The prospect of meeting an author of 88 books is both exciting and daunting. The acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance would have hindered this meeting if I were not too keen to know the views of Dr Saleem Akhtar, renowned Urdu critic and short story writer, about women which he has addressed extensively in his books.
Dr Saleem Akhtar condemns all forms of injustice against women and says, rather furiously, that women in our country have to pay the price of "being born in a Muslim family". He blatantly opposes the essentialist ideas about gender which maintain that women’s and men’s differences are a consequence of ‘biology’.
These essentialist ideas, he says, are translated into rules of conduct for woman as a wife, sister, mother and daughter. "Women can’t be controlled by a masculine representative of authority. They are equal human beings with similar feelings, emotions, nerve impulses and sexual desires."
We are sitting in his rather plain dining ell at his house in Lahore’s Allama Iqbal Town. A glass-fronted book case stands against the wall on my right. I see books scattered around on the dining table in the left corner of the room where I notice his granddaughter trying hard to concentrate on the book she is reading. Behind a brown-coloured couch is a low-wall which peeks into a hallway where I chance upon some beautiful photographs hanging on the wall, amongst them a large wedding photograph of Dr Saleem Akhtar and his wife.
Born in Lahore in 1934, Dr Saleem Akhtar spent his early childhood in both Pune and Mumbai. He was 13 when his family migrated to Lahore at the time of partition from Ambala. He continued his studies in Lahore till Grade Ten. He graduated from Government College Asghar Mall Rawalpindi in 1955. Having had to discontinue his further studies owing to financial crisis, he earned a Certificate in Library Science from Punjab University in 1958 and served there as a librarian for a while. In 1960, he completed his Master’s in Urdu Literature from Punjab University as a private student. From 1962 to 1970 he taught as a lecturer at Emerson College Multan. He joined Government College Lahore as a lecturer of Urdu literature, criticism and linguistics in 1972 and retired as an Associate Professor in 1994. However, he continued to teach research methodology, linguistics and Urdu literature to MA and MPhil students as a visiting professor at Government College Lahore till 2005.
He always had plans to pursue a master’s degree in philosophy; however, his interest in psychology took precedence and he extensively studied and analysed the theories of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Alfred Adler. Gradually, his comprehensive knowledge of psychology began translating into his short stories and literary criticism. Most of his short stories were influenced by the tradition of psychoanalysis developed by Sigmund Freud.
"My psychoanalytic approach to literature earned me the label of a psychoanalytic critic and some of my early works were in fact presented as case histories," he says.
The psychoanalytic approach to literature mainly rests on the theories of Freud because of his characterisation of the urged instincts but it also tends to emphasise the ways in which authors create works that appeal to the repressed wishes and fantasies of readers. Some of Dr Saleem Akhtar’s well-known short stories are Muthi bhar Saanp, Karwey Badaam and Chaalis Minute ki Aurat.
"My short stories revolve around themes of social deviance, abnormal psychology and perversion," he says.
In contemporary literature and Urdu criticism, Dr Saleem Akhtar is known for his works in psychology. His important works in this area are: Aurat Jins aur Jazbat, Hamari Jinsi aur Jazbati Zindagi, Teen Baray Nafsiyatdaan (Three Great Psychologists) and Khudshanasi. His books include short stories, novelettes, travelogues, text books, books on criticism, psychology, religion, culture, Iqbaliyat and Ghalibiyat.
We begin conversing specifically about Aurat Jins aur Jazbat and Aurat Jins ke Ainey Mai. "These two books are the psychoanalytic studies of women. They created quite an uproar in the literary circles and became very controversial. It was not very easy for people to digest my views."
‘From the beginning of time, women have been subordinated. Biological differences are not enough to explain the male domination. Women’s inferior position was established when man recognised himself as an essential being and excluded woman from his system. Women in turn accepted the situation and it was reinforced from generation to generation," explains Dr Akhtar.
According to him, literature has also been used as a form of propaganda for patriarchy and many authors had reactionary ideas which glorified stereotyping and female objectification. In the words of Thomas Aquinas "Woman is an imperfect man" and then there is William Shakespeare’s famously exclaimed dialogue from Hamlet "Frailty, thy name is woman".
Dr Akhtar recalls a couplet by Allama Iqbal "Muqalmat-e-Aflatoon na likh saki lekin/isi ke batan se tuta sharar-e-Aflatoon". He anxiously explains how Iqbal denounces woman’s ability to think logically, abstractly and analytically but claims they are biologically nurturing and compassionate creatures who give birth to babies. "Giving birth to a child is not a qualification but a physical attribution," says Akhtar.
Talking about female sexuality, Dr Akhtar says that women’s libido is just as strong as men’s but, throughout history, the patriarchal system has tried to repress it. Female sexuality has been addressed by principles of ethics, morality and theology. A woman is expected to enter marriage as a virgin. The man, on the other hand, is free to have both sex before marriage and extra-marital affairs. "Just as the bride approaches the wedding bed, she is suddenly expected to be sensuous. Majority of the men do not acknowledge female sexuality; compulsory sex within marriage may be satisfying for men but it is the very opposite for women. This situation can result in dissatisfaction and psychological distress," he says.
I am reminded of Amrita Pritam’s poem titled ‘Kuwari’ (Virgin):
"When I moved into your bed,
I was not alone-there were
two of us
A married woman and a virgin
To sleep with you
I had to offer the virgin in me
And I did so
This slaughter is permissible in law
Not the indignity of it
And I bore the onslaught of the insult
The next morning
I looked at my blood stained hands
I washed my hands
But the moment I stood before the mirror,
I found her standing there,
the one whom I thought I had slaughtered last night
Was it too dark in your bed
I had to kill one and I killed the other?’
Our discussion switches to the institution of marriage, relationships and divorce as we also discuss Dr Saleem Akhtar’s book Shaadi, Jins aur Jazbat. "I believe the major cause of divorce is the cursed joint family system in our society. The girl is always taken for granted and expected to adjust in the new family while having to give up her desires, wishes and attitudes."
He mentions drug abuse and sexual dissatisfaction as another cause of the increasing divorce rate. "The formula for a happy marriage is based on just a few factors which include mutual understanding, sexual compatibility, commitment and emotional maturity."
Dr Akhtar the writer of published books Adab aur La’shaoor and Adab aur Culture talks about different cultural values and standards of morality and conventionality. "Not many people know that I am fond of watching English films and documentaries. I remember watching a documentary called People and Places where they were showing the naked tribes of Africa and South America. The tribal men and women roam around more or less naked. There is no concept of adultery and even female sexuality is not subject to rigorous controls."
Dr Akhtar says, "having studied different cultures in the world, I have come to the conclusion that no culture can be labelled right or wrong".
Dr Akhtar argues there is nothing known as Pakistani culture. "It is an amalgamation of different cultures. We have adopted some cultural practices from the west. There are still many practices that we want to adopt but they don’t conform with our ‘moral values’. We judge things on the basis of our pre-conceived notions and ideas of right and wrong. There is a dreadful pressure from the fundamentalist groups which doesn’t allow us to do what we actually want to. We could neither become completely Islamic nor Western. Therefore, the only culture we have here in Pakistan is the culture of hypocrisy."
He agrees with Saadat Hasan Manto’s approach towards prostitution. "Manto’s characters teach us a lot about human psyche and I see his short stories as independent case histories." Dr Akhtar mentions Khol Do, Hatak and Khushiya as three of most significant Manto stories in terms of psychological study and analysis. "Khushiya’s character presents an appalling picture about the male ego and raises questions about the male mind and psyche," he says.
Dr Akhtar thinks literature can play a role in creating awareness amongst the people. Resistance poetry and literature has been written in all eras. Jafar Zatalli was a revolutionary poet who grew up during the reign of Aurangzeb and was murdered in King Farrukh Syer’s time at the latter’s orders. His poetry cost him his life. While reciting Jafar Zatalli’s couplet about rising prices, Dr Saleem Akhtar adds "perhaps- inflation was a problem in all times".
"Literature can’t do anymore than create awareness because we as authors and poets are opinion-makers but the power of decision-making lies elsewhere," remarks Dr Akhtar.