Qasmi, literary feuds and national neglect

While responding to the comments on my ATP post on Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi , I rambled a little on the literary feuds among the Urdu stalwarts. However, this post has two parts: first, a little more on the literary cross currents; and second our collective treatment of literary and cultural giants.

As Adil Najam pointed out in his comment, Qasmi was criticized by those on the left as being right wing. Interestingly, the conservatives also criticized him for his outspoken views on the abuse of religion and Zia’s dictatorship.

But Qasmi remained a humanist till his last and never allowed ideology to taint his creativity. This aspect of his long literary career has been astutely analyzed by Sarwat Ali has rightly titled him Un-Progressively Progressive in his obituary published in the News on Sunday, and he aptly describes the Qasmi predicament:

When Pakistan was created the question of the identity of the new nation became the trickiest one to handle, especially in its cultural context. Muhammad Hasan Askari took the issue by the horns and called for a specific entity known as Pakistani literature. Of course, this prescriptive drive was not received well in the camp of the artists and writers. On the other extreme were those who did not see the need of manufacturing a specific identity but liked to see it grow and evolve with an evolving sensibility. This was taken as denial by the more hardline writers, and a war of words ensued which pushed the central issue into the background and brought forth the battle lines on ideological and political affiliations of the writers.

Qasmi did not subscribe to the prescriptive diktat of Hasan Askari, nor could he blindly follow the line taken by the more hardline writers denouncing Iqbal and most other literary efforts as reactionary and backward-looking. He chartered a middle path for himself, where heritage, especially that of the Muslims as it has evolved itself in the Indian soil, was of foremost value. It is always very perilous to walk this middle road, as it exposes you to attacks from both sides and this is exactly what happened with Qasmi. He was first denounced by those talking Pakistani Cultural-specifics and much later by the Progressives.

The modernist poet Dr Wazir Agha and Qasmi were at loggerheads with each other and used to give press statements against each other. Dr Wazir Agha a prominent poet always blamed Qasmi for keeping him out of the limelight. At one point it was stated by literary commentators that this fight has served both gentle men in some way but has ruined Urdu literature and Urdu language writers of the country at large. Another well known critic, Anwar Sadeed from the Wazir Agha group was at the forefront of the get Qasmi campaign. Sadeed’s otherwise erudite literary criticism has been greatly undermined by his obsessive, sometimes disgraceful, diatribe against Qasmi.

I am a Munir Niazi fan myself but the literary relationship between Qasmi and Munir Niazi was also not cordial. Munir Nizai on different occasions made some unsavoury remarks when asked about late Qasmi’s poetic merit. Qasmi’s followers left no occasion to berate Munir Niazi. Farukh’s comment on factionalism among literati in Pakistan was quite apt. It could be senseless at best and petty at the worst.

There are numerous stories but I would illustrate the most recent one by reproducing this March 2006 news item from the Daily Times titled Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi wins Rs 5 million suit.

Additional District and Sessions Judge Sultan Ahmed on Wednesday ruled in favour of critic Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi in a defamation suit he filed and ordered his adversary to pay him Rs 5 million in damages. The judge ordered Azhar Javed, chief executive of a local monthly publication, to pay damages to Qasmi for publishing false news against him. Qasmi told the court that Azhar Javed published baseless news about him in his paper, saying that he got a cheque from President General Pervez Musharraf as financial assistance. Qasmi said the news damaged his reputation, and sought compensation for the damage.

But this is not uncommon – the rivalry between Shakespeare and Ben Johnson, between Ghalib and Zauq etc. are well known. Frailty of human egos has always defined many literary and artistic relationships. In any case, such personal likes or dislikes cannot reduce the strength or depth of artistic merit in a poet or a writer. Well, this is how poor Qasmi was always blamed for seeking favours. He was an honourable artist and died as a poor man.

He used to arrive at the office of the Anjuman-i-Tarraqi-i-Adab in a rickshaw for decades until a Punjab Secretary Information bought a Suzuki dabbaa for the office. He never complained and refrained from asking for favours from the government functionaries. When some staff members of the Anjuman retired, he paid their dues from some deposits in the Anjuman’s account. Nothing earth shatteringly illegal perhaps slightly irregular to speed up the retirement dues for low grade employees who would otherwise have to pay up the system to claim their rightful dues.

Later, one babu after another abused him and he was made to appear before section officers for his misdoings. This is all recent by the way. In 2004, the Punjab government disgracefully dismissed him from his job with the Anjuman and when there was much uproar in the press and literary circles for doing so, the decision was undone. People like Qasmi were a rare breed in today’s Pakistan – and contrary to the upbeat vision we have for Pakistan, life isn’t easy for most of Pakistanis including literary and artistic giants.

I am personally aware how the eminent historian (the best that we have) K.K. Aziz is unwell in Lahore mired in all sorts of problems. For years, he has stopped researching and writing as he cannot even afford to hire a research assistant or a typist (he cannot type properly anymore). Look at how we treat our luminaries. His main fault is that he has challenged the official history and exposed the Pakistani textbooks and their underlying ideological half truths and fabrications of history.

As someone commented on all messages of condolences on Qasmi’s death: the powerful who are now lamenting his death should do a little introspection and accept their neglect of our luminaries.

The Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Colombian by nationality, has been provided with official residence in Spain just because he writes in Spanish. For Spain he is the best exponent of Spanish literature. Spanish government owns and cherishes him. And our Qasmi saheb died in a 5 marla house in paki thathee of Lahore – where all the roads are broken and I am sure this monsoon must have choked all the drains. Even the road to his house has been washed away in the recent years.

Read more about Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi:

Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi (1916-2006)

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