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November 25, 2019

Literature, politics, and resistance: Part - VII


November 25, 2019

Dr Anwaar Ahmed has penned some of the best short stories in Urdu that are part of our resistance literature heritage. Coming from Multan, Dr Anwaar Ahmed has devoted most of his life to teaching and writing and has authoured articles, books, columns, plays, and essays on literary criticism and has also emerged as one of the best short-story writers since the late 1960s.

Here I introduce his short story, 'Shehr Ka Pehla Muhibbe Watan' translated into English by Zafar Hussain Zaidi as 'The first child patriot of the city'. This is a story about a city which has existed and thrived for hundreds of years but its denizens are devoid of all feelings; houses are full of people who have no souls, bodies are moving but like inanimate objects being pushed around. Anwar Ahmed writes and I translate:

“When he joined the gathering, the party was in full bloom. All present were high achievers and everyone had accomplished a lot in life. He felt sad when he realized that every high achiever present there was narrating the same joke at his turn; and every time the same joke was repeated, the party burst into laughter. Everyone laughed so much that they nearly fainted; and then they would pick official napkins from their pockets to wipe the corners of their eyes.”

Now the readers may ask themselves about the location of this event and the credentials of those in attendance; who are these high achievers repeating the same anecdote at their turn and who are the listeners laughing like mad and using official handkerchiefs to wipe their eyes.

Though Dr Anwaar Ahmed is better known as a critic, his main focus has been short stories. Another of his memorable short story is 'Dardaan Di Mari Dilrhi Aleel Ay' (My suffering soul is pretty ill). Anwaar wrote this story when Z A Bhutto was hanged in 1979. This story is full of mythological references with a bright-eyed hero betrayed by opportunist intellectuals, judges, and writers. There are speakers supporting the martial-law administrator in TV talk shows. The powerful ones are depicted as mahouts commanding elephants. The bright-eyed hero narrates his dream in the following words(my translation):

“I saw that those who commanded the elephants are being trampled by their own elephants. I saw that pastures are no more with those who had their stomachs full; neither are the wellsprings controlled by those who had drunk a lot. Instead, the starving and the thirsty are now taking over, and altering their destiny. And this is not a scene from my community, this is the picture of god’s land. Now listen, this dream will materialize only if you remove the fear of the elephant owners from your hearts.

“If you are unable to do so, rest assured that you will bequeath your future generations not only with agony and pain, but also with hunger and thirst. And my murderers will ask my own family to pay my blood money. There will be many mahouts calling you in my name.”

It is not difficult to imagine who the elephant owners are and which families have been paying the blood money of their own martyrs again and again.

Now we come to another respected name in Urdu short-story writing: Rasheed Amjad. His story 'Banjar Lahu Manzar' (Bloody barren scene) is a masterpiece of resistance literature. The narrator in this story is describing his city which has been occupied by ‘others’. The occupiers have claimedownership of his city and think that human beings are devoid of wisdom. The usurpers deem it necessary to impart wisdom to the people. While describing this, the narrator covers himself with a blanket and tries to sleep. But then he hears the strokes of whips around him; the whips murmur into his ears the following: “Don’t you know that thinking is forbidden even under a blanket?”

Then he picks a book but finds it meaningless, because the book says: ‘the era of slavery is over’. Once again he hears the strokes of whips and the tiktiki (wooden stand on which victims are tied for flogging) is knocking at his door. He say, ‘I am a slave, son of a slave, and grandson of a slave, and I offer myself’. The story moves forward, and Amjad Rasheed writes:

“Somebody sitting in the control room switches on a button. Radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, all disappear in the blink of an eye; faces and shapes all vanish within a moment; the moment it takes to switch off just one button; an entire era evaporates, just like that. He switches on another button, and lo and behold, radio, newspapers, and magazines have new voices; news bulletins on TV have replaced the old picture with a new one. One switch is off, another is on, within a blink, cities, homes, offices, restaurants turn into prisons.

“On the TV screen the old announcer reads the news of the beginning of a new era. My wife switches off the TV and tells me with a woeful voice…they have conquered us again. The triumphant general mounts a tank and enters the city square, looks at the crowd and asks… 'who are these?’, ‘these are people’. He laughs and says, ‘oh, I see, these are the people. ‘And, what is this? This is a clock sir, it tells the time’. ‘But we don’t need time, just stop the clock, and put the calendar back. The person tied with the tiktiki moans in pain, and the bloodhound growls at the smell of blood.”

Though this short story appears to be symboli, how can it be clearer with any better depiction of events in the history of Pakistan. How many times have we been conquered and how many times have the switches in the control room been turned on and turned off? How many times have attempts been made to stop the progress of time and how often have we seen the calendar being pushed back? Resistance literature reminds us of all this.

And now we come to the most prominent name of resistance literature in Urdu: Zaheda Hina, a columnist, essayist, novelist, and short story writer. She started writing when she was still a teenager. Now after over 50 years of her literary journey, she is one of the most erudite and scholarly writers in Urdu journalism and literature. Her intellectual breadth is diverse and philosophical depth is profound. Zaheda Hina has at least half a dozen critically acclaimed books to her credit including 'Qaidi Saans Leta Hai' (The prisoner is breathing), 'Raqs-e-bismil' (translated by Yousuf Shahid as The dance macabre), and 'Rah Mein Ajal Hai' (Death is waiting on the way).

With her fearless writings, Zaheda Hina has tried to unmask state repression in Pakistan and other countries. Though I can mention dozens of her short stories, here I recall a couple of her best: 'Jismo Zabaan ki Maut se Pehle (Before the body dies and the tongue mortifies), and 'Bood o Nabood ka Ashob' translated by Faiz Ahmed Faiz as the The torture of ‘To be or not to be’ and by C M Naim as To be or not to be. In this story a prisoner is being tortured, and Zaheda Hina narrates how the tortured victim thinks while enduring the pangs. You may relate this story with so many victims from Hassan Nasir and Nazeer Abbasi to Saleem Shahzad and Victor Jara.

To be continued

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

Email: [email protected]