Afzal Ahsan Randhawa is a remarkable figure physically and intellectually. If you happen to meet him, his towering height evokes an image of an ancient warrior, someone like seven feet tall Raja Porus who has been described by Greek historians as a giant of a man. But in Afzal Ahsan’s case, higher than his height is his contribution to the development of Punjabi literature spanning over decades. He is a professional writer and an untiring fighter for the rights of Punjab’s language and culture sacrificed at the altar of ill-conceived politics and faith-driven ideology. He is one of our few contemporary writers strong enough to hold his ground against all odds in a struggle to retain the cultural identity of Punjab which is in a real danger of being buried under the debris of nationalistic claptrap imposed from above.
He started his literary carrier in late 1950s when only an intellectual who had fire in his belly, could write in his mother language in Punjab as literary scene was awash with the culturally brainwashed Punjabis bending over backwards in their delusion to prove on the one hand that they knew Urdu more than the Urdu speaking intelligentsia and on the other to exhibit their misplaced patriotism whipped up in the name of creating national unity through the imposition of single language. Disconnect of the Punjabi Urdu writers with the people created a mindset that prompted them to hold in contempt anyone writing in peoples’ languages. And the state not only discouraged the writers writing in their own language but in case of Punjabi persecuted them. Some Punjabi literary bodies including Punjabi Adbi Sangat were banned by the establishment on the charge of anti-national activities. Writing in Punjabi in Punjab came to be considered to a criminal offence; a seditious act instigated by the enemies of the nation with the insidious intent of breaking the newly emerged state that seemingly appeared to be fragile. What ensued from such convoluted cultural policy is well-known; the fall of Dhakka. Instead of creating a uniting link it led to the dismemberment of the country. It all started with the ill-fated language policy.
Randhawa is a multi-dimensional personality; he is a writer, lawyer and also politician. He was elected member of the parliament (National Assembly) in a by-election from Layalpur (now Fasialabad) on the Pakistan Peoples Party’s ticket in 1972. He was disqualified to take part in politics for seven years by the martial law regime of General Ziaul Haq in 1977. He was picked up and detained by the same regime in 1981 for his political activities. During this darkest period of our history he managed to write and produce eight books.
Randhawa is a prolific writer and versatile too. He is a poet, short story writer, novelist, radio/television playwright and translator. His first novel was published way back in 1961when few cared to write fiction in their mother language this side of the Punjab. So far he has published four novels; ‘Diva tay Darya’ (1961), ‘Doaba’ (1981), Suraj Grahin’ (1984) and ‘Pundh’ (2001). He has to his credit three books of short stories and five collections of poetry. He has rendered a selection of African poetry into Punjabi. He also translated Chinua Achebe’s novel ‘Things fall apart’ and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s grim thriller ‘A chronicle of a death foretold’ into Punjabi. He has been honoured with innumerable literary prizes and awards in the country and abroad. He, like inimitable Najam Hussain Syed, is among the seniors whose uninterrupted contribution during the over last five decades to the advancement of Punjab’s modern literature stand out.
His fiction is a testimony to his abiding passion for Punjab’s culture and its heroic and semi-heroic characters which in no way implies that he is imprisoned in the past. It simply shows that he is not a willing victim of ‘presentism’. A creative writer can work both ways; he can employ the past to interpret the present and the present to interpret the past. At the end of the day what matters is not evocation of the present or the past but the imaginative construct which has the capacity to signify multiple layers of suggestive meanings hinting at the holistic view of reality. His characters, male and female, quintessentially represent human values which the Punjab has been upholding throughout its long history: sense of honour, valour, generosity and struggle against injustice.
Randhawa’s poetry has verve and vigour which in some way has always been one of the defining features of our classical literary tradition. Defiant note in his verses embodies popular resistance which unmistakeably is a response, muted and at times loud, to socio-economic repression perpetuated by the dehumanised and dehumanising socio-political system.
Afzal Ahsan Randhawa, a literary heavy-weight and a star in the firmament of culture, though advanced in age continues to produce the stuff that enriches the language and enhances creative expression giving voice to what is perpetually suppressed in the audio-landscapes of Punjab in the name of ideological claptrap.
Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2015