Asif`s large embrace

June 24, 2020

Email

Critic Muhammad Hasan Askari and fiction writer Intizar Husain defined the major literary influences on Asif Aslam Farrukhi during his initial years. Askari`s rejection of the Progressive writers in Urdu, followed by a certain conceptualisation after the Partition of British India of what should qualify as`Pakistani literature`. remains contested because of its insistence on developing a so-called patriotic-slash-religious narrative of society and state through art.

However. Askari`s scholarship and critical insight into understanding creative expression inspires many. Husain was a quintessential fiction writer who also wrote pieces that fall between fiction and non-fiction. His work was laced with nostalgia with a hint of symbolism (in terms of literary theory and technique). For a good part of his writing career. Husain was not only averse to literature created under the banner of socialist realism, but also questioned the rationale of artists subscribing to any social or political ideology in their writing, even if they were not social-realists per se. Only aesthetic value and textual finesse in a piece of writing art for art`s sake, as it were remained his concerns.

Askari and Husain were in unison when it came to the principles of judging and canonising literature, but different when subscribing to an ideology. While Husain did not particularly support any ideology. Askari rejected other ideologies but attempted to create a cultural ideology for a nation state.

Also, with time, we witnessed a sea change in Husain`s understanding and treatment of literature, particularly when he aligned himself more with the anti-nuclear and peace movements in South Asia and started offering favourable commentary on pieces of resistance literature and poetry highlighting the plight of the common folk.

Husain wielded a greater influence on Farrukhi than Askari. According to Eruj Mubarak, a close associate of Husain and an important poet and author in his own right, Husain had drawn a circle around him based on his reading, proclivities, memories and the experience of migration. He could later widen this circle because he was a major writer and both aware and sensitive to the changes taking place in the world around him. But the circle, although much broadened in his later years, did continue to exist around Husain.

Farrukhi, who initially subscribed to the same understanding of literature and art as Askari and Hussain, was able to transcend the circle that he had, like them, perhaps also built around him when he began his career.

He, in fact, broke that circle and made his embrace so large that only few could ever imagine. Without compromising the principle that separates creative writing from journalism, or poetry from sloganeering.

Farrukhi`s concerns continued to become increasingly humane and political. He never agreed to sacrificing the individual on the whims of the collective, but the pain that an individual absorbs and experiences, when the collective is inflicted with oppression and suffering, could not escape Farrukhi`s attention.

Farrukhi moved ahead of his early gurus both Askari and Husain not in terms of his merit as a critic and fiction writer, but in terms of appreciating Pakistan better and its diverse inhabitants more insightfully. He understood the frailties and strengths, pleasures and pains, nightmares and dreams, and aspirations and fears of people who lived around him. In my humble view, there are two reasons that made Farrukhi develop this large embrace.

The first reason is that he was one of the most updated and well-read men of international literature you could ever meet in Pakistan. He was an avid reader of fiction, non-fiction, criticism and poetry produced in any country, for that matter, if translated and made available to him in English. He was abreast with both classical and contemporary works in various literary traditions.

This informed him continuously of the global human condition, the various tragedies humanity has borne, and the ongoing struggles and movements that take place around the world between the forces of oppression and those of liberation, be they political, social or inteIIectual.

He understood the dynamic of how things happening at a larger scale could influence the life and feelings of an ordinary individual.

The second reason for his large embrace was Farrukhi`s genuine interest, that evolved into a deep understanding of literature written in Pakistan, in languages other than Urdu. It is ironic that most of our serious writers are familiar with Western and Latin American literature, but remain oblivious to the literary landscape of Pakistani languages other than Urdu. Some, if they do not speak Urdu as their first language, would only be familiar with what is written in their mother tongue. Farrukhi took to translating some important Sindhi writers and poets. He also educated himself about literature being produced in other languages. This brush with literary writing in Pakistani languages other than Urdu brought Farrukhi closer to resistance poetry and fiction.

While Farrukhi`s native Urdu has the opposing streams of conformity and resistance running in parallel, the bulk of the literature produced by leading writers in Sindhi, Balochi, Pashto, Punjabi, Seraiki, Shina or Burushaski falls in the category of resistance literature. As a consequence, Farrukhi developed a better appreciation of resistance literature and progressive writing in Urdu as weII.

Therefore, in the literary journal Dunyazaad, of which he was the founder-editor, contributors from all backgrounds and languages found space. His own writing, subjects and themes, habitat and idiom, became deeply rooted.

The body of work Farrukhi has left as a fiction writer, critic, translator and editor, both in English and Urdu, is incomparable to any of his contemporaries, and even most of those who preceded him. On May 30, 2020. two days before his passing, he told me that he was translating one of Kishwar Naheed`s poems into English to mark the poet`s 80th birthday. Unlike Askari. I don`t agree with any contours of what Pakistani writing should look like. But knowing Farrukhi, I know what a genuine, broadminded, inclusive and plural Pakistani writer should look like.

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