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FEW books have caused such uproar in recent years as Professor Fateh Muhammad Malik’s new book, Nadeem Shanasi. In fact, Lahore’s literary scene has been ringing with comments on the book and several pieces discussing the book and its contents have appeared in Lahore’s Urdu newspapers. The book discusses the life, personality and art of Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi (1916-2006), a poet and short story writer who had become a colossus in his lifetime.

But this time around, the more intense discussions are not about the acrimony between Qasmi Sahib’s ‘group’ and the ‘Sargodha school of thought’ — as some like to refer to what is in fact a literary circle influenced by Qasmi’s literary rival, Dr Wazir Agha — though Qasmi’s letters contained in the book are not without usual contentious remarks against Agha, Anwer Sadeed and like-minded writers.

What has perturbed some — and surprised many — is that the book, apparently an effort to understand and appreciate Qasmi’s personality and his works, seems to somehow work against Qasmi, albeit unintentionally, and somewhat tarnishes the image of the litterateur who had, and still has, a great following in some circles. The author of the book, Professor Malik, a veteran critic, scholar and educationist, had himself been ideologically close to Qasmi and was considered among his closest allies.

The book consists of three sections and a number of appendices. The first section describes Qasmi’s personality, his ideological attachments and feuds with contemporary literary figures. It also traces how Qasmi Sahib’s skirmishes with Dr Wazir Agha began and how the undercurrents of tension between Qasmi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz never really turned into a full blown tussle though Qasmi’s pen-sketch on Faiz was a pretence at praise while actually lampooning him. Malik also describes how his article appreciating Faiz had angered Qasmi despite the fact that previously Qasmi had appreciated his eloquence and boldness in literary criticism.

The second section analyses and eulogises Qasmi as a short story writer and poet. But the section that has generated the most discussions in literary circles is the third one containing Qasmi’s letters written to Malik. What is evident from Qasmi’s letters and his sketch of Faiz is that Qasmi had a buried disliking for Faiz and perhaps considered himself a poet greater than Faiz. The letters also reveal that Qasmi had a narcissistic personality and an inflated ego when it came to his contemporaries. He consciously or unconsciously tried to belittle Faiz, though without much effect.

Numbered about 80 and written between 1963 and 2005, these letters contain remarks which have raised many questions: Was Qasmi Sahib so paranoid about his friends that he did not have faith even in his closest allies, such as Ataul Haq Qasmi and Amjad Islam Amjad? Had Mansoora Ahmed became so dominant that she caused ill feelings between Qasmi and his close allies, such as Parveen Shakir? Was it Qasmi Sahib’s usual egocentric and paranoid behaviour or had something infuriated him so much that he did not seem to accept, let alone appreciate, his peers, such as N. M. Rashid and Dr Waheed Qureshi, and his juniors such as Kishwar Naheed, Iftikhar Arif, Rasheed Amjad, not to mention Wazeer Agha, Anwer Sadeed and others?

What Qasmi seems to complain most about is that people did not appreciate him enough and preferred Faiz to him. Also strangely he appreciates people, for instance, Iftikhar Arif or Siraj-i-Muneer, in one letter and then in other letters denounces them. There are big time lags between the letters. Hence, a question that comes to one’s mind is whether Malik Sahib included all the letters written to him by Qasmi Sahib or has he withheld some of them, and if yes, for what reasons?

The appendices make a very important part of the book as they include some writings of Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi. His sketch on Faiz also makes it to the appendices and Fateh Muhammad Malik’s thought-provoking article, “Faiz, Fascism aur Gandhi”, too, is a part of it. In this article, Malik defends Faiz for joining colonial British forces during the Second World War and explains why Qasmi could not see it in proper perspective. Malik thinks that Faiz’s poem, “Siyasi leader ke naam”, addresses Gandhi.

In his preface Malik Sahib says that ever since the publication of his book on Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s work in 1991, he wanted to write a book on Qasmi’s personality and character and that Nadeem Shanasi is the realisation of that desire. He tries to convince the readers that Qasmi’s progressivism and his revolutionary ideas had their roots in the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

He also mentions the fact that Qasmi’s writing of naat was criticised in Marxist and secular circles and rumour had it that the publication of naats in Funoon, a literary magazine edited by Qasmi, was initiated at the behest of Pakistan’s then military ruler, General Ziaul Haq. To dispel this impression, Qasmi penned an editorial in Funoon titled “Naat nigari aur taraqqi pasandi” (naat writing and progressivism) and explained his position.

Malik quotes a portion of Qasmi’s editorial that reads: “I remember that some of my naat poetry had appeared in Imroze under the editorship of Chiragh Hasan Hasrat and some of my very same ‘kind friends’ had raised hue and cry and said how could this man be a progressive if he writes naats. Thank God! Faiz Sahib wrote an elegy of Imam Hussain, the martyr of Karbala, and in that way my objectors were silenced to some extent... for the kind information of these rumour-mongers it is notified that Ziaul Haq had forcibly seized Pakistan in July 1977 and the publication of naats in Funoon had begun in 1975... and if the objectors do not know this, I would like to add to their knowledge that during 1975 and 1976 Pakistan was ruled by an elected prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.”

Though Nadeem Shanasi has caused some new contentious issues surrounding Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi to surface and has renewed some old ones, it is indeed a book that presents some very interesting and conflicting aspects of Qasmi’s personality and offers insights into his art and ideological commitments.

The reviewer teaches Urdu at the University of Karachi

Nadeem Shanasi (Literary Criticism) Fateh Muhammad Malik Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore. ISBN 969-35-2413-6 411pp. Rs900