Painting the local

August 2, 2020

In less than a decade since his emergence on the scene, Ali Akbar Natiq has taken the Urdu literary world by storm

Ali Akbar Natiq is a new voice in Urdu prose and poetry. In less than a decade since his emergence on the scene, he has taken the literary world by storm. A prolific writer, he has published several popular books of poetry and fiction within a very short period of time. With truly dramatic speed, his work has garnered tremendous attention and appreciation from literary critics in far-flung parts of the world and been described as bringing Punjab alive in Urdu literature in a way hardly any Urdu writer has managed to do so far, despite the fact that numerous famous Urdu writers have emerged from that region over the past 100 years.

Born in Okara in Punjab, Pakistan, in 1973, Natiq worked for several years as a mason specialising in mosque construction in his native district, completing his formal education privately. Later, he was associated in various teaching and administrative capacities with several educational institutions in Islamabad and Lahore. His writings have been translated into English, Hindi, Pashto, and German. He has written in a number of genres in Punjabi. I had the opportunity to converse with him about his work, its characteristics, and aesthetic, social, and political trends affecting literary circles in contemporary Pakistan on several occasions during the past year.

Speaking about the distinctive manner in which his Urdu writings interact with the physical, social, and linguistic environment of Punjab, Natiq explains that while the pens of writers and poets writing in Punjabi have captured the colours and nuances of Punjabi culture rather well, most Punjabis writing fiction or poetry in Urdu felt self-conscious about letting themselves delve too deep into their surrounding environment.

They thought writing about Punjab’s village life and culture would make them appear small, and instead opted to write what Natiq describes as ‘grand philosophies’ geared to visibly engage with global literary influences. A few writers who did write more overtly and deeply about the Punjab ended up romanticising the region’s rural life – they followed the typical formula of a boy-girl romance set in a Punjabi locale where a boy visiting from the city falls in love with a village girl.

One needs to look at village life in the Punjab, Natiq emphasises. If you travel via train from Karachi, you see that as soon as you enter Punjab, you start experiencing cool breezes, fresh and verdant fields, and flowers. If you move away from the Grand Trunk Road and the railway lines and wander off by fifty kilometres on either side of them, you become aware of the diversity and variety of life in the Punjab. You become aware that just within Natiq’s home district of Okara and its surrounding areas, there are no less than 800 streams and rivulets, surrounding which are orchards and fields full of crops. Here, in the land between the waters of the Ravi and those of the Sutlej, is a wealth of beauty in terms of the land and the people who dwell there, and the emotions that exist in these people. Natiq has tried to capture much of this in his novel Naulakhi Kothi (2014), which perhaps is why it has been read so widely, he says. In his poetry, too, he has tried to capture these cultures and their shades so that people may get a chance to see and experience what they are like.

The biggest ‘philosophy’ there can be for a writer, in Natiq’s opinion, is to manage to ‘paint’ his/her surroundings exactly as they are.

“I feel no shame or self-consciousness either in speaking Punjabi or writing in Punjabi or in talking about Punjab,” Natiq reveals. “If I were to admit the truth, I would say that I don’t really know Urdu. I don’t know how to speak it, that is. My accent is not a proper Urdu accent. I do manage to write in Urdu, but in terms of speaking the language, it is obvious to those who listen to my conversation how well I manage that – how unmusical and out of tune my Urdu sounds as I speak!”

Having lived in a village for the first thirty years of his life, Natiq absorbed that environment and reflected it in his writings. He feels impatient with the sort of writers he perceives to be overly impressed with Anglo-American and French theorists. He sees writers who try to stuff new-fangled, imported ‘ideologies’ into their poetry and fiction as being, in reality, motivated by a desire to disguise their own inner intellectual and aesthetic emptiness. A predilection for experimenting with exotic literary theories, and pontificating about literature in a pretentious manner, he feels, is a cover for failing to understand the essence of ‘art’.

The biggest ‘philosophy’ there can be for a writer, in Natiq’s opinion, is to manage to ‘paint’ his/her surroundings exactly as they are. He feels that Arab and Iranian writers have succeeded in this – they have depicted life as they see it around them. If there are stones, their writings have ‘painted’ the stones. If there is the moon, they have ‘painted’ the desert moon and shown us what it is like. Their imagination has not flown away to America or Britain or France, Natiq says – it has stayed local.

Natiq sees this to be a triumph of contemporary Arabic and Persian writing, as opposed to much of modern Urdu writing, and that is why he chooses, he says, to write about real life and real-life colours and nature and trees. Naturally, in order to bring something into the realm of ‘art’, the writer has to employ many kinds of symbols and metaphors and similes. Natiq clarifies that he does not mean to imply that such literary devices are dispensable in the artistic portrayal of one’s surroundings. His point instead is that portrayal of the local should not be sacrificed at the altar of a self-consciously cultivated preoccupation with whatever views have become popular among European literary theorists at any given time.

Besides penning prose and poetry, Natiq has also made forays into the realm of literary criticism, having obtained an MPhil degree in Urdu literature last year and having to his credit a book of criticism on Iqbal’s poetry called Hai’at-i She‘r (2016). He has interesting views about the literary aesthetics of Urdu in Karachi vs Punjab. Whereas Punjab has produced some of the best and most popular Urdu poets over the past several decades, Natiq perceives that there’s been a marked decline in the quality of Urdu poetry produced in Karachi since 1980.

The poetry produced in the city in the period before 1980, in his view, possessed all the splendour and beauty that Urdu verse is famously endowed with. Among such writers, he includes poets such as Obaidullah Aleem, Naseer Turabi, Shakeb Jalali and Qamar Jalalvi. But the Urdu poetry that emerged from Karachi after 1980 does not feel fresh and succulent to him in the way poetry should do -- rather, it feels dry and arid, containing the tartness of neem leaves.

It isn’t that he doesn’t admire a number of current poets from Karachi, Natiq is careful to clarify. It’s just that he feels that in a situation where one may suppose there to be as many as 4,000 young people composing poetry in Karachi, if merely four or five of them go on to perform decently, then that’s an insignificant number.

Natiq posits a starkly simple reason for this – the fact that life in Karachi is so crowded, the unceasing tensions of urban life, the lack of flowers in the city, the dust blowing about in the air. He theorises that climates, and the moods they create, get inside us and influence our creative abilities. In Punjab, by contrast, poets still possess a conducive physical environment, although even here, bigger cities are increasingly losing out to smaller and less centrally located places when it comes to producing talented poets.

“Let me tell you something,” Natiq says. “There is no local poet who has emerged from Lahore proper. And if there has, it is a bad poet. All the good poets of Lahore are from the adjoining areas [muzaafaat]. Meaning that you’ll find that they hail from places like Okara, Sahiwal, Sargodha. The people who were born in Lahore and grew up there – you’ll find them to be the worst poets. The reason for this is the same as in Karachi – smog, cars, the hustle and bustle of life. It gives rise to muddled kinds of thoughts. When a person spends ten hours on the road, covers a fifteen-minute distance in four hours, inhales smoke amidst the traffic on the streets, can he be expected to go and write inspired verse afterwards? He’s just going to go and puff four cigarettes to top off all this. By contrast, if we consider the poet from the muzaafaat - he gets the opportunity to think, to sit and ponder. He gets to experience that something fresh and verdant. His lungs fill up with crisp and cool air, and thus he is able to say something sound and effectual.”

It would be a matter of surprise if a view which posits such a strong and simplistic correlation between good poetry and proximity to natural beauty were not to meet with objections from nearly every quarter. After all, it is not as if wonderful poetry has not emerged from huge, cosmopolitan cities. However, it is worth contemplating that a number of the great Urdu poets from Karachi’s heyday (as defined by Natiq) very likely did not spend their formative years exclusively in urban environments in British India.

This is in sharp contrast to Karachi’s successive post-migration generations who have no strong connection to their ancestral villages in India or indeed to villages anywhere and therefore suffer from a sharp limitation of diversity of experience in that regard. Then also, we find famous poets like Nasir Kazmi (who hailed from Ambala) speaking of how nature served as an inspiration for their expression. Kazmi stated in a television interview to Intezar Husain many decades ago, “I started writing poetry because I felt that all the beautiful things that I saw in the spring season or in nature were difficult for me to capture or grab hold of. These things elude me and flee away. These few moments which die cannot come to life again. Through poetry, though, I feel these moments can come to life again.”

Regardless of how we might feel about Natiq’s city vs muzaafaat characterisation, one thing stands to reason – writers coming from places which are distant from big cities can at times bring with them a certain thematic freshness which helps capture the attention of audiences everywhere. If we analyse the attraction of Natiq’s own fiction and poetry, it may appear that where on one hand, it is the musicality and stylistic verve of his writing that captures our attention, on the other, it is the fact that he brings an added depth to the portrayal of specific contexts and vistas that he, unlike other writers, has experienced at close proximity.

Natiq clarifies that the focus of his remark should not be taken to be topographical difference alone. When he talks of the poet from the muzaafaat, what he means is someone who is writing in a place which is rather remote from Pakistan’s usually frequented urban centres like Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar or Faisalabad. In speaking of the muzaafaat, he is speaking of a place which is distant from the usual networks of travel and literary exchange, and where there is added scope for evolving an autonomous literary identity.

Natiq worked for a while for Nestle, travelling from village to village to secure supplies of milk for the corporation. During these travels, he had the opportunity to hear verse from the people of these areas. He felt that their poetry was very fine, but that due to all kinds of physical and social limitations, these poets living in the thousands of villages that dot the banks of the Ravi river were unfortunately unlikely to ever get the exposure and recognition in the national literary mainstream. Sitting as they were 100-200 kilometres away from a major city, they were unlikely to ever come there and recite their verse.

The situation today, Natiq laments, is that even when it comes to the cities, poets in one city are often unknown to those in another, being limited to their own immediate environment in each of their respective locales. There are just a handful of poets today, he surmises, who are known to people in Karachi as well to those in Lahore.

Is social media helping to bridge this kind of gap? Natiq doesn’t think so, because the gap, in his view, is not just a communication gap – it is also a cultural gap. For example, a boy from a far-away village, however ‘active’ he may be on social media, Natiq explains, would feel fear and trepidation when he meets literary people from Karachi or Lahore. They would appear to him to be very great and grand. “What sort of awe-inspiring fiends are these before whom I am reciting my work?”, he would say to himself. And when it comes to languages other than Urdu, of course, the cultural gap is even greater, Natiq asserts. Take, for example, a person who is composing verse in Punjabi or Pashto or Sindhi or Balochi –comprehensive arrangements have been made to not allow him into the national literary mainstream. Our English and Urdu newspapers both say that such a writer does not even count in any way. He can never be allowed a share in the limelight. How many Punjabi or Potohari verses have people heard on social media, Natiq asks. Most people don’t even bother to read them. They say, “Okay, this is written in Punjabi, so let’s skip it.”

The writer’s poverty and destitution also become an obstacle to gaining access to mainstream literary corridors. “Not everyone is like me that they should boldly and audaciously enter a situation and deal with it any which way,” Natiq remarks with a twinge of irony. People feel intimidated and nervous, he says – they don’t even understand where they should sit when they arrive in a literary space.

In our literary institutions, the clerical staff does not allow you to enter the building to start with. Go to any door and you’ll find a couple of guards who block the entrance and question people’s status and credentials. “When I visited the Pakistan Academy of Letters for the first time,” Natiq reminisces, “Two watchmen made me stand and wait outside for half an hour as they asked me, ‘What have you come here for?’” Only once the poor writer has been allowed to access the literary mainstream, Natiq contends, can people even be in a position to assess how far he can go.

It’s easy enough to lay the blame on Pakistan’s intelligence agencies for keeping marginalised groups from accessing mainstream spaces, Natiq derides. He thinks, it is important for us to be clear that for certain things, we ourselves are to blame. We say that we are removing the ‘gap’ and that we are ‘moderate’ and ‘liberal’. But we are not ‘liberal’, he insists. People who perceive themselves to be intellectuals might sit in a café all day long and pontificate about Marxism, the class divide, and such things. But if a common labourer were to enter this café, wearing shalwaar qamees and slippers, and try to sit in that space, these same intellectuals would hit out at him and try to block his entry. Thus, a profound hypocrisy exists within us, Natiq asserts. He goes on to recount, “Now I probably shouldn’t be saying this. But because I think I should say it, let me go ahead and do so. Kishwar Naheed is a great friend of mine. I have a very close relationship with her even now, and she has played a great part in promoting me and helping me gain recognition. One day, it was she who said to me, ‘Now, Natiq, don’t go around meeting every Tom, Dick, and Harry. Don’t sit and socialise with such persons anymore, because you have now achieved a particular status.’ See how this is being said to me by the person who pens verses on women’s rights every day? Because apparently when one fellow called Natiq gets up to greet and socialise with a labourer or with a cock-fighter and then later goes and sits with Kishwar, it unbalances the entire system!”

While talking of Karachi’s general poetic decline, Natiq points out an important exception. This is the career of the nasri nazm in Urdu. He thinks Karachi’s Urdu poets, with the intellectual and artistic contributions of Afzal Ahmad Syed occupying centre-stage, have emerged triumphant in the sub-genre of the nasri nazm, whereas Punjab’s Urdu poets have so far been unable to master this art and end up merely writing azad nazm when they try to write a nasri nazm.

Talking more specifically of Natiq’s style of writing, the renowned Urdu critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi has noted the astonishing difference between the metaphysical quality of his poetry and the sophisticated treatment of human relations in his fiction. Faruqi, writing in 2010, described Natiq’s poetic style to be deeply and remarkably reminiscent of Meeraji, characterising the resemblance to be one of poetic temperament rather than poetic influence.

In terms of vocabulary, too, it is easily noticeable that just as Meeraji’s vocabulary comprised a range of Indic words seldom seen in the twentieth century Urdu poetic canon, Natiq’s poetry is also enriched with a remarkably wide linguistic register, stretching from abstruse Perso-Arabic terms to more rustic elements of Indic (leaning towards the Punjabi) speech. There is one important difference that Faruqi has spoken of, Natiq divulges. Despite all the greatness and depth in Miraji’s stature as a modern poet, a certain unsmooth quality in his use of language is perceived as limiting its aesthetic impact. Not so with Natiq – the rustic vocabulary he has used has been moulded in such a way in his verse that the effect remains soft and harmonious.

This is important, Natiq believes. It is not enough to decree that we should absorb the common people’s spoken language into our poetry as a kind of literary-political move. If we were to write exactly as people speak, then it wouldn’t be poetry, would it, he asks. Poetry should have a certain aesthetic impact. A kind of sensory punch. This is why Natiq is not too enthused about people using another awkward everyday word such as ‘button’ in poetry as has become the trend among certain aspiring modern Urdu poets. A rare word taken from one’s surroundings (but seldom seen in poetry) should blend into one’s poetry in such a harmonious manner, Natiq asserts, that it should appear like a beautiful girl from a distant land who, while being unfamiliar, is yet somehow familiar and lovely to you.

In 2010, Faruqi stated that there is no limit to the hopes that Urdu literature can pin on Ali Akbar Natiq. Indeed, various prose and poetic works that Natiq has since published have found a tremendous amount of appreciation and admiration. They have also found some impressive translators. Ali Madeeh Hashmi’s English translation of Natiq’s collection of short stories called Qa’im Din (2012) has already been published (under the title What Will You Give for This Beauty?), and translator Naima Rashid is working on rendering some other major prose and poetic works by Natiq into English. Urdu critics have expressed clear excitement about Natiq’s work. Yet, when it comes to the general populace, can a new Urdu writer in the period we are now living in go on to garner the kind of popular following that writers of equal, greater, or lesser standing secured among the populace in the past?

It is an interesting question, and many keen observers hesitate to express optimism on this head. According to journalist Ghazi Salahuddin, the evolved status of Urdu in our society means that it would not be possible for an Urdu writer, however good he may be, to achieve the kind of fame and popularity that would make him/her a household name today, in contrast to so many Urdu writers in the recent past. According to celebrated music composer Arshad Mahmood (through whose popular musical efforts countless verses of Urdu poets have achieved widespread fame), today’s Urdu writer no longer writes from a position of knowing to be at the centre of their world. This, again, is in deep contrast to our recent past when writers like Parveen Shakir, Faraz and Josh doubtless enjoyed the privilege of writing from a non-marginal social and intellectual position. Today’s Urdu writer writes from the margins, and this is reflected in the tone and tenor of his work.

An abridged version of this piece has appeared in the print edition of TNS

The writer is a doctoral student in Indo-Muslim history and literatures at McGill University, Canada. She is a literary translator and has translated folk and classical poetry from various South Asian languages. She has also worked as a journalist and taught history and literature at several universities in Karachi.

Painting the local