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“Reading books helped me create a society of my own”

Interview with Ali Akbar Natiq

“Reading books helped me create a society of my own”

In Shah Muhammad Ka Tanga, his second book of short stories, Ali Akbar Natiq transforms traditional tales of the hinterland into mythic literature. Outwardly, his settings and characters are the same as those in traditional stories, but his jungle and river become a legendary backdrop. Occupying centre stage are men and women who aren’t two-dimensional figures, but beings suffused with a rich history, language and imagination.

Natiq has a stocky body, and a familiar face with large features, his eyes twinkle behind his large reading glasses; his head slightly bent as he listens to his own eulogies with a quiet sneer. At heart, in spite of his sophistication, he never stops being the quintessential “peasant”, distrusting sleek city people imbued with their own importance. A lot of his distaste for contemporary culture may have come from there. He is fascinated by what repulses him the most. And he has kept this disposition throughout his rise to stardom.

One of the things that literature did for me was that despite my not being financially independent – I was studying and working while keeping company with the well-to-do – it did not allow feelings of inferiority to surface in my life.

Here, The News on Sunday talks to him about his childhood, his literature and his opinion about the Progressive Writers’ Movement. Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday (TNS): Before we talk about the literary days, let’s first reminisce about a time when literature had not yet entered your world.

Ali Akbar Natiq (AAN): Back in 1947 when my father and my grandparents immigrated to Pakistan, they came from Ferozpur via Head Sulemanki. My family who started out from there consisted of 70-odd members initially but those who survived and eventually came did not number more than 20 – the rest were slain on the way. There were two categories of people who migrated: those who migrated by choice, and those who were forced to migrate. The former came on bullock carts or animal backs or on foot while the latter came on vehicles or by railway. They were the ones who knew the new system (the tehsildars, the patwaris, rules of land allotment and the katchehri); the former were practically ignorant. They had been tilling soil for generations, oblivious to religion, politics and to the rest of the world.

Whenever there is talk of the exodus, people mention the rail lines having been disconnected and cut. No one, not even a torn page from history, ever talks about the total number of men and women who were hacked to death. By any account, the total number of people who sacrificed their lives is quoted to be eight to ten lacs whereas, in actuality, 18 lac people were killed. Those who survived continued to live in villages (70-80 per cent of the survivors). The rest settled in bigger cities, business-minded and street smart as they were. The ‘pedestrians’, however, did not know any better.

The local population that had already been around had no knowledge or privileges either but at least what it had been already in possession of could not be snatched away from it. Those who migrated and had no knowledge of how the system worked were deprived of their possessions and became helpless.

When my family came, it settled in a village near Okara. It had no proof, no documentary evidence of the lands it had left behind. The local patwari was busy looting the ignorant. My family saw extreme poverty, and managed to go to Kuwait for three years, but the money they had put together was eventually stolen.

TNS: When was your first brush with literature?

AAN: My village was a model village, known as Chak # 32_2L. I was born there, and spent my early childhood there. I was the eldest among my siblings. Going to school was secondary in importance compared to actually studying, which was my prime focus. Tending cattle and watering fields was not at all easy. The economic situation at home was such that I don’t recall seeing shoes on my feet until the seventh grade of school.

My grandfather was well versed in Persian and Arabic. I don’t know how a trunk full of books survived with him when he immigrated to West Punjab. I started picking up books lying around and discovered that I enjoyed reading stories. There was a Higher Secondary School founded in 1879 right next to our house; and a public library housed in the Union Council building right across. Mustafa Zaidi, the poet, had laid the foundation stone of the library. As I grew older, I began to visit the Union Council Library and started reading books such as Alf Laila Wa Laila, Dastaan-e-Amir Hamza, Kalila wa Dimna, Betaal Battisi, Singhasan Battisi, etc. The school library had a rich selection of books too.

While in school, I never read the syllabus books until matriculation. What would a village instructor teach, least of all English? For the initial 10 years of school, one couldn’t even learn the tenses in English, let alone the language. In any case, tenses don’t equip you to know a language. One learns a language by reading it. The villagers could not speak the language and I topped the list.

But I knew Urdu well. Even at that young an age, I could recall from memory page-after-page from Rattan Nath Sarshar’s Fasana-e-Azad, followed by Mirza Farhatullah Baig’s Dilli ki Aakhri Shama and Azad’s Aab-e-Hayat. Feeding buffaloes and reading Urdu classics took care of my youth. I matriculated in second division – but without ever reading the syllabus.

In the ninth grade I was reading Mujahid Syed Abdullah’s book on criticism with keen interest, a book that even most MPhils and PhDs are reluctant to read. There was a loony in the village called Mobin. He would follow his nose until he would hit the wall or trip. Like him, I would hold a book in hand while walking until I would hit a pole or fall down. The village elders call me ‘Mobin’ even to this day!

TNS: How did you pursue your passion for reading?

AAN: I had shifted most of the school library to my house. The problem was the teachers had turned the library into a tearoom. I had never seen any teacher take interest in books. When I would ask for a book, they’d simply shoo me away. Sometimes, I would sneak in pretending to serve tea.

There were wooden cabinets at the back. I unlatched one of them, ventured into the library that night through a back window and took home whatever I could easily grab. Once I had finished reading the first lot in two months, I put the books away in a trunk and headed back for the next. I swear to God, I moved the entire library to my house gradually and none of the teachers could tell where the books went. The librarian was happy to get rid of the books anyway, he thought they occupied too much space unnecessarily.

Later, my passion for reading books led me to steal books from Ferozsons and Mavra Books in Lahore, simply because I couldn’t afford to buy them.

I had read Azad, Meer, Ghalib and Hali; short story writers like Ghulam Abbas, Manto, Chughtai, Krishan Chander, Premchand, Wajida Tabassum of Hyderabad Deccan, Allama Rashid ul Khairi, Khwaja Hassan Nizami, Rasheed Ahmad Siddiqui, etc. I read Ibn-e-Insha around the same time. There used to be an aana Library in Okara – a bookshop that would loan out a book for eight aanas.

Around the same time, I got more interested in Ghalib because of a novel I had read on him. Among the novelists, I had read Mirza Hadi Ruswa, Abdul Halim Sharar, Deputy Nazeer Ahmed, Yaldram, Ibn-e-Safi and Qazi Abdul Ghaffar’s Laila Ke Khutoot. And there were playwrights like Agha Hashr, Peerzada and Khwaja Nazimuddin who wrote Taleem-e-Balighan and Mirza Ghalib Bunder Road Par.

My mother fell sick when I was young, and the entire chunk of savings had to be spent on her treatment. This time my father decided to go to Iran, Iraq and Syria for work. He made the best of the opportunity by learning new cultures, exploring new geographies, histories and languages. Upon his return he would narrate incidents that had a deep impact on me. Consequently, I left the country in 1998 and stayed away until 2001, travelling through Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. The experiences that I gained through travel will feature in my next book.

Read the review: Uncomfortable stories

TNS: What has literature meant for you in your personal life?

AAN: One of the things that literature did for me was that despite my not being financially independent – I was studying and working while keeping company with the well-to-do – it did not allow feelings of inferiority to surface in my life. The study of books formed a concrete foundation based on a value system or ethics which enabled me to look at society from many different angles – how the aristocracy while being part of the same society leads a vacuous life, for instance. When there is no sense of inferiority, there is self-confidence. It liberates you. It develops your vision. For me reading books was not just a study; it was a system of knowledge that spanned societies, cultures, histories, geographies, and epochs, which upon accumulating can help create a society of one’s own.

The second thing that happened was that great literature that I had read, created by people whose reputation did not rest upon PR, but on competence and scholarship paved way for literature to come, that is, for literature of the future. If I read a novel in Persian, it was written by someone with experience and a command on the language and not by an MA/post graduate in Persian. That became the yardstick to evaluate literature by.

TNS: What has been your stance towards Progressive Writers’ Movement and its diehard followers?

AAN: Okara has been known for two things: Sutlej Birla Cloth Mill – Asia’s second largest cloth mill – that was closed down by General Zia ul Haq; and Standard Hotel where progressive writers and supporters of Marxian theory used to converge. One day one of my friends took me there; I ended up spending 4-5 months there, mentally recording the character, habits, etiquettes and conversations of the progressive writers of the time. I must confess that they all left a very negative impression on my mind, and I found them all extremely abominable. They were impractical and inert, and their conversations were not based on human nature but on emotionality. Unless you deal with the facts of life scientifically and link them to ground realities, emotions come to nothing.

If a progressive writer had a bicycle, there would be no seat (only springs) and a punctured tyre tube. If he had an empty cup of tea before him, it would be brimming with ash and stubs. You can’t get your cup cleaned; you prefer to walk four miles than get your bicycle fixed. The cap that you sport that has Che Guevara on it begs to be washed yet you would wait for five years. There’s a couplet by Ghalib that sums it up:

Qatrey mein Dajla dikhai na dey aur juz mein qul

Khel larkon ka hua, deeda-e-beena na hua

The biggest name to mention in this regard is that of Sibte Hasan whose deceit has already been exposed. He had tampered with and fabricated translations published under his own name. Whether its Moosa Se Marx Tak or Maazi ke Mazaar, his writings are barren, especially when compared to Shakh-e-Zareen (Translation of Frazer’s The Golden Bough). Hasan was a fabricator, and the reason why he could afford to deceive is because no one around him had any knowledge of history. The progressive writers gave people a slogan: there would be depots where food would be rationed out on headcount. These kinds of things can make sense to animals but not to human beings. If there’s a musician or a poet who decides to sit home and make music or poetry or a physically challenged, disabled, mentally deficient person, what would Marx do? According to their point of view, the poet, the disabled and the insane are not part of this society. How would you feed them? Human beings are only human; they are not machines.

TNS: What does progression mean to you?

AAN: Progress, in my opinion, consists in progress of the mind. Don’t let a labourer remain a labourer; make him part of your civil society. If you decide to hand over the mill to a labourer wouldn’t he become the mill owner? Let the labourer and the mill owner stand at par with each other. Exploitation will come to an end the day the labourer is going to be enriched mentally. But nobody will let that happen – not even the progressives.

I have seen masons who react to their employers by throwing their cement in water when the employers are not around, out of sheer jealousy. The point is: it is the exploited that becomes the exploiter. The progressives misconceived the very idea of progress right at the very outset. For any idea to survive it must carry the potential to be reinterpreted according to the evolving times otherwise it will be dead. To keep a language alive, one must bring to it new vocabulary and new terminology otherwise it will become Hebrew – limited to a few people only.

If you read Faiz’s nazms and ghazals, you will be surprised that the progressives condemned him for praising “honton ke saraab” and “teri awaz ke saaye”. But he was a poet who wrote poetry, not slogans. Where is Habib Jalib today? Faiz knew that what remains alive is art, not the slogan because slogan changes with time. “To raise one’s voice against colonisation”, who’s declared that to be the Progressive manifesto? Voice against imperialism, colonialism and authoritarianism was raised a long time ago. What did Christ and Moses raise their voice against?

Take Majeed Amjad’s poetry. He calls felling trees “elegiac”. If anyone talks against the dictator it does not imply he’s talking in Marxian terms. Marxism is a theory that perhaps no poet has ever read. I haven’t read it myself except in translation by Syed Muhammad Taqi, that too I had to read at least 15 times to get the basic gist of it. If I declare myself president of the Progressive Movement today, nobody will come forth to extend support. The issue is not the progressive agenda but authority and control.

Aasim Akhtar

aasim akhtar
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.

One comment

  • Just a small correction author of Taleem e Balighan is Khwaja Moin uddin not Kwaja Nazimuddin.

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