American musician Tom Waits beautifully said once that this world is a hellish place and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.
Perhaps this is true for most writing in any language, particularly if you include opinion pieces in newspapers and hack fiction that occupies most bookshelves. But our condition, here in Pakistan, in terms of quality of writing is even worse. If you look at the op-ed pages of our mainstream newspapers, Urdu — the primary language of public and political discourse in the country — offers little to an intelligent reader. Sindhi, the other language used in Pakistan’s mainstream print media, fares no better. The number of first-rate, informative, insightful, educative and readable pieces in the English-language press — somehow considered better than the press in our indigenous languages — would hardly reach a double digit even over a month.
The weekly and monthly news magazines, promotional periodicals of various institutions and the quarterly or annual journals brought out by universities or think tanks have not set themselves any significantly higher standards than the daily newspapers. What one gathers is that, in every establishment, there are some individuals who make mentionable effort, but the critical mass of knowledge or informed analysis is yet to be accumulated. Besides, the basic problem — that very few know how to write simple, but meaningful language — remains.
In creative literature, where the demands and standards are quite different from journalism, the quantity and quality of what we produce, especially in long fiction and serious prose, is much lower than before, if we look at our own tradition. It is even worse if we compare our output with what is currently being done in other languages. Of course, it is relative, but comparisons — however lopsided they may be — are important to understand where we are situated in the global literary landscape. If we look at countries that are merely the size of our large cities, we find them producing far more imaginative and inspiring fiction and creative non-fiction and also in much larger quantities.
Our mixed-language education system, with increasingly more emphasis on the English language because of the material benefit that it brings, coupled with English being the language of power and prestige, has further compounded the issue. We have started producing fiction in English at a higher pace than ever before. But, in totality, it is average at best. Obviously, exceptions are there and since more is being produced by younger English-speaking writers, things are likely to change for the better in the near future. But as of today, good Pakistani English fiction writers can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In this count I am a little reluctant to include those permanently living in the diaspora because their cultural, literary and social experience is considerably different from our experience of living and writing in Pakistan.
In this overall scenario, the saving grace of our writing remains the poetry that we continue to produce in Sindhi, Urdu, Punjabi, Seraiki, Balochi, Pashto and other languages that we speak. The short story established itself in Urdu and other languages within the last 100 years or less. It continues to enjoy the position of the most powerful genre in Urdu prose. But poetry has been the mainstay of our culture and creative expression since forever. The mushaira held in Karachi recently, organised by the Arts Council of Pakistan and the Sindh Culture Department, confirmed that this remains the case even now. It showcased around 30 poets from different parts of Pakistan, besides those visiting from Canada, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and India. It was one of the most stimulating collective poetry recitals I have attended in a long time. It is never possible to have all major poets come together in one mushaira. However, a spectrum of moods and colours, themes and concerns, genres and forms were represented in the verse shared by different poets assembled, with a highly responsive audience in the historic Burnes Garden.
There is much to celebrate when we look at the quality of some of our poetry. But there is a dire need also to focus on writing serious prose in Urdu, while continuing with the rich tradition of writing short fiction.