unlike Iqbal, Josh or many others who wrote poetry of protest like us khet ke her khoushae gandum ko jalado or kakhe-umaraa ke dar-o-dewar hila do, Faiz does not confront injustice with hostility and anger. His protest is not direct, loud, thunderous, or deafening. He faces up to his tormentor by his moral strength, power of endurance and persistence. He believes in a soft and gradual revolution. He challenges the conscience of all human beings by showing his resolve and defiance when he says, aaj bazaar meiN pa-ba-julaN chalo or jo bache haiN sang samet lo. Even in moments of extreme anguish he avoids confrontation and invokes heavenly justice when he says lazim he ke hum bhee dekheN ge.
He captivates his audience by mixing traditional love with protest; lout jati hei udher ko bhi nazar kiya kije. It is amazing how Faiz has changed the traditional meaning of idioms used in ghazal for centuries. For example, love (ishq) is synonymous with struggle for justice (tohmat-e-ishq poshida kafi nahiN); his lover (aashiq, Qais, majnouN, Farhad) is a victim of oppression who is offering sacrifices while waging a struggle for justice; His rivals (raqib and adoo) are exploiters (Agar urooj pe hei ta’lae raqib to kiya).
Keeping the above background, I will attempt to translate and explain the meaning of the ghazal.

Woh buton ne dalay hain waswasay ke dilon se khauf-e-Khuda gaya
Woh parri hain roz qayamatain, kekhayal-e-roz-e-jaza gaya

(So much) cynicism (waswasa also means confusion; uncertainty) is created by the idols that fear of God has vanished from hearts.
(Because People) have gone through Armageddon daily the thought of the Day of Judgment is gone.

Here ButoN is not a metaphor for beloved, earthly gods or goddesses, but a symbol of brute authority. The word khauf in the second line also reinforces that meaning. The meaning of butuN in the above line is same as in the following couplet: […]

April 17th, 2008|Poetry, Translations, Urdu|9 Comments

On Bhagat Singh, his vision and Jinnah’s support for his struggle

In his incisive speech to the Constituent Assembly on September 12 and 14, 1929, Jinnah harshly condemned the criminal colonial rule and the Government's actions against revolutionaries

March 28th, 2008|Culture, History, India, India-Pakistan History, Politics|21 Comments