By Harsh Mander
On October 4, the Indian government deported seven Rohingya men to Myanmar. Hours before they crossed over, their return was validated by India’s Supreme Court. But this was less than a month after the United Nations Human Rights Council had unequivocally held that the Rohingya community in Myanmar was being subjected to the gravest crime against humanity, of genocide, a threshold that it applies in the rarest cases of mass targeted violence. By wilfully sending these men into conditions of genocidal violence and persecution, India has failed profoundly as a humane democracy. It has reneged on its constitutional guarantees and humanitarian obligations and in displaying elementary public compassion.
Even as the bus in which the men were being transported approached the international border with Myanmar in Moreh in Manipur, the Supreme Court heard an urgent plea to halt their deportation by advocates Prashant Bhushan and Cheryl Dsouza. They argued that the men had entered India to escape widespread bloodshed and discrimination in their homeland. To send them back into a situation that was credibly documented to be extremely dangerous and in which they could be tortured or killed violated their constitutional rights under Article 14 and Article 21 of the Constitution. These fundamental rights apply not only to all “citizens” but all “persons” who reside in India. India was also bound by its obligations under international treaties and covenants, because there was enough evidence, including reports of the United Nations, that the situation in Myanmar did not assure the men safe repatriation. Still, the Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, was not convinced. The learned judges ruled that they found no reason to restrain the government from handing the men over to the Myanmar authorities.
Immediately after the Indian police handed them over to the Myanmar authorities, the seven men were taken into detention. The likely fate of these men, now in a detention centre somewhere in Myanmar, is grim. In August, Human Rights Watch reported the torture in Myanmar detention centres of Rohingya persons who returned to the country from Bangladesh, including of their being forced into stress positions, beaten with rods and sticks, and subjected to electric shocks. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement:
“The torture of Rohingya returnees puts the lie to Myanmar government promises that refugees who return will be safe and protected. Despite Myanmar’s rhetoric guaranteeing a safe and dignified return, the reality is that Rohingya who go back still face the persecution and abuses they were forced to flee.”
The seven men were arrested for illegal entry in 2012 after they were caught by the police in the Shilchori-Nagatila region of Assam. They served a sentence of three months for the crime of entering India without valid documents. But after they completed this sentence, they were incarcerated for six years at the detention centre in Silchar Central Jail. It is from here that they were eventually deported to Myanmar.
The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre has been raising a public alarm about the alleged security threat posed by the small numbers – around 40,000 – of extremely impoverished Rohingya people who live in India. I have visited their settlements in several cities: they survive in squalor, mostly by picking waste. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said in September that Rohingyas in India were “illegal immigrants” and not refugees. He added that “we have to think about the human rights of our own people before talking about the human rights of people from other countries”, and that the “issue of national security is involved with regard to illegal immigration, which our country cannot undermine”. Kiren Rijiju, the Union minister of state for home, declared in Parliament on August 9, 2017, “The government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingyas.”
The Union government also filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court on September 18, 2017, stating that it had “authentic material” that Rohingyas had links to the Islamic State and Pakistan-based terrorist organisations. It said it would submit evidence of this to the Supreme Court in a “sealed cover”, but it has not done so. It has also not followed up these general allegations with specific charges based on evidence.
The portrayal of hapless and mostly indigent women, men and children escaping genocidal violence in the country of their birth as “terrorists” and a grave national security risk by the BJP government is worrying, but not unexpected. The BJP’s leaders routinely describe undocumented immigrants of Muslim identity from both Bangladesh and Myanmar as “security threats” to the Indian people, with innuendos of terror links. The party’s national president, Amit Shah, has stoked communal fires in the run-up to the 2019 general elections by describing undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar as “infiltrators”, likening them to “termites” who must be eliminated. The BJP government has proposed a law that will treat immigrants of Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Christian faiths as refugees who would be eligible for Indian citizenship. There is no ambiguity in their hate iconography that only undocumented Muslim immigrants are the enemy and a threat to the nation. This leads to greater apprehension that as the general elections approach, this first deportation of Rohingyas to Myanmar may well be followed by many more.
More than the BJP government and party leaders, what is a source of greater disquiet is the role of the Supreme Court in this case. India’s highest court is often the last refuge for the defence of the human rights of the most vulnerable people when they confront a partisan and hostile state. But the Supreme Court summarily let the seven Rohingya men be sent back to Myanmar. It refused to stop their return because it accepted on face value the Union government’s claims that the men had consented to this, and that Myanmar had agreed to issue them documents as citizens or nationals. As Ishita Kumar and Nayantara Raja argue in a carefully reasoned critique of the court’s decision, “The key considerations based on which the Supreme Court refused intervention in the deportation of the Rohingya men were gravely misplaced.”
First is the question of consent of the men to be returned to Myanmar. I looked carefully at the Union government’s affidavit to the Supreme Court, in which they have actually made no such claim, let alone produced any document to prove the men had consented to their repatriation. But even if it turns out that the men did give their consent, what were the circumstances in which they made this choice? The men had already spent six years in a detention centre in an Assam prison. In June, I wrote of the hellish conditions in these detention centres that house those who have been deemed to be foreigners. In violation of international law, they are incarcerated indefinitely, with no recourse to secure their liberty. In these conditions, I speculate but have no way of being certain that maybe the seven men were told that their only chance of freedom was if they agreed to return to the country of their birth, and that despite all its perils, they accepted this as the lesser of two evils. I do not know if they actually made a choice, but if they did, was this a fair, humane and just choice to place before people who had committed no crime except to try to escape the violence and persecution of their homeland?
And as Kumar and Raja write, the second premise of the Supreme Court that Myanmar had agreed to accept the men as citizens was also deeply flawed. This is because “under the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982, the Rohingya ethnicity is not recognised as one of the ‘national races’ of Myanmar. While the law also stipulates that those who can definitively prove that their ancestors settled in the country before 1823 also qualify as citizens, and the Rohingya presence in the Arakan region can be traced back to 8th century, this ethnic group continues to be denied citizenship. Rohingyas have systematically been denied legal status in their country of origin and thus far there has been no law enacted or amended that proves that Rohingyas will be given Myanmarese citizenship”.
The Myanmar government did not give them any citizenship documents, only a Certificate of Identity, confirming that they were Myanmar nationals (not citizens). Human rights activist Tapan Bose points out that the Indian authorities have “accepted a separate nationality verification form issued by the Embassy of Myanmar and is coercing the Rohingya refugees to fill and sign this form… Rohingya refugees have said that the form given by the embassy is the same as National Verification Card [NVC] which falsely frames Rohingyas as ‘foreigners or foreign-born or those with foreign roots’”.
Bose observed, “It is appalling, that at a time, when the world community is moving towards prosecuting the Myanmar government for genocide, India, the world’s largest democracy has become the first country to deport members of the world’s most persecuted community back to Myanmar, where they have been systematically, torture[d], raped, butchered and forcibly evicted.”
It is sobering to recount the conditions in Myanmar – as reported by the United Nations Human Rights Council just weeks before – into which India has sent these seven men. The report concludes:
“The gross human rights violations and abuses committed in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states are shocking for their horrifying nature and ubiquity. Many of these violations undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law. They are also shocking because they stem from deep fractures in society and structural problems that have been apparent and unaddressed for decades. They are shocking for the level of denial, normalcy and impunity that is attached to them…
“The United Nations and the international community must ensure that the repatriation of refugees and the return of internally displaced persons are allowed only when safe, voluntary and dignified, with explicit human rights protections in place, including citizenship. In the current circumstances, such returns are not possible…”
I have no idea what will be the eventual destinies of these seven men. I fervently hope that they are released soon from the detention centre in which they are currently housed, without having suffered torture or indignities, and are allowed to return with respect and security to their homes and families. I hope they are able to live with their families in peace, earning a living and raising their children with hope and in safety. But I know that the chances that this will be what life will give them are very slender. If instead they fall to the hate and bigotry of a fractured nation in tumult – one from which they had fled to India in search of a safe haven – I will carry on my conscience many burdens. Of their suffering. Of the precipitous collapse of public compassion of my country. And of the knowledge that my country – its elected government, its highest court and its people – so wantonly and pitilessly sent these innocent, unfortunate men into fear, hate and possible death.
The true role of art and literature
By Justice Markandey Katju
In poor countries such as India, art for art’s sake amounts to escapism. The people are thirsty for good literature. If someone writes about their problems, it will be popular.
India faces gigantic problems today. In some states, farmers and weavers are committing suicide. Prices of essential commodities are skyrocketing. Unemployment has become massive and chronic. Water and electricity shortage is widespread. Corruption and fraud are everywhere. Medical treatment has become prohibitively expensive. Housing is scarce. The educational system has gone haywire. Law and order has collapsed in many areas, where criminals call the shots.
What has all this to do with art and literature?
There are broadly two schools in art and literature. The first is ‘art for art’s sake’. The second is ‘art for social purpose’.
In the firstschool, art and literature are only meant to create beautiful or entertaining works to please and entertain people and artists themselves. They are not meant to propagate social ideas. If art and literature are used to propagate social ideas, they become propaganda. Some of the proponents of this view are Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot in English literature; Edgar Allan Poe in American; Agyeya and the ‘Reetikal’ and ‘Chayavadi’ poets in Hindi; JigarMoradabadi in Urdu; and Tagore in Bengali.
The other theory is that art and literature should serve the people, and help them in their struggle for a better life, by arousing people’s emotions against oppression and injustice and increasing their sensitivity to suffering. Proponents of this school are Dickens and Bernard Shaw in English literature; Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck in American literature; Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert and Victor Hugo in French; Goethe, Schiller and Enrich Maria Remarque in German; Cervantes in Spanish; Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Gorky in Russian; Premchand and Kabir in Hindi; Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and KaziNazrul Islam in Bengali, and Nazir, Faiz, Josh, and Manto in Urdu.
Which of these paths should artists and writers in India follow? Before attempting to answer this question, it is necessary to clarify that there have been great artists and writers in both schools. Shakespeare and Kalidas can be broadly classified as belonging to the first school, of ‘art for art’s sake.’ Their plays serve no social purpose beyond providing entertainment and an understanding of human impulses and motivations. Though he was basically a realist, Shakespeare had no intention to reform society or combat social evils. Yet he is an artist of the highest rank. One is amazed by his insights and portrayal of human psychology and the springs of human action, whether it be his tragedies or histories or comedies. His characters are so full-blooded we can recognise them from our own experience as actual human beings.
Similarly, Kalidas’sMeghdoot is nature and love poetry at its highest level. Depictions of the countryside that Kalidas gives are astonishing in their beauty. Even Wordsworth cannot come anywhere near it. Nevertheless, Kalidas has no social purpose in his works.
On the other hand, Bernard Shaw writes his plays almost exclusively with a social purpose – to combat social evils and reform society. His plays are a powerful denunciation of social injustices and evils. Dickens in his novels attacks social evils in England in his time.
Shakespeare or Shaw, who is greater as an artist?The first represents ‘art for art’s sake’, the second ‘art for social purpose’.We shall attempt an answer, but a little later.
Literature – the art of the word, the art that is closest to thought – is distinguished from forms of art such as painting and music by the greater emphasis on thought content as compared with form. On the other hand, an art form such as classical music may be almost entirely devoted to creating a mood rather than arousing any thought.
For instance, the main form of serious North Indian classical music, which is called ‘Khayal, has hardly any thought content (since very few words are used in it). But it has an unbelievable power to create a mood and arouse aesthetic feelings — whether it is the raag of the rainy season called Malhar (there are many varieties of Malhars, the main one being MiankaMalhar; I am more fond of MeghMalhar), which can make one feel it is raining; or the morning raagslike Jaunpuri, Todi, Bhairav and so on, which gently wake you up; or night raags like Darbari or Malkauns (called Hindola in Carnatic music), which gently put you to sleep; or a raag like Bhairavi, which can be sung (or played) at any time and in any season and is astonishing for its sheer beauty. There is a large variety of other raags that create different moods.
There are other styles of North Indian classical music like Thumri in which there is more thought content, because they use more words than Khayal. However, there is no style or raagin North Indian or Carnatic classical music that arouses emotions to fight social injustices. It is purely art for art’s sake, yet it is undoubtedly great art.
Art critics often regard the two basic trends or tendencies in art and literature as realism and romanticism. The truthful, undistorted depiction of people and their social conditions is called realism. In romanticism, the emphasis is on flights of imagination, passion, and emotional intensity.
Both realism and romanticism can be passive or active. Passive realism usually aims at a truthful depiction of reality without preaching anything. The novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte Sisters are examples. In this sense it can be called socially neutral. However, sometimes passive realism preaches fatalism, passivity, non-resistance to evil, suffering, humility, and so on. An example is Tolstoy’s depiction of the meek peasant PlatonKaratayev in War and Peace, who humbly and cheerfully accepts his fate. Some writers were initially active but later became passive. Dostoyevsky is an example. On the other hand, Tolstoy was a fatalist in War and Peace but became a social reformer later in Resurrection.
Dickens, Victor Hugo, Gorky, and Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya belong to the school of active realists. They oppose fatalism, passivity, and non-resistance to evil. They inspire people to fight against social evils. In the stories and novels of Sharat Chandra, we find powerful attacks against oppression of women and the caste system.
The strength of passive realism lay in its exposure of human motivations and social evils, and its weakness in its lack of positive principles or ideals. This literature was valuable because of its truthful approach to reality, concentrating on the meticulous description of the visible and the real. But it showed no way out to the people. It criticised everything and asserted nothing. And it often viewed man from a fatalistic point of view, as a mere passive product of his surroundings, helpless and incapable of changing his social conditions.
Passive and active realism can both serve a social purpose. But passive realism often preaches fatalism, pessimism, and uselessness of endeavours to improve society. Active realism, by contrast, is optimistic, characterised by its solicitude and concern for the people — inspiring them to strive against their plight and improve their social conditions.
In writers such as Shakespeare, Balzac, Tolstoy, and MirzaGhalib, it is often difficult to define with sufficient accuracy whether they are romantics or realists. Both trends merge in their works. In fact, the highest art is often a combination of the two.
Romanticism, like realism, can be either passive or active. Passive romanticism attempts to divert people from reality into a world of fantasy or illusions; or to a fruitless preoccupation with one’s own inner world, with thoughts about the ‘fatal riddle of life’ or about dreams of love and death. Its characters may be knights, princes, demons, or fairies who exist in a world of make-believe. Much of the Reetikal Hindi poetry, mainly written to please kings and princes, and dealing with subjects like beauty (shringar) and love, belongs to this category. Passive romanticism hardly serves any social purpose.
Active romanticism, on the other hand, attempts to arouse man against social evils. It clearly serves a social purpose. Active romanticism rises above reality, not by ignoring it but by seeking to transform it. It regards literature as having a greater purpose than merely to reflect reality and depict existing things. Rousseau’s novels Emile and New Heloise are examples.
‘Art for social purpose’ may be expressed not always in a direct way, but also sometimes in an indirect, roundabout, or obscure way, for example, by satire.
Much of Urdu poetry, which mostly serves a social purpose (as it attacks oppressive customs and practices, as in Kabir’s poetry), is expressed in an indirect way. ‘Art for social purpose’ can come in a religious garb: much of Bhakti poetry in Hindi is in this genre.
Now, back to the question: should artists and writers in India follow ‘art for art’s sake’ or ‘art for social purpose’? Which would be more beneficial to the country today? The question, ‘who is greater as an artist, Shakespeare or Shaw?’ is not very relevant here.
In a poor country like India, it is the second path (‘art for social purpose’) alone can be acceptable today. Artists and writers must join the ranks of those who are struggling for a better India. They must inspire the people through their writings against oppression and injustice.
However, today there is hardly any good art and literature. Where is the Sharat Chandra or Premchand or Faiz of today? Where is the Kabir or Dickens of today? There seems to be an artistic and literary vacuum. Everything seems to have become commercialised. Writers write not to highlight the plight of the masses but to earn some money.
Some Hindi writers complain that Hindi magazines are closing down. Have these people wondered why? Evidently no one is interested in reading what he or she writes because they do not depict the people’s sufferings, and do not inspire people to struggle for a better life.
When Gorky stepped out on the streets of Russia, he would be mobbed. He was so loved by the people as he wrote about their lives and championed their cause. Can a Hindi writer today make a similar claim? When writers get out of touch with the people and live in a world of their own, no one will want to read them.
Today the people in India are thirsty for good literature. If someone writes about the people’s problems, it will be popular. But are our writers doing this? Art and literature must serve the people. Writers must have genuine sympathy for the people and depict their sufferings. They must inspire people to struggle for a better life, a life that can be really called human existence, and to create a better world, free of injustices, social and economic. Only then will people respect them.
The concept of ‘art for social purpose’ in its active sense, that is, in the sense of using art and literature to reform society, is largely of recent origin. It could hardly arise prior to the Industrial Revolution because up to the feudal age the thought that men could improve or change their social conditions by their own effort was rare. The belief then was that whatever has existed or will exist in future is ordained by God or Destiny and man has no role in it. Now that the scientific age has dawned, and human beings can change their social condition by their own efforts, art, too, should help in the endeavour. In poor countries like India, art for art’s sake amounts to escapism.
Writers in Hindi, Urdu, and other Indian languages should use simple language. Hindi and Urdu should both come closer to Khariboli (or Hindustani), which is the people’s language. Some Hindi books are difficult to understand: they are written in difficult (klisht) language. The same is true of some Urdu writers. If what is being said or written is not comprehensible, what is the use of such literature? Great literature is in simple language, like the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill or the stories of Premchand and Sharat Chandra.
Translating Habba Khatoon
By Qaisar Bashir
Most of the readers, who are good at reading the literature written in their mother tongue or in a language they can read and comprehend well, feel it as an unnecessary step taken; and they often pose a question – “Why would someone translate a work of art from source language to any other language?” For such readers, the answer is here.
Translating literary or non-literary works from source language to target languages is being done since times immemorial, because the work, when translated,gets wider readership. Readers across the world get an opportunity to know the work and in that, the culture, the wisdom, and much more, which otherwise would not have been possible. Had scholars not translated literatures from source language to other languages, it would not have been possible for people (speaking and knowing indigenous languages only) to know great philosophers and writers like Aristotle, Plato, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Ohran Pamuk etc.
However,translation is not everybody’s cup of tea. Not the forte of common minds.“It’s an art both estimable and very difficult, and therefore is not the labour and portion of common minds”, said Ignacy Krasicki.It’s not just reproducing the original text in a different language, but retaining the essence and the flavour of the original one. It’s not just the transfer of words from one language to another, but the transfer of meaning from one language to another.“A translator is repeatedly bogged down by the question,how should the translation be done – thought by thought, or word by word, and how can the idiom and metaphor be translated, without making it lose its culturally – specific punch,” says Dr Santosh Bakaya, an acclaimed poet and author.
Now, coming to the translation of Kashmiri poetry of Habba Khatoon translated by G R Malik (agreat scholar of English Literature and ex-Professor at Department of English,Kashmir University), a question arises: Can poetry, which denies translation, be translated? Poets, writers, critics and scholars have perennially commented on this issue. Let me quote Robert Frost. He says: “poetry is lost in translation.” What does it mean? Does it mean the translator murders the original text: its essence, its metaphor, its idiom? Does it means, the translator succeeds in translating the form, the body, not the soul? Or does it mean, the work loses its indigenous beauty?To answer these questions,two great writers come to our rescue. First, Salman Rushdie.In Imaginary Homelands: Essay and Criticism, he writes: “It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.” Second, Yevgeny, a Russian poet. He says, “translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.”
Well then, what has G R Malik done to Habba Khatoon’s poetry? Has he murdered Habba Khatoon’s poetry or has he succeeded in giving the work a life in the target language? Is his English rendering of Habba Khatoon beautiful, not faithful or not beautiful, but faithful? And how far has he succeeded in his venture?
A translator, before translating a work of art, must have a through eye and good command on both the languages: the source and the target. He cannot take liberties, whatsoever, and mix up his own ideas with the author’s, so as to make it look beautiful and appealing. Rather he has to be faithful to the original text.
Yes,G R Malik Saeb, you are on track. You have done it beautifully. You have beenfaithful to the original text. You have not taken any liberty. You have transferred Habba Khatoon’s poetry into English as it is, as for instance:
a) Chaw mien dany posh
Enjoy my pomegranate bloom
b) Walu wis gachiwhi hunday
Lanen niyaayi kati anday
Come mate, let’s go to collect dandelion leaves
Fate’s imbroglios will ever refuse to end.
c) Kourzyenuyikhhenu zalo
Kour zyenu rozi paam
Su aasith gachi shalo
The birth of a daughter will enmesh you in a trap;
The birth of a daughter may prove to be a slander,
And you, though a lion, will become a jackal
Translating Habba Khatoon, the destined poet, the nightingale, the songbird of Kashmir,whose poetry predominantly reflects the love, unrequited love for his lover and the callous treatment that she received at her in- laws, is not every body’s toast. Understanding her poetry, one must definitely be equipped with the idiom and metaphor of the source language and must have command on the target language too. Alhumdulilah! G R Malikhas command on four languages and we cannot think better than this from the one, who does not have command on either. He has done it successfully. After reading the English version of Habba Khatoon, translated by him, it, at once, makes you wonder as to how much he has toiled – read and surfed- to make Habba Khatoon possible in English. Selected bibliography appended to the English version of Habba Khatoon is an ample proof to the same.
However,I must say one thing, as G R Malik himself has confessed, that genuine poetry defies translation, but still he presents Habba Khatoon in English as it is in the original. Though at places, English version appears bogus, because he has remained faithful, has not added anything from his own imagination, yet it is a mile stone covered, an achievement accomplished.
(The writer, a translator, author and poet, has a Master’s Degree in English Literature from Kashmir University. Once Upon A Time, a translation of a Kashmiri novel Akh Dour by Bandsi Nirdoush, is his debut achievement. His poems have been published in various National and International Journals. Source: countercurrents.org)
A NEW HARVEST OF ANGER
By Asif Farrukhi
If teaching literature is a challenge, then a greater challenge is teaching contemporary literature. Classics, by their nature, call for rediscovery and renewed engagement, but are convenient when encountered in a classroom. They have been discussed, dissected, analysed and interpreted almost to the point of death, with every possible ounce of meaning extracted. The indulgent student can access notes, summaries, analyses and even sample papers. Contemporary literature has nothing similar to offer, no ready-made interpretations and clearly embroiled in social issues which could lead to subversion. The way Urdu literature is taught in most universities across the country is like a dead poets’ society, stopping short at Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, with nothing beyond a resonating silence ahead.
It was to address such a gap that a course focusing entirely on literature from contemporary Pakistan was designed and introduced at the undergraduate level at a private university. We were given a free hand which encouraged inventive and creative thinking in curriculum design, but above all, the involvement of intelligent students, curious and eager to learn. Putting together the syllabus of readings, themes and patterns from contemporary Urdu literature from Pakistan became a new harvest of anger, named after the thought-provoking short story by Asad Muhammad Khan, one of the most brilliant writers on the contemporary scene and generally missed out in narrow-vision curricular. It came to be called Ghussay Ki Nai Fasl, a rich and angry new harvest from the literary fields in Pakistan. This would enable us to learn more about the current situation in Pakistan and appreciate the complexity of emerging narratives.
Moving away from the ‘life and works’ pattern of reading about authors — which many students had acquired in school — we faced the real challenge of the texts. We wanted to read the texts as such, as stories and poems, not to be reduced to thematic patterns. But we also wanted to be aware of the context in which these were written. Unfamiliar texts and a different style of reading made the course intriguing to the students, if not challenging. While there were those who lagged behind, most students would come to class with the readings done and questions buzzing in their mind, leading to close reading followed by discussion.
Our round of readings began with Faiz and his memorable poem ‘Lahoo Ka Suraagh’ [In Search of Vanished Blood as translated by Agha Shahid Ali] which ends on a poignant note: is the orphan blood, for which there was no witness and no case was filed. The poem has a definite date at the end — January 1965 — and most students did not know what events it could possibly be referring to. Then we deciphered the bit about khoon-i-khak-nasheenaan [the blood of the downtrodden] which had turned into rizq-i-khaak [food for the dust], like dust to dust. The police were reluctant to file a report so the poem became the very FIR, as poetry had borne witness. This was followed by Afzaal Ahmed Syed’s poem Aik Mumlikat Ki Khufia Tareekh [The Secret History of a State]. With no need to identify any particular event, the students had no difficulty in relating with the poem and its style, which would be dubbed as difficult by many critics; however, they wondered at the word mumlikat in the title of the poem. An alternative history began to emerge as we read further.
In the first session, we listed the authors and poets the students were familiar with and most of the names were predictable, from Jaun Elia to Parveen Shakir, Ahmed Faraz to Kishwar Naheed. The issues included women’s rights, minorities, climate change, crime and violence and whatnot. Not surprisingly, the name of Umera Ahmed cropped up, a name not on my list. However, I was determined to tackle her through an excellent article by Nasir Abbas Nayyar. Only a few knew Naseem Hijazi and Ibne Safi, indicating how trends have changed over the years. One student was very impressed with Habib Jalib and wanted to know more about him and the significance of Raqs-i-Zanjeer [The Shackled Dance] as we watched its video.
In fiction, we started with Saadat Hassan Manto, but moving from the earlier and well-known classics, which they had read earlier, and came to his biting political satire and later pieces. This proved to be almost a new author to them, as did Intizar Husain whose story Reserve Seat and its theme of violence touched many a heart.
The biggest surprise for the students proved to be Khalida Husain, whose story Sawaari [The Wagon] left them stunned. There was a long discussion on what it signified or meant, and while they all agreed that nobody could answer such questions, they wanted to know how come they had never heard of a writer as impressive as her. Such questions also came up with the stories of Hasan Manzar and Masood Ashar which dazed them.
In a similar vein, as we read Muhammad Mansha Yaad, a number of students recorded, on the Whatsapp group they had created to carry on the discussion, that they were profoundly moved. One student wrote: “Can’t overindulge in food after reading Mass Aur Mitti [Flesh and Dust. Can’t look at food in the same way. Kuch loag doosron ka hissa khaa jaatay hain [Some people eat up others’ portions].” Later on I asked in class: how many were upset at that particular story? All of the students raised their hands. Then I asked how many would rather have not read this story. Nobody responded. All of them affirmed that they felt better after having read the story and knowing what its contents were.
As the mood became grim, we made a midway correction by adding Mohammad Khalid Akhtar’s Zebra Scheme. The students all noted the great similarity with the current situation and thought of the scheme to import zebras a political parable.
The writers they liked included Saqi Farooqi and Mustansar Hussain Tarar. The real delight proved to be Fahmida Riaz, whose poems they were familiar with, but whose fiction they loved. As I read the stories, I realised that I too am learning from their responses, as they bring their own vivid imaginations to work on what contemporary literature has to offer.