The News on Sunday: It is not very common, though there are precedents, for critics to turn to creative writing. How did the transformation come about in your case? And do you plan to stick to one or the other in future?
Nasir Abbas Nayyar: Actually, in my case it is more of resurgence than transformation. My close friends know that I started my literary career as a short story writer. In the late 1980s, many of my stories were published in popular Urdu magazines.
While doing Masters in Urdu at Government College (now university) Faisalabad, a story of mine appeared in a magazine which unfortunately landed into the hands of one of my teachers. That story revolved around a perplexing, ambivalent student-teacher relationship, a sort of love triangle involving a male and female student and a teacher. My teacher rebuked me and advised me to write something serious. As I really liked him, I took his words seriously and stopped writing stories and began writing ‘something serious’ — meaning criticism.
I must admit I discovered a new world in criticism. It was a world of freedom: freedom to question the very questions of the formation of meaning. But it is the world of intellect which is after all only one stratum of our multilayered existence. This led to the resurgence of love for fiction. Though it is like embracing your old beloved, a lost person, it seems as if I have discovered the new wonders of world of fiction for the first time. I want to stick to both fiction and criticism.
TNS: You have set most of your stories in rural Punjab and the title and dedication indicate this as a deliberate choice. Is that so? Would you also like to comment on the rural Punjab depicted in Urdu literature so far?
NAN: Some fiction writers like Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Ghulam-us-Saqlain Naqvi and recently Ali Akbar Natiq have also set their stories in rural Pakistani Punjab and they might have progressive and cultural reasons to depict the rural life of Punjab. As for me, I wanted to achieve some kind of subversion. Intellect, rationality, deep philosophical and existential thinking have usually been associated with characters of urban setting. Dehati or villagers have been depicted as only the oppressors or the oppressed, obsessed with low emotions only.
Read also the review of ‘Khaak ki Mehek’: Figments of intellect
I have tried to subvert this myth in ‘Kaffara’, ‘Khaak ki Mehek’, ‘Jhoot ka Festival’ and ‘Waldiat ka Khana’ particularly. The protagonists of these stories have been shown engaged with, and confronting some big moral, political, psychological and existential questions. Same thing you may find in ‘Hiakayaat e Jadeed o Maba’ad jadeed’, which belong to Punjab in some way or the other.
I must mention another kind of subversion too that is already occurring in Urdu. We Punjabis have abandoned our mother tongue for Urdu. It seems very justifiable to inculcate the flora and fauna of Punjab into Urdu with a deep sense of linguistic and aesthetic norms. It results in the subversion of the UP culture that has been considered as an indispensable part of the canonisation of literature of Urdu.
TNS: These seem like very contemporary stories talking about today’s world, with a distinct imprint of the writer. Who have been your influences in short story?
NAN: I haven’t consciously followed the footprints of any writer. I appreciate many giants of fiction from Meer Aman, Ahmad Husain Qamar, Manto, Intizar Husain to Nayyar Masood and Asad Muhammad Khan, and from Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Kafka, Camus, Borges, Marquez, Kundera, to Saramogo. Besides Alf Laila and Panchatantra, I also read folk stories of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Africa. But I haven’t idealised any of them.
Perceiving the prototype of a story has been my concern all along. I have been looking for ways that can show me how the basic structure of a story can be employed to write your own world. If a fiction writer hasn’t succeeded in creating his or her own world, one is justified in asking him or her to refrain from writing.
TNS: Though ‘Kahani ka koh-i-Nida’ tries to explain what makes a story, would you like to tell our readers the important elements in a story?
NAN: Plot, protagonist, climax, types of narrators, first or third person narrators, focalisation and realistic or surrealistic modes of narration are purely academic questions that need not be elaborated here. I would like to say something about some basic, more essential questions of story writing.
There are two major kinds of reasoning to perceive or to interpret reality: intellectual reasoning and narrative reasoning. Intellectual reasoning is prone to confine itself to defining reality in purposive and instrumental ways while narrative reasoning is programmed to conceive reality in its totality, without any likelihood of succumbing to preconceived notions of reality.
When you set off narrating an event, you are entering into a world of wondrous possibilities. A narrated event opens the vista of human possibilities. A writer comes to know how the very act of narration gives them a magical power to create or determine the destiny of his or her characters. But holding this magical power is not easy. It involves serious moral repercussions. A writer has to imitate the act of gods.
TNS: Apart from ‘Haan yeh Bhi Roshni hai’ and ‘Marne ke Baad bhi Musalman hua ja sakta hai’ where we see a clear woman’s voice, you have dealt with the woman question in a very enlightened way. How easy or difficult it was for you as a male writer?
NAN: Frankly, you made me aware that I have dealt with the woman question. Now I feel that both the above-mentioned stories seem to be subverting patriarchal hierarchies.
‘Haan ye Bhi Roshni hai’ subverts the patriarchal notion of spiritual enlightenment conceived and advocated by the great Budhha. His wife Yasodhara confronts her husband’s dogma of enlightenment by letting him know through a dialogic approach the simple power of the voice and rationale of a woman. She succeeds in transforming Budhha and making him confess, yes this is light too!
‘Marne ke Baad Musalman hua ja sakta hai’ also seems to be subverting another notion of patriarchy which might be termed as a ‘notion of religiosity’. I also feel that the woman voice is not, and cannot be monotonously invariable. While in ‘Haan Ye Bhi…’ you may find a voice of determined-to-liberate-on-her-own-feminine-terms woman, in ‘Marne ke Baad…’ you come across a voice of a mother who is also determined to liberate her disabled deceased sons from dogmas of religiosity. I think she achieves subversion by putting a bold question before Maulvi sahib, a representative of patriarchic religiosity, that how could her departed sons become musalman.
If fiction is to do something substantive for the emancipation of women, it must keep resorting to employing varied voices of woman. One, singular voice can’t, legitimately and rightfully, represent the whole folk.
TNS: Your stories offer a well thought resolution to so many of our moral conflicts. This brings me to the eternal question about the function of literature and whether it ought to be progressive?
NAN: The function of literature has been most problematic since Plato’s time. We find a multitude of theories of function of literature but they all seem to be revolving around three basic questions: what literature should do, what it can do, and what it is and has been doing.
Hence moralist, purposive and disinterested views about the function of literature have been offered. Progressive view falls between the purposive and disinterested ones. By progressive I mean an outlook that is ingrained in an ‘act of liberation’ at three levels: socio-political, existential and aesthetic. I believe literature has been essentially progressive and subversive too.