Are Pakistani authors doing justice by writing in English?

Published February 24, 2016
We may be more successful than regional writers, but does our writing truly represent our people? —Photo by Shameen Khan Brohi/
We may be more successful than regional writers, but does our writing truly represent our people? —Photo by Shameen Khan Brohi/

We were standing in a hall, located in a building behind the mosque. It is narrated that Waris Shah wrote his rendition of Heer in the basement of this hall, while he served as a maulvi at the mosque.

The famous Chajju Bhagat is right next to the mosque. It is believed that it was the unrequited love of a widowed Hindu woman, Bhaghbari, who used to visit the temple regularly that inspired Waris Shah to rewrite Heer.

The mosque where Waris Shah wrote Heer. —Photo provided by author
The mosque where Waris Shah wrote Heer. —Photo provided by author

Different verses from Heer were written on the walls of the hall. One of them read:

Lambe dais da mulk mashoor malka
Jheete shair keete yaaran waste mein

Here at the famous city of Malka located in the jungle of Lambha,
I wrote these verses for my friends

Rooted in culture and geography, I don’t believe any work of literature can ever be justly translated.

At best, one can only hope to transliterate; the task becomes even more arduous when one is dealing with poetry.

For example, in the above verse, the word Lambe has a dual meaning. Lambe could mean long here but it also refers to the name of the Jungle Lamba, in the middle of which the city of Malka Hans was located. It was called Lamba because it was a long stretch of land located in the middle of two rivers. Without the knowledge of the history and the geography of this region, the meaning of the word is lost.

At another part in the poem, Waris Shah writes:

Tumba wajta Thaman nu jawe
Te rukhan wale dhad wajti

Playing the Tumba instrument they travel towards Thamman
And accompanying it is the Dhad from Rukhan

I first visited the village of Ram Thamman a few years ago when I was working on my first book. —Photo provided by author
I first visited the village of Ram Thamman a few years ago when I was working on my first book. —Photo provided by author

In the village of Ram Thamman, located between Kasur and Raiwind, Baiskahi is celebrated every year. Of course now, this pre-partition festival has lost much of its pomp and fair. Still, it is attended by hundreds of devotees from all over the region.

It is this celebration that Waris Shah is referring to in the above-mentioned lines. Approaching Waris Shah’s poetry without cultural and historical knowledge about Punjab would be akin to reading Odysseus without knowledge of Greek mythology.

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Furthermore, the use of the words Dhad and Tumba are particularly important here. In folk poetic tradition, they imply a sexual intercourse. Keep in mind that when Waris Shah mentioned the celebration at Thamman, he is describing the procession of Heer’s barat.

There are layers of meanings in these two verses that present such a vivid picture of Punjabi folk, its history, its religiosity and its topography — making this so much more than just a verse and, in a way, the essence of a culture.

Having attended an English-medium school in Lahore where Urdu was neglected and Punjabi was actively ridiculed, the many layers of meanings hidden within these verses of Waris Shah were lost on me.

In school, we were taught the original text of Macbeth and Merchant of Venice. Just like one cannot understand Waris Shah without the knowledge of Punjabi culture, one cannot completely appreciate the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry without the knowledge of the culture of his time.

For me, every lecture on Shakespeare achieved, is now a divorce from literature.

Literature became something that could not be fully comprehended — it belonged to other people, living in other parts of the world. Their experiences were important enough to be recorded and ours were not.

Also read: We are invisible...until we speak English

As a writer, prowess in the English language has opened up several economic avenues in the country for my colleagues and I.

Living in Pakistan and writing in English is much more lucrative than writing in any regional language.

It pays more and opens up a wider audience and above all, it allows you the honour of representing Pakistani literature at a global level. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that.

Pakistani literature does represent an aspect of Pakistani culture, but only a very small one.

Emerging from the middle-class, urbanised community, it talks about the writer's particular experiences. Not to undermine their experiences any less Pakistani than others,however, there is no denying that it doesn’t have a universal ring.

Also read: Will Urdu ‘unify’ our national identity?

Whenever English writing in Pakistan has talked about the experiences of the public, it has resorted to clichés and stereotypes not much different from how politicians and journalists talk.

I, too, place myself in this category. Even though I attempt to talk about the folk culture and history of this region, owing to my language barrier, I can only understand a minor feature of that broader culture and represent in my writing an even smaller version of that.

As much as I try I could never write an Aag ka darya — which is to me, the most beautiful arrest of all the cultures that Qurratulain Hyder represents. To highlight the different periods and geographical locations in the book, she gives a local accent to these people.

Mark Twain does the same in Huckleberry Finn, while Charles Dickens does it in Great Expectations.

A people and a culture can only be represented in its own language, which is a product of that community — a foreign language would create a farcical representation.

The tragedy here is that even though it is thriving in Pakistan, we would never have a writer of the aforementioned calibre in English from Pakistan.

At this point, I am reminded of something Iqbal Qaiser told me a few years ago, when we were talking about the famous 17th century Sufi poet, Sultan Bahu.

“Do you know Sultan Bahu wrote more than 100 books in Persian? But today, he is only remembered for one poem that he wrote in Punjabi, Se Harfi. Not many people can name even a few of his Persian books but everyone in Punjab at least has heard of Se Harfi.”

Also read: Foreign writers with a Pakistan connection

The stories of Guru Nanak, Baba Farid, Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah are also similar. All of them were adept in Arabic and Persian, the language of the aristocrats, yet, all of them decided to express themselves in the language of the masses, Punjabi.

They talked about the experiences of these people, of their land, their culture and their problems and in return, they were bestowed with immortality: the greatest success any author can aspire to achieve.

This thought haunts me — many authors become writers to leave an indelible mark on the world, to achieve immortality. However, the question is, would Pakistani authors writing in English ever be able to achieve that?

We might be more “successful” than regional writers at this point, but would anyone remember us after we're no longer physically present reminders of our work?

Does our writing truly represent our people; did we do them justice?

This article was originally published on February 24, 2016.



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