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Cultural conquests

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The writer, Ian Jack, a Londoner of Scottish origin, once spoke of his country as being “formerly known as Great Britain”. This was characteristically wry and apposite; for the political and economic decline of the United Kingdom has been under way for many decades now. Yet there is one area in which Britain is still Great; the quality of its periodicals. The Financial Times is the best daily newspaper in the world, superior to both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. And when it comes to weekly magazines, The Economist is in a class of its own.
The supremacy of the FT and The Economist is widely acknowledged. A third, albeit less known, British periodical is Prospect, a monthly on global affairs that I prefer to its American competitors, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. It draws on a wider pool of contributors; and the writing is far better.
The latest issue of Prospect is on the rise of China. It features articles by two female journalists, one British, the other Chinese; and by two male academics, an Englishman of Indian origin and an Australian, respectively. The essays speak of the robustness of the Chinese economy, the vigour and direction of its political leadership, and the sense of destiny carried by its middle class. Although the contributors are democrats who do not approve of authoritarian political systems themselves, the sense one gets from reading this issue of Prospect is that China’s rise to global dominance is irresistible and irreversible.
I have been to China only twice. I claim no expertise on the country, its history or its politics. Yet, in reading these assessments of its apparently unstoppable march to superpower Dom, I am struck by one thing; that China’s political, military and economic might is unaccompanied by what the Harvard scholar, Joseph Nye, once called ‘soft power’. In this respect, it is absolutely unlike that superpower of the 20th century, the United States of America, as well as the superpower of the 19th century, Great Britain.
Every literate human knows that British writers like Shakespeare and Dickens are still read around the world. It is almost as well known that British scholars such as Newton, Faraday and Darwin revolutionized modern science. But it is not so widely appreciated that a third and perhaps even greater source of British soft power were the popular modern sports the country gave birth to. A World Cup is soon to commence in Russia; although England is unlikely to win it, it was Englishmen who invented soccer. They also invented the Indian subcontinent’s most popular sport, cricket, as well as tennis, table tennis and badminton. Although men and women have run, jumped, swum and fought since ancient times, the rules for competitive athletics, boxing and swimming were codified in 19th-century Great Britain. Victorian England has thus been, as one scholar put it, the “games-master of the world”.
As Britain acquired colonies across Asia and Africa, as it won battles on land and in the seas, its political and military dominance was buttressed and legitimized by the literature it had created and the games that it had invented. The Second World War put an end to the ‘Great’ in Great Britain; yet, its soft power continued to appeal. As former British colonies freed themselves from imperial rule, through the ‘Swinging Sixties’ (and beyond) Indians and Africans danced to the songs of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Even now, after Brexit has further confirmed Britain’s decline, elites across the globe read the FT and The Economist, and listen to the British Broadcasting Corporation.
In the 20th century, the US came to replace the UK as the world’s leading power. This was largely the consequence of its economic and military might. Yet its cultural and aesthetic attributes also helped. The film soon supplanted the book as the principal source of entertainment; and, of course, it was Hollywood that showed the way. The great musical innovations of the 20th century came courtesy the US; through jazz and folk rock, with Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan acquiring a following among anti-American leftists in Asia and Latin America. The US also produced some great novelists, such as Faulkner and Hemingway, and many great scientists, with a plurality of Nobel laureates teaching in American universities. Meanwhile, a sport invented in the US, basketball, came to peacefully conquer the world as quickly and as effectively as soccer once had.
No country likes to be dominated by another. National pride and national self-respect are as important to the Ghanaian as to the Cuban. Indians were not happy to be ruled by the British, nor were Mexicans pleased to be bullied by the behemoth to the north. However, the rise and consolidation of British global hegemony in the 19th century, and of American global hegemony in the 20th century, were made (slightly) more palatable by the culture of the superpower, by the literature, art, music, film and sport brought by it.
Who or what will make Chinese economic and political dominance palatable across the world? Where is the Chinese Shakespeare? Who is the Chinese John Lennon? Which Chinese game bids to become as popular as soccer or basketball? Can one think of a Chinese film director remotely as influential as Steven Spielberg, a Chinese actor who will capture hearts and minds as Charlie Chaplin once did? Do independent-minded Pakistanis and North Koreans listen to Radio Beijing as keenly as Indians still listen to or watch BBC? We know of the brilliant young Chinese who flock to study in Cambridge and Harvard, but when will the most gifted product of a New York or London high school make Shanghai University his or her first choice?
When I was a student in Delhi in the 1970s, Britain had not been Great for some time, yet I spent a large chunk of my pocket money on a membership to the British Library, travelling an hour each way by bus to borrow novels and cricket books. When I was a student in Calcutta in the 1980s, my Marxist friends suppressed their dislike of the Reagan administration to become members of the American Center, to borrow videos of Hollywood films and gain access to the concerts of visiting jazz musicians.
It might be argued that the cultural sophistication of Britain and America was a product of their being democracies at home (even while they were imperialists abroad). However, in this regard, the Chinese lag far behind even the erstwhile Soviet Union. Despite being run on despotic lines, the USSR could draw on its own cultural exports while seeking global influence. They had the world’s greatest dance troupe (the Bolshoi Ballet), some of its most celebrated composers (such as Shostakovich) and its best chess players (who taught the game to students everywhere). The Soviets also made available, at a mere five rupees a volume, the works of the great Russian novelists of the 19th century.
The Chinese government is aware that economic and military power cannot on their own assure global dominance. That is why they have set up Confucius Institutes overseas, seeking to promote the study of Chinese language and culture. These Institutes are attracting students keen to learn Mandarin in the belief that it might come to rival English as the language of global business. However, I doubt if anyone goes to a Confucius Institute to listen to Chinese music or read Chinese literature. Where are the young people outside China whose interest in that country is anything other than instrumental? If China does in fact become the world’s most influential nation, it shall make history as a superpower without soft power, which is to say, a superpower without soul.
(Courtesy: The Telegraph, Kolkata)


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Opinion

INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Shabbir Aariz

This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,

“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..

 

OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….

ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY

(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..

burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.

His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….

YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.

His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.

John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.

As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,

“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..

HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.

Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.

John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.

(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])

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Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Naveed Hussain

I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.

I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.

 

“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.

Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.

Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.

But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.

Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.

For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.

I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.

Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”

Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.

Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.

Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”

Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.

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Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Asheesh Mamgain

If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.

“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”

 

“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.

Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.

Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.

“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”

So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.

The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.

“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.

“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”

There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.

“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”

Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.

Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”

More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”

A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.

Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.

Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.

But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”

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