Words are the medium of expression for humans ... but words also put limitations, boundaries. God is free from limitations. Therefore, there cannot be one, real name for God. All names of God are attributes, simply pointers to the greatest Reality. — Askari, Adab Mein Sifat Ka Istimaal

If Muhammad Hasan Askari were alive, he would have completed 100 years in this world. His greatest contribution to Urdu letters was the formulation of an ‘Eastern’ response to the Western style of literary criticism that gripped literature in the Indian languages in the wake of colonialism. To commemorate his birth centenary, I humbly propose to revisit some of his path-breaking essays, notably, the essays in the collection Insaan Aur Aadmi [Humans and Men], with a view to remind ourselves of the brilliance of Askari’s thought. The first essay in the collection, Hayat Ya Nairang-i-Nazar? [Form or Its Illusion] dives into a metaphysical question that engages with Reality.

Reality has multiple streams, and all the streams of reality together constitute a whole. Perhaps the only way to understand multiple realities is through the symbolisms employed in literary forms such as allegory. According to Askari, reality can be substantiated only as a whole. The simultaneity of reality is illustrated in the classical ghazal — an art form that seamlessly glides the stream of thought from the apparent to unapparent, the haqeeqi and the majaazi. Ghazal poetry has a universe wherein tropes are imbued with layers of meaning. For example, gul or rose means both the flower and the beloved. The beloved can be earthly or God. We live in a physical world, but its reality is embedded in both the spiritual and material.

Urdu’s early literary critics such as Altaf Hussain Hali and Muhammad Hussain Azad tried applying a Western critical lens to Urdu poetry. Hali was imbibing Western criteria for the sake of modernising, and what he believed was grounding literature to moral values. Hali came up with a formula — “saadgi, asliyat aur josh” [simplicity, originality and fervour] — as hallmarks of good poetry. Hali became a proponent of ‘natural’ shaairi [poetry] in marking the famous difference between “aamad” and “aawurd”. Aamad were thoughts that came “naturally” to the poet; aawurd was the embellishment or adornment that ghazal poets brought to make their verse sparkle. To be fair, Hali did not decry imagination. But because he derided “mubalighah” [exaggeration], he emphasised truth in imagination. Indeed, imagination builds on something in the world and its surroundings. But Hali also wanted imagination to be informed by moral and historical truths. Askari rightfully blamed Hali for imposing strictures on language and imagination.

Stripping Urdu of its rich array of embellishments for the sake of saadgi and asliyat was almost like denuding the language of its glittering clothes that heightened, rather than obscured, reality. Askari rightly acknowledges that language structure and vocabulary are the bricks and mortar with which one lays the foundation of perceiving reality. Language as the means of structuring ontological reality has been understood by mystics across religion. What Askari brings to the table is how altering a language’s structure by straightening its syntax can actually modify ways of perceiving reality.

A well-known fact about Askari’s stance is that he was not an admirer of the Progressive writers’ point-of-view of literature. The Progressives borrowed Western-Marxist principles of viewing literature as a means of social critique, and emphasised realism as a device to bring awareness, even change, in anachronistic social institutions and in ways of thinking about the individual’s role in society. Askari did not reject or deny the relationship between art and life. He relied on a Sufic perception of the relationship between art and life. A reverent follower of the great Sufi philosopher Ibn al Arabi, he deployed the Akbarian system of holistic reality to understand literature. There is a continuum between life and literature.

In a thought-provoking essay ‘Fun Bara-i-Fun’ [Art for Art’s Sake], Askari ponders on how khaalis jamaaliyaat [pure aesthetics] can be enough to keep a writer afloat in the world of relationships. Can adab [literature] and zindagi [existence] be separated? Is it possible to make life just art or art become life itself, asks Askari. The web of relationships that constitute life are too entangled to be avoided or bypassed. In poetry, we find the expression of intense pain and suffering. We also find ecstasy in pain; joy and beauty. Askari interprets the experience of pain and ecstasy encapsulated in the creative impulse to mean something more than just fulfilment of aesthetic pleasure (jamaaliyaati taskeen). He points towards spiritual struggle (ruhaani kaavish) in the creative impulse to understand existence. Art for art’s sake is not a refuge from the world; instead, it is an attempt or even a desire to search for the basic truths of human existence.

Askari’s career spans several decades and straddles the cataclysmic divide of India’s Partition. He began as a fiction writer when merely an undergraduate. He produced stories that focused on people who did not fit in mainstream society because they were ‘othered’. Stories such as ‘Haramjadi’and ‘Phislan’ [Slipperiness] are outstanding in more ways than one. As a translator, columnist and critic, Askari’s work was path-breaking. He contributed a column ‘Jhalkiyan’ to the journal Saqi for 13 years. The afterword to his first collection of short stories, Jazeeray [Islands] is a critical essay on fiction.

It seems that the arc of Askari’s work moved or skewed to the right in his later years. Most readers of Askari have overlooked the undertow of ruhaaniyat or spiritualism that informs the great critic’s earlier writing as well. The thread from the essays in Insaan Aur Aadmi published in the 1950s runs all the way to the remarkable essays in Waqt Ki Ragini [The Tune of the Times], published more than a decade later, in which Askari offers us a clearer view of the deep connection between adab and ruhaaniyat. Askari taught us that what distinguishes Western from Eastern literary production is the style of expression, or tarz-i-ehsaas. The style of expression is determined or influenced by the cultural worldview of reality. When the worldview changes, expression undergoes changes too.

The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 8th, 2019