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June 15, 2019

The art of Enver Sajjad


June 15, 2019

Dr Enver Sajjad, who died in Lahore on June 6, 2019, at the age of 84, started writing in the early 1950s when he was still a teenager. So his span of artistic and literary life stretches at least half a century; even if you discount the last years of his life when he was ill and not doing much creative work, apart from some dull editing jobs that he had to do for his living – despite his old age and feeble frame.

This writer first read his work in the early 1980s when the ‘Urdu-medium’ progressive youth in Karachi were longing for something to read, other than books from Progress Publishers, Moscow. That was the time when Maktaba-e-Danyal in Karachi was also publishing Urdu books by Syed Sibte Hasan; these included ‘Maazi ke Mazaar’ (Tombs of the past), ‘Musa se Marx tak’ (From Moses to Marx), and ‘Pakistan mein tehzeeb ka irtiqa’ (Cultural evolution in Pakistan). Dr Mubarak Ali had started writing but, lacking a good publisher and distributor, he himself was composing and publishing his books from Hyderabad and had not become a well-known and respected historian as he is now. With this dearth of Urdu books, when Dr Enver Sajjad’s translation of ‘The Blue Notebook’ was published by Maktaba-e-Danyal Karachi, it was very well received.

The Blue Notebook – translated into Urdu as ‘Neeli Notebook’ by Sajjad – is a novella by the Russian poet and writer Emmanuil Kazakevich (1913 – 1962). It narrates some events in Lenin’s life when he was hiding in a village named Razliv, near the then capital of the Russian Empire, Petrograd, right before the revolution in 1917. Ahmed Saleem, a renowned social scientist and writer in his own right, wrote the foreword titled ‘A note from the morgue’ to the Urdu translation of ‘The Blue Notebook’ by Sajjad.

The foreword itself is a treat to read, in which Saleem quotes Dostoyevsky, to draw parallels between the Pakistan of the 1980s under General Zia with Tsarist Russia in the early 20th century. “We are not alive, though we live. We are not in our graves, though we have died.” This quote by Dostoyevsky applies more to the Pakistan of today than it applied in the Pakistan under Zia. Those who differed from General Zia or the Tsar went into hiding to avoid arrest and jail. But now arrest and jail are minor punishments as compared with what happened to journalists such as Hamid Mir and Saleem Shahzad.

You read ‘The Blue Notebook’ and you realize why Enver Sajjad selected this particular novella for translation. His prose is as flawless and smooth as it could be. In his introduction to ‘Neeli Notebook’, Sajjad describes how he looked at Lenin and his contribution to the Soviet Revolution. Though the Islamic Socialism of Z A Bhutto had produced more Islamization than socialism, after Bhutto’s downfall many of his supporters still reckoned that a revolution was possible, and Enver Sajjad was one of them.

Sajjad writes that when he tried to visualize a world without Lenin and the Soviet Revolution, a much more horrible picture emerged in his mind; a world much darker and bleak with evils unbound. Enver Sajjad translated it when he was in prison after the July-1977 military coup of General Ziaul Haq. ‘The Blue Notebook’ provided a sound footing to keep the revolutionary zeal alive during those dark days of General Zia. The book describes real-life characters who were fighting against one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. The political activists and leaders who kept the torch burning when their comrades were being arrested, incarcerated, killed, or maimed. Enver Sajjad’s translation became an instant hit with fighters for democracy in Pakistan, and still gives a good read.

Sajjad’s second masterpiece was also written under imprisonment when Z A Bhutto had been hanged on dubious charges in April 1979. This was not a translation but a novel inspired by the artistic works of the Dutch painter, Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516). Enver Sajjad wrote his novel tilted ‘Khushion ka Bagh’ (Garden of Delights) in just ten days between August 10 and August 20, 1979.

It was published in 1981 in India and I got hold of it in Delhi in the mid-1980s. It was a beautiful publication designed by Ramachandran and with calligraphy by Jamal Gayavi. We can’t discuss and understand why Sajjad wrote this novel unless we look into Bosch’s life and works. Bosch lived and worked in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, when Europe was going through a transition from the dark medieval ages to the Renaissance of new learning and reformation. Bosch’s work contains fantastic illustrations of religious concepts and narratives. His macabre and nightmarish depictions of hell greatly influenced Enver Sajjad’s novel.

With Sajjad’s in-depth understanding of European art and culture, it was but natural that he chose Bosch’s work as the motif for ‘Khushion ka Bagh’. Bosch’s most famous painting is ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, from where Sajjad got the title of his novel, to show how – with a lapse of 500 years – Pakistan was still living in almost the same social conditions. ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ is a triptych – a set of three panels of paintings – in which the left panel depicts the Garden of Eden and the right panel, the Last Judgment.

In the three pieces of Eden, Earth, and Hell, Sajjad was more interested in hell. Bosch’s art was inspired by heretical points of view and he is now considered the forefather of surrealism. Enver Sajjad himself was an unorthodox artist, thinker and writer; his defiance of conformity and his dissident voice emerged forcefully in his novel. Sajjad looked at Bosch as a Renaissance man who played the role of a bridge between the Gothic and the modern; a role Sajjad fancied for himself too, and he was not off the mark.

Bosch was also a forerunner of magical realism in painting, which was to emerge in literature centuries later. Bosch’s world, as explained by Enver Sajjad, was dominated by the devil and his disciples who roamed around with monsters and ogres to frighten and take over human souls. The church claimed that only it had the power to protect and redeem humanity from the fires of hell and magical entrapments. Though the new thinking led by science was challenging religion, the church was adamant. The church and the pope declared many philosophers and scientists as heretics, magicians, and even witches.

If you keep in mind the perpetual controversy on moon-sighting, see how relevant Bosch and Sajjad appear even today. Enver Sajjad’s novel ‘Khushion ka Bagh’ is interesting and worth reading, but his foreword is even more informative and inspiring. Sajjad informs us that as late as in the 19th century, some religious leaders in Europe were writing books claiming that witches could appear as normal human beings and even as practising Christians, could undermine religion by their conspiracies. They claimed that many natural calamities and maladies, both physical and social, were the result of magic.

When you see in Pakistan even schools being used against the anti-polio campaign, you tend to thanks Enver Sajjad for enlightening us. Even male impotence and female infertility were attributed to magic, and the birth of abnormal children was the devil’s work, Sajjad continues. The novel and the foreword are both – though written 40 years ago – still relevant to Pakistan. If you have not read them do it and you will find yourself better informed and enlightened. Tomorrow, in the second and last part of this article we will discuss some of his later writings.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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