Saturday July 20, 2024

A night for literature

The 11th UBL Literature and Arts Awards ceremony held recently in Karachi was one such exception

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
June 03, 2024
An image from the 11th UBL Literature and Arts Awards.—X@UBL/file
An image from the 11th UBL Literature and Arts Awards.—X@UBL/file 

I normally do not write on anything related to the corporate sector for two reasons. First, the corporate sector in Pakistan – or in any other country for that matter – has profit generation as its primary objective, which does not interest me much.

Second, activities under the corporate social responsibility (CSR) banner that some businesses use to claim that they are operating according to principles that make a positive impact on society and the environment sound hollow to me in most cases.

Nearly every corporate entity claims to make ‘a positive impact’ but hardly anybody actually does. The mad rush for profit generation by corporates has done more harm to society and the environment than any ordinary person would ever do. But still, there are some exceptions that one cannot ignore. The 11th UBL Literature and Arts Awards ceremony held recently in Karachi was one such exception.

Nit-pickers point out that Alfred Nobel was the inventor of one of the most destructive weapons in history – dynamite – but that does not deprive him of recognition as the founder of the most prestigious awards in multiple fields of research and creativity.

So if there is any activity or event that celebrates literature and the arts, one can, for a while, ignore a company’s profit motive. Pakistan as a state has awarded prizes to thousands of personalities, many of whom had questionable credentials and benefitted from their close connections with the right – or perhaps wrong – circles.

The UBL Literature and Arts Award has demonstrated that the corporate sector can play a positive role by appreciating writers and encouraging literary pursuits that otherwise do not bring much reward to authors, poets, and translators in a society such as Pakistan.

It has now become arguably the most celebrated award that honours artists and writers. That is the reason various award categories receive hundreds of nominations from all over Pakistan, and reading them is much more demanding than sifting through them. The latest iteration of the awards considered authors who published their work in 2021 and 2022.

Here, I am not going to comment on all the winners and their works, but those that attracted my attention deserve a mention – this is not to say that others deserved any less. Mohsin Shakeel won the award for Urdu poetry for his book ‘Kuchh Ishq Kiya’. He is a well-known Urdu playwright and poet from Quetta, and his renditions have won him many admirers across the country.

Mohsin is a noticeable voice in contemporary Urdu poetry, with three collections of poetry to his credit, likely to add more nuanced sensibilities in the existing treasury of Urdu verses in Pakistan.

The Pakistani languages award went to Dr Wiqar Ali Shah for his work ‘Abdul Ghani Khan – Zhwand au zamana’ in Pashto. He has contributed immensely to biography and historiography, with particular reference to Pashto literature and Pashtun nationalism – from Khushal Khan Kattak to Ghani Khan. He is one of those who look at history differently from what our state wants us to see.

Ghani Khan was a strong voice of sanity and wrote poetry to expose injustices in society. Dr Wiqar Shah has done a marvellous job by writing about Ghani Khan in detail.

In English fiction, Haroon Khalid Akhtar’s gripping work ‘The Liar’s Truth’ was a resounding success and deserves more comments. Haroon’s father, Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, was one of the best fiction writers in Urdu in the 20th century. His son has taken on the torch and is already on his way to becoming one of the finest English writers in the country, and hopefully in the entire Anglophone world of literature.

Haroon Khalid Akhtar’s fiction is deceptively cunning and draws the reader from the onset. He has written two novels so far and is likely to contribute many more in the future, as he is still young and full of creative potential.

His prose is so charming that I ended up reading his novels multiple times just to savour its smooth flow with diction that may be an envy for many budding writers. Haroon appears to be cheeky and cheerful in most of his writings, but his cheekiness is not superficial, as it derives its strength from his profound observations of society. His professional career in banking – much similar to what Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi did – afforded Haroon an insight into how mundane and monotonous work takes its toll on creative people; and he uses this observation skilfully in his novels.

Interestingly, Haroon’s first novel ‘Melody of a Tear’ also garnered him a UBL Award for Best Fiction. ‘The Liar’s Truth’ is a masterpiece of political satire; it revolves around a banker called Arsalan who is dull to his colleagues and obsequious to his bosses. His background in cricket contributes to his selection as Pakistan’s next prime minister by the most powerful god, Zeus, who is sort of a frontman for the powers that be. Then a hilarious turn of events starts as the prospective PM selects the most incompetent but colourful team. The rest you will get to know when you read the book.

Dr Tariq Rehman won the award for best English non-fiction for his meticulously researched book, ‘Pakistan’s Wars: An alternative history’. Tariq Rehman is a most distinguished scholar and has written over a dozen books on diverse subjects. His areas of research are as multilayered as he himself is. For a moment, he appears to be a linguist, and then you discover a historian of literature in him.

Another layer is political history, where he lays bare all the lies that we have been teaching our children about Pakistan’s wars from the 1948 Kashmir battles to the 1999 Kargil War and the never-ending ‘war on terror’.

Tariq Rehman presents a different perspective on the wars that Pakistan has fought in the last 75 years. He does not confine himself to wars with India alone, he also covers Pakistan’s struggle to control non-state actors who did not come from thin air. Chapters dealing with the wars and the political unrest that led to the war with India in 1971 are eye-opening. Primarily, he exposes the decision-making elite that leads the country into conflicts and then does not know how to extract the country from that mess.

Dr Aurangzeb Khan Niazi won his award for Best Urdu Non-Fiction Book, ‘Urdu Adab – Maholiyati Tanazur’. The book is perhaps the first attempt at exploring Urdu literature with an ecological perspective.

Shaheen Abbas received his award for Best Urdu Fiction Book ‘Leema Yakka Baan’. The best highlight of the event was the special category award to celebrate the wide-ranging impact of Zaheda Hina for her exemplary work over a long period of time. The prestigious ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ was well-deserved, as Zaheda Hina has remained a leading light of resistance both as a columnist and fiction writer.

Zaheda Hina’s commitment to democracy, human rights, international peace, justice, literature and people’s history is not matched by any other writer in recent history in Pakistan. She has dozens of short stories to her credit and has penned dozens of articles, essays, and research pieces that show her keen observations of society and the injustices prevailing in it.

Overall, the 11th UBL Literature and Arts Awards ceremony was worth attending, but the male host of the event should have been more discreet and respectful to his cohost who was doing a better job. She was much younger and deserved appreciation rather than taunts.

Despite that, well done UBL; Zia Ijaz, Raza Haider, and Asghar Nadeem Syed deserve praise for leading their teams to accomplish this feat.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: