With the proceedings of the four-day 16th International Urdu Conference continuing this weekend at the Arts Council in Karachi, there is this remarkable outburst of literary buzz in the city. Here is a festival that surpasses all other literary festivals in terms of the number of writers and intellectuals that it brings together and the participation of enthusiastic citizens that it attracts.
But what does it say about the influence that literature has on Pakistani society? I often think about this relationship in the context of the social, moral and intellectual values held by people. Even if literature is meant only for the better educated, the catchment area is bound to be very large in this, the fifth most populous country in the world.
Obviously, I am distracted by the cultural and educational deprivations of our society that are manifest in the collective behaviour. Besides, I have constantly complained about the dearth of reading habits, particularly among the youth. We have no love for books. Consequently, we lag behind almost all other countries in human and social indicators.
Luckily, I had a wonderful opportunity to give vent to my feelings as the keynote speaker in the inaugural session of the Urdu conference on Thursday. I chose to focus almost exclusively on the importance of reading fiction and how this would unleash the creativity of the people and resist the dark forces of extremism, hate and intolerance.
But before I dilate a little on the points I was able to make in my presentation, let me explain that my quarrel is not with the quality of literature that we have in Urdu and also in other Pakistani languages. Our poets, writers of fiction, and critics are very committed. What we do not have are readers and an educational and cultural environment in which intellectual activities can flourish. What I would call an intellectual infrastructure is just not there.
I had the opportunity to cite examples of how fiction is read in many other countries and invoke observations made by prominent writers who are globally respected. For instance, consider this quotation of Jorge Luis Borges: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of a library”.
One inspiration I had was a lecture delivered some years ago by British writer of fiction Neil Gaiman. Its title is in itself the entire message: ‘Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming’. Evidently, Neil Gaiman, who also writes for children, was talking about his own country. I underlined the urgency of fostering a love for reading fiction and reading for pleasure in Pakistan if we want to move forward as a civilized people.
There had to be a lot of emphasis on learning to use our imagination and extending the frontiers of our dreams. We have this famous quotation of Albert Einstein that I often use in my interactions with college and university students: “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.
By way of an interpretation, we have another comment Einstein had made. Some parents once asked him how they could make their children intelligent. His response: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales”.
Fortuitously, a poem by great modern Urdu poet Munir Niazi has reverberations of the same idea. ‘Sapna aagey jata kaisey’ soulfully illuminates the thought that when you live in isolation then even your dreams cannot go very far. I was delighted by the audience’s admiration of Munir Niazi.
Essentially, I tried to explain how reading for pleasure can change one’s life. It helps us think new thoughts and explore places and worlds that we would never know otherwise. Fiction also helps us understand our inner feelings and conflicts, suggesting ways of dealing with deep emotions. However, the most significant contribution of fiction is that it builds empathy – the ability to appreciate how others feel and behave.
One purpose that I had in mind was to present the believe-it-or-not facts about how books are read in other countries and how the printed books have prevailed in the digital age. I also tried to explain that the outside world only recognizes a great writer when he/she is fulsomely read in his/her own country. That is how writers who have written in languages spoken by a population that, say, is less than half or quarter of Karachi’s population have won major international awards.
Now, a few of those facts. Last year, 788 million printed books were sold in the US. In the UK, the number of books sold in 2022 was 348 million. The global book market last year was valued at $141 billion. More than one million copies of a novel by Haruki Murakami were sold in Japan within seven days of its release in 2014. The novel, of course, was written in the Japanese language.
I am an avid collector of facts about books and they are endless. But where do we belong in this world? For us, these facts are fairytales. And our reality, in this context, resides on the campuses of our major universities. I say this because experts have suggested that the edge the US has over other countries in innovation and invention is attributed to science fiction that the country’s boys and girls had read as students.
When I think of what can happen on our campuses, I am reminded of how Mashal Khan was lynched by his fellow students on the campus of Wali Khan University in Mardan in April 2017 – merely on allegations of blasphemy.
There is sufficient video evidence to show that the supposedly post-graduate students had behaved worse than a mob would on the street – and the mob on the street is a prominent facet of Pakistan. By the way, today – December 3 – is the second anniversary of the lynching of a Sri Lankan engineer in Sialkot.
The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: ghazi_salahuddin hotmail.com