Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

MIGRATION is the oldest constant in human history, and the transfusion of blood, languages, and cultures has had a rainbow effect on the global spectrum of the human race. Pakistanis have honoured the practice in the spades; however, unlike the eastward mobility of their progenitors, latter-day emigrants have travelled mostly westward. Like all migrants they’ve brought a lot of their home culture in their baggage.

Pundits like this scribe, who have been in the West for quite a while, would vouch that much of the Pakistani diaspora’s cultural assets have been replanted, or reinvested, in mainly religion and literature. The religious card is largely wielded to establish one’s identity in the new abode, resulting in an abundant sprouting of Islamic centres of all shades and persuasions. Intellectual pursuits — literary and creative activities — are more esoteric and as such attract fewer numbers, but literary societies nevertheless abound in a bustling metropolis like Toronto or to be precise, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), a favourite destination for new immigrants to Canada.

This country has the distinction of being one of the most hospitable in the West for immigrants from the non-white world. The Canadian establishment has coined a very precise and graphic buzzword to describe all those who aren’t white: they are, in the official lexicon, the visible minority. Apart from this categorisation which — to the more sensitive of us ‘visibles’ — is more derisive than graphic, Canada hasn’t had a racial problem of the kind that plagues its larger neighbour to the south, and so our desi brothers and sisters have more leisure time for creative pursuits as evidenced by the more than a dozen major literary societies in the GTA.

The Urdu literary scene is flourishing on foreign shores, but literature itself does not seem to be at the heart of it

London, in yesteryears, had a feather in its desi cap for being the largest of Urdu ki nai bastian, or new abodes of Urdu. Agha Hasan Abedi, of the defunct Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), was a big factor in crowning London with that glory. Abedi was a patron saint to many a famous name in Urdu literature in the 1970s and 1980s, and his foes often derided him tersely for donning the mantle of a modern-day Akbar the Great and collecting a stable of the new breed of Akbar’s nau ratans or nine gems. But London ran out of luck for the desi literati in the wake of BCCI’s demise and with the steady influx of immigrants into Canada, the bulk of which made the GTA their new abode, it didn’t take too long for Toronto to inherit London’s lost title of Urdu’s number one overseas nai basti.

In the years I’ve been here, I’ve seen the GTA lapping up with fervour the new crop of Urdu literati harvested in its welcoming environs. It is amazing to see how avidly newcomers to the fold of Urdu literature are trying to break into what used to be by tradition a club of limited and highly select entry. Now there’s hardly a gathering of committed aficionados of Urdu prose or poetry at which some new writer or poet doesn’t announce their entry into the rapidly expanding ‘club.’

That it should be a welcome initiative is indisputable. That the world of Urdu literature has been starved of fresh entrants is not a point in contention, either. But what certainly is in contention is how the wave of new pen-pushers is impacting the honoured and revered traditions of our literary legacy.

It could be argued that literary pursuits aren’t the exclusive turf of an elite group; anyone with talent and creative ability should have the freedom of expressing themselves. The cyber age, in any case, has turned the world of free expression topsy-turvy by inventing its own norms and casting traditional conventions to the four winds.

The drill runs thusly: the script is sent to one of several publishers in Karachi or Lahore, known for their friendly disposition to new poets. The publisher, for a price, gets some ‘authentic’ poet in Pakistan to ‘polish’ the script. The novice doesn’t mind paying the polish-money which doesn’t amount to very much in dollars, and what the heck, some cash-starved ustad is earning a living, isn’t he?

So, if the old adage of ‘the more the merrier’ were to be the lodestar for the obvious exuberance of newcomers to the once-exclusive club of writers and poets, then the GTA, and for that matter every major urban centre in North America, is witnessing a boom. An incredible upsurge in new talent of all ages and of both genders is on display. The scene is humming, pulsating. In a way, flood-gates have opened.

But that’s where the obvious question arises: is it for the good of literature or bad?

This new spectrum of literary activities in North America, of which the GTA model is a microcosm, is something to be experienced. It begins with this or that anjuman or forum or society, each claiming to be the vanguard of promoting and husbanding Urdu literature. That should be perfectly fine. After all, they are operating in a land where Urdu has had no roots so far, has no past, and has to be nurtured with dedication if it is to have a future.

Participants at a mushaira in Canada. — Nasreen Syed
Participants at a mushaira in Canada. — Nasreen Syed

But this claim of being the guardians of Urdu is, at best, a convenient foil. The hidden agenda is to use the slogan more for self-promotion than for the promotion of Urdu. Leaning on the crutches of Urdu is a shortcut, a ladder to climb to social prominence.

Shorn of all sophistry, it’s a game of one-upmanship — a turf war, for want of a better expression. Pakistanis may have said goodbye to their shores, but have brought in their bags much of the feudal imprints of their predominant cultural norms. Cutthroat turf wars are a hallmark of the Pakistani feudal. To the abiding dismay of many, the worst of the feudal traits have seeped, consciously or unconsciously, into the substrata of those grasping the banner of creative literature in Urdu’s nai bastian.

It is very painful to see seemingly educated and cultured people using literature for social climbing. That would still be tolerable if it could be confined to some decorum of decency and civility. But no, the turf war routinely succumbs to the temptation that comes with the sociopathic disease of one-upmanship. The name of the game is self-glory and it abides by no rules, at least not by those rules that had been held sacred in the old, traditional abodes where Urdu literature had been nurtured before it set sail for new shores. Now one sets their heart on acquiring recognition in the comity of peers and in this search for the holy grail of fame and glory, all is fair play.

One latest shortcut to becoming famous is to be identified with a dead legend of Urdu prose or poetry. Allama Muhammad Iqbal has been dead for decades so there’s no one around to claim that he knew the great bard intimately, but legends like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Josh Malihabadi, or Ahmed Faraz lived in our time and are hot favourites in the game pegged on close, personal, bonding between them and Mr X, Y, or Z. So the going modus operandi is for Mr X or Y to lay claim to Faiz or Faraz and then flaunt their ‘special’ relationship and bonhomie with the legend concerned.

It’s an ingenious ploy to set up one’s self-promotion shop. One can rest assured that Faiz or Faraz aren’t going to come back from the grave to refute what has been claimed, in minutiae, and call it bogus or fabricated, a figment of the claimant’s fertile imagination.

Photographs taken with the legend can come in handy. Remember, a picture tells a thousand words, and photographs can be easily engineered in this age of technology.

A local seeker of fame, notorious for his literary peccadilloes and shenanigans, did precisely that a couple of years ago and stirred a hornet’s nest in the GTA. The social media went wild, buzzing frantically over his daring. With generous help from Photoshop artistry he manoeuvred to come up with photographs to lay claim that he’d spent months in a close and intimate equation with Faiz in the legend’s Beirut sojourn when he was working with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Similar photographs were also fabricated with Yasser Arafat to portray it as a three-way equation, with the author at the centre of it, of course.

Along with his Photoshop finesse, the imposter also plagiarised, verbatim, long portions from already published but less prominent accounts of various writers and interviewers of Faiz, to lend more meat to his narrative. The storm over his derring-do hadn’t quite subsided when a known rival of his in the merciless game of one-upmanship came out with a book that methodically and precisely cut him to shreds and exposed the canard.

However, infatuation with the pursuit of quick fame knows other forms, too.

Urdu poetry, a genre more favoured than prose with new and brash entrants, is coming in for a good hammering at the hands of those in a rush to have their name recognised in the poetic lexicon. The modus operandi here is more familiar than Photoshop engineering. It goes something like this: in a rush to become a sahib-i-kitab, or one with a published diwan [collection] of poetry, it doesn’t matter to a poet (and female poets seem more to be prolific in this race) that his or her work may not be of that quality yet to be published in a collection.

That’s where the dollars earned here come in handy.

I’ve a term coined for these in-rush poets; I call them ‘dollar poets’. Their dollars make it a piece of cake to come out with a published work. The drill runs thusly: the script is sent to one of several publishers in Karachi or Lahore, known for their friendly disposition to new poets. The publisher, for a price, gets some ‘authentic’ poet in Pakistan to ‘polish’ the script. I’m told that many a jaded poet — long out of the mainstream in Pakistan — looks forward to such overseas poets as milking cows. The novice doesn’t mind paying the polish-money which doesn’t amount to very much in dollars, and what the heck, some cash-starved ustad is earning a living, isn’t he?

Dollars also do the trick in paying the publisher for a run of, say 300 copies, which is the norm in vogue. Those who’ve gone through this experience vouch that in cash terms one can become a sahib-i-diwan for the paltry sum of $2,000 — peanuts for most of those eager to land themselves into the realm of ‘published’ poets (or authors, for that matter). Of course, one can’t be faulted for carving a literary niche on one’s own, using one’s own resources. A case can be argued that publishers in Pakistan or India wouldn’t publish a novice’s work unless there’s cash up front. What other option is there for novices than to dip into their own pockets?

Mushairas, not only an iconic legacy of Urdu poetry, but one of the finest traditions of our great cultural heritage, have also fallen on bad days and in the wrong hands. They have become a commercial enterprise with the help, no doubt, of teams of poets from India and Pakistan. These poets, established in their own right, have an eye on their marketability like any other performing artist. They know their circle of admirers in North America is not going to be there forever; the younger generation of the South Asian diaspora doesn’t have much truck with Urdu to begin with and its cultural familiarity with the institution of mushaira is next to nothing.

So, both the poets who currently hog the mushaira limelight, and the institution of mushaira itself, have a shrinking shelf life. Their ‘best by’ date is fast running out so they must make hay while the sun shines.

Dismaying as it may be to those who still set store by the pristine cultural legacy of mushairas and their iconic appeal, poets have become businessmen keen to cash their market for as long as it’s available. So it is with their local ‘handlers’ who know that the grass on their turf will not be green for much longer. These handlers, or agents, of ‘renowned’ poets in the major urban centres of North America operate according to what has become their own code of ethics.

The mushaira season runs for a couple of months and covers the major cities of United States and Canada, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the East Coast to the West Coast. Poets from India and Pakistan are traded like football or basketball players, with asking money paid according to their stature and fan-appeal. Poets have their fan clubs — mostly patterned on the typically feudal trait of linguistic or clan biradri. There’s a Lahore club of poets from that city, a Karachi club, and so forth. This makes the handler’s job easy; he knows exactly where the market is for poets ‘imported’ by him. The marketplace ethics, of boom or bust, are apparently regulating the business.

This commercialisation of literature may be very depressing to those still living in the old, romantic age when these icons used to be sacred. Alas, no more. The age of romanticism has long been consigned to memory, put away like a museum piece.

Be that as it may, the grouse of the old school can’t be ignored or brushed aside. The defenders of the old schools of thought moan that the generations-old benchmarks of quality, authenticity, and reverence are going out the window, flouted brazenly, with impunity. But then cynics rush in with their own spin on the matter. “What benchmarks are you talking about?” Hasn’t the cyber-world already made a hash of all the values, norms, and what you will? It’s a new norm that’s writing its own rules. In fact, no rules at all is the new norm, so take it or lump it.

So that’s where we stand: at the cusp of a new age in everything, including the much-revered and haloed world of Urdu poetry and to a lesser extent, Urdu prose. If you agree with it you may celebrate the dawn of a new, open-to-all-and-bound-by-none era; if you don’t, you may grieve, but keep your peace. This scribe, meanwhile, is trying to adjust to the new norm at some cost, no doubt, to his finer sense of aesthetics.

The writer is a retired ambassador with nine published works of prose and poetry.