Harris Khalique and Arfa Sayeda Zehra -- Photo by Tanveer Shahzad

By Haneen Rafi

Sessions focusing on Urdu literature at the first Islamabad Literature Festival were both ample and very well-attended, with people eager to hear afsana nigars talk about the Urdu short story in its cultural and historical context, listen to new poets recite their works and discuss the trajectory of the Urdu language and its evolution over the years.

Short story writers Intizar Husain, Aamer Hussein and Hameed Shahid were on the panel titled “Urdu Afsanah: Aaj ki Soorat-i-Haal”. The aim was to try and identify the current state of Urdu short story, recognise the ways in which it has evolved and discuss the writers who have contributed towards this transformation. Shahid started off by saying that he doesn’t agree with the common assessment that older writers’ work had superior literary merit compared to what’s being produced today. He then proceeded to name more than 100 writers who have written stories in the past year, a list that included well-known names such as Zaheda Hina, Intizar Sahab, Khalid Toor and Amjad Islam Amjad. For Shahid, the problem lies not in what is being written, but in the person critiquing the writing and in the perception that not enough is being produced.

Intizar Sahab took this thread further by lamenting how literary criticism has flourished in India, while in Pakistan it has lagged behind, especially in the field of fiction. Poetry criticism has fared better and even progressed. He also emphasised the importance of writing baymainey afsaanay so that it can pave the way for bamainey afsanay and for critics to understand this need and be analytical and critical accordingly.

Aamer Hussein, who teaches at the University of South Hampton, outlined three writers he had pushed to include in the curriculum — Intizar Husain, Quratullain Hyder and Jamila Hashmi. For him, he said, their short stories epitomise perfection in form, style and range of narration. The writers also talked about the evolution of themes in short stories along with changes in their style and format.

The session on young Urdu poets was a group reading which turned into a small mushaira with constant requests from the audience for a longer sitting. The poets exhibited a maturity in their poetry with a range of metres employed in the verses as well as the exploration of a variety of themes. At the onset of the session, moderator Ghazi Salahuddin raised an issue which many listeners had also picked up on — the lack of female voices in the panel. All of the five poets on the panel were male.

Urdu poetry has a rich history and with new talent entering the field, its future looks bright. The reading started with Saeed Ahmed whose romantic poem “Mei Tumhe Kal Milon Ga” was a lover’s attempt to meet his beloved despite all odds. By the end of the poem there was a sense of desolation about the hardships of loving someone in this highly critical world and it seemed to strike a chord with the audience. Ali M. Farshi’s “Aathwan Aitraf” was a short poem about a person’s dissatisfaction with the world and our materialistic way of life.

While Salahuddin tried his best to give all the poets equal opportunity to read out their work, with constant demands from the listeners for more of the same as well as an unwillingness to share the stage by some of the panelists, he was unable to do so. Qasim Yaqoob’s short poems were also well received by the audience, but it was Enwar Fitrat who was the highlight of the session and the most appreciated. His poem “Maut ki Dictionary” recounts the journey of death and the injustices against the innocent. Another poem that he read, “Zarf,” was about a man who, about to be killed in the name of religion, is asking his murderer to kill his mother first so that she does not lose her faith in God as a result of this act. The session was a success also because of the interactive audience and their appreciation of the poetry.

“Zamanay kay Sath Zubaan Badal Rahee hai” brought together Nasir Abbas Nayyar and Arfa Sayeda Zehra to outline the evolution of languages spoken in Pakistan. Expertly moderated by Harris Khalique, the panel elaborated on how language is dependent on the customs and conventions of a society. Nayyar talked about the three prominent kinds of changes in a language, linguistic, sociolingusitic and psycholinguistic. Sociolinguistic changes are possible in a society with multiple languages and he gave the example of British rule in the subcontinent as a consequence of which another language was introduced in society.

Psycholinguistic changes are those which concern how we feel, acquire, use and produce a language, which again is constantly changing. Zehra termed language a consciousness which is dynamic, unlike the mullah, and which needs to change in order to encourage the quest to find a meaning in life: “Bolo to bamaeeney bolo, nahe aata to dhoondo maeeney,” she said. She went on to explain how it is of utmost importance to not just understand the language but also the ehsaas behind it as only then will we be able to fully understand each other and also celebrate our identity.

Her witty and apt comments and jovial demeanour made a mark on the audience. She said that instead of changing our language we have corrupted it by bringing in the influence of other languages. The rampant use of a mix of Urdu and English in colloquial conversations as well as on the Internet and in texting has disintegrated not one but two languages. ‘You’ has become ‘U’ and ‘before’ is now ‘b4’. This, according to Zehra, is a disservice to our language and our society and must be consciously curbed.