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By Intizar Husain 


UNTIL and unless we develop the courage to question what has come to be accepted as truth, we cannot make any progress. This candid comment came from Masood Ashar in a discussion on short stories during the Qaumi Adabi-wa-Saqafati Conference organised by the Lahore Arts Council. The three-day conference aimed at covering literature as well as fine arts, looking at how they have developed or declined in Pakistan. The conference was divided into different sessions, each devoted to a discussion on some aspect of literature or art.

The session that stood out for me was the discussion on short stories. It was in this session that Urdu writers interacted with writers of other national languages of Pakistan. In fact, the organisers deserve praise for trying to make this conference national in the truest sense of the word. It was a wonderful experience to meet writers from Balochistan and Sindh. The distinguished Baloch novelist Muneer Badini was the chair, while the main paper was presented by well-known Baloch writer, Dr Shah Mohammad Mari. Noorul Huda Shah from Sindh, another well-known writer, was the chief guest.

Dr Mari’s paper, apart from being very informative, was a fine piece of writing and was listened to with rapt attention. The paper talked about traditional Baloch fiction, which was mostly in the oral tradition. The stories provided entertainment, particularly for children, in the form of fairytales. As children grew older they were entertained with versified folktales. Baloch literature also has a rich tradition of epics.

But this tradition, Dr Mari told us, came to an end with modern times giving way to modern fiction, the short story and the novel. Novels written in Balochi are one hundred in number, Dr Mari said. And he amused his listeners by saying that 96 of these have been written by Muneer Badini, safely enclosed in bookshelves waiting for their reader, who is yet to be born. I asked him why he has not tried to have his works translated into Urdu or English in the hope of finding his reader there. In reply he expressed the hope that his works would soon be translated.

Noorul Huda Shah spoke candidly, saying that while we have ‘ahl-e-zaban’ amidst us we could not become ‘hum zaban’. In response, Asif Farrukhi said: “Why do we always talk of Pakistani writings in terms of segregation? Why can’t we, while taking into consideration writings of different Pakistani languages, conceive them in terms of unified Pakistani literature?”

Commenting on readers, he said: “Our English reading public is under the spell of English to the extent that while reading Pakistani writers’ English novels they get excited at things already depicted in Urdu novels 50 years back.”

Masood Ashar challenged the very title of this discussion: “How can you single out our short story alone as being in decline without seeing the all-out decline of things in Pakistan?” Most unfortunate, according to him, is the decline in our education system. It has gone astray, blatantly bypassing the real aim of education. Education, he said, should enable minds to raise questions, to challenge what has come to stay. If an educational system fails to do this it is bound to adversely affect all intellectual activities, including literature.

Some echoes of this thought also resonated in the session reserved for a discussion on theatre in Pakistan. Ghazi Salahuddin said that dialogue in Pakistan has come to a stop. And in a society where dialogue is not allowed, drama cannot be written and enacted.

Salman Peerzada too spoke in the same vein, saying that theatre can flourish only in an atmosphere in which we can freely talk about religion, morals, social evils and prejudices and national problems without any fear of persecution.

Coming back to the practicalities, someone raised the question that if Napa in Karachi can revive serious theatre, why can’t Alhamra Arts Council do so in Lahore?

Such were the discussions with active participation from writers, artists, media personnel and intellectuals. The Arts Council can well take credit for organising a meaningful conference in the troubled times we are living in.