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Documenting sadness

A book of creative non-fiction, a historical text or a poet’s worldview, Crimson Papers is a must-read no matter how you look at it

Documenting sadness

Harris Khalique has written an extremely important book that everyone must read. It documents the sadness around us in a way that is both cathartic and a reminder of things and events we must not forget. It is intellectually stimulating and touches upon all the fault lines in this country that need to be discussed and resolved. He does not mince words in stating the role of the state in shaping this society and how it brought pain to both.

It is hard to categorise the book which is an advantage in this case. In a way, it’s a political, cultural and literary history of the country rolled into one but without a historian’s neutrality. The writer’s personal memories play a crucial role in his understanding of the world and that is what makes this narration so compelling and even authentic I would say.

The curious-sounding titles of the four chapters ‘Blood’, ‘Sweat’, ‘Tears’ and ‘Ink’ do not draw you any closer to the book. But once you start reading, you realise the names are as arbitrarily chosen as the structure of the book. The writer sticks to a chronological scheme and breaks it too, at will. There are moments that need to be commented upon coldly and then there are those that are laced with anecdotes that make you want to keep reading.

Even though it’s a little over a 100 pages, the book deals at some length with the two partitions of the subcontinent in the last 70 years; It is therefore not only an account of the author’s own country of birth but of the entire South Asia in a way. He obviously dwells more on the partition that happened after his birth — of 1971. Apart from clearly stating what he believes were the causes of the dismemberment of Pakistan, he humanises it with some real-life experiences of people in both wings.

The first partition of 1947 and how it has defined the Indo-Pak relations is where he begins but is a little harsh on analysts on the Indian side who do not look too kindly at Pakistan’s state policies. To be fair, he discusses the anti-Indian commentators on the Pakistani side in the same breath before he moves to the political success of Hindu right and the problem it poses for democrats everywhere.

An acclaimed poet, Khalique brings in literary references to understand politics. It is how he wants to look at the world. And as it happens, the issues that concern the poet-intellectual in this book are so crucial for this country.

This overview of Pakistan India tension, from 1965 to 1971 to Kargil in 1998, is resolved for him in the person of Ustani Ji who taught him the Quran as a child. She migrated to Pakistan from an eastern district of Punjab along with 36 corpses of her family but was a firm believer in “pluralism and a deep sense of compassion for humanity at large”.

An acclaimed poet, Khalique brings in literary references to understand politics. It is how he wants to look at the world. And as it happens, the issues that concern the poet-intellectual in this book are so crucial for this country. For instance, he wants to know what happened to those “who championed socialist economic ideals and liberal political values” in the early years of this country. He recalls his personal meetings with these “quiet rebels”, the “sophisticated non-conformists” born in 1920s and 1930s and narrates their commitment for all those who think the struggle between the Right and Left is over in this country.


He met most of them with the reference of his father, himself a progressive intellectual. These include people like Ahmad Bashir, Manzoor Ahmed, Izhar Haider Rizvi, Dr Aftab Ahmad Khan, Professor Amin Mughal, Professor Khawaja Masud and others. Rizvi who called himself a “former socialist” told him “he had learnt the hard way that in any person, character is more important than ideology”.

Among these warm accounts is his first meeting with Faiz Ahmed Faiz as a child. The two people who “laid down their lives for the socialist movement in Pakistan”, Hasan Nasir and Nazeer Abbasi, get a special mention.

Using the metaphor of a South Asian train from the colonial times, he has this to say about the plebeian travellers and not the elite of this country. “Squeezed elbow room and shrinking leg space is the narrative of Pakistan in our times. It is about demanding a dignified physical space to live, a respectable economic space to earn a decent living, a free intellectual space to think, and an uninhibited artistic space to create.”

This in essence is the vision of the author. He then picks five women from between 2009-2015 who epitomise the “struggle for space for the people of my country”. One might think one knows everything about these women whose struggles are still fresh in memory. But the way Khalique writes their stories, interspersing them with those of a few ordinary people and linking them with the larger issues confronting the state, has an entirely different effect.

For people living in places other than Karachi, Perween Rahman was just a prominent activist who was mysteriously murdered but here you get to read Rahman’s true significance — she who stood for the poor when “becoming one of the elite is the ultimate middle-class dream” and her work which was “about how people thought, most importantly about themselves”.

It is through these stories that one reads about how the sectarian divide was engineered and reinforced here and also the state lies about the Baloch question. Khalique has a convincing argument and some historical facts for those who believe that it is tribal chiefs who do not want any progress or development in Balochistan. The document prepared by the sardars to negotiate with General Ayub in 1962 is a case in point. Apart from political demands, they had asked for a university in the province, compulsory school education, a college in each district, a high school and a hospital in each tehsil, a primary school in every village and a dispensary in a sizeable village. The document called for construction of roads and development of harbours and fisheries on the coast.

Understandably, there is one chapter devoted to literature as well as language but mostly a subject closest to his heart — poetry. It’s about the rich heritage, the equally contemporary sensibility and all that falls in between, thus offering a broad sweep of literature in Pakistan.

This is a book that must be read widely and discussed, especially by the younger generations. It needs to be immediately translated into Urdu and all regional languages. The author could do the Urdu translation himself in order to retain the creative spirit of the book.

Crimson Papers
Reflections on Struggle, Suffering, and Creativity in Pakistan
Author: Harris Khalique
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 122 Price in Pakistan: Rs995

Farah Zia

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