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An icon of our times

Enver Sajjad was an avant-garde writer who was castigated by those who looked at the arts as a handmaiden of politics

An icon of our times

Enver Sajjad was a very versatile person: a novelist, a short story writer, a playwright, a writer of screenplays, and then he also acted on stage, besides being an anchor person, an art activist, a teacher and a manager of the arts. He also more than flirted with painting and dancing.

And if one considers that by profession he was a medical doctor, one is amazed at his capacity to expend himself in that many fields. And he was not a doctor who waited for his patients. He inherited a swath of them from his father who too was a doctor, and in those days, a rare Muslim medical practitioner. In the walled city where the father practiced, the son too set up his clinic and treated and advised scores of them everyday. But perhaps his heart lay elsewhere, as while in England for his higher medical studies Sajjad spent more time with David Mercer, the playwright, than in the hospital or in other medical facilities. He took to writing, but then he switched over to the theatre and started to act, and later combined both to become a leading writer of Urdu prose by the time he was still short of his middle years.

In those early days, late nineteen fifties and early sixties as Alhamra struggled to establish itself as a centre of the arts, particularly performing arts, Enver Sajjad was around to pitch in as a writer and actor. Many plays he acted in the early nineteen sixties and his performance in “Sayee” – the adaptation of Hamilton’s Gaslight – is still etched in the memory of those who saw it.

He wrote initially for radio but then television gave him more opportunity and exposure, and his plays, individual and serials were anticipated and much talked about in the days when Pakistan television had the monopoly over viewing time.

It should also be mentioned, because it is an important point, that people who wrote for television were also known as writers or poets in the larger literary world. They did not only write for television but were recognized as writers in their own right. Imtiaz Ali Taj, Ashfaque Ahmed, Bano Qudsia, Munno Bhai, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Shaukat Siddiqui, Ata ul Haq Qasmi, Safdar Meer, Younis Javed, Mustansar Hussain Tarar, Abdul Qadir Junejo, Noor ul Huda Shah, Ashghar Nadeem Syed, Amjad Islam Amjad and many more.

There was nothing as specialized writing or teleplays but it was seen to be drama and it had to carry enough human content. It had to be at par with the basics of literary writing and there it did maintain a quality that ensured its success if seen as an autonomous piece of work. Enver Sajjad like the writers of that age started to write for television without compromising on quality and waiting for how the serial was being received by the viewers as it unfolded. The director and the writer led the charge and determined the taste of the viewing public and not the other way round, as it is happening today. The first play ‘Rus Maalai’ to be telecast live was from his pen.

In the nineteen seventies he became very active, becoming cognizant of the inseparability of arts and politics and serving as the executive director of the arts council. He was part of the setup that demanded a greater role for artistes as opposed to the administration. But being on the left wing he was also discriminated against in the early days of Zia ul Haq and cast aside, sent to prison and like many others, for years banned from state-run media.

But his most solid contribution was in fiction, both as a short story writer and a novelist.

He was not just content to play along with the rules of writing fiction but always challenged the canons and experimented with the forms. He was particularly adept at bringing about changes in the formalistic structure of writing fiction, which he thought were in line with contemporary sensibilities. At times he was seen as being too overtly experimental and thus losing sight of what he wanted to say. In other words, what he said was ambiguous for many readers and deviated from the school that wants the reader to instantly absorb what was being read

He was hugely influenced by writings that came out of Europe after the Second World War and it set the pace for literature in other parts of the world. Enver Sajjad was thus an avant-garde writer who rebelled from the more traditional forms of story telling and saw a fragmented world reflected in formal structure as well. His writings include Pehli Kahaniya, Istaarey, Chauraha, Aaj and Khushiyon Ka Bagh.

Deeply committed to the left and also a People’s Party sympathizer, he did not follow slavishly the line that was handed over by the political bosses running culture. He did not follow instructions about socialist realism or even realism as the preferred form, but insisted on a symbolic treatment of the situation. The metaphors and images had to come together as the formal sequences of the narrative were deliberately disrupted by the author. The characters and situations were thus not there to be obviously laid down but to be understood after some effort. The theme and the resolution were neither out there nor stated. He was thus castigated by those who looked at the arts as a handmaiden of politics.  Enver Sajjad plotted a separate path for his writings that made him stand out an individual voice, a trend setter in search of truth rather than being an interpreter of received truth.

He was extremely active at one point in literary debates and was a regular at Halqa e Arbab e Zauq meetings, whatever its denomination. He was thus not a writer who stayed at home and wrote but led the pack into various volatile activities that peppered the literary scene of the country.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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