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DAWN - Features; February 14, 2008

February 14, 2008

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Good writing must contain thought — Shafi Aqeel

By Naseer Ahmad


KARACHI: I was thrilled to read a Punjabi quatrain with Urdu translation while sitting in a free period of my village school. The four-liner read: “A tip of a diamond cuts apart a glass in a moment. Oh the lovely damsel, you also look like a diamond. I dread you!”

Frankly, I had not read much written by the prolific writer, poet and eminent journalist Shafi Aqeel but was aware of what immense work he had been doing over the intervening decades.

Years later, studying in a Karachi college, I went to submit a ghazal I had attempted for publication to a newspaper office. There I saw Shafi Aqeel sitting with a couple of friends, handed him the piece of paper and left the place quickly lest he see my crude poetry and make fun of it. I was pleasantly surprised to see my ghazal in print in the next issue of the weekly literary page aimed at encouraging new writers.

Encouraged as I was, I dropped in another ghazal and it was also published. However, soon the page stopped appearing and I stopped writing poetry formally. Now, I learn that Aqeel had once launched a ‘Naunehal League,’ which propelled many budding writers and poets to blossom into very popular figures such as Haseena Moeen, Anwar Shaoor, Qamar Ali Abbasi, Ghazi Salahuddin, Mohsin Bhopali, Obaidullah Aleem, Mustansar Tarar etc.

The diamond-figured woman seems to have scared him so much that he opted to live a life of celibacy. “The charm of words, though they sit in black on paper, was so absorbing that I did not find time to look elsewhere hard enough,” he says smilingly. So he happily lives with the family of a sister in Gulshan-i-Iqbal.

As I entered his room for an interview last Friday, I found it littered with books, magazines and loose papers. When he said to me “please sit down,” I didn’t know where he meant I could park myself without disturbing his manuscripts or books. With a stage show blaring on the TV set, the room looked in utter mess, as the study of any major writer probably should.

The walls were decorated with a few paintings by renowned artists such as Sadequain and Ali Imam. There were framed pictures of the writer with literary giants such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, artists Gulgee and Ali Imam. A shelf contained a whole lot of books written by himself.

Asked about the number of books he had read, he said “when it came to reading, there was no question of what to read and what not to.” To prove his point, he took me to his personal library, brimming with books on every conceivable topic and in various languages — Urdu, English, Persian, Arabic, Punjabi, with some in the Gurmukhi script. As a youngster, he initially did not know how to read, and then he could not afford to buy books. Perhaps to make up for that sense of deprivation, he read and owned so many books. The books he had received in connection with his weekly reviews, published under his pen-name Sheen Ain, were kept separately.

‘Poverty is nothing to abhor’

Aqeel does not have formal education. He learnt reading the Quran at a mosque and was compelled by circumstances to seek his own living. He is not ashamed of mentioning the poverty he spent his early life in. “Poverty is nothing to abhor or be ashamed of. Rather, it may work as a stimulus. I think if I hadn’t been poor, I wouldn’t have achieved what I have,” he says while narrating how he started off life as a worker and struggled on to become a distinguished man of letters.

As a young man in Lahore, he had also served the National Guards, a volunteer wing of the Quaid-i-Azam-led Muslim League. “When trainloads of bodies arrived at Lahore, we removed the bodies to a tent pitched at the railway station. Initially we were frightened. But soon we became used to it. It was an awful scene, indeed,” recalls Aqeel. “The stinking bodies spread cholera in the station area as many migrants had nowhere to stay but the station.” While working for the guards, they were paid nothing and even had to bring food from home. The Quran connected him with words, which set him off on a journey of scholarship. In later years he passed the munshi-fazil and adeeb-fazil exams.

His first article appeared in the Zamindar in 1947, and he became from Mohammad Shafi to Shafi Aqeel. It was the result of his outpouring on the then raging issue of Illam Deen Shaheed. He did not have a traditional teacher for poetry, which he initiated in 1948 but began composing in earnest in 1957. “I think anybody with ‘mauzoon tabiyat’ — a particular bent of mind for poetry — can judge for himself whether the metre and rhyme of his lines is correct.”

He started his writing career with short stories and also wrote a novel. His first collection of short stories published in 1952, titled Bhookay, landed him in trouble with the authorities, who declared it obscene and put the author on trial in Lahore while he lived in Karachi. “The West Pakistan government charged me under the Obscenity Law (Section 292).” It was another harsh phase of his life. “My defence witnesses were Maulana Abdul Majeed Salik, Shorash Kaashmiri and Saadat Hasan Manto. During my two-and-a-half years of trial, I couldn’t collect them together as either one or the other was away from the city on the day of hearing,” he recalls.

Born in a Lahore locality in 1930, he migrated to Karachi in January 1950 in search of a living. Here he worked as a sign-painter, the art he had learnt back in Lahore, and later worked for various magazines and newspapers in different capacities, including Majeed Lahori’s Namakdan, where he worked as an assistant editor. Later he got the job of a magazine editor with a salary of Rs60 per month. “It was really a big amount considering that a hearty meal cost a man only four aanas (a quarter of a rupee). A roti (flat bread) was sold for one paisa (1/16th of a rupee) and daal (lentil curry) was free with it.” Bus fares would have been a bit higher as the bus travelling between Tower and PIB Colony charged five paisas.

Good writings

He is not willing to name any writer as his favourite though he has written a complete book on Ghalib in Punjabi. “There are good writers we know. But they also do not write well all the time. The not-so-good ones may also write well sometimes. So when I come across a good piece of writing, I see it like a shady tree in a desert, where a traveller rests for a while and then moves on.”

The quatrain mentioned in the beginning “is actually only one couplet broken into four lines,” says Aqeel. This form, which is his own invention, appeared for several years in the newspaper and he has published them in two volumes. “Readers do not have the time to read long poems. The best way to share a thought with them is to use the minimum possible words.”

His contribution both to art and literature is immense. He has written as many as 11 books on folktales of several countries. One of his books on Punjabi folklore has been translated into seven languages by Unesco. He has written three books on art and has been working on a book for the last three years. He is also working on his autobiography. “Publishers and friends insisted that I write one. I have already collected notes for it.”

His books have earned him international acclaim and won him several national and international awards.

He has visited Germany, France and other countries of Europe and North America as well as Asia. Two of his 40 books are travelogues, though he does not include travelogues in serious literature.

He never attends Mushairas. “I don’t enjoy the singing (reciting) of verses. When you praise a piece of poetry at a mushaira and later see it in print, you may laugh at yourself for praising a piece of no actual merit. No writing is worth appreciating if it doesn’t have a thought in it. And any writing that contains a thought cannot be understood instantly,” says Aqeel, but in the same breath defends the mushairas. “You cannot deny its significance as an institution. Look at our classics; they are the product of this same institution.”

Mortality and Benazir

Although he regularly contributes to his newspaper, he has stopped working as a full-time employee. “I told them that I had been sleeping and waking at their command throughout my life; now I should be allowed to die at my own leisure.”

Talking of death, he said: “This is a natural process. You can’t avoid it. If you believe in religion, it is a reality next only to God. Even if you don’t believe in religion, it is going to happen anyway and we must be prepared to face it.”

In this context, the death of Benazir Bhutto also cropped up. “In the modern history of the world, there has been no braver woman than Benazir Bhutto. She was aware of the danger to her life. She repeatedly said the threat to her life was a real one. But she did not cower and continued to address public meetings undaunted.”

... and though spring is around

Spring is around. Laundered by winter’s last rains the sun shone crisp and bright under the starched blue mantle of the Sunday sky. The civil stir of recent months may have soured the mood and given a sore throat to the dour, phlegmatic rulers but it has brought a rare cheer to the anaemic face of society. If the extremist fringe would only let us and give people some respite there is evidence they have the buoyancy to swim up to the surface and breathe the fresh air. At the Manto gala the other day at the National Art Gallery it was a full house again after Feryal Gauhar’s captivating introduction to her second novel not so many days before. But the two events were kind of gasps for life after the bloody interval at Rawalpindi’s R.A. Bazaar, the tragic air crash over Kohat and the blast in Charsadda.

It is good that the dead are now buried quietly without the sentimental exposure to public view of the personal grief of the bereaved families. They are following the same policy in America where body bags from Iraq and Afghanistan are dispatched to the undertaker without media publicity of burial fanfare. It is not that shock and awe are not registering in the national psyche or if it is thought that since there is no swell of general resentment such horrors will pass off safely into oblivion; but, while there is need also to eschew sensationalism without suppression of facts, it is important too to avoid crude attempts to downplay the enormity of the suffering of the affected families and to make it appear as if nothing had happened by muffling the cries of the survivors. It would be sobering for the people if it is seen that the rulers are taking stock of the situation with seriousness and making an honest examination of policies that have unleashed this demon that now they cannot control.

Also to be avoided are the patently absurd generalisations that men in authority like to trot out in media discussions. For instance, that a power like the United States could not stop the September 11 attacks, how can we? This silences most objectors, who should know that since that attack in New York no other incident has happened and all would be attackers have been arrested and their sources blocked. Similarly all those involved in London train bombings and those behind them were promptly arrested and several acts of sabotage prevented by the vigilance of the police and the sleuth agencies. In our case, according to latest reports, suicide bombers are requesting joyrides in private vehicles for a trip to Paradise if the motorist obliges and takes them to the target of their choice. Known terrorists here are maintaining their own militias with latest weaponry, communication systems and secret agents. They are planning and executing suicide attacks against chosen targets, relaying seditious messages and farmaeshi programmes from their radio stations, and we cannot reach them despite having their addresses and their father-in-laws in our protective custody. And so on.

The genesis of the trouble, needless to say, goes back to the Afghan Jihad etc., etc., but our loss of control over things within our own territory and the sheer mayhem of law and order that we see today could possibly be the result of the experiments in administration that we have been doing. Sometimes back when the media was not under the present curbs a district nazim was being questioned by a TV channel in a case of rape and unlawful confinement of the victim’s family. The impression this guy made on me, a casual viewer, by his loutish talk, uncouth looks and offensive hauteur, was that of a plain scoundrel. Such a man could not be trusted with a bag of brinjals but here he had been made in charge of a whole district. He was certainly not the only one of his kind. Whatever efficacy remained in the old system after fifty years of its corruption by our talented bureaucrats has been uprooted by the induction into power of these nazims at the base of local administration. So from the bottom upwards to the singular steeple there’s practically no one minding the store. Analysing the muddle our reclusive friend, Mr Shujaullah, had this to say in an email some months back:

“Societal norms condition the culture of power. However what they can’t do to the armed forces blatantly is being done to the civilian management. Individuals, largely from the Army, are being inducted at all levels, at ‘discretion’. Within the corridors of power, modern, rational standards of pure merit have been supplanted by considerations of patronage and favouritism in a decadent mediaeval atmosphere of ‘darbar’. This has given rise to impunity all over. Sayyaan bhaye kotwaal, phir dar kahe kaa?

“Such state of affairs sets into motion its own vicious circle. Down the line, institutional structures are replaced by coteries of whiz kids, consultants and charlatans since the top man, being a rank outsider, finds himself ill-equipped to communicate with the professional cadres. A lurking mistrust pervades up and down the line. In this battlefield setting, ‘one- time’ dispensations become the norm. Thoughtless, whimsical orders are issued. Decision-making is no longer subject to time- honoured principles of precedent, cost-effectiveness, viability, sustainability and repercussions. These are regarded as anathema and condemned as munshi geeri. Employee morale and productivity are the first casualty of this onslaught. Add to this the abysmally low quality of human resources in the national talent pool.

“It seems no one among the sub achha hai darbar around the General have had the honesty, courage or sensitivity to tell him about the range and depth of disaffection and alienation caused among the rank and file of civil servants who constitute the single largest and the most influential middle class in the country.”

Tailpiece: And in his latest comment welcoming General Kiani’s announcement Mr Shujaullah asks: “and what about the legions of retired armed Forces personnel who would continue to bedevil the civilian management structures (thanks to Ziaul Haque, the scourge of Allah that visited upon this poor people)?”



© DAWN Media Group , 2008