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By Humair Ishtiaq

PAINTING a large canvass has its own rewards and pitfalls, and writing a novel entails both elements in equal measure. With the age of dastans long gone, a novel is the largest canvas available to fiction writers in Urdu today, and it was interesting to hear at various KLF sessions some of the greatest names in Urdu literature talk about the genre and their own experiences with it.

But though the likes of the legendary Intizar Husain and Abdullah Hussain were in attendance, it was Mustansar Hussain Tarar who was arguably the most sought-after writer at the festival. His popularity was an indication that Tarar’s novels in the last decade have earned as much recognition among readers as his travelogues had previously.

While critics remain unimpressed, Tarar the novelist has travelled a long way on the road of mass acceptance. Rakh has often been taken as a representative South Asian novel for which he won an international award by a peer-based jury, and the bluntly outspoken Kishwar Naheed spoke highly of Khas-o-Khashak Zamanay, drawing parallels with the celebrated Kayee Chand Thay Sar-i-Aasman by Shamsur Rahman Farooqi.

Mohammed Hanif aptly captured this sentiment in his introduction to the session with Tarar, saying that he knows of many people who have either read the Holy Scriptures or the works of Tarar. Beyond that, their fancy has not been caught by anything.

Talking about his craft, Tarar stressed the point that he can only write against the backdrop of his experiences. Creativity, in other words, has its limitations and a Pakistani would struggle to set his novel in, say, a Latin American milieu, and vice versa.

He explained a few characters in his various works and pointed out that most of the famous novels in global literary history have been semi-autobiographical: “how you build on the basic story and how you create the characters is a matter of craft. But the story comes first and it comes from the surroundings and your experiences and observations.”

However, writer Abdullah Hussain, in a session devoted to his works, was critical of those who accord primacy to the craft over creativity. “Creativity is a mysterious, indescribable phenomenon,” he said.

Talking about his novel Udas Naslain, for instance, he recalled that the idea for the story had flashed in a moment of nothingness. “I was working at a cement factory in a desolate place where I would spend eight hours at the office, another eight in bed, but had nothing to do with the remaining eight. It was out of sheer boredom that I picked up the pen one day and started scribbling, trying to see if I had a story to tell,” he said.

It was then that the whole novel flashed through his mind and later the characters “ran away with the story and I was left to do all the research and legwork to satisfy them.” He named a few other stories that “got themselves written by me.”

Though Abdullah Hussain acknowledged that the creative experience differs from writer to writer, he insisted that the classics that have survived the vagaries of time were based on creativity and not craft. How many of the current craft-based productions of young writers survive the test of time is something that, he said, would one day decide the debate.

In a session titled ‘Kufa Mein Curfew,’ Intizar Husain steered clear of such comparisons, arguing that while he could talk about what he did, he did not find himself “competent enough to discuss others as they have their own experiences.” Recalling that his senior Mohammad Hasan Askari had once remarked in the 1950s that Urdu literature is dead, Intizar Husain pointed out that today it is that very period which is used as a marker to compare contemporary fiction against and once again announce that literature is dead. “It was just because Askari Sahib could not relate to what young writers like Nasir Kazmi and others were writing,” he said, apparently hinting that he would not like to commit the same mistake.

A separate session called ‘Urdu Novel: Kal, Aaj aur Kal’ specifically focused on the past, present and future of the Urdu novel. While the scope of it — and, indeed, the presence of Intizar Husain and Tarar as well as novelists and short story writers Mirza Athar Baig and Hasan Manzar — was enticing enough to attract quite a large audience, Fatima Hassan did not do a very good job of moderating and focusing on the topic. As a result, precious little came out of the discussion, which was a big disappointment as the issue had massive potential for an enlightened discussion.

Moreover, she called on people she knew to ask the questions which the audience resented. A member of the audience registered this complaint to sustained clapping from the rest.

Finally, when Intizar Husain, who was chairing the session and had kept quiet throughout the discussion, was requested to sum up, he said a quick word about the vanishing distance between popular and mainstream fiction. At the session ‘Urdu ka Sitam ya Urdu peh Sitam: A Talk by Arfa Sayeda Zehra,’ Zehra, an academic, delivered a wonderful lecture on the significance of language as a key to ideas, and came up with relevant examples of what is happening in Pakistani society and how much of it could be attributed — and why — to the social disconnect with Urdu.

Listening to her, one wondered if someone from among the organisers was taking note. They certainly need to for the coming years. The area with the most seating capacity, the main garden, was almost always allocated to writers of English. The session ‘Tanz-o-Mazah’ with Anwar Masood and Ataul Haq Qasmi, for instance, though held in a big hall, needed an even bigger space to accommodate all the people interested in attending. The audience numbered at least three times the seating capacity. Sadly, only English was allowed to flourish in the open air.


The writer is a Dawn staffer