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Glimpses of a memorable age

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By M. Salim-ur-Rahman

I don’t want to call Shamsur Rahman Faruqi a workaholic. The noun carries a whiff of disparagement and will not be appropriate at all. This aside, as soon as you look at how much he has written and translated, a great deal of it qualitatively dexterous, you are left speechless. How on earth can anyone have the ability or leisure to be so consistently creative. Also, keep in mind that he was a civil servant as well who eventually held some important posts. To reach some kind of eminence in the civil services may add to one’s self-esteem but in general is exceedingly tiresome.

The question, therefore, is how to deal satisfactorily with his prodigious output in the limited space of a daily’s column. It is to attempt the impossible. So I will confine myself to a few comments on his shorter fiction which, every time I reread it, seems inimitable, charged as it is with the strange charm and mystery of a bygone era of our literary and cultural history. He is capable of visualising the quickening, kaleidoscopic vistas of the past like a virtuoso, like a time traveller.

 

His short fiction can be wrongly labelled as historical. It does possess a basis of facts to underpin the depiction of events and personalities. However, the overall impression is one of imaginative recreation.

Let me dispense immediately with ‘Lahore kaaikwaqia’, the only weak link in the collection. Faruqi says that he saw in a dream the incidents narrated in the story. It may well be to a large extent true. The narrative is pervaded by a senseless terror which we are wont to experience in some of our dreams. But dreams are often like uncut jewels. More attention was needed to add to or subtract from the dream’s amorphousness.

Three of the stories are centred around Mirza Ghalib, Meer Taqi Meer and Mushafi’s wife. The fourth has the mid-eighteenth century Delhi as its background. Some of the characters in it are real but the two persons around whom the story revolves are, as far as I know, imaginary. I may be mistaken though. Faruqi has such a firm grip on facts and details that it is difficult to sift reality from fiction.

Placed side by side with the other stories, the one which gives an account of Mirza Ghalib seems less forceful. We get a fair idea of Ghalib’s likes and dislikes, his courteousness and generosity. We learn about his foibles too. He egotistically assumed that all those who belonged to the Indian subcontinent and wrote verse in Persian were incapable of doing justice to the language they used. He alone was the authentic Persian poet. No one doubts Ghalib’s excellence but his vilification of other Persian poets is now seen as mere snobbishness. The tiffs between Ghalib and the narrator, for whom Ghalib is an iconic figure, are enjoyable. The verisimilitude is impressive.

The tragic love affair of Meer Taqi Meer with Noor-us-Saadat, popularly known as Noor Bai, has been recounted with touching vivacity and veracity. She was a very accomplishedteenaged courtesan who, accompanied by her equally talented mother, had moved from Isfahan to Delhi during the 18th century. Noor Bai is a real person.

Whether Meer fell in love with her or someone else is quite uncertain. In fiction, many things can be made to look plausible. Meer did go out of his mind for a while (he says so in his autobiography), maybe because of an unrequited love. The story is told with great gusto and to good effect. The atmosphere of an age we are already out of touch with has been recaptured with startling deftness. The nocturnal scene during which Meer and Noor are together at last, and for the last time, is evocative of a delicate sensuousness, without any parallel in Urdu literature.

In the third story the scene shifts to Lucknow. It is still the early 18th century. The narration is fluent enough but the tellers are different which results in some complexity. The male narrator’s father, no longer alive, was a devoted pupil of Mushafi who also has passed away. The son, a rich merchant, sets out to seek Mushafi’s widow who, he presumes, rightly as it turns out, may be living in straitened circumstances. He finds her and calls on her now and then. She tells him at length about the life she spent with Mushafi. A third voice intrudes when she recalls some incidents told by Mushafi himself. This medley of voices demands technical dexterity.

Luckily, Faruqi is not found wanting. It is a sympathetic view of an essentially lovely woman. Her journey, from what looked like promiscuous domesticity to an insecure existence, in which small bits of comfort are like appeasements out of nowhere, possesses an anguished gravity.

The last story, possibly the most striking, is enigmatic to the extreme. Perhaps its charm abides in the impenetrability embedded in it. Other stories in the collection reach acceptable endings. Not this one, entitled ‘Sawar’ (The Rider).

The main characters are a teacher and a rich merchant who has a penchant for poetry. They form a close friendship. The story, however, takes off when a rumour goes round Delhi (we are back in the 18th century) that a mysterious rider will pass through the city. On the appointed day he appears and disappears. No one is sure of his identity. Who or what this apparition represents, death, affliction, the passage of time? Was it a symbol of things ephemeral? The teacher feels, for no overt reason, that a great opportunity had come his way and he has missed it.

The friendship of the teacher and the merchant ends abruptly. The merchant who was deeply in love with someone, a passion which was not requited, decides to become a faqeer, throws his mansion open, telling the people to take away whatever they like. Soon afterwards he quits the city. He had crossed over, so to say, from profane love to a state of utter abandonment, transcending the temporal.

Meanwhile, the teacher also falls fleetingly in love, sees no hope of success and reverts to his mundane life. He also feels that he has known someone who was truly great and has been witness to a profound mystery. In the end, it is courage that counts.

Why this fascination with the 18th century India, one may well wonder. In his brief introduction Faruqi says that contrary to the received wisdom, which focuses ad nauseam on political decline and ensuing chaos, the 18th century was fecund with live turbulence. The old adamant order had crumbled and from the criss-cross of crevices fresh ideas were sprouting up. The British rule put a damper on everything. Only one question remains to be asked: why didn’t Faruqi write fiction about the here and now? He could have done a better job than most of us.


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Opinion

Faiz and Manto

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By Ali Madeeh Hashmi

January 18 was Manto’s 64th death anniversary and it should be noted that Manto has been experiencing something of a renaissance for quite a few years. Manto’s best short stories like ‘Toba Tek Singh’, ‘Mozail’, ‘Hattak’, ‘Naya Qanoon’, ‘Khol Do’ and countless others remain peerless both as works of art as well as searing commentaries on their times. However, even Manto’s most ardent admirers admit that his work is wildly uneven. Exquisite short stories are mixed in with works that are at best hurried and slapdash, at worst incomprehensible. Most of this is, no doubt, a result of the life that Manto lived: a life marred by poverty, alcoholism and mental illness.

In and of itself, this is of no moment. After all, an artiste is free to create and propagate his or her work anyway he likes. But the continuing attention on Manto has had the result of perhaps diverting attention away from a number of other gifted writers some of whom were his contemporaries and some who came later. Writers like UpendranathAshk, Krishan Chander and even the great MunshiPremchand. In addition, later writers like the exquisitely subdued Ghulam Abbas and Muhammad Hasan Askari have not received the kind of attention or accolades that have accrued to Manto.

 

February 13 was Faiz’s 108th birthday and it seems appropriate to examine what connection (if any) existed between the two. In a couple of interviews, initially noted in Dr Ayub Mirza’s book Hum keThehrayAjnabi, Faiz said: “Manto was my student at the MAO College Amritsar (Faiz’ first job after finishing his MA)”. Faiz went on to note affectionately: “He never studied much, he was mischievous. He…didn’t respect anyone. But he respected me and considered me his ‘ustaad’”.

A recent column in a leading Urdu daily devotes a considerable amount of ink to disproving that Manto was ever Faiz’s student. It points out, correctly, that Faiz was appointed a lecturer in English at the MAO college Amritsar in 1935, probably in the latter half (the exact date is not available). Manto had, by then, already become a translator of some renown having translated and published some Russian short stories as well as Oscar Wilde’s play Vera among others. Manto did join the MAO college Amritsar as a student in 1933 but most likely had dropped out by the time Faiz joined as a lecturer. Subsequently, Manto was briefly a student at the Aligarh Muslim University but had to drop out after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. He returned to Amritsar in August 1935, probably right around the time that Faiz joined MAO college as a teacher. Manto then travelled back and forth between Amritsar and Delhi for treatment and in May 1936, on the advice of his physician moved to Bombay and later (after partition) to Lahore.

It seems obvious that Manto and Faiz were, in fact, present in Amritsar around the same time (mid-late 1935 till summer 1936). Faiz was an up and coming poet having received some acclaim for his poetry while still a student at Government College Lahore and then Oriental College from around 1929 till 1934/35. His poems had been published in Government College’s esteemed literary journal Ravi and his teachers, leading literary lights of the day including Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum, Dr MD Taseer and Ahmad Shah Bokhari ‘Patras’ were aware of his poetic talents.

In addition, in Amritsar, he was introduced to Syed SajjadZaheer and quickly became one of the leading organisers of the newly emergent All India Progressive Writer’s Association (AIPWA). All through this time, Faiz would undoubtedly have been reciting his poetry both at mushairas and perhaps private events even though the publication of his first volume of poetry Naqsh-e Faryadi was still some years away (1941). Many of Manto’s short stories were also published in the quarterly Adab-e Lateef which Faiz briefly edited around 1939-41. Faiz also defended Manto in court more than once. In Dr Ayub Mirza’s book, he said “Every time he (Manto) would be taken to court, I would be one of the defense witnesses. He was arrested four times; for ‘KaaliShalwar’, ‘ThandaGosht’, ‘Khol Do’ and ‘Dhuan’. The first three times we managed to get him off.”

Manto was actually prosecuted six times for alleged pornography. In addition to the stories Faiz mentions above, he was also taken to court for his stories ‘Bu’ and ‘OoperNeechayaurDarmiyan’. In 1949, Faiz was the convener of the Press Advisory Board tasked with rendering a judgment about whether Manto’s notorious short story ‘ThandaGosht’, published in a special edition of the magazine Javed in March 1949 was a work of art or pornography. In short, the two were well acquainted.

When Faiz says in his interview “Mantoapnashagirdtha”, he clearly means ‘Shagird’ not in the narrow sense of a student enrolled in a class one is teaching in a college or university but someone who seeks guidance from another who he considers more learned or erudite. In addition, when Faiz says

“Wohmeriizzatkartathaaurmujhayustaadmaantatha”, he clearly means ‘Ustaad’ in the Eastern/Indo-Pakistani sense, again, someone learned, older, more worldly who can be confidante/guide and mentor.

Manto, to my knowledge, never referred in writing to any association with Faiz and, fairly early on, dissociated himself from the AIPWA. From his meteoric rise as a short story and then film writer in the late 1930s and early 1940s, to his legal battles over being an alleged pornographer, through his fateful decision to migrate from Bombay to Lahore only to be dogged by continuing legal troubles, alcoholism, mental illness and penury into an early grave, he walked his own lonely path, refusing to compromise what he considered his artistic integrity, refusing to draw a cloak over the ‘unbearable society’ in which he lived.

In 1955, he died in Lahore at the young age of 43. Faiz, languishing in prison at the time under threat of a death sentence for the Rawalpindi ‘Conspiracy’ case wrote: “I was grieved to hear of Manto’s death. Respectable members of our community, who have neither the awareness of the fragility of an artiste’s heart nor any sympathy for it, will probably say that Manto himself is to blame for his death. But no one will wonder why he did this…The problem is that when life and art are in conflict with each other due to social circumstances, one of these has to be sacrificed. The other possibility is of mutual compromise, in which some part of both is sacrificed. The third possibility is to unite the two into a subject of struggle, which only great artistes are capable of.”

Faiz referred in another interview to Manto’s ‘exquisite short stories’ and went on to say “but after 1950, he lost his way. The film or newspaper people would give him a bottle of liquor and have him write whatever they wanted”. None of this is to take away from the greatness of Manto which is universally acknowledged but perhaps we can stop quibbling about what relationship (if any) he had with Faiz; student, peer or fellow artist. Neither one of them is with us today but their art is, and that’s the way it should be.

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Opinion

ODDS TOWARDS ENDS

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By Umair Khan

The relationship between Pakistan and India has seen many ups and downs — probably more downs than it should have. Several books have been written to explore the intricacies of this sensitive relationship as both sides try to present arguments from their own perspective in an effort to legitimise their policies and actions. India and Pakistan: Neighbours at Odds is one such endeavour undertaken by Avtar Singh Bhasin, a researcher and former Indian diplomat.

Before writing this book, Bhasin had compiled a 10-volume magnum opus titled India-Pakistan Relations 1947-2007: A Documentary Study comprising original political and diplomatic documents from the archives of the government of India pertaining to Pakistan-India relations. In a way, his new book is a distilled form of the earlier, encyclopaedic work.

 

India and Pakistan: Neighbours at Odds consists of 34 chapters dedicated to important events in the region’s history in chronological order. The book starts from the woes of Partition and continues up to the mistrust each country holds for the other even today. Looking back over centuries of recorded history of the Indian subcontinent, Bhasin rightly points out that “at no time in the medieval history of India was there a single ruler ruling the entire country from [the] east to the west and north to south. There were many rulers.” Thus, he gives credence to the claim that the Indo-Pak subcontinent has not been a political unity for a long period of time.

Starting proper from the fateful years of the post-Partition era, Bhasin admits that “certain actions of the Indian leaders at the very start of the journey, even if they were rational from the Indian standpoint, such as withholding Pakistan’s share of Sterling balances, the stoppage of canal waters, Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir, did not add to building trust between the two countries, and Pakistan cried foul.” However, he is not able to explain how these actions were rational from the Indian standpoint. The same has been admitted by another former Indian diplomat, ChandrashekharDasgupta, in his book War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48, that “the Indian control over the irrigation headworks in Mangla could lead to the ruin of Pakistan’s agricultural economy.”

Bhasin presents the case of the generations of mistrust in a way that implies that the British favoured the Muslim League over Congress during the last days of their Raj, and favoured Pakistan over India during the early days of its independence. However, recent scholarship discredits the author’s claims. In a story published by the BBC in August 2007 titled ‘Partitioning India Over Lunch’, it was revealed that the memoirs of Christopher Beaumont, who was secretary to Sir Cyril Radcliffe, chairman of the Indo-Pakistan Boundary Commission, had been discovered by his son. Beaumont wrote in his memoirs that “the viceroy, Mountbatten, must take the blame — though not the sole blame — for the massacres in the Punjab in which between 500,000 to a million men, women and children perished.” Beaumont categorically stated that Mountbatten favoured the Indian side in the matter of the Radcliffe Boundary Award. This effectively negates Bhasin’s implications that the British favoured Pakistan over India.

When the locals of Kashmir revolted in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the words of Bhasin, “unable to opt for the military option, went to the UN considering it the better option. It was a panic decision.” However, the author feels that the platform of the United Nations — that had been created for the peaceful resolution of international disputes — was not the right platform for the Kashmir dispute to be taken to by India’s then prime minister. With hindsight, he believes that Nehru should have opted for the military solution instead.

When the United Nations Security Council passed resolutions in 1948 that asked India to let the people of Kashmir exercise their democratic right of self-determination through a free and fair plebiscite held under the auspices of the UN itself, Bhasin writes that “India had the option of rejecting the resolution since it had gone beyond its reference.” Here, any student of international law can underscore the fact that the UN Security Council has been authorised by the UN Charter to ensure peace and security in the world and its resolutions cannot be rejected by any state on the flimsy ground of “having gone beyond” the reference submitted by that state.

Nehru reneged on his promise to hold a free and fair plebiscite in Kashmir on the flimsy grounds that ground realities had changed after Pakistan made military pacts with the United States during the mid-1950s. Bhasin does not clarify how the signing of these military pacts by Pakistan could disbar the Kashmiri people from exercising their democratic right of self-determination.

Commenting on the nuclearisation of South Asia, Bhasin admits that after a nuclear test was conducted by India in 1974 (Pokhran I), Pakistan proposed in a statement issued in 1980 to declare South Asia a nuclear weapon-free zone. However, Bhasin states that “India was keen on a universal nuclear disarmament, something which was beyond the realm of possibility.” And when India again conducted a nuclear test in 1998 (Pokhran II), forcing Pakistan to conduct a nuclear test as well, Bhasin comments on the nuclearisation of South Asia by writing “both Vajpayee and then Nawaz Sharif did the most unexpected” without putting the blame where it primarily belongs — the side that introduced the nuclear arms race in South Asia.

Reading and understanding the history of Pakistan-India relations has never been more important. The geostrategic situation of the region demands that both the neighbours at odds with each other need to bridge the trust deficit somehow and find some way to move forward. While this book is a good source for understanding the Indian perspective and narrative on important issues, and it is rich in quoting primary source material, it falls somewhat short in the logical analysis of those references. Still, it can prove a good read for students of history and policymakers.

India and Pakistan:
Neighbours at Odds
By Avtar Singh Bhasin
Bloomsbury, India
ISBN: 978-9386826206
538pp.

 

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Opinion

Colours of Asia

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By Nijah S. Khan

Asia, the world’s largest and most populous continent, home to 48 countries each with their own diverse cultures and subcultures, languages and religions, presents an interesting situation: What is it to be ‘Asian’? It almost seems impossible that such an expanse of land would have narratives that are similar and relatable, given the uniqueness of the multitudes residing within each Asian nation. Yet in The Best Asian Short Stories of 2017, “different voices, viewpoints and themes combine to shed light upon various facets of the Asian experience,” writes Editor MonideepaSahu in her foreword.

The anthology contains thirty two stories ranging from the skyscrapers of Korea, to the deserts of Jordan, from the rainforests of Malaysia and the historic anguish of the Indo-Pak partition to the impoverished slums of Bangladesh, just to name a few. The particular focus of this omnibus of short stories is precisely the home-grown Asian identity, free from Western attempts to explain what they see as quaint and exotic. The stories ‘Jellybeans’ by Soniah Kamal and ‘The Spaces Between Stars’ by Gita Kothari, which are set in the United States of America are still narrated from the Asian perspective.

 

Though the call for submissions prescribed no set theme, larger motifs such as extreme poverty and the quest to improve one’s living situation through brutal hard work emerge across the stories; for example in ‘Ladybugs Fly From The Top’ by Korean writer Park Chan-soon, our acrophobic window-washing protagonist dangles daily from the tops of skyscrapers with only ropes attached to a small board, risking his life to make a living. A poor construction worker’s family converts to Christianity from Hinduism in the vain hopes that “their escape in the dead of night from one identity into another” will help transform their lot in life, in ‘Patchwork’ by Shikandin.

In MithranSomasudrum’s ‘The Yakuza Under the Stairs’, Clisty’s tale is a slightly less morose one of rags-to-riches, when the humble immigrant cab driver finds himself the unsuspecting recipient of a sizeable inheritance. The story takes a humorous turn when a pronunciation mixup leads our newly moneyed protagonist to accidentally order a Yakuza (i.e. Japanese gangster for hire) instead of a jacuzzi, for his new home in Thailand.

Of course, no collection of Asian narratives can be truly representative without reference to the long period of political turmoil and upheaval in the subcontinent, which forms five stories housed in this panorama, but each tale reveals a unique facet of the struggles countless individuals faced.

The troubled Kashmir forms the backdrop for Siddhartha Gigoo’s ‘The Umbrella Man’, the story of an inmate at an asylum which parallels the persecution of Hindu Pandits in Kashmir, cast out from their motherland as refugees, their identity as a community stands endangered with no salvation in sight. Left isolated and expelled from Kashmiri society, they are akin to the inmate at the asylum, “For the inmates, the world ended at that wall. Beyond that brick-and-stone wall was a vast darkness, an oblivion.” The horrors of war and its effects on the natural beauty of Kashmir and the lives of brave youths who enlisted are further illustrated in IlaksheeBhuyanNath’s ‘The Wetland’.

Our subcontinent, unfortunately, is not the only region affected by war: a young mother fleeing war-torn Aleppo is the central figure of Amir Darwish’s ‘Samar’, and the horrors of China’s Cultural Revolution and a childhood spent in starvation during a famine are elucidated by an elderly woman to her young niece growing up in a time of prosperity in Jeremy Tiang’s ‘1997’.

Female protagonists that are breaking away from the tropes of battered and oppressed women populate many of the short stories found in this collection, some like ‘Lilly from Fits and Starts’ by Yu-Mei Balasingamchow and ‘Moyna in Powerless’ (a translated work) written by Moinul Ahsan Saber rise above their difficult circumstances and take charge.

Lilly holds her own as the only female 24-hour delivery rider for McDonald’s, filling in for her brother to support her family while he is behind bars. Her beauty and femininity is juxtaposed with her no-nonsense and often defensive exterior, an occupational hazard for females who work in a male-dominated environment. “She moved the big bike stiffly, and although she was tall enough to swing her leg over it, things got unwieldy when she strapped on the bulky backpack they used for transporting the food. Once, Zul had offered to hold the backpack while she mounted, but she barked him off.”

The challenge taken on by the editors of this collection was no small feat. The American equivalent to this compendium The Best American Short Stories selects its contents from works already published in literary journals, whereas MonideepaSahu had to trawl through numerous submissions. Deciding what qualified as “the best” Asian short stories meant struggling through the deluge of entries and an acute reader’s block for Sahu.

Whilst inclusiveness was a goal when consolidating the selected submissions into a book, out of thirty two stories contained in the anthology only four are translated works- a number that one would expect to be far greater given the rich linguistic heritage of Asia. Central Asian short stories also remain conspicuously absent from the winning essays. Nevertheless, the goal of gleaning transferrable themes of humanity across the stories proves to be not only a successful one but an illuminating and enjoyable one in this inaugural endeavour in collecting the finest short stories written across Asia.

The Best Asian Short Stories 2017
Author: Edited by MonideepaSahu
Publisher: Kitaab, 2017
Pages: 454
Price: INR299

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