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Literary pursuits and immortality

What if the present is some sheer absurdity and the future nothing more than a fathomless illusion?

Literary pursuits and immortality

A few years ago, while having a telephone conversation with Indian critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, I learned that he was recovering from a recent bout of health problems. His wife, Jamila Shaheen, was alive then.

On being asked what he was doing those days, the critic, researcher, poet, linguist, literary exegist, and later a refined fiction writer, started elaborating on ambitious projects that he had already embarked upon or those that he wished to do in the near future. He added that he wished to leave something substantial behind him to be remembered.

On hearing such daunting planning I involuntarily remarked: “You have already mentioned your illness. Faruqi is dear to us, but Shamsur Rahman is no less precious. Is there nobody to rid Shamsur Rahman of Faruqi?” There was laughter on the other side of the telephone followed by a timid pleading: “Don’t say this aloud! She is around and if she hears it, she will go for satyagraha.”

The idea of secular immortality is not something new in Urdu literary culture. Almost every writer writes with an eye on the future; that is, for posterity.

What is this wish to be remembered when you have already departed? Is this some sort of fear in the face of imminent death and an attempt to overpower, conquer this mighty, annihilating force – symbolically?

In his illustrious poem, ‘To Posterity’, Bertolt Brecht pleads:

“You that will emerge from the deluge

In which we drowned,

When you speak of our shortcomings

Remember too

The bleak age

Which you have escaped”

This utterance, as we know, is meant for the future. But, as the poem moves forward we see that the address has a particular context:

“For changing countries more often than shoes, we walked

Through the wars of classes, despairing

When there was injustice only and no rebellion”

Having emerged from exilic experiences and the precarious condition of statelessness, as the poet indicates, it takes posterity as its target readership.

But what if one writes for posterity in general – with an eye at secular immortality?

And another related question: Is there any possibility of being spiritual without having any religious faith? Dalai Lama answers it in affirmation. Many would perhaps not share his view, but none will perhaps argue with the notion of a secular immortality. There is a long list of names in human history whose bearers professed no religious faith whatsoever, yet they enjoyed lasting fame.

Muhammad Husain Azad, one of the fantastic Urdu writers at the turn of the century, had an article – a fantasy indeed – wherein he presented a resurrection of different historical personages – ‘Shohrat e Aam aur Baqaa e Dawaam Ka Darbaar’ (The Royal Court of Popularity and Immortality). Popularity and immortality, as Azad put them together, are not only twin categories, they are mutually complementing forces. The first essentially belongs to the spatial dimension – your name reaches far and wide in the world, whereas the second is related to the temporal side – when you cross the boundaries of your own time.

The idea of secular immortality is not something new in Urdu literary culture. Almost every writer writes with an eye on the future; that is, for posterity. Immediate recognition and instant public appreciation are not totally alien aspirations; a serious and important writer in general plays, or is considered to be playing a long innings.

One reason for this attitude may be traced in the supposed non-reception or relatively less recognition of a writer’s work in their lifetime. Sometimes writers are too opaque, inaccessible or at least ambiguous to be properly comprehended and received by their contemporaries. Self-flatteringly, they would call this a sign of being behind or ahead of their times.

Ordinary mortals, in case they belong to the believing community, have other solaces or at least hopes and expectations: their idea of the hereafter or the so-called eternal life. This gives them a soothing effect and helps in smoothing the crudities of the mundane existence.


[O God, now I have a valid right on your paradise; I have been much scorched in this world, this hellish place.] (Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi)

Ghalib has playfully put a question mark around the hopefulness of some promised paradise. However, he wishfully anticipates a genuine fame of his poetry in the time when he would have already left the world.


[My poetry will achieve fame when I am gone]

One also finds an echo of this idea in Iqbal:


[I am a voice of the poet to come]

It may not be a common phenomenon but sometimes the pendulum does not oscillate to the future, but to the past, and one is plagued by a painful sense of arriving late – of a certain belatedness.


[We entered the market-place when the takers were already left]

In both instances, the accent is not on having been received well, properly. Whereas in the process of regarding the past as a better choice, the perspective generates a sort of frustration or disillusionment, the act of visualising future – the prospective view – helps transcend the bleak present.

These restless movements forward and backward – these temporal dislocations – may be taken as mere romantic yearnings.

But, sometimes, such imaginary disruptions serve also as a poetic tactic to underline the significance of their works – not yet spotted.

A more pragmatic and balanced view comes, perhaps, from Majeed Amjad who, instead of offering a rosy temporal perspective at things, looks at the panorama of life while he stands on the chronotop of here and now.


[This moment at hand, a world confidant of my grieved heart, is mine.

Through these blinds alone I have to see what is not in my sight]

But what of those to whom the present is some sheer absurdity and the future nothing more than a fathomless illusion?

Dr Aftab Husain

Dr Aftab Husain web
The writer is a Pakistan-born and Austria-based poet in Urdu and English. He teaches South Asian Literature & Culture at Vienna University

One comment

  • Excellent article on an interesting subject. Aftab Hussain’s writings are always scholarly but greatly amusing. Brilliant work!

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