June 09, 2019


I begin with a qualification that Pakistan’s intellectual scene — academic, artistic, literary and social — is not as bright and vivacious as one would wish it to be. After all, it is a country of 220 million people which boasts a rich cultural tradition. Some of us do not refrain from calling it an intellectual wasteland when we feel irritated by the shortage of excellence in almost every discipline: the substandard education imparted to students in most public and private institutions, the insufficient quantity and quality in various fields of art and culture, and the absence of academic rigour among many of our otherwise established scholars. Allama Muhammad Iqbal had once said: “Hai wohi teray zamaanay ka imam-i-bar haq/ Jo tujhay haazir-o-maujood se bezaar karey” [That person alone is your truthful leader/ Who disillusions you with your current circumstance]. Hence, no harm in being unsatisfied with what we are producing and no dispute with critiquing the overall situation that we find ourselves trapped in.

However, what we need to appreciate is that there is a difference between worry and lament. Besides, what one finds now is that every single thing that citizens imaginatively, socially or politically pursue in present times is being discredited and dismissed in one way or the other by the powers that be and the armchair critics belonging to the elite and affluent middle class. There is a systematic propagation of disdain, it seems, for everything that people at large freely and creatively wish to pursue. We are told that there is no hope as nothing worthwhile is being written, painted, performed or produced. There is a bleak apathy, so what else can people do but lament?

If one invites readers to look at the landscape of poetry and literature without being lazy, and after shedding any preconceived notions, they will find a galaxy of poets in Urdu, from Iftikhar Arif to Sarmad Sehbai among the senior lot, penning both ghazals and nazms of the highest calibre. They will spot the likes of Abbas Tabish and Mir Ahmed Navaid in those coming after them and a large number of talented poets, from Sarwat Zehra to Ahmed Atta, across the length and breadth of the country. I cannot provide a list here because it will be too long. Many have been mentioned in this column in the past, anyway. Also, we mustn’t forget that the stalwarts of feminist poetry and prose, from Kishwar Naheed to Zahida Hina, are alive and writing. They are joined by Nasim Syed, Noorul Huda Shah, Haseena Gul, Yasmeen Hameed and Shahida Hasan, who write in Urdu, Sindhi, Pashto, Punjabi and other languages that we speak.

Particularly in the case of resistance poetry, from Gilgit-Baltistan to Balochistan, a fresh breed of scathingly powerful poets has emerged. There are critics and essayists in our languages who raise new questions and earn academic respect. There is a whole new generation of fiction writers making their presence felt. We are still struggling to find an equal space for Pakistani Anglophone writing with other non-native English-speaking nations, but new and slightly older literary writers continue to make their mark on the global scene.

Most teleplays and short films we produce today are certainly not up to the mark. But some made by younger directors are comparable to the finest productions ever in the history of this country. Our new comedians offer a broad range of stand-up, slapstick, dry and dark comedy. Their media may have changed because of the use of technology and developed means for wider outreach, but the message is as potent as ever. Likewise, our musicians come up with memorable records within short intervals of time, whether in Punjabi or Urdu. One may feel a lull for some time before a new composition hits the air.

Every single thing that citizens imaginatively, socially or politically pursue in present times is being discredited and dismissed in one way or the other.

My stint teaching poetry at one of the universities in Lahore and interaction with bright, dynamic students provided me with an opportunity to rekindle my hope in a future different from the imminent disaster most of us have long believed to be coming our way. Additionally, the environment helped introduce me to the works of some young academics across the country. These people are reflecting, writing, editing and teaching with such devotion that it presents an opportunity for the revival of intellectual life on at least a few important campuses in Pakistan. Even the quality of journalistic articles some of these newer academics write as op-eds is superior to the old folk regurgitating their take on current affairs, economy, history and social issues.

Therefore, the truth of the matter is that the situation is not as stark as portrayed. All is not right, but all is not quiet on the academic and cultural front. Something that may continue to cause concern is whether we will be able to create a critical mass of creative writers, artists and academics who can subvert the machinations of a quasi-democratic and quasi-colonial state in favour of a just, inclusive, innovative and healthy society. But to discount the very possibility of that happening amounts to being cynical, not critical. Undermining the effort of young writers, artists and academics and undervaluing their work also means that people will become distant from pursuing these areas of human creativity and stop listening to what is being chronicled and said. When teaching independent history is methodically kept away from students in school, reading contemporary literature is the only means to stay connected with our civilisation, culture and humanity at large.

Here, I am reminded of Jean Cocteau, the great French poet, author, playwright and filmmaker. In one of his essays, ‘On Invisibility’, in the collection Diary of an Unknown, he says: “It used to be that artists were surrounded by a conspiracy of silence. Nowadays, they are surrounded by a conspiracy of noise. There is nothing that is not dissected and devalued. A dizzy self-destructiveness has swept through France.” Replace France with Pakistan.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book is a collection of verse, No Fortunes to Tell

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 9th, 2019