LETTER FROM KARACHI - JULY 2012
 
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- by muneeza shamsie
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This year marked the 100th birth anniversary of Sadat Hasan Manto, a towering figure in Urdu and sub-continental literature and a man who lived intensely and died young. He wrote short stories, sketches and essays with an unflinching eye for the human condition. He was accused of obscenity for his exploration of sexuality in stories such as ‘Bu’ (Bad Smell). He outraged many by his portrayal of Partition in the famous story ‘Toba Tek Singh’, set in a lunatic asylum, and by its violence in ‘Thanda Ghost’ (Cold Meat) and ‘Khol Do’ (Open Up). Manto’s writing was among the earliest responses to Partition in sub-continental literature, and though was considered outrageous and taboo by Pakistani officialdom he remains a literary icon. His works has also been translated extensively into English, notably by Khalid Hasan and M. Asaduddin. His niece, Ayesha Jalal the historian, is now working on a book on Manto literature and history.

In May, the month Manto was born, several Pakistani publications, including the English newspapers Dawn and The News International and the periodical Herald, commemorated Manto’s centenary with special supplements dedicated him. Dawn also organized, and gave extensive coverage to, a panel discussion on Manto by four distinguished Urdu writers. Chaired by journalist Wusutullah Khan, the discussion was a lively one, lit up by fierce disagreements. While critic Mohammed Ali Siddiqi spoke of highly of Manto, his assessment included some reservations, but the Urdu novelist Hasan Manzar considered Manto’s work erratic. He declared that Manto’s good stories were in his early work, the ones prior to his Bombay sojourn, dismissing the post-1947 work written in Lahore, including his Partition stories, as sensationalism. He threw in gratuituous references to Manto’s alcoholism too. Fahmida Riaz was incensed by his comments. She declared that Manto was the finest of Urdu writers, a great humanitarian. Both she and the novelist Zaheda Hina spoke of his art and literary skill and praised in particular Manto’s sensitive portrayal of women.

Last week, The United Bank Limited together with the Jang Group of Newspapers dedicated the awards ceremony of the UBL-Jang Literary Awards in Karachi to Manto. The speeches included a talk by the eminent columnist, journalist, editor and bibliophile Ghazi Salahuddin on the importance of books and writers across cultures and centuries. In talking about Manto he referred to Faiz Ahmed Faiz, John Steinbeck, Mehmoud Daulatabadi, Victor Hugo, but lamented the fact that Manto is not as widely read in Pakistan as he should be. Salahuddin gave brief readings from Manto’s work. Commenting on the link between society and literature he reminded his audience of Manto’s words to the effect that if people say his stories are intolerable, they should understand that the times in which they live are also intolerable (“zamaana na qaabiley bardaasht hai”).

The Jang-UBL Literary Awards were introduced in 2009 for books published in Pakistan by Pakistani nationals in Urdu and English. This year the awards were presented by the President of UBL Atif R. Bokhari in seven categories for books in Urdu or English published in 2010 and 2011. The judges for the Urdu books included Syed Nomanul Haq, a distinguished academic who is also the general editor of OUP’s series ‘Studies in Islamic Philosophy’ ranging from the work of Ibne-Sina to Ibne-Tamiyya. Among the winners, Prof Sahar Ansari poet, critic, linguist and head of Karachi University’s Urdu department received the award for Best Book of Urdu poetry ‘Khuda Sey Baat Kartey Hein’.

There were two award for English. I joined columnist Anwer Mooraj and poet Salman Tarik Kureshi, as a judge for the Best Book in English. The winner was Pakistani Urdu Verse: An Anthology by Yasmeen Hamid. Her translation of some 60 Urdu poets ranging from Meeraji to Zeeshan Sahil is a work of true scholarship and literary skill. Here are the opening lines from ‘Meeting’ (Mulaquaat) by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, written in jail during the 1950s:

A tree born of pain, this night,
Greater in glory than you and I.

Greater in splendour,
For torch-bearing caravans
Of myriad stars
Trapped in its branches,
Have vanished;
Moons in thousands,
In its darkness
Surrendered their brilliance.

From this glorious night:
A tree born of pain
A few moments: its yellowed leaves,
Are a burning scarlet,
In silence: the dewdrops on your brow,
A diamond string.

Incidentally Faiz’s Ahmed Faiz’s centenary was celebrated last year with many events and publications including a sumptuous book Two Loves: Faiz Letters in Jail edited by Kyla Pasha and Salima Hashmi. It consisted of his surviving correspondence in English to Alys, his British wife.

In the Jang-UBL Awards in the Best English Book Category, the two shortlisted English books were also excellent. Word for Word: Stories by Everyday Words We Use by Khaled Ahmed draws his popular columns of that name and is of collection of fascinating essays on etymology, often with intriguing headings such as ‘Is Brahma Really Abraham?’, ‘Qalam and Calamity’, ‘Saeen is short for Swami’, ‘Why didn’t Jinnah choose Janah’. Ahmed combines scholarship with an easy conversational style as he moves between languages to tell of the mutation of words across the ages in different cultures and societies. The other shortlisted book, From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History by Tariq Rahman, provides a well-researched and immensely readable account of a language which the author traces back to the fully-formed Hindi in pre-Muslim India and its subsequent contacts with Persian, Arabic and Turki. Rahman challenges the idea of Urdu’s origins as the language of the military camps. He looks at the different names by which it was known over several centuries and how it became part of the colonialist and nationalist enterprise in the nineteenth century and bifurcated into Sanskritized Hindi and Arabic-Persianized Urdu.

In the Jang-UBL awards, a second category was the Best Children’s Book in English. The two judges were Salman Tarik Kureshi and Anwer Mooraj. The winner was A Children’s History of Sindh by Hamida Khuhro, the distinguished historian. Written for her grandson, the book refers briefly to her own childhood (her family home is near Mohenjodaro) and draws on her profound knowledge of the region to create a narrative which is simple, lucid and informative and also creates sense of magic as she traverses different periods of Sindh’s history. The shortlisted writers in this category were The Boy Who Didn’t Want to Read by Nigar Nazar, Pakistan’s first woman cartoonist; and The Adventures of Slothful Slough-Off, which is about a snake in the magic world of animals, by Saman Shamsie, an educationalist (and my daughter).

Excitement was generated in Pakistan’s journalist circles when the pioneering and much-admired Zubeida Mustafa received the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Lifetime Award. The author of The Tyranny of Language in Education, she joined Dawn in 1975 and was assistant editor until very recently. She was one of the first women to enter ‘mainstream’ journalism and broke into what was considered exclusively men’s turf when she started to write on international affairs. She was an active member of the legendary Women’s Action Forum, which defied Ziaul Haq’s military regime, and was the founding editor of Dawn’s Books and Authors which remains Pakistan’s only full-length ( 8-page) book supplement in a national daily. All her friends and colleagues arrived in full force at an event in her honour at the Karachi Press Club where it was also announced that Dawn had decided to establish a Zubeida Mustafa Award for Women Journalists.

Many of the issues discussed at the above events seemed to coalesce at the Sind Writers/Artists Convention organized at the end of June by The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Many of those mentioned above took part, including Sahar Ansari, Zahida Hina, Zubeida Mustafa, Ghazi Salahuddin, Mohammed Ali Siddiqui and myself. In his opening address, I.A. Rehman, the Secretary General of the HRCP, spoke of the importance of free speech and the freedom of expression in our troubled times amid acts of daily violence in Pakistan. The role of writers and indeed the influence of books was discussed extensively, with reference to various periods of Pakistan’s history, South Asian and international literary history, as well as the impact of today’s electronic age. Dr. Qasim Pirzada, the former Vice Chancellor of Karachi University, spoke of the need to create a “knowledge-based society.” In many of the speeches and panel discussions frequent references were made to the conflict in Baluchistan, and all urged for greater transparency and more information about that suffering region. Some participants highlighted the enormous urban-rural literary divide in Pakistan and pointed out that those living in the urban areas are not aware of the extensive protest poetry being written in the provinces, in the different languages of Pakistan, whereas those in the rural areas are well acquainted with urban/Urdu writers such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, or Ahmed Faraz or Fahmida Riaz or Kishwar Naheed. Many conversations came back to the issue of language. Several spoke passionately on the marginalization of Sindhi. Others lamented the continuing dominance and importance given to English in which so few in Pakistan can adequately express themselves which resulted in them being not fluent in any language and being rendered “bey zabaan” (without speech). There was also considerable criticism for marketing and advertising trends which use the imagery of religion and piety to sell products ranging from shampoo to spices. The artist and activist Abro Khuda Bux spoke of his involvement with ‘Poster for Tomorrow,’ an international human rights project, for whom he conducted a series of Jamhooriat (Democracy) workshops for young Pakistani artists. He was excited by the stunning work they produced on topical issues of culture and society. These posters were exhibited in Karachi alongside those by international artists. Art critic Niilofur Farrukh gave a talk which included a slide presentation of spectacular paintings by Pakistani artists ranging from A.R. Nagori and Akram Dost Baloch to Imran Kureishi and Roohi Ahmed; their work makes a harrowing comment on oppressive regimes, urban violence, state violence, religious extremism and gender bias.

Recently there has been much critical acclaim for Musharraf Farooqi’s quiet and elegant novel, Between Clay and Dust, which is set in a nameless sub-continental city/country shortly after Partition. The plot revolves around a wrestler Ustad Ramzi and a courtesan Gohar Jan who struggle to cope in a new, brash, modern and changing age where the timeless courtesies and customs that defined their worlds have vanished. The Karachi launch took place at The Second Floor, with a wonderful space for cultural events (and a secondhand bookshop) on the ground floor and a café upstairs. There was a reading of the first chapter in the original English by the actor and dancer Sheema Kirmani, followed an Urdu translation of the second chapter, by the Urdu poet Afzal Ahmed Syed. Of course the bilingual Farooqi is known to be a skilled translator himself ; he is also writes books in English for children and has co-authored, with his artist wife Michelle, a graphic novel.

From all this it is evident that a great deal is happening in Pakistan’s literary world alongside Pakistani English fiction which continues to hold its own, though almost all of it is published abroad.

 
 
was published in November 2016
 
 
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