WANT to become a scholar of Urdu overnight? Want to be invited to the ‘international’ conferences on Urdu language and literature to present a ‘research paper’ before an audience consisting mostly of university teachers and a few foreigners? Want to show off on your Facebook page that you have been to so many places and met so many ‘scholars’? A selfie with the chief guest, most probably a corrupt minister, would be an added bonus. So how do you do it?
Easy! Just arrange for the airfare and lo and behold! You are a scholar, an international delegate to an international conference on Urdu. Becoming a research scholar and international delegate has never been so easy. You must thank the organisers of such events as international Urdu conferences and, in some cases, the Higher Education Commission for giving you this chance of a lifetime. The nation must be thankful that our beloved HEC has been holding the flag of research quite high by financing such ‘international Urdu research conferences’.
You need not worry that for becoming an international delegate you have almost no credentials as a scholar or researcher. Forget all about research and the rubbish you have been told all along about conducting research or writing research papers. A deep knowledge of the theme of the conference is neither an issue, nor the fact that you have never — even in your wildest of dreams — thought of writing a research paper on, say, “the impact of sociological and economic background on the development of metaphysical Urdu poetry in the 18th century northern India, with special reference to the Sufi poetry of Khwaja Mir Dard and Mirza Mazhar Jaan-i-Jaanaan”.
This writer has come across many ‘foreign scholars’ during some ‘international’ Urdu conferences. And, believe me, they were neither of the two. Foreign they were not, since they had migrated to, say, Middle East or Europe or US some 20 years ago. And scholars? Ha ha! If a self-proclaimed poet or a well-connected housewife can be called a scholar without having to write anything, then yes, they were. And if they can become ‘international delegates’ by just paying for their air tickets, why can’t you? Most of these ‘international delegates’ I met were Pakistanis living abroad. Some of the ‘international delegates’ included an Urdu radio anchorperson in a foreign land, an Urdu schoolteacher in a Middle Eastern country, a Pakistani housewife from the US, a gentleman publishing an Urdu literary journal from the UK and a little-known Urdu poet from UK. The housewife’s case is the most brilliant example of how easy it is to become a scholar and an international delegate these days. She qualified as a scholar and delegate just because, as she told me, she was “very much interested in Urdu literature and was anyway coming to Pakistan. So I thought why not avail of the chance to see what a conference really is”. It is useless to describe what she read out at the conference in the name of a research paper.
The radio anchorperson, the self-styled and self-important kind, an expatriate Pakistani living in Europe, used to broadcast an Urdu programme from the city where she migrated to. This, of course, is enough to earn her not only the status of an international scholar but the special privilege to present the first so-called research paper in the first session on the opening day with much fanfare. She was up on the podium and the real scholars, researchers and professors were listening to her in rapt attention; after all, who does not want to go to another international conference on Urdu she might be just planning? But mind you, you would have to buy your own ticket, just as she did. A woman poet from the US was given the same status in another conference. Oh boy, you can go to so many international conferences, even the one taking place on the North Pole, if you have the right connections and just “behave properly” with these “highly respectable foreign delegates” (translation: praise them and pamper them). Take the example of a ‘scholar’ living in the UK, who can even finance your ticket to London if you just praise him enough or get an “MPhil (Urdu)” dissertation written on him.
The woman from a school in the Middle East seemed at least promising as she read out her paper haltingly, feeling the pressure of an ‘international Urdu conference’. But I must appreciated the nerves of a young ‘scholar’ from Pakistan, who has never bothered to write anything, except, perhaps, love letters. He was made a part of the presidium. Those who are planning to organise ‘an international Urdu conference’ must learn this trick: call a number of delegates onstage and declare them all presidents. Everybody will be so happy, including the “presidents” and the young chap who has never perhaps read a book or a research paper, let alone write one.
The ones who go to an ‘international Urdu conference’ clutching research papers are perhaps among the most stupid persons on this planet: this writer,too, has done this foolish act on quite a few occasions. How can you waste the precious time of so many ‘international scholars’ who have flown in from all over the world (just to meet their relatives in their native country)? I was told on a number of occasions by the person/s presiding over the proceeding to finish off my paper as quickly as possible, seemingly because everyone was bored and the person/s presiding over had to make a long-winding, irrelevant, non-serious, unnecessary and unwanted speech.
The ‘senior scholars’ , who have a long experience of ‘handling’ the proceedings, have perfected the art of presiding: they do not waste any time writing a paper, utter just a few words about the theme of the conference, appreciate and congratulate the organisers and then go on to narrate a few good jokes. Everybody has a good laugh and is relaxed. The organisers announce that “due to shortage of time the full contents could not be read out and you would be able to read the full texts of the papers in the proceedings, [if and] when they are published. Please help yourself with lunch”. This makes delegates even more joyous. After all, one has to cover at least some portion of the airfare.
A new trend is the overseas Urdu conferences. The only thing you have to do to be able to become a real international delegate and fly off to a foreign country is, again, paying for your air passage and you can zoom away to anywhere in the world in the garb of a scholar of Urdu. The HEC is always there to buy you a ticket.
There are some writers and poets who are intellectuals in their own right. They must be invited and asked to speak at the conferences. Poets, teachers, anchors or anybody else has a right to perform and shine. But one should not do that at so-called international literary and research conferences. Their domain is elsewhere. The organisers must realise that they are making a fool of themselves and everybody else. Though in the end everybody is happy and the only sufferer is Urdu, what the organisers should do is not to call it an international Urdu conference but a literary festival or a ‘mela’, just as Oxford people do. They call it a literary festival, not conference, and they do not ask the delegates to pay their airfares. But then, one wonders, who are the scholars who are willing to bear with this farcical act in the name of an international Urdu conference?
Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2015