A certain amount of decadence and rakishness is required to produce a worthwhile work of art or piece of literature. But it is widely held that decadence in a society or civilisation invariably leads to its downfall. The closest example that comes to mind is the fall of the Mughal empire in India and its satellite kingdoms — or the princely states of Muslim rulers such as Awadh. We are told that the reason for their extinction was the decadence that had entrenched itself into the courts and among the nobles associated with those courts. Since victors write the history of the vanquished, the British taught us that Wajid Ali Shah and rulers such as him were self-indulgent, debauched and degenerate, who brought upon themselves the disgrace and defeat they suffered. There is little mention of the resistance they put up or the general sense of loyalty for them that prevailed among their subjects who belonged to different faiths.
Hazrat Mahal, Wajid Ali Shah’s wife and a key figure in the 1857 War of Independence, has passed into oblivion. She rests in a simple grave in Kathmandu, Nepal, where an occasional visitor from India or Pakistan would go and offer fateha once in many years. Few would remember that the old king, Bahadur Shah Zafar, recently maligned on the floor of parliament by Pakistan’s prime minister for being a coward, had the severed heads of his sons presented to him on a platter after the British culled their rebellion.
Likewise, Munshi Premchand’s story ‘Shatranj Ke Khilarri’ [The Chess Players] — adapted into the only Urdu/Hindi film directed by the legendary Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray — puts the blame for the fall of Awadh squarely on the decadent culture of Lucknow. Muhammad Din Taseer wrote a poem ‘Aglay Waqton Ke Shaayeraan-i-Kiraam’ [Poets of Yesteryears] in which he uses sarcasm to ridicule the Urdu poets of the 18th and 19th centuries and declares them decadent. There is a body of knowledge available now that challenges these notions and encourages us not to think in binaries. Nevertheless, we find similar reasons cited for the collapse of other Muslim dynasties and empires — particularly at the hands of Western powers — in our common history books written by religiously motivated scholars.
The French, perhaps, are the only ones who defied this belief like no other nation over the last 200 years, that what we call decadence can, in fact, advance thoughts, creativity, aspirations and lives of a people. They were successful in keeping the two going together — social decadence on the one hand and political astuteness on the other. We may say that what others consider their celebration of decadence is, in fact, a quest for individual liberation which morphs into their struggle for collective political freedoms. Besides, they ruled a quarter of the world on the basis of their military prowess. In its desire for being closer to nature and seeking simplicity in understanding emotions, there is a complexity that French thought processes and creative writing introduce. Contradictions are many, but so is the range. This range is phenomenal, from Charles Baudelaire to Jean-Paul Sartre, from Colette to Simone de Beauvoir, and from Andre Breton to Jean Genet.
There are scores of French poets and writers who, once they capture your imagination, stay with you forever. I was initiated into the French world of letters when, as a child, I saw my mother translating Guy de Maupassant. It has been a never-ending personal journey since, a fascinating journey where I have always found French literature — its different experiments with genre and treatment, themes and forms — entertaining and enriching.
In autobiographical writing, a book that I was looking for since long was finally gifted to me recently by my journalist friend Hasan Mujtaba who lives in New York. It is Memoirs of an Egotist by Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), a fiction writer born soon after the French revolution and who died in 1842. This riveting, no-holds-barred, private and witty work is a classic in autobiographical writing. Stendhal does an exploration of human nature, its frivolities and gracefulness, through pen-portraits of Parisian celebrities as well as others he meets in Italy and Britain. It is not simply an account of his life, but provides insight into how French and European societies functioned during that age.
In the middle of the 20th century, a number of Urdu poets and writers began to embrace the influences of different French literary movements but, overall, we continued to remain obsessed with English writing. That reminds me of Laeeq Babri and his likes who are an exception for having known the French language directly. Babri is well known for translating Faiz Ahmed Faiz into French. Translations of French literature into Urdu were made available to us mostly through English. Our literary magazines published these translations occasionally, besides some works appearing in book form. From the prose of Albert Camus and Sartre to the poetry of Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme, serious Urdu readers were introduced to a number of French existentialists, symbolists and surrealists. That is when we saw experiments in Urdu writing take us beyond our appreciation and understanding of English literature, which had come to us with the arrival of the British.
One important book in this regard, that was published in Urdu in 2000, is a collection in two volumes of literary essays titled Jadeed Adab Ki Sarhadein [The Frontiers of Modern Literature] by the late Qamar Jameel. Jameel, a well-rounded man in arts and literature with a background in both classical and modern writing, is considered one of the founders of prose poetry in Urdu.
In addition to writers of other languages, Jameel discusses many French writers and their work in an accessible way.
In Pakistan we focus mostly on English and Anglophone writing. Reading literature produced in other languages and cultures can expand our literary universe, even if we read that through English or Urdu.
The columnist is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book, No Fortunes to Tell, is a collection of verse
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 17th, 2019