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Writers in conversation

Published Dec 29, 2012 08:15pm

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As 2012 comes to an end, Books&Authors takes a look at what the year meant for literature in Pakistan. The good books and the not so good ones, fiction’s ability to help us make sense of our world, the evolving nature of censorship, the challenges of accessibility and what’s in store for readers in 2013 are just some of the questions that were raised when writer Mohammed Hanif, Sindhi-language poet Amar Sindhu, writer and critic Asif Farrukhi, writer, translator and publisher Musharraf Farooqi and writer, translator and critic Bilal Tanweer sat down to take a look at contemporary literature in Pakistan.

While Sindhu and Farrukhi expressed disappointment at the dearth of good prose writers in Sindhi and Urdu, respectively, Tanweer said that he has hopes from upcoming English writers. Meanwhile, Farooqi questioned the belief that Pakistanis don’t read and said that quality books need to be made available more easily.

The following pages contain excerpts from the discussion:

Mohammed Hanif: Bilal, what did you read this year?

Bilal Tanweer: What I read and I really loved is, in my view, perhaps the best novel from South Asia since Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes. It is Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman. I feel that the novel engages with Sri Lankan history and the

period of war in a manner that is quite light and humourous, and makes for a very funny book. At the same time, it deals with a subject that is very serious, and is done in a way and a voice that is quite exciting. I also feel that it has the messiness of a big novel, something that I really enjoyed. It has its digressions, it moves on with its philosophical ramblings and other little bits which are all very funny. I think that this is one of the things that really makes a novel work — that it is consistently funny as well as engaging. Other than that, I have just been reading older things.

Hanif: Name a few of these older things.

Tanweer: I read this very mediocre novel that a lot of people recommended to me. It was Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North. I feel it was just terrible. It was so bad I couldn’t bring myself to read it. But I did get to the end. And I also read a couple of other really bad novels. I can’t even recall their names.

But a good novel that I read was A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul. In the context of this controversy that sprang up in India, it is worth remembering that he is an extraordinary novelist. He might be an awful human being, awful politics, but he is an extraordinary novelist, nonetheless.

Hanif: Did you read anything in Urdu?

Tanweer: I read a few things, such as Ali Akbar Natiq’s stories, which I thought were very good, for example “Qa’im Din”. I read Khalid Javed’s novel, Mout ki Kitab, which I thought was not good. Again, one of the books that I had hopes for, as you were saying, because I had really enjoyed his short stories before, some of which were extraordinary. One of these was “Neend key Khilaf aik Bayaniya” that was published by Asif Farrukhi. It was one of the most original and convincing pieces in Urdu that I have read since Nayyer Masood. He had a vision in mind. On the other hand, Mout ki Kitab just went off on a tangent and he could not handle the book. It started off on an interesting premise but he just got lost in abstraction along the way. The story was not going anywhere as a narrative. It was quite vague.

Hanif: Amar, what have you been reading?

Amar Sindhu: This year I read a little less than usual. But I did read a few Pakistani writers. In novels, Ghulam Bagh fascinated me a lot. In my opinion, it shattered the myth that in Pakistan such literature is not written or read.

Technically, it was very difficult to read, almost 800 pages. But I read its second edition. If a second edition of an 800-page book is being published, it means that we have serious readers.

Secondly, I read Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. I have a mixed view about this book. The book is indeed very popular but I was expecting more. The class phenomenon, especially, could have been explored more.

Then some new poetry appeared in Sindhi, including Imdad Hussaini’s new book. In that too I felt that when he was younger, you could see your reflection in his poetry.

Then I read both of Nafisa Haji’s novels. She has beautifully depicted the identity crisis facing South Asian society in North America.

If we look at older literature and contemporary trends, I feel that there is a lot of polarisation in our society — urban-rural, ethnic, liberal-fundamentalist, class divisions. Our literature has become compartmentalised as well. I sense a lack of what we can call Pakistani literature, in which we can see Pakistan’s regular folk. The reason, in my opinion, is that in literature we are becoming market-oriented. But there is little popularity for that literature among our local majority; it cannot see itself in works that are being recognised internationally.

Even as far as our regional literature is concerned, till the 1980s, you couldn’t differentiate where and whose literature it is. For example, Ahmed Faraz and Faiz Amed Faiz. I feel that you wouldn’t find as many hafiz-i-Faiz among the Urdu-speaking populace or in any other ethnic group as you would among Sindhis. Till the 1980s you can see this trend but not in literature produced afterwards. There was a connection between different identities in Pakistan till the 1980s, for instance, between Baloch, Pashtun, Punjabi or Sindhi literature. That literature had a certain mood of political resistance, of debate, of progressiveness. Now, however, or at least that is my impression, we have gone into isolation. We have ghettoised. This is Sindhi literature, this is Punjabi literature. Our prominent and progressive writers aren’t even aware of each others’ writing, let alone have any personal interaction.

Hanif: Did you read anything significant in Sindhi fiction this year?

Sindhu: Other than poetry, unfortunately, there hasn’t been much development in Sindhi literature recently. In poetry, we have a lot of good examples, such as Hasan Dars, whose collection has just been published. But he was very popular even before the publication. Imdad Husaini’s third book has been published. The problem in Sindhi is that the popular ones aren’t published but share their works in private gatherings.

Hanif: Let’s talk a bit about books and then we will look at trends. There are quite a few books that I have read this year and found fascinating. There is this Malayalam writer Benyamin, who has written a book called Goat Days which has just been translated and published in English. I have always felt that in the subcontinent, whole generations have been affected by people migrating to the Gulf countries. But there is actually very little literature to be found on this, and not even much reportage. There was a time when you got to see television plays about it. This is one kind of migration that has completely changed our society. Recently there was a short story by Ali Akbar Natiq that Bilal mentioned [“Qa’im Din”]. But this is the most brilliant, brutal kind of novel, where a guy from a small Malayali village goes to Saudi Arabia and ends up in a goat pen and spends the next few years with just these goats.

Amar mentioned Hasan Dars’s book. Dars’s friends collected all his writings and published it as Hasan Jo Risalo, as he himself never published a book while he was alive. I think that it is a very important compilation. A lot of people who have only read him in newspapers or heard him only in mushairahs don’t know the range of what he has written. There is a whole section on hamds and na’ats. His friends, being all progressives and leftists, were left wondering whether it should be kept out or included in the compilation. But I am very glad that they went ahead and collected everything by him, which makes the compilation a very important book.

Another quite fascinating book is Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, which I believe got really mixed responses from the audience. Some people really hate it, some love it. I liked it for the fact that writers don’t have to be nice people — we don’t read them as role models. But this book reads like a brilliant thriller. Half of it is like a brilliant gossip column where you can find out about politicians, ulema, socialites, actresses, and rock stars. Rushdie has a flair for writing this gossip. Some of it is also about writing itself, about how you construct a novel and how you approach it. So you can hate the man but the book is very readable.

Another book that I am reading these days is a novel by Dr Shershah Syed. It is a very strange, interesting book. It is probably not very good technically, but it tells a story about a bunch of doctors at a Karachi hospital. It is like an ultra-realistic depiction, unabashed about its identity. It also preaches and gives lectures. It explains obscure medical procedures. Some critics might not regard this as a proper novel, but I like the kind of books that break such rules.

What about you, Musharraf?

Musharraf Farooqi: I read a number of things this year. I also discovered a number of obscure titles. I’ll begin with those. One is the Punjabi translation of the Musaddas-i-Madd-o-Jazar-i-Islam by Altaf Hussain Hali. I discovered it at an old book dealer. It’s amazing the way the whole manzoom tarjuma in Punjabi has been executed, with great ghan garaj.

I also found a Punjabi translation of Dastan-i-Amir Hamza, also manzoom. That was quite a find. Tibb Key Kuch Nuskhey, also in Punjabi, also manzoom. All this makes sense because when you are reading a book on medicine and you have to remember the recipe for a particular medicine, it’s easier to memorise if it rhymes. So you just memorise the whole thing. And when you are writing down the nuskha you remember easily how it has to be made.

“There are certain anxieties in societies that narratives seek to answer”

— Bilal Tanweer

Coming to contemporary fiction, I have read and really loved a new novel that is just coming out, by Shazaf Fatima Haider. It is called How it Happened. It is old-style storytelling, is wonderfully structured, and is fun to read.

Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears is another novel that I read. It is not that well-known. It is a thriller about a man who is starting a corporation in the late 19th-early 20th century. It is about how the concept of a corporation is evolving. It is amazingly structured.

Reading P.G. Wodehouse is something I always fall back to whenever there is trouble in the city, to shut my mind to the rest of the world.

I would like to mention two other books in particular. One is Kani Nikha by Muhammad Khalid Toor, published by Oxford University Press. I think it is an amazing novel, one of Urdu’s greatest novels of the 20th century. It was first published in the 1960s or 1970s. Toor came out with another book a few months ago, Baalon ka Guchha. I just read a few pages and thought it was very good.

I have also discovered a number of translations from Russian into Urdu and am going through them. Some of these translations play a role in my next novel, which is another reason I am reading them.

Hanif: There was a publishing house in Lahore which used to specialise in such books, People’s Publishing House.

Farooqi: It used to be in Karachi as well, on the corner of Zaibunnisa Street near Panorama Centre. They used to stock those books. They used to have many children’s titles which we don’t see anymore.

Another thing that I was involved with this year was the launch of my own publishing house. It is called Kitab. This is my second stint as a publisher; the first one was as Urdu publisher for Oxford University Press. This is, in a way, a lot of fun, because you get to publish something and then go out to sell it to readers, and you find out the great disparity that exists between the received knowledge about publishing in Pakistan, and the real facts. We in Pakistan say that books don’t sell here, that people don’t read. That’s just bullshit.

Thousands of books are sold. We fall to that notion because we don’t have publishing established here as an industry. If you don’t have an industry, you are not forced to reveal figures and statistics that show you how books are distributed, how they are sold and who is reading them. But our kids are excellent readers. Unfortunately, we don’t have many books by our own writers to give them. As a result, they are reading Roald Dahl, Wimpy Kid and a number of other titles. But they are very avid readers. We have to find them books and should stop saying that our kids are not reading.

Also, Urdu readership has migrated from the cities to the satellite towns, or small towns. This affects our understanding of the reading public. We don’t see any people reading books around us, or see them reading only English books, and we say that Urdu books don’t sell. But that’s wrong, because a lot of Urdu books are selling in satellite towns. Bookshops are still very active in small towns. They come to the main cities where the publishers are all based, buy their stocks and take it back home on a frequent basis. There does exist a reading culture, a very strong one, if not very vibrant, that should be talked about and developed further. We need to come up with a more effective distribution network. Sometimes, even the books produced by Karachi publishers are not available in Lahore. It is just a matter of putting them in a train and sending them off, but just because we do not have a distribution network, that reach is not there. Similar is the case with publishers in Punjab. They are unable to crack the market in Karachi and in rest of Sindh. In interior Sindh, there is a huge readership of Urdu language. They read most of the contemporary stuff that comes out from Karachi.

Hanif: What kind of books are you planning to publish?

Farooqi: I have a catalogue charted out for the next two years. It is mostly books for kids, as well as a few selected titles, such as the English translation of some of Afzal Ahmed Sayed’s works and a number of classical texts that are not commonly known, or ones that have never been published.

Hanif: Asif Sahab, what have you read this year?

Farrukhi: One of the problems with me is that I tend to forget or blank out on books that I don’t like or I give up on. But one particular book which was terrible, whose 150 pages I waded through, was Roberto Bolano’s novel 2666. I find his shorter books fascinating and technically superb, but this novel was enough to put me off. One large chunk which I managed to get through was Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which I think compensated for a lot of bad books. What a fascinating book! Among the novels which I enjoyed this year was Orhan Pamuk’s new book, Silent House, and Cyrus Mistry’s Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer. I am halfway through Benyamin’s Goat Days and enjoying it tremendously. Another writer I have discovered is Irene Nemirovsky, a Russian who spent most of her time in France. I also read two older Russian writers whom I had never read before. One is Bulgakov, whose The Master and Margarita is in my opinion one of the greatest novels ever. The other is Andrei Platonov whose The Foundation Pit is probably one of the best things I have read. I also finished reading Evan Bohen’s collected short stories. Somehow I had never heard of him before that. He is a fascinating writer. I also enjoyed Hasan Dars’s book very much, but I just wish some thorough editing had been done, because a number of weaker poems which do not do full credit to the extraordinary poet that he was were also included.

Another Sindhi book that I enjoyed was the first volume of Amar Jaleel’s autobiography. I regret that I don’t read Sindhi that fluently, and I really wish I was able to.

I am less than excited about many of the Urdu books which I read. Natiq was very good, but I am very disappointed that a number of columnists and journalists chose to attack that book, particularly the story which Hanif singled out for translation. They found the story going against their beliefs.

Khalid Toor’s novel Baalon ka Guchha, I agree with Musharraf, is probably one of the best things I have read in recent years, and I was quite excited by it, in a manner in which I haven’t been excited by any other Urdu novel lately. I wish there were more Urdu novels and short stories coming up. I have just finished reading Nilofer Iqbal’s collection of stories, which made me go back to her first book, Ghanti. What a superb writer she is. I wish this had been followed by more frequent forays into fiction. I don’t know what is wrong with Urdu fiction. It is definitely something we need to talk about.

“Hasan Dars’s friends collected all his writings and published it as Hasan Jo Risalo. I think that it is a very important compilation. A lot of people who have only read him in newspapers or heard him only in mushairahs don’t know the range of what he has written. There is a whole section on hamds and na’ats. His friends, being all progressives and leftists, were left wondering whether it should be kept out or included in the  compilation. But I am very glad that they went ahead and collected everything by him.”

— Mohammed Hanif

Hanif: We have talked about Urdu books and we have talked about English books and also some Sindhi books. I just want to know if any of us have read, in translation maybe, anything lately from either Pashto or Balochi or Seraiki writers. Are we to assume that there is no writing happening in these languages at all? Or is it us writers and media persons who go about saying we don’t know what is happening?

Musharraf: Coming to contemporary writing, I don’t think I have read anything like that. But I have read the first volume of Naveed Bakhsh Baloch Sahab’s Sindhi folktales. He collected them.

Hanif: But nothing recently, from the last five, seven years?

Farrukhi: I read Tahir Afridi’s Pashto novel, and I enjoyed it because I happened to find a reasonably good translation in Urdu. But I do keep a lookout for such things and I don’t usually find anything worth writing about. The things that are translated on an official basis by some of the learned bodies are absolutely mediocre. But I am sure that there must be something of value out there and somehow or the other I have not been able to access it.

Hanif: So that is quite tragic, and brings us back to what we had discussed earlier, that there is extreme polarisation in literature. Not only have we not read anything, we don’t even know if it exists or not.

Sindhu: As far as Sindhi literature is concerned, there are quite a few translations available in Urdu. The culture department has translated a lot of Sheikh Ayaz’s works, including his autobiography. His Sahiwal jail diary has also been translated. You will also find translations of Amar Jaleel as well as of Noorul Huda Shah. My own book was published along with the Urdu translation.

But unfortunately, Baloch literature is not translated as much. I was talking to friends who told me that some translations have been done but they are not available here for the general reader. But Dr Shah Muhammad Marri has included Baloch literature in his magazine. Some of it is political but mostly you will find creative writers.

I feel that translations are being published but it comes back to ghettos and compartmentalisation — they are not represented in the mainstream media. They are not getting the space. And this problem of lack of space in the mainstream media is not new. But it has intensified because now stereotypes dominate. The popular trends are hogging that space. It is the writers’ job to bridge this polarisation. And they have done that and we have many examples. Earlier in Sindhi literature, there was a strong progressive element. Now because of isolation you will feel that in places the marginalised sections are becoming reactionary in their approach. This approach is also more popular.

“Till the 1940s [there] was a common cultural reservoir in which everyone connected”

— Musharraf Farooqi

Farrukhi: Sheikh Ayaz and Amar Jaleel are very important writers. The best work that they did was in the 1950s and 1960s, and then Amar Jaleel and Noorul Huda Shah in the 1960s and 1970s. If any governmental organisation is printing their translations now, they are far delayed, and many of the good translations have already been done. So what they should be doing instead is translating contemporary writers, such as yourself. So just telling us that Sheikh Ayaz was a great poet is not enough. We have been hearing that for the last 50 years. That is nothing new.

Sindhu: There are two large, commercial publishing houses in Sindh, Sindhica and Roshni Publication. Sindhica is publishing more religious books than fiction. Its culture has completely changed. And this change is what we are experiencing in Sindh, especially in the Sindhi reader.

Moreover, this growing conservatism dominates the media and popular culture. For instance, I read that you will find bookstalls at every mazar in Sindh. They will have Sindhica publications as well as Shah Jo Risalo, Sheikh Ayaz and progressive writers. Amar Jaleel is the best selling writer in Sindh. He writes for the youth. Every publication house wants to print his books. But the trends are changing.

Hanif: Go to any bus stop in Punjab and you will find two newspapers and four books by Umera Ahmed. Even if you go to some far-flung place, you will find these. When you read them you discover their literary pedigree. Bano Qudsia’s stories were quietly following officially sanctioned mysticism first started by Qudratullah Shahab. They contained the concept of submission — the man is everything and to question, sinful. Bano Qudsia had become quite radical by the end. And the one who took that further was Umera Ahmed.

I’ll say that she is a superb writer because her stories, as far as situations are concerned, are ultra-realistic. She has an ear to the ground. In a way, she reflects that which exists in society. Now, because this process is organic, she not only reflects it but also adds to it. Her new play on television, Zindagi Gulzar Hai, has the tag line, “Shikwey se shukr tuk”. Meaning it is wrong to complain and people should be grateful.

Before that, another one of her plays was being aired, Shehr-e-Zaat. Now look at the power of drama: five, 10, maybe 20,000 people would read the novel, but millions watched this drama. And its biggest literary controversy, which in my opinion sums up Pakistan’s situation and our literature, was that the director added some lines to it, such as that haya is in the eyes. This is a traditional line which we hear in our homes, that beauty or goodness or evil is in the eyes of the beholder. Umera Ahmed took a public stand, saying that I would never write a line like this. There was a lot of hue and cry over it. The director had to announce that he was dissociating himself from the serial. That I think kind of sums up the current scenario.

Farrukhi: I am a bit concerned about a serious discussion on Umera Ahmed. But she is being translated and sold in English now. So Hanif, you have tough competition ahead.

Bano Qudsia, of course, is not in the past. She is very much around and she has won the lifetime achievement award. Everybody raves about her fiction. The fact is that in Urdu there has always been a popular side of writing starting from Rashid ul Khairi and A.R. Khatoon. So Umera Ahmed and these other young writers have a whole tradition to fall back upon. But what is new with them is the glamour of television. You had people like Razia Butt and A.R. Khatoon who were metamorphosed into the great Shamim Ara movies that the previous generation used to watch. It’s television now. Is a discussion on these taking us away from literature and writing? That’s my point.

Tanweer: I think that we are looking at fiction almost as propaganda. That it is something that has a message, and that you give it to the masses, and then they accept it. I think there is also a reciprocal relationship. Societies need certain narratives. There are certain anxieties in societies that narratives seek to answer, at every given point. You mentioned Bano Qudsia. I tried reading her magnum opus Raja Gidh. I could absolutely not read it, because it was so reactionary. It was very stereotypical. For instance, a woman wearing pants is obviously not good. And haya and all of that. And I think that sort of narrative is a product of a society that is dealing with these issues of modernity, a society that is gradually being modernised. People need to know how to make sense of this. They are coming from certain social trajectories, and they need to understand what they see around themselves — a gradually commercialising, consumerist world. They want to make sense of that. That process has been radicalised during the last 12 years. People do not know how to handle this. And I think that these narratives are largely a product of ameliorating those sorts of anxieties.You know, the amazing thing about Umera Ahmed is not just her popularity, but the whole range of people reading her. One of my friends is a history professor at the University of San Francisco, and she told me that her 82-year-old dadi sent her a whole stack of Umera Ahmed’s books, because she wanted to tell her in subtle tones that she was a working woman, wearing jeans, doing all kinds of obscure things, and that this stack of books will show her what the right thing is.

I largely think that such novels are a product of these anxieties. I don’t think of writers as progressive or otherwise. I think that big writers are the ones who encompass everybody. Like Faiz is a big writer, right? Everybody claims that. Similarly, Ghalib is a big writer. A writer’s vision has to be large enough to accommodate everybody.

I think that is not happening. It is because we take these stances, that I am a progressive writer, or so on. I think you were absolutely right in saying that where religion enters, progressive writers just recoil. And I think what we need is writers who engage with all parts of society. The novel that I admired despite all its flaws was Hanif’s Alice Bhatti. I do feel that there is a structural crack in there, but other than that, I think that it is a very brave attempt at imagining Karachi. There is a narrative that dares to imagine Karachi.

“Sindh is ultimately going to reflect conservatism”

— Amar Sindhu

Hanif: You read different languages, and you teach also. One thing that we were interested in finding out is whether, when people are writing in English versus in Urdu, are their themes different? Are their concerns different? Are they writing completely different stories?

Tanweer: I think that in what you were saying about English and Urdu, there is something to be said. One cannot simply say that people read Chekov because he is a great writer. There is a reason people read contemporary fiction. It simply doesn’t have to do with it just being new. I think the reason is that contemporary fiction is engaging with the world that exists right now. I think that’s what readers want to go and look for. And you can localise it even more. A writer writing about Pakistan helps you imagine Pakistan, helps you engage with this place. That is one of the big jobs that stories do. They help you imagine a world which helps you engage with the world. They help you place yourself in that world. And that is where, as we were saying, Umera Ahmed is so important.

Farooqi: I would also like to add something, picking up from what Amar said about the disconnect and the polarisation. I don’t believe that is true for the present time only. Look, groups by their very definition are separate. When did you have this big nice amalgam of people interacting with each other? One thing that was common in the early years of the 20th century, even till the 1940s, after which it completely disappeared, was a common cultural reservoir in which everyone connected. For example, there would be people reading the same basic texts regardless of whether they were sitting in Thatta or Delhi or Kashghar. There was a common cultural reference to all of this activity and a common literary idiom which was employed. After the 1940s, that awareness completely disappeared. I feel that most because I have a lot of difficulty translating stuff that is culture-specific. The reason is that somebody has kidnapped a big chunk of our culture from the early years of the 20th century to the end.

And we have no reference point and no knowledge of its riches and its complexities. And now we think that maybe the short story was invented by the Russians, and in Urdu the progressive writers invented the short story and our old tales were not short stories.

Farrukhi: That’s a very important point.

Farooqi: Yes. And that Mirza Hadi Ruswa wrote the first novel and the long epic narrative of the dastan does not apply to it. I think there are a lot of such fallacies, and that is why we think that we are reinventing something today. It’s been long invented. We just don’t have the right tools to access it, nor do we have the consciousness that it exists.

Secondly, about the conservative trends in our publishing — even before we were separate countries, and South Asia was one, take a look at the history of Naval Kishore Press. Take a look at their catalogues. There was a big chunk of religious publications but, even then, publishing was not specific to religion. Naval Kishore, while publishing the central and fundamental religious texts, whether Muslim, Hindu or of some other religion, also published titles that were literary, as well as a lot of contemporary works. There were other publishers who were doing that as well. That is why his readership was common. It used to read religious books as well as dastans, qisas, hikayatein, poetry, everything. And that has not changed. I go to Saddar to buy old books. I have a lot of friends there who study or teach at madressahs and read Nazeer Akbarabadi and Mir and along with that, religious books. There is a segment of our society that is disconnected with this tradition. On the other hand, there is another segment that is connected, but we disown them, that they are maulvis. But that maulvi knows more than you.

"I am less than excited about many of the Urdu books which I read"

— Asif Farrukhi

Hanif: Even in publishing, that model still exists. For example, one of the big publishers in Lahore, Ilm-o-Irfan, publishes all of Umera Ahmed’s works. They have a whole division that publishes just religious books. Last year they also published Sohail Warraich’s biography of Benazir, which I think is an important book, titled Qatil Koun? So they publish a whole range of things. Recently, they started republishing popular titles from the 1970s — Inayatullah’s Main Kisi ki Beti Nahi and Kar, Shalwar aur Maulvi. Overtly, these guys are religious publishers, but they have no problem publishing these racy, populist titles.

One important book that I forgot to mention is about the history of censorship in Pakistan. It came out last year and is titled Roshni Kum, Tapish Zyada. The book basically compiles all the essays, debates and court cases that have happened in Pakistan around censorship and around the notion of what can be published and what cannot. In the end, it has the most amazing index that I have ever seen — it lists all the publishers who used to bring out the ‘bad’ stuff, racy magazines, pornographic books and the like. It seems that every city had some of those publishers — Gujarat, Sialkot, Hyderabad, Sukkur.

Farooqi: Apparently Ibne Safi started writing to counter the ‘obscene’ literature in Urdu.

Hanif: Asif Sahab also translates a lot of books into Urdu. I have to ask him, do the writers of English and Urdu inhabit the same world? Or are they telling us completely different stories?

Farrukhi: I think that some of the most exciting writing which is emerging out of Pakistan is more in English and the space, particularly for Urdu, is shrinking. I was trying to think of the number of exciting novels which I have read in the last few years in Urdu, and that number is dwindling as you go from year to year. And the kind of social challenges that you find in Pakistani society are not as much reflected in Urdu fiction as they should be. One looks at novels with a hope that you get a sense of life as it is being lived from moment to moment, and that you should be able to find in novels. So what has happened to all the good novels that were written in Urdu, from Aangan to Aag ka Darya to Khuda ki Basti to Basti? And that space has shrunk, particularly in Urdu. Musharraf was talking about the world of the Urdu short story. Whoever invented it, I don’t think it was something that was brought on by the British regime. It was not a barkat of the Raj, but very much home grown. It just became more sophisticated and re-popularised.

The readership of the good Urdu short story has shrunk, and the number of Urdu short story writers that used to exist in every nook and corner has become less visible. What has not changed is the popularity of the Urdu ghazal, and the number of good writers that you find coming up. Not as big as Faiz, of course, or Miraji or Rashid, but still. Something has gone wrong with Urdu fiction, and that’s the question which continues to bother me. There are still good writers like Hasan Manzar and Asad Mohammad Khan, but if you look for a writer who is less than 50 years of age…

Hanif: We will be talking about two or three writers who are starting out and promising…

Farrukhi: But those two or three writers are a cry in the wilderness. What is the mainstream narrative doing?

Farooqi: An answer to your question, Hanif, is perhaps the phenomenon that was announced by Mirza Ather Baig. He said that he will write his next novel in English, key mere novels ko koi puchta nahi hai. I think once he writes his novel in English, you’ll have this bridge between Urdu and English.

Farrukhi: Abdullah Hussain’s novel is also coming out in English, he has announced.

Hanif: Is he translating it?

Farrukhi: He says he is writing it in English.

Hanif: Let’s talk about books that we are looking forward to, or which we know are coming out soon.

Sindhu: But first, I want to talk a bit about censorship. There have been two incidents in which writers in Sindh have been charged with blasphemy. One was Ayub Khosa Sahab, who even had to go to jail for an article he wrote. The newspaper had to shut down.

Earlier, such accusations were also levied against Sheikh Ayaz but many intellectuals of the time wrote in his defence, such as Maulana Ghulam Mohammad Garami, Rasool Bakhsh Palejo, and so on. They gave references from Rumi, etc, and said that if what Sheikh Ayaz has written is kufr than you will have to disown all Eastern poetry and classical literature. As a result of this support, he was very independent and much more privileged than us.

No literary figure came forward in Ayub Khosa’s defence. He had no social or political support. Then subsequent editions of Sheikh Ayaz’s works contained changes made by publishers. So as a result, our writers started censoring themselves. Some madressahs have printed pamphlets declaring my work blasphemous as well. The concept of censorship has changed somewhat. Earlier, the state used to censor us. Now society has become so radicalised that it has taken on the job. If I write maseed, the Sindhi word for masjid, in a newspaper article, it gets changed. Because people have started seeing the word as derogatory. Similarly, mullah becomes maulvi. Now instead of maseed I just write masjid.

Till the 1990s, it was very difficult for writers claiming to be conservative to be popular. Sindhi Adabi Sangat was strong and would step up in defence of writers. But during Zia’s time, it was politicised and weakened. These days, writers who are expressing themselves openly are targeted.

The question of cultural identity in Sindhi nationalism has pushed our writers to become conservative and even fascist at places. That is why I feel that Sindh is ultimately going to reflect conservatism.

No one owns writers like us. If you surrender your independence, then you are owned. Recently there was a conference in which I was called a traitor. So I just said that it used to be our agencies and the ISI’s job to label us ghaddar; now you have borrowed that stamp. The pressure is from nationalists, from religious parties, and if you are a feminist writer, than that is another front from which you are attacked. We no longer have a forum to answer from, to support us.

Hanif: I was at Jamshoro University and somebody gave me a very good example. Jamshoro University has never had a Jamiat office. They have never had a presence there while you still have five factions of the communist student party. So you have all the trappings of progressive leftist politics. But when you start talking to students, they talk exactly like the students at Karachi University or at Federal Urdu University. Their world views are exactly the same.

And then I was talking to an old friend, Sohail Sangi, who teaches media, about what has happened there. They have got Lenin posters but talk like any 20-year-old Punjabi student would talk. And he said that by the time they were 15 or 16, cable television had already arrived. The Jamiat did not have to set up an office on the campus. It was being transmitted directly into their homes. So their worldview is made by a lot of these things.

Sindhu: Once, Noorul Huda Shah wrote against feudalism and a lot of other issues in her rebellious style. We say that we are a byproduct of her writings. But in a compilation of her short stories that has recently come out, she has adopted the Bano Qudsia line and says that she wishes she could disown everything she had written before, that it was wrong. So I called her and said that you could disown your writings all you want but they are no longer just your property; now you might be a different Noorul Huda Shah but you can’t finish the earlier Noorul Huda.

Farrukhi: She is a very big writer.

Hanif: Bilal, what are you looking forward to reading in the coming year?

Tanweer: Actually, I have started writing this column for Dawn that I write every two months. What I do is that I look at one writer, and engage with a range of his texts. I just wrote a piece on this Polish writer that I really love, Zbigniew Herbert. And one of the things that we don’t do over here, especially when it comes to poetry, is that we don’t read poetry from other languages — especially translated poetry. So I think that is something that I am looking forward to doing. One of my dearest poets, Jack Gilbert, just died on 13th November. Some of his poems are as good as poetry can get. He is not very well-known. It’s a sad fact, even in the US. People who love him say that it’s unfortunate, and I want to write a long piece on his works. I want to write long pieces on a couple of other poets who are not so well known. I am just looking to reading a lot of poetry next year. And engaging with both their prose works and their poems, and writing longer pieces.

Hanif: And some local book that is about to come out...

Tanweer: Shazaf Fatima’s book that Musharraf mentioned, I think that is something that I am looking forward to. Next year I am also looking forward to Nadeem Aslam’s book. I enjoyed Maps for Lost Lovers very much. I could not read his other books. I tried reading them, I couldn’t get too far. So Nadeem’s book is definitely there. And Mohsin’s book.

Hanif: Yes, it’s called How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. It’s kind of styled as a self-help book.

Tanweer: I am looking forward to reading this Indian writer that I met last year and started reading, Kiran Nagarkar.

Hanif: Oh, he’s very good. He’s brilliant.

Tanweer: Yeah, apparently he’s very funny and a very good novelist. So I want to read his books.

Hanif: Amar, what will you be reading?

Sindhu: We have two very good Sindhi poets who haven’t been published yet and not many people know about them. But they write beautiful poetry, and in my opinion, they are the best of contemporary Sindhi poets — Rubina Abro and Rukhsana Preet. They have been writing for almost 10 years. Rukhsana is one of the best Sindhi ghazal writers. And in Rubina Abro’s tone you will see mysticism. She stands apart in the nazm tradition established by Hasan Dars and Bakhshan Mehranvi and taken forward by our ntemporary writers. They haven’t received the recognition they deserve even though it can be said that poetry books are published everyday in Sindh. But those who should be published are not.

Hanif: There is a poet living in every neighbourhood in Pakistan…

Sindhu: I don’t think I have read a good Sindhi novel in the past 10 to 20 years.

Hanif: Why don’t you write?

Sindhu: Let’s see. Given the trends we have talked about, I don’t see much happening in Sindhi. I haven’t seen anything in the past 20 years that has really inspired me. There was a time when Naseem Kharal used to write. You could say he was Manto’s calibre. Like Amar Jaleel is compared to Krishan Chandr.

Hanif: So what Asif was earlier saying, that there are fewer newer voices in prose fiction…

Tanweer: Traditionally, I think fiction has been the weaker side in our part of the world, at least in Urdu. The great novels we talk about, there has been, at best, one every decade in Urdu in the past 50 or 60 years. Novel has really not been the main form that we excel in — it is usually poetry. We have been producing great poets. That’s my observation.

Farrukhi: Bilal, I somewhat disagree, particularly with regard to the Urdu short story. That had a fantastic period from the 1930s onwards. That sort of tapered off in the 1960s. Similarly, in Sindhi, there was a strong period in the 1960s. That has died down. That death has been a more recent phenomenon. On the other hand, the short story has made a comeback globally. The most exciting writers — I wouldn’t call them new — such as Alice Munroe, William Trevor, are short fiction writers. That kind of thing does not have a parallel movement in Urdu or Sindhi.

Hanif: Ali Akbar Natiq is finishing his novel next year, which sounds very promising. Fahmida Riaz is writing a novel about pre-Islamic Persia. That sounded quite fascinating as well. Musharraf, are you writing something?

Farooqi: The one book that I am looking forward to in 2013 is Shamsur Rehman Farooqi’s English translation of Kai Chaand Thaiy Sar-i-Aasman. Aur us key baad hum sab logon ko apni dukan bund kar key apne ghar chaley jana pareyga.

Tanweer: Hanif, are you writing something?

Hanif: Um... no…

Farrukhi: I am trying to catch up on the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. I was late in discovering him, but what a fascinating writer. And I really look forward to new books by Hanif or Musharraf, as many books as you write. There is something that sets you guys apart from many of the new aspiring English writers (whom I don’t want to disparage). You have been shaped or formed by your rootedness and your connection to the local indigenous Urdu Pakistani tradition. So you don’t repeat what has been done in Urdu fiction in the 1930s or 1940s. That is a very defining and strong aspect.

I would like to read more and more Urdu fiction, and if I do not get new good fiction I will read up what has been done in the past, because that’s important. I have started this routine of going back to the classics of the Urdu short story. Looking at them, reading them, editing them and writing about them. Younger people have stopped being excited about writers such as Ismat Chughtai and Ghulam Abbas. And that needs to be talked about. I also want to read more of dastan. I’m a great admirer of Talism-e-Hoshruba, but I want to explore the other dastans and see what is in them. Because we didn’t continue their legacy and tradition. We wrote them off, especially the dastans with Indic roots. So that’s something that I want to explore.

Tanweer: We started this short story contest at Lums, a writing workshop. I got quite a few submissions for that, and a couple of really exciting writers. Most of them were quite young, so it is probably about five more years before we will get to see them write something book length.

Hanif: In English?

Tanweer: Yes, in English. But the good thing about them was that they were reading Urdu. They had read Urdu, and they still read Urdu. The kinds of issues that they were dealing with in their stories were very well-connected to what’s going on. For instance, there was this really great story about a boy who manipulates girls on Skype to strip for him. And the divide that he’s talking about is the big class divide, and also the social polarisation, that genders cannot interact. There are no public spaces where genders can interact, so this virtual world becomes a place where people from across classes interact. It was quite a fascinating story, and I see that in the next five to 10 years, English is going to come up.

Farrukhi: Some of the English writers are described in the sense that this is the beginning and before this was silence. That it is the dawn of civilisation. That kind of description I find very bothersome.

Tanweer: I think that one of the things that probably needs to be done — I don’t know by whom, but I just want to put it out there — is that in English fiction, we talk about this boom, again as you said, like there was nothing before that. Even in English fiction there was a tradition of English writers. They were sporadic, they were few and far between, but they were there and they have been there.

You can trace them from R.K. Narayan — there might be some even before that — all the way to the present. So I think that there needs to be some conversation about these writers who missed the boom, the pre-boom writers. That should be interesting, drawing their trajectory — how that feeds into the contemporary fiction in English.

Farooqi: I’d like to add one thing here. Small collections of different poets, called Guldastey, used to be published. I found some of them and I was very surprised that they had English poems along with Urdu ones. For the editors and publishers, it was just poetry.

Farrukhi: Like Amar was saying, compartmentalisation has increased in our society.

Hanif: I think that is actually very tragic that almost all of us sitting here, if we can read Urdu and English, there is no way that we’ll ever know how a Pashtun writer is telling his story, or how a Sindhi writer is telling his story. Maybe some big names will get translated after 40 years, like Sheikh Ayaz. That, I think, is something that can only be done at an institutional level. Individuals try, but they can translate one little piece at a time. Like in India, for instance, there is some institutional support.

Translations everywhere in the world happen at an institutional level. There are universities which give grants, governments that set up bodies. Some rich person would set up a centre for these texts to be translated. Because it is, basically, a thankless job. I tried translating. The writer at the end is not happy with you, you are not happy with what you have done, the publisher is saying, ‘Oh why should I publish this?’ The whole process is a series of disappointments. And by the end of it you say, why don’t I sit down and write my own damn thing and get it published.

Farooqi: Also, I think the translations should come from within the language. A person speaking Punjabi, or a person speaking Sindhi, should make an effort to share their literature, or at least the best of their literature, with others. Sure, so I can read Sindhi, write in it a bit, even understand it, but I can’t translate a classical Sindhi text. That has to come from within the language.

From the early- to mid-19th century, a lot of classics were translated because the British wanted to know about us. They wanted to know how our minds work, how our language works. After 1857, you find hardly any translations, because after that they implemented English. Then they no longer needed to understand the language. So there was a utilitarian value attached to the translations of Mir Amman’s Bagh-o-Bahar and a few other basic Urdu texts. It was no longer a cultural engagement in the sense of a symbiotic relationship. The point is, you have to be the one to share your literature.

America and Britain have this disconnect, and Pakistan as well. In Europe, writers write as well as translate. There is no distinction that this person is a writer only or a translator only.

Tanweer: Can I just add to that? I think that there is a real problem of publishing what you translate. I’m about to finish the last 20 pages of Chakiwara, Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s novel. And I have pitched it to four publishers in the US, and just one in India has seen it. And there is a real problem of what can sell and how it can be sold. But I think that for us, right now, the real great boom is in India, and the state of publishing and the readership and the market over there. I think that despite all the problems, this is a really great moment for South Asia, and for us as writers in South Asia. We can write something, as Musharraf is saying, that is very, very local. We can produce or translate something that is very local. And we can push it out to the market. There are even very small printing presses that are producing good quality work, and they can actually help us out. I realised this when I went to India last year. I think our direction should be eastwards. We should look for greater integration, accessibility and engagement with India. I don’t think that that has really happened. There are so many writers — fiction, non-fiction, all sorts — who are writing things that are extremely relevant to our situation in this country. That writing can really help us understand our situation much better, and also for purely commercial reasons. But that engagement, I think, is absolutely critical for us. We cannot miss out on that. And they are excited about our work as well. They want to read stuff from this part of the world. That is something that needs to go out there, and that we all need to make a concerted effort towards.

Farrukhi: I think that is quite true, and is something worth talking about. But if we become dependent on their excitement, that would create a problem. What happens to all the organisations and authorities and anjumans and academies that are the official custodians of literature? What are they doing? I think that the sheer disappointment with the performance of our official bodies is something that we need to register.