Reflection of the times

July 12, 2020

Asghar Nadeem Syed’s new collection of articles brings the literary debates of the twentieth century to the present times

Dabistaan Khul Gaya, a collection of articles by Asghar Nadeem Syed is mostly about individual writers and poets – almost all his contemporaries, both senior and junior, that he has had the occasion to be acquainted with. The most significant pieces in the collection are his analyses of the various literary and artistic trends during the period.

In some of the articles, he seems to be taking a fresh look at the various positions that had once defined the critical literary divisions during the greater part of the twentieth century. The most important among them is his review of the various reactions to the domination by the West – particularly its colonial encounter with the subcontinent – and the many stances taken in relation to that great turn of history.

Syed, like many of us, got exposed to the West, as it exists now, by frequenting it and interacting with the Diaspora from the subcontinent that has lived there for more than a generation now. The changing world and the condition of the people living there made him aware of other perspectives; of the various controversies that surrounded the domination of the Indian subcontinent by the West, particularly the British, and the various intellectual debates that ensued from there.

In his book, he reaches the conclusion that everything is subject to change – the stated positions, the ideologies, the status of the community, the nations in the world – as there is no finality to the various positions that one takes. It all changes with time, the historical developments reconfigure the past as well.

He also takes a pot shot at the resistance theme or the result of literature that came about due to resistance. He doesn’t seem too happy about narrowing the definition and restricting it by attaching qualifications to it, and questions in the end why it is so.

The collection takes the entire thing in a much broader light. For Syed, all literature is resistance or resistance literature because it means the breaking of new ground. There cannot be great or good literature unless it questions and challenges the prevalent literary positions or the artistic stances taken. All literature, according to him, challenges the status quo and not in the political sense alone, hence it all falls conveniently in the category of resistance literature. Literature that goes along with the status quo or the prevalent realities is not worth the paper it is written on.

Literature that goes along with the status quo or the prevalent realities is not worth the paper it is written on.

Another important piece is about Iqbal’s views on drama and its resultant condemnation. Being a stage, screen and television playwright Syed finds it indigestible and impossible to gulp that Iqbal – one of the greatest minds of the last century – has traditionally placed plays or drama on a lower level than poetry.

He goes on to offer examples at great strength of visual imagery and the dramatic intensity in the poetry of Iqbal. The build-up to a situation and then its resolution, elements essential to drama, have been repeatedly applied in the poetry of Iqbal.

Iqbal shunned ghazal as his representative form of expression and chose the poem or the nazm, long as well as short. In most of his longer poems, Iqbal builds up the narrative and then employs all the techniques of drama in it for it to have maximum impact. Syed is surprised that Iqbal used all the instruments of drama in his poetry, yet denounced it as a lower-level art compared to poetry.

Probably he was against drama as a form and not the dramatic narrative. The latter has been part of the literary tradition of the subcontinent with fine examples from Persian poetry, which formed the prototype to be followed. It was perhaps not the dramatic narrative, but the drama as an autonomous form that Iqbal did not favour. And it is simply because drama as an autonomous form does not necessarily have the guiding hand or the overarching third-person narrative to let the action and the individual characters take a course independent and free of the guiding hand.

Iqbal was not in favour of drama because maybe drama has various points of views expressed with equal authenticity, and it becomes impossible to prefer one over the other for that could mean damaging the entire structure of the piece. He wanted a dramatic narrative where the overarching point of view does not allow the required action to develop on its own.

This guiding hand, he called the integrity of khudi, the single-minded narrative or the self that may seem divided but still speaks ultimately with one voice. The division of the self, a negative property or a value seen as either weakness or hypocrisy, robs one of the strengths of conviction.

There is one common thread running through the collection of the articles. They don’t appear as individual pieces but strung together by a certain point of view. Perhaps it would be difficult to say what that point of view is but a shared concern about ideological positions spilling over into the arts, necessitating a revision or rethinking. It is more reflective of the times that one lived in and not a mere recounting of controversies of the past. Syed is thus spot on in bringing the literary debate to the present times.

Dabistaan Khul Gaya

Author: Asghar Nadeem Syed

Publisher: Sang e Meel Publications

Price: Rs 900

Pages: 336

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

Reflection of the times