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Johnson — my recourse

Why I am displeased with reviews of my performances

Johnson — my recourse

Time was when my manager in London had made arrangements with an agency to send me not only my notices but any news — even gossip — published about me in the press, all neatly pasted on cardboard sheets. I would put them away in files and place them in a trunk I had inherited from my father. Unfortunately, the trunk, which also contained other mementos as well as my cricket gear, was stolen. After that incident I stopped collecting my reviews.

Some years ago, I devoted one of my performances (in Lahore) to the letters Faiz Sahib had written to his wife Alice, while he was in prison. Three highly complementary reviews appeared the next morning in all the three English daily newspapers. I should have been pleased but I wasn’t. In fact, I was filled with despondency.

It was a bit of a shock to read what one reviewer had written: “He also told the audience that Faiz Ahmed Faiz has also written prose.” It was easy to ignore the repeated use of the adverb ‘also’, but not so easy to ignore the import of this line. Everyone knows that Faiz Sahib wrote a great deal of prose both in Urdu and in English. I would not have dared to insult the audience by giving them such twaddle. Actually, what I said was that, in his prose, Faiz Sahib sometimes revealed himself with remarkable candour. I had read out a letter in which he wrote (and I translate), “No one can be aware of the amount of time a poet sometimes spends in choosing the precise word to express a certain thought. In this process he discards countless words. The normal tendency of our poets is to select a well-worn word without caring about how trite and hackneyed it is”.

Now, this is what the critic wrote: “Zia Mohyeddin read a letter which showed how the late poet used to make efforts for making expressions beautiful.” This was nothing short of calumny.

It depressed me no end to think that readers would get the impression that I had suggested that Faiz Sahib spent his time in jail “making efforts for making expression beautiful”.

The second reviewer wrote: “White and pink gladioli wrapped the audience in their delicate scent. There were even trained pigeons heaving their feathery bosoms to the lilts and lows of Mr Mohyeddin’s legendary voice.” Lilts and lows? ‘How very original’ Sir Thomas Beecham would have said. I was glad that the pigeons, though invisible to me, did no more than that. If had they begun to coo, I might have had to stop.

The critic went on. “Zia Mohyeddin described Urdu poetry as anxiety”. As far as I am concerned it takes the cake. I had said that Urdu ghazal is replete with a sense of Khalish and Kasak. These words are not easily translatable into English. The critic took the easy way out. He looked up the Anjuman-e-Traqqui-e Urdu’s Urdu-English dictionary in which Khalish is translated as ‘anxiety’. Only an imbecile would describe Urdu poetry as anxiety.

In my despondency Samuel Johnson was my last recourse. “Criticism”, writes Dr Johnson, “is a study by which men grow important at a very small expense”. He also went on to say that “he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critic”. His words acted like a balm.

* * * * *

Johnson, of the Boswell fame, (if I may transpose the metaphor) was a lexicographer, essayist, poet, playwright, biographer and perhaps the most distinguished man of letters in English history. Over and above everything else, he has been recognised as having a lasting effect on literary criticism. His essays are unparalleled in range and variety.

At the age of twenty five, Johnson married his friend’s widow, a woman who was twenty one years older than he was. Five years after his marriage he felt so guilty about living on her money that he moved over to be with his friend, Richard Savage. They were both so poor that they would roam the streets of London until dawn because they had no money. Savage ended up in Bristol where he fell into debt. He was moved to a debtor’s prison where he died. Johnson wrote Life of Richard Savage, a work that has been described as one of the most innovative works in the history of biography.

His most monumental work was, of course, to create the first authoritative dictionary of the English language. He began his work on it in 1746 and finished it in nine years. (In comparison the Academie Française had forty scholars spending forty years to complete their dictionary). It was one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship by one individual.

Johnson, of the Boswell fame, has been recognised as having a lasting effect on literary criticism. His essays are unparalleled in range and variety.

The Earl of Chesterfield was the patron of a plan that Johnson had written for the dictionary. Johnson felt that Chesterfield had not fulfilled his obligations as the patron. He had a not received a penny from his patron. After seven years of arduous work he was compelled to write his famous letter to Chesterfield.

“…Is not a patron, my lord one who looks upon

Unconcern on the man struggling for life in the water,

and when he has reached the ground, encumbers him

with help? The notice which you have been pleased to

take of my labours, had it not been early, had been kind;

but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot

enjoy it; till I am solitary and cannot impart it; till I am

known and not want it.”

Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare was published in 1765 as The Plays of Shakespeare in eight volumes. The plays themselves were in a version that Johnson felt was close to the original, based on his analysis of the manuscript editions. His revolutionary innovation was to create a set of contemporary notes that allowed the readers to clarify the meaning behind many of Shakespeare’s complicated passages, and to examine those which had been transcribed incorrectly in previous editions. Many scholars agree that Johnson’s comprehensive understanding threw more light on Shakespeare than all his predecessors had done.

Doctor Johnson died at the age of seventy five. Throughout his life he suffered from a number of serious ailments including childhood tuberculosis resulting in deep facial scarring, deafness in one ear and blindness in one eye, gout, testicle cancer and countless bouts of deep depression. It is one of the ironies of history that a genius of the proportions of Johnson should have carried on working, with good cheer. That he did not become a cynic is absolutely amazing. His wit, if you know your Boswell, remained as fresh and as sharp as ever.

Zia Mohyeddin

zia
The author is the president and CEO of National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA)

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