POETRY: SETTING THE STANDARD

December 15, 2019

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The history of editing Urdu literary texts seems to have been entangled in the idea of ‘classic’. The reasons for this entanglement are interesting and revealing. The texts declared ‘classic’ are bestowed with a house of privileges. They begin to be venerated as the all-time great — sometimes the greatest ones. They are thought to be the embodiment of the best moral and aesthetic values of a golden past and deified for possessing a never-fading enchantment for generations to come. Moreover, they are regarded as a well-meant, flawless concatenation of theme, style and technique and their canonical status is believed to be an uncontroversial matter. So, a tradition of rigorous and highly committed scholarship is established to dig out every bit of first-hand — or indirect — information that may shed light on any aspect — ordinary or exceptional, no matter — of the classic work, its era of production and its writer. No stone is left unturned to trace out their manuscripts or, at least, first editions, into bringing out their authentic, critical editions.

This was the idea of classic that seemed to motivate an array of Urdu scholars who spent their whole lives — and, of course, material and intellectual resources — in bringing out critical editions of classical writers ranging from Wali Mohammad Wali, Mir Taqi Mir, Mirza Mohammad Rafi Sauda, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Sheikh Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq, Mir Hasan and Nazir Akbarabadi to Mir Babar Ali Anis, Mir Aaman, Saroor Barabankvi, Muhammad Hussain Azad and Altaf Hussain Hali et al.

Among the coterie of scholars of classical Urdu literature, Hafiz Mahmood Sherani, Qazi Abdul Wadood, Rasheed Hasan Khan, Khaliq Anjum, Mohammad Ansarullah, Waheed Qureshi and Jameel Jalibi are just a few, yet big names. But when it comes to modern Urdu literature, we hardly find any tradition of tadveen [editing]. A common assertion — rooted in European Enlightenment — that modern literature is transient, ethereal, associated with the shadow of man and tainted with careless use of language as compared to its classic compatriot, seems to be the raison d’être of the almost non-existence of serious scholars dedicated to editing modern texts.

Syed Nomanul Haq meticulously turns a compiled version of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s collected works into a critical one and thus marks a moment of historic significance in contemporary Urdu literature

Of N.M. Rashid, Meeraji, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Majeed Amjad, Saadat Hassan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Qurratulain Hyder, Abdullah Hussain, Intizar Husain — giants of modern Urdu literature — only Manto’s, Bedi’s and, recently, Faiz’s texts have been scholarly edited. We must draw a line between tarteeb [compiling] and tadveen. Mohammad Ansarullah, the distinguished Aligarh-based Urdu scholar, lists six steps of editing a literary text: provision of text, arranging a text, correcting a text, exploring a text, interpreting a text and adding footnotes and commentary to a text. Most of the kulliyaat [collected works] of modern Urdu writers available in the market fall under the category of tarteeb as they execute only the first two conditions set by Ansarullah.

Faiz’s kulliyaat, entitled Nuskha Hae Wafa [Testament to Faithfulness] was compiled (not edited) around 2006, but this is the first time that its critical edition is in our hands. Steeped on the one hand in the classical Persian-Arabic tradition and, on other hand, pervaded with modern Western literary scholarship, Syed Nomanul Haq deserves all praise for bringing out an authentic, closest to authorial intention, edition of Faiz’s kulliyaat. A glimpse of the book reveals how diligently and meticulously Haq turns a compiled version of the kulliyaat into a critical one. He set out to edit the kulliyaat by collecting first editions of all the individual seven collections of Faiz’s poetry along with Saray Sukhan Hamaray [All Words Are Ours], published in 1982 from London and Nuskha Hae Wafa which contained Faiz’s eighth collection Ghubaar-i-Ayyam [Dust of Days] which, for first time, appeared in the kulliyaat. (It remains undisclosed whether or not Haq accessed Faiz’s notebooks and literary magazines containing Faiz’s poetry.)

Haq apprises us that Nuskha Hae Wafa was used as the basic or copy text and refers to it throughout. Each and everything that Nuskha Hae Wafa contains is compared to those of the first — or available — editions of Faiz’s seven books of poetry. Every difference, whether that occurred in text or in orthography, has been noted and mentioned in the footnotes by using improvised signs. Haq considers it pertinent to mention that he refrained from intervening in the copy text of Faiz in a bid to stay faithful to authorial intention. However, he has deemed it appropriate to ‘correct’ orthographical errors and where it is done has been mentioned in the footnotes.

Haq lambasts all those critics who either confine their study to the political or social role Faiz played, or gaze at Faiz’s poetry through the prism of Faiz’s person.

Based on and inspired by Berlin numbering — the standard form of citation to Aristotle’s complete works — Haq has added numbering to the kulliyaat which will not only facilitate researchers and critics, but standardise citation from Faiz’s poetry. A list of numbers of nazms and ghazals has been given at the end of the book. Moreover, dates and places of composing any nazm or ghazal by Faiz has also been provided, though Faiz used to care least about them.

There is a sort of crisis in textual criticism prevalent in contemporary Urdu literary scholarship. This crisis is marked by a huge gap that is supposed to exist between interpretation and research. Criticism and research or interpretation and editing are thought to be poles apart which, in reality, is nothing less than a myth. Haq’s wide-ranging introduction to Faiz’s kulliyaat not only busts the myth of segregation of interpretation and editing, but offers a ‘deconstructive’ study of Faiz’s poetry. He seems to believe that, in the absence of interpretive insights, an editor is most likely to make erroneous judgements.

Haq laments how overemphasis on Faiz’s personality eclipsed some serious, substantive critical study of his poetry. He states that it is true that Faiz played a vital and central role in the formative years of Pakistan — Faiz edited the Progressive newspapers Pakistan Times and Imroze; he was the right hand of Sajjad Zaheer, founder of the Communist Party of Pakistan and the All Pakistan Progressive Writers’ Association; he was a member of local and global unions of civil liberties, peace and journalism and he was imprisoned for the infamous Rawalpindi conspiracy case. Then, in the early 1970s, Faiz conceived the idea and laid the foundations of cultural bodies in Pakistan. All this was enough to build a grand image of Faiz’s personality.

Haq lambasts all those critics who either confine their study to the political or social role Faiz played, or gaze at Faiz’s poetry through the prism of Faiz’s person. He emphatically avows that Faiz was quintessentially a poet. According to Haq, in Faiz’s poetry, imagination is more trustworthy than incident. He doesn’t deny the ideological struggle Faiz went through, but he strongly differs from those who go on to pose Faiz’s poetry as something chronicling his personal or political events. In short, Faiz’s poetics precede both his person and politics. So, Faiz’s aesthetic values, mostly derived from the classical tradition of Urdu poetry, are to be valued more than anything else. It is obvious that what we call aesthetic value expresses itself through words and their rhythmic arrangement. But the question is: can we imagine any word without its literal and connotative tendons? Keep in mind, that these connotative tendons do not necessarily refer to the poet’s life. So, great poetry is an ideal amalgam of instinctive, phonic beauty and cerebral insight.

The last word: the launch of this critical edition of Faiz’s kulliyaat not just marks an episode of historic significance, but also sets the standard of editing a (modern) literary text.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab Ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid, Nazm Kaisay Parrhain (criticism) and Raakh Se Likhi Gayi Kitaab (short stories)

Nuskha Hae Wafa: Kulliyaat-i-Faiz
By Syed Nomanul Haq
Maktab-i-Karvaan, Lahore
678pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 15th, 2019