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COLUMN: THE NOVEL ECONOMY

March 11, 2018

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The novel is a rare bird on the Urdu literary scene. Noting the appearance of a number of good novels in Urdu in a relatively short period, especially by younger writers, I spoke about this in a celebratory manner at a paper I was asked to present at the International Urdu Conference which the Arts Council of Pakistan, Karachi, organises each year with much fanfare. However, my elation proved to be short-lived. The bubble received a pinprick when somebody whom I scarcely know asked me some basic questions: “I do sometimes wonder, from the bubble that I live in, if there even is a market for Urdu fiction,” she said. “How passionate are these writers that they would put in so much time and effort to create something that... does it sell?”

I had to take a step back and put these novels and their writers in a larger perspective. Is the resurgence of the novel a coincidence, a lucky break or a literary phenomenon? And what does it signify? What is the world like which these novels are stepping into? I decided to put my paper in my pocket and instead talk to the writers whose novels I had found to be remarkable. Not so much literary theory, but about publication and payments, if any. What do you write after you have written ‘The End’? The story after.

The market is not easy for younger writers to break into. Novels with a literary flair attract a surprisingly small share of the reading public. A seasoned writer such as Hasan Manzar, recognised by critics as one of the most versatile and accomplished fiction writers of the day, is published on a limited scale. Ikramullah’s amazing Gurg-i-Shab, with a ban slapped on it by a dictator’s censor, is likely to make itself known here in the inevitable English translation published across the border.

Known to the literary world as an emerging poet associated with the Pakistan Academy of Letters in Islamabad, the somewhat shy Akhtar Raza Saleemi surprised everybody with a novel about time travel, Jaagey Hain Khwaab Mein, set in the region affected by the 2005 earthquake. His next book, Jindar, can best be described as a quantum leap — in the span of a short novel, the mundane daily routine of a water-mill offsets the larger questions of life and death. Both these novels were written following a creative urge. “Torture and ecstasy” is how he describes his inspiration to me, explaining that he has an office job in the day and would write daily from 10pm to 1am, but sometimes, unable to tear himself from his task, he would keep writing till it was time to go to work in the morning.

Saleemi’s first novel took seven and a half months for the first draft, but then he had to throw out more than a hundred pages. Jindar first came to him as a short story of 20 pages or so, written in five days. He felt it lacking and then came back to it, working on the first draft for two months. He rewrote the book four times and it was this last version that the eminent writer Salim ur Rahman accepted for publication in a single issue of the prestigious literary magazine Savera. Saleemi mentions to me that, “I did not make any money out of my books; the copies I received as royalties were all gifted to my friends.”

The first publisher he met asked Hayat to bear the expenses. Negotiations with another publisher lowered the costs, but the author did not make any money, not even when the novel was recently translated into Sindhi. “I know that this is very unfair to the writer, but I don’t know if there is any solution.”

“When I wrote my poems, I knew that my daily bread and butter would not come from this source,” Saleemi remarks. His books have done well, though. Jindar is all set for a reprint and Jaagey Hain Khwaab Mein is going into its third edition. It has been translated into English and, if it is taken up by an Indian publisher, Saleemi says that he can expect some payments.

As a young fiction writer, Rafaqat Hayat had to live away from his family in some small towns of Sindh; out of loneliness he took to writing a novel. He wanted to write in reaction to the difficulties of being young, meeting women and entering into relationships. He began Mir Wah Ki Raatain in 1998 and when he showed the completed manuscript to literary friends, one senior writer said that he had managed to write a novel while another told him that it contained too much obscenity and advised him to throw out all such parts. Hayat did not follow the advice, but could not do anything with the manuscript as he had gotten married and had to support his young family. It was only in 2015 that he published the novel in a literary magazine. The first publisher he met asked Hayat to bear the expenses. Negotiations with another publisher lowered the costs, but the author did not make any money, not even when the novel was recently translated into Sindhi and published from Hyderabad. “I know that this is very unfair to the writer, but I don’t know if there is any solution,” he says in a matter-of-fact way.

Poet and television journalist Syed Kashif Raza wrote Chaar Dervish Aur Aik Kachwa intermittently over four years. “I made the writing difficult for myself and I didn’t tell anybody about it as I didn’t expect to complete it,” he tells me. The story appeared in a magazine and attracted attention and it is expected to be published by Maktaba-i-Daniyal in the coming month. Raza weighed all the options before making his choice, but he does not expect Chaar Dervish Aur Aik Kachwa to bring in any money. As a writer, he is happy that the book is being talked about and that fiction readers who are not known to him write to him, expressing their interest and admiration. Driven by either an irresistible creative urge or inner demons, this is all the reward young Urdu novelists can expect, but I wonder if it is enough to keep them going.

The columnist is a writer, critic and translator and teaches at Habib University, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 11th, 2018