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Asif Farrukhi -- Photo by Anis Hamdani/ White Star

By Humair Ishtiaq

Once again, the old question of whether a masterpiece should be local or global in its context revealed the split among the literati. Moderated by writer and critic Asif Farrukhi (though the programme contained Harris Khalique’s name in the slot) the discussion “Urdu Literature in a Global Perspective” had its ups and downs. Poet Fahmida Riaz added a Progressive subtext to the discussion, stressing that she had never read Urdu classics and that as far as she is concerned, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and “other Progressives” who thought in global terms were enough to take on the challenge and compete on merit with global literature.

Farrukhi invited writer Intizar Husain to give his opinion on the matter. Husain, who has drawn deep and long from the classics, delivered a worthy argument that earned

repeated applause from the audience. Did Rumi think of the global perspective when he was producing his magic, he asked. Were Hafiz and Saadi conscious of what the world might think about them when they were casting their spell? Global literature, continued Husain, is not produced by thinking globally. Literature is only global when a creative experience in a local context is produced with aplomb and craft.

Talking about Urdu classics — especially the dastans — Husain was in his element. “We discard the dastans but when the West produces something even half as good, we do not just appreciate it, but call it ‘magic realism’.”

The argument was apt and fitting. Husain delivered his final punch thus: “If I have done justice to my own context, the output will itself become part of the global context.”

Author and scholar Shamim Hanafi spoke of Lucknow’s Nayyer Masood and the translation of his work into other languages. Riaz mentioned that Lucknow had given birth to “great Progressives like Sajjad Zaheer”. Other speakers, Durmish Bilgar, Farhat Parveen, Aamer Hussein and Sarwar Ghazali pitched in with their accounts of how Urdu literature is faring in Turkey, US, England and Germany respectively.

Nomanul Haq talked about the ‘proximate’ and ‘ultimate’ sources of inspiration for novels, short stories, rhyme and free verse, saying that while the proximate source might be western, the ultimate source might be eastern. He wondered how the only Urdu-specific genre, the ghazal, had survived this long. There was a hint of awe — not derision — in his voice when he said that.

Hanafi kept his distance from the arguments floating around and his remarks were indicative of the sign of times we are living in. Narrating his experience at a global literary forum in Germany, Hanafi said that Rabindranath Tagore was discussed and appreciated much more than Allama Iqbal. It was not because of literary finesse, he said, but because of the message of universalism, humanism and enlightenment in Tagore’s poetry which, for the West, are more appealing than the message in Iqbal’s poetry.

The final word, however, must go to Farhad Zaidi, who was literally dragged on to the stage at the final moment — something that happened time and time again with different individuals during the four days. “Forget global perspective. Is there a national perspective to Urdu literature?” He pointed out that the age group of the audience was itself an indication of the future of the language: “it will be hard to produce great literature in a dying language,” he said.