Shamim Ahmad — author
Shamim Ahmad — author

Q. What are you currently reading?

A: I recently picked up Crimson Papers by Harris Khalique. He is a poet in English, Urdu and Punjabi. I think he has a great sense of literature and poetry. This book is very interesting, it consists of four essays, I would say, called Blood, Sweat, Tears and Ink. When he talks of Blood, he’s talking about independence and the partition, and what people went through. And while talking about the second generation, he’s talking about Sweat. Tears is about his present generation, and he talks about himself and so many people he knew. And finally, Ink is about creativity. The book is in fact a cultural and intellectual survey of what happened from the time of independence up to today. It also talks about the tension between India and Pakistan.

Q. Do you prefer any particular kind of prose - such as essays or fiction?

A: I have been a reader all my life, and my criterion is not a particular genre. I used to read a lot of fiction. Talking about English fiction, I read Mohammad Hanif’s Case of Exploding Mangoes and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti - great novel, and also Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie. In Urdu I read [Shamsur Rahman] Faruqi, he has written a novel by the name of Kai Chaand The Sar-i-Aasman; it’s 800 plus pages. [In his collection Sawar, Mr Faruqi] has researched real characters, like Ghalib, Mir, Mashafi and Daagh, and then he has fictionalised them, and it is so beautiful, really, remarkable. I like to read Intizar Hussain, I have read him to some extent.

All of Freud’s books, especially The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Adler and then Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Oriana Fallaci. [Oriana Fallaci] wrote a book called Interview with History. She interviewed so many people, including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and I extensively used her interview in my book, which I finished just now.

Q. Are there any classic works you were not able to get through?

A: Frankly Ulysses I could not get through. I tried my best. You know, the New York Times termed Ulysses the best novel of the 20th century. As a person interested in literature, I wanted to read it but I could not get through it.

Q. Are there any works or writers you find yourself returning to?

A: So many of them. I call three or four writers my gurus. For example, Bertrand Russell and Freud I consider my gurus. In literature, talking about light reading, Shafiqur Rahman, Somerset Maugham. In poetry, my passion are Ghalib and Faiz. I remember so much of Faiz by heart - so is the case with Ghalib. In English - I grew up on Keats. I come from an Urdu medium background, and I learned my English through Ode to a Nightingale.

Somehow, it appealed to my fancy so much that I would read and read every single word and every single explanation. So much so that I read it back in the 60s and I remember all nine stanzas to this day.

Q. Are there any characters that have stayed with you?

A: The first that comes to my mind is Larry from the novel A Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. He is a man who is highly intelligent, very accomplished, he could do so many things, but he decides not to. And I remember one sentence that somebody said about him - that he is the richest person he knew, who did not believe in God.

Q. Are there any works or writers you feel are underrated?

A: In their lifetimes most geniuses were underrated. My book contains an article by the name of Mediocrity Edge over Genius, and I have selected three pairs. Ben Johnson was considered to be greater than Shakespeare, in his days. Salieri, a composer of very ordinary merit, was considered to be greater than Mozart. Zauq was considered to be greater than Ghalib. Saadat Hasan Manto, for example. I have read many short stories, and Saadat Hasan Manto is head-and-shoulders above [them]. We know him from a few of his stories which contained pornography. It’s so unfortunate that we don’t talk about his stories like Hatak, Babu Gopinath, Naya Qanoon, Toba Tek Singh. Aside from that, Manto’s sketches titled Ganjay Farishtay, I cannot tell you how great they are. Each one is a masterpiece. Ismat Chughtai’s problem is she wrote a story called Lihaaf. In my opinion, it’s an ordinary story, it should not be talked about at all. But the only thing we know about Ismat is Lihaaf. We do not talk about Zaher Ka Pyala - I cannot tell you what a big story that is.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2017

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