ISLAMABAD, April 30: The first Islamabad Literary Festival held at Margalla Hotel saw stellar personalities of Urdu literature such as Intizar Hussain, Zehra Nigar and Abdullah Hussain sharing their perspectives and engaging in conversation with the young and old alike.
Abdullah Hussain, a renowned novelist, began his hour with an interesting observation, that the English language is given precedence at the Oxford University Press (OUP), and when a man of Urdu wanders into such a festival, he is beset with an inferiority complex.
He added that there was, however, no reason why an Urdu author should feel inferior to an English one.
With bestsellers to his credit, Abdullah Hussain’s first novel Udaas Naslein has been reprinted almost annually since its publication in the 1960s.
As he states, everything he has written is a love story but it rests against a background of history, politics etc. That et cetera, it seems, comes from painstaking research as he constructs his stories.
Abdullah fell into writing, not through design but from having nothing else to do.
He went to work in a cement factory which was as cement factories are wont to be in the middle of nowhere – and as there was nothing to do, he eventually started writing to fill the eight hours he wasn’t sleeping and wasn’t working.
He certainly didn’t expect to write a bestseller but as the story took form, it also took on a life of its own and he started to research the background and historical events necessary for its completion.
An interesting anecdote he narrated was that he referred to WWI in the novel and discovered a Hindustani soldier who had been awarded the Victoria Cross for his service in the First World War.
As luck (and hard work) would have it, Abdullah Hussain discovered Subehdar Khudadad lived in a village a train ride, tonga ride and hike away.
When the author arrived at Khudadad’s house, the illiterate soldier gave him a stack of books to read which the British had presented him with.
Each of those books contained specific reference to the campaign Khudadad had been recognised for. Abdullah Hussain stayed in the village for as long as it took to read the books.
The inadvertent writer had not begun with the intention of producing a novel, so five years later when he ended up with a completed novel he put it aside where it waited for a well-meaning friend to share it with a publisher a year later.
The novel was deemed good by the publisher but he was reluctant to invest in such a large book by an unknown.
Abdullah Hussain was then asked to write a few short stories which the publisher would have printed in the renowned literary magazine Savera.
After the acclaim the first short story received, Udaas Naslein was printed for the first time.
Abdullah Hussain did not expect the reception the novel received – his language was unusual, the nuances not typical of Urdu writing and he had a propensity to invent a word where his vocabulary was insufficient.
Raised in a village in Punjab, his Urdu was peppered with words from Punjabi and English. But, quoting a Punjabi idiom, he says sometimes when you kick hunchback, sometimes the hump disappears.
Inspired by the quote, “you’re only as good as your second novel,” Abdullah Hussain then took a break from writing until he felt ready to write again.
Thirteen years later, wrote Bagh, the work he calls his favourite which received literary acclaim but did not sell as many copies as the first.
After novels and short stories, including an English novel which was filmed by BBC 2, and at the young age of 81, Abdullah Hussain spoke of projects underway and what his future creative ventures are going to be.
He objected to being called 84 years old, and stated he was still as deeply interested in all the things that he interested in at 20… but now he gets tired faster.
A writer who sets his tales against social backdrops that are historically and politically moving, he writes without any interest in fame.
He has gained immense amounts of acclaim because of the quality of his work in a genre that for Urdu language was rarely explored but he has not gone in search for it.
An afternoon session with Intizar Hussain gave a new dimension to the approach of writers of Urdu literature who have worldwide acclaim. Asked who ‘taught’ him to write, Intizar Hussain said his first response to that question had been his grandmother and he kept adding layers and logic to that answer over the years but of authors who he has been inspired by, Krishan Chander stands out.
Intizar Hussain is a novelist, short-story writer, columnist, travel writer, biographer, playwright, critic and translator.
He has been called a philosopher and reformer. But the only title he goes by is that of fiction writer whose journey began with a collection of short stories published in 1952.
Like Abdullah Hussain, Intizar Hussain has drawn from his life, society and history to write. He narrated an interesting anecdote with Manto when Intizar Hussain was a young writer.
Asked to submit a piece for the second edition of the Urdu Adab paper, he wrote a story entitled, ‘Woh,’ a tale about Moharram in a village where strict purdah is observed and one young girl visiting has caught the attention of some of the village boys and they spend that Moharram trying to see her. Manto called him to ask what Intizar Hussain had written, who was ‘woh’ and why isn’t she seen.
When Intizar Hussain explained the story was about purdah, Manto said, the boys need not see her but the reader should. Intizar Hussain changed the story and its title to ‘Phir Ayegee.’
He reiterated, as did Abdullah Hussain, that Urdu prose and fiction are the crux of Urdu literature. And he added that we have disconnected from Urdu fiction but it is still immensely powerful and engaging.
Much of Intizar Hussain’s session was spent in reading from one of his earlier works with the theme that that which you consume, consumes you.