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November 18, 2019

Literature, politics, and resistance


November 18, 2019

Another valorous resistance writer was Akhtar Jamal who died in 2011 in Canada. She was a leading Urdu short-story writer and her books include, 'Khalai Daur ki Muhabbat' (Love in the space age), 'Samjotha Express', 'Unglian Figar Apni (My bleeding fingers) and 'Zard Patton ka Ban' (A garden of yellow leaves).

She was one of the most steadfast fighters for democracy in Pakistan, and no adversity could cow her. She endured extreme financial constraints and refused all attempts by the General Zia regime to bribe her. Like the notorious McCarthy era of the 1950s in the US, General Zia’s era in Pakistan was a period when most writers were either subdued or enticed to financial gains, but not Akhtar Jamal and her husband Ahmed Ali Khan who was a poet and writer. Tariq Ahsan was their only son who taught at the Quaid-e-Azam University, but the state apparatus did not tolerate him.

In a familiar sequence, unknown personnel abducted him and accused him of writing against the state which at that time meant the military dictatorship of General Zia. Martial-law authorities imprisoned him two years in Adiala jail where Akhtar Jamal used to visit her son, travelling by buses and wagons. Akhtar Jamal was a mother who endured all this, even after losing her daughter, Tazeen, who passed away young. All these atrocities were committed under the watch of General Mujb, who was General Zia’s information minister targeting all dissenters’ especially progressive activists and intellectuals.

Akhtar Jamal went through intense personal crises but remained true to their ideals of a democratic and progressive Pakistan. Akhtar Jamal’s short story written in the 1980s, 'Salgirah ka cake' (The birthday cake) was included in her collection 'Khalai Daur ki Muhabbat' published in 1991. This is the story of a mother whose son is a political prisoner. On his birthday, the mother brings a cake to him in jail. The following translation of an extract is mine:

“Among the visitors were a few burka-clad women, and some men with boys and girls. I sat myself on a wooden bench with my basket and waited for my son. In front of me, across the jail bars, there was a 19-year-old boy, with shackles on his feet. He had a glint in his eyes with which he was trying to rekindle the light in his mother’s eyes. The mother was crying profusely.

“Nearby, another prisoner without shackles had stretched his arms across the iron bars; he was holding his four-year-old daughter. The little girl was pressing her face against the iron bars and from the side the father was trying to kiss her. 'Please protect my daughter from all troubles’, he exclaimed. ‘Please don’t wean her from milk as yet, I heard the price of milk has increased’."

Read this short story by Akhtar Jamal and then try to recall the last meeting of Benazir Bhutto with her father in jail. The father is across the iron bar, the daughter wants to hug him. The jailer is requested to allow the daughter and father to embrace each other. The jailer is bound by the orders from the higher authorities. The request is not granted. If you doubt this account, please read Col Rafi Uddin’s eyewitness narration in his book, 'Last 323 days of Bhutto'.

Then also try to remember how late in the night a daughter under custody, Maryam Nawaz, is taken to meet her father, Nawaz Sharif; and then after a brief meeting, she is brought back to jail in the wee hours. After reading Akhtar Jamal’s story you feel like the bygone era is not gone at all. Now look at a short story 'Shaheed' by Ahmed Dawood, translated into Urdu as The Patient by M Basheer Zafar. Ahmed Daud’s collection of stories titled 'Dushmandar Admi' (The man who keeps enemies) was published in 1983. The book was dedicated to Maj Ishaq and it contained his stories written from 1972 to 1982.

'Shaheed' is the story of two friends, one of whom is seriously ill and is being taken to hospital in the dead of night. Apparently, his appendicitis has burst and the patient is in extreme pain. With a lot of difficulties, a rickshaw is arranged; read my translation of what happens:

“At the roundabout, there was a police check post. The police had blocked all the roads with empty drums, and a couple of vehicles were being checked. On the sidewalk there was a cabin in which tea pots had boiling water on burning stoves…some sentinels were reclining on charpoys; some others were walking across the roundabout. They seemed like aliens and strangers.

“A sentinel used his torchlight to look into the rickshaw, and asked, ‘oh, you look drunk; jump out immediately. ‘My friend is seriously ill’, the sentinel looked again in disbelief and said, ‘when you drink too much, you get sick; jump out’."

In this story, the patient dies on the road, and Ahmed Daud calls him Shaheed. Read this story and picture the roadblocks from Gilgit to Gwadar; you will feel as if this resistance literature is a true reflection of our society be it Balochistan or Waziristan, nobody is safe and secure from this treatment. Now, we come to Ejaz Rahi (1942 – 2006) who compiled a collection of resistance literature in 'Gawahi' (Witness) in 1978. Published by Naazir Press, Karachi (no relation with this columnist) 'Gawahi' contains just 14 short stories from writers such as Ejaz Rahi himself and Rasheed Amjad to Freeda Hafeez and Mirza Hamid Baig.

Ejaz Rahi’s short story 'Saheem-e-Zulamat', translated into English as Partners in Darkness by Z A Zaidi, is a symbolic story but it says a lot. Read the lines below translated by me: “Azra’s corpse had no shroud and no coffin, it was lying at the door of my home. In parts, vultures had eaten the flesh off her body. Fresh blood was dripping, which the bosom of earth imbibed. In front of every door, lay the corpse of an Azra. The blood from their bodies had turned the Padma River red. And when the red Padma overflowed with blood, it swept away everything that I had, we had.”

Move forward a couple of pages in this story and you read the following: “The pickaxes of the earthquake are hollowing out the foundations. He didn’t pay attention to a word, and kept saying, ‘You are not feeling, you don’t feel it, do you? No, like always, you won’t feel it this time too’. The old soldier laughed, then the second, and third, all laughed. He felt a swarm of chortles on his wary face, attacking like locusts.” This short story by Ejaz Rahi appeared in 'Gawahi', just eight months after the imposition of martial law by General Zia.

The compiler of 'Gawahi', Ejaz Rahi was punished for his courage; the martial law authorities got him dismissed from his job. Within the resistance literature of that time, there is a marvelous short story by Afzal Tauseef, titled 'Pacheeswan Ghanta' (The 25th hour). Afzal Tauseef was born in Hoshiarpur in pre-Partition India, and her parents moved to Quetta in 1947. In the decades to come, she became a professor and one of the most progressive and prolific writers of resistance literature in Pakistan. In her lifetime she authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles, columns, and essays. We will discuss some of her work in the next part tomorrow.

The writer holds a PhD from the

University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

To be continued

Email: [email protected]