The News on Sunday sat down with Raza Rabbani at his official residence in Islamabad and discussed with him his views on literature and politics.
The News on Sunday: Why did you decide to write fiction?
Raza Rabbani: What I have written cannot be called fiction because I have observed all these incidents during my time in jail and courts and on my way to and from work. I observe these things and record them. The real incidents are then turned into stories. Therefore, you cannot call them fiction.
TNS: How did you decide between the short story and the novel? Why short stories and why not a novel?
RR: I don’t think, at this stage, I am capable of tackling a novel. I think I would not have been able to sustain the narrative and its scope. You can say I chose this because of some escapist tendency in me. I thought short stories would be a better way of expression because I felt the shorter the narrative, the lesser the exposure of my shortcomings would be.
TNS: Does it mean the short story is an inferior genre?
RR: No. Not at all. There are some short stories which are stronger than many novels. I just chose this genre because I have been gathering stories. I have not been thinking like a novelist. I just have been thinking about all the stories scattered around me.
TNS: You have previously written on politics and legislation, and now you have turned to writing literature. How do you feel about the difference in these two different types of writing?
RR: I feel a society cannot survive without literature. It will be like a body without a soul. Literature, in a society like ours, is incredibly vitalising because we have had a strong tradition of university activism and our coffee houses. How can one ignore our strong tradition of mushairas and mehfils? I think it has been a deliberate decision in the times of different dictatorships to marginalise literature because it can provide a counter-paradigm. That is why now we are witnessing a rise in criminality, insensitivity and corruption. I think a society without literature and arts would be a freak society.
TNS: What are the consequences in a society which marginalises its writers and artists?
RR: You see great writers and artists dying out, and there are not any replacements coming up. Isn’t that a sign of cultural decline? We have lost our Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib but can you name a single author who can be called a replacement of Faiz? That is cultural decline. I feel if we do not mend our ways, we might lose everything. I am beginning to dread this kind of a future. I shudder to think where we might end up as a society.
TNS: You mentioned coffee houses and mushairas. You must have witnessed things changing.
RR: The killing of the culture of coffee houses started with Zia-ul Haq. Dictators do not like people having dialogues. They just want to impose their monologue on the society.
TNS: What about Bhutto? He also banned some things.
RR: Bhutto tried to tone down his idealism by paying heed to the practicality of political life. He may have taken a strategic retreat so that his long-term goals may be realised, but it did not end up that way. Zia-ul Haq and the global empire was waiting to pounce on him. Perhaps it was Bhutto’s nuclear ambition that made him too dangerous. Moreover, he had also told the Arabs that their oil could be used as a weapon by them.
TNS: In your stories, you have portrayed the poor as essentially benign characters? Is it not a bit simplistic? What about those poor people who become big shots in our society through corruption and graft?
RR: I don’t want to dignify such formerly marginalised and now powerful people by writing about them. You may call it a moral stance. It is perhaps my childhood training. My parents would not use the government car for personal use. And if they did, they would count the kilometres and pay the state back for those personal travel.
TNS: There may come a time when a poor person has no other option. Laws are made by the powerful for the powerful. Sometimes a little bit of leeway might mean survival or extinction for a poor person. What do you think about those poor people who commit minor immoral acts?
RR: I think that is a valid point. There are parents who do not object to their daughters bringing in some extra money by selling their bodies. I think those people who have no alternative are forced into such situations where they have to renegotiate their values. These are survival tactics. I am more disturbed by the acts of those powerful individuals who have all sorts of alternatives, and still, they choose socially unjust way.
I feel sick when a person from the lower class is arrested for minor crimes because that type of a crime does not damage the entire society. I think someone who has stolen billions from the people damages the society to a greater level. But such people go scot-free. Our system could not even bring Musharraf to a court. The law should be the same for the poor and the rich. That is what I have tried to capture in my stories.
TNS: What are your plans?
RR: I will keep writing both fiction and nonfiction. I have a fixed position on so many issues of moral and political significance. I did not take the oath when General Musharraf was presiding the swearing in ceremony. I derive strength from such things to keep the correct course. Moreover, I feel inspired by Faiz and Jalib. I think the spirit of their work will guide my future work. I am obsessed with social justice. I do not care what anyone thinks of such a stance.