Part 4 of The Tales from Diaspora explores the works of Taufiq Rafat, Kaleem Omer and Shoaib bin Hassan
“Love is a country with its own climate”
– Taufiq Rafat
When Socrates was asked where he was from, he replied, “I’m from the world.” Art transcends borders and limitations of cultural and geographic bounds. The message of the effective writer is so profound that regardless of where he hails from, it echoes with the reader no matter where he reads it. Writers from the diaspora or local Anglophone writers both have known and seen the Western culture from a close quarter. They are hence poised, if not better then equally well, to write about their experiences. Somehow, the writers I have taken upon in this essay — Taufiq Rafat, Kaleem Omer and Shoaib bin Hassan – provide a partial closure to the conundrum of expatriate Pakistani authors.
The current misconception facing upcoming Pakistani novelists is precisely the ignorance of the concept, ‘from particular to universal’. The reverse is being practised instead, ‘from universal that comes to nothing’. Only when we begin to talk about the local culture and character can we provide the projection to our culture and writing which can appeal to the masses abroad. With more and more carbon copies of the Western writing and their ethos, there is little promise that our literature holds for the future.
Exposure to Western literature has taught us the language of the West but what we fail to recognise is we have forgotten the true indigenous language of our country. What is the language that the current Anglophone literature fails to encapsulate? It is the Pakistani idiom. Through this instrument, the language of English no longer remains that of the coloniser. It switches connotation and it is a remarkable way of owning the language.
The idea was introduced by Taufiq Rafat, who was considered Ezra Pound of Pakistan. Born in 1928 and educated at Aligarh and Lahore, he was a towering Pakistani poet and author. He was the one who initially propagated the concept of our native identity that must reflect in the works of Pakistani authors. It does not mean that writers start employing Urdu vocabulary to further the idea of Pakistani-ness in their writing, instead, it is the process of translation and reflection of Pakistani culture, religion, heritage, nature, society and ethos at large into the English canon. The weather, flora and fauna, sights and smells and people are all so local, so indigenous to our heritage and country that writers have given it all a new perspective while writing about it. A new freshness and a new start. Taufiq Rafat wrote poetry collections called The Arrival of Monsoon, Half Moon and Foothold which was a drama – they all are reminiscent of a beautifully well-crafted Pakistani idiom that introduces the country like no one could imagine possible. Inherent to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and a few other countries, the monsoon season holds such a spell over the writers that the West reads it and cannot help but be transported to the sights and sounds of the season. The summer season and monsoon weather happens to be a consistent phenomenon of Pakistani writers where they talk effusively about rain. Taufiq Rafat writes in Arrival of the Monsoon:
“Alive, Alive, everything is alive- again./ Savour the rain’s coolness on lips and eyes.”
The time of rain remains the most soul-inspiring and creativity-boosting of all the seasons.
In one of his poems, Children Understand Him, another one of our cultural treasures is wonderfully cherished. A grandfather is brought out as an image of reliance and trust for his grandchildren. Exactly how it ideally is in our culture where three generations reside together and flourish seeing one another grow. The modern world has taken away even this cultural privilege from us with receding levels of tolerance, integrity and patience. He writes,
“they understand him./ From man-roar, and friendly/ punches to the chest,/ and damp kisses on scrubbed cheeks,/ they sail to the harbour of his knees.”
In his drama, Foothold, Rafat explores the spiritual journey of Saleem and his two disciples. The story begins at a busy railway station which symbolises life and the transitory nature of this world. Further, into the story, it is an existentialist portrayal of Saleem’s life and his two friends, Mustafa and Ali. Themes of bathos, suicide, extremism in society and eventually gaining a foothold through the chaos are recurring themes. Stationmaster’s words ring true,
“Mobs are easier to understand than individuals; generalities simpler to define.”
Rafat shows the complexity of humankind and how much effort it takes to understand each individual and take them on their own merit instead of using sweeping generalisations. Local setting and idioms are used to convey universal lessons. At one of the places the idiom used is “I scratched the dust of the courts… in search for the bone of justice.” This is a direct translation from Urdu and also the social dilemma of justice delayed to the needy and underprivileged in our country. It is an attempt at battling the corrupt social legacy left by the coloniser by using his own language and beating him at it.
Exposure to Western literature has taught us the language of the West but what we fail to recognise is we have forgotten the true indigenous language of our country. What is the language that the current Anglophone literature fails to encapsulate? It is the Pakistani idiom.
Moving on, Kaleem Omar is another of the stalwart poets Pakistan has produced. Educated in Nanital, India and UK, he was a prominent journalist and poet. His family had moved to Pakistan after independence.
“One only goes round once,/ And then comes to an end./ That’s all there is to it./ But in that space of time/ What lifetimes I have lived.”
While Omer employed the Pakistani idiom effectively, he used endo-nostalgia to translate his longing for home and past into his writings. He was gifted with a great memory. The first generation of Pakistani writers was also in the vanguard of significant comparisons between changing times. In The Point of Departure, Omar recalls his father on revisiting the city of Karachi where his father was buried thirteen years ago. The city evokes strong memories. Omar remembers his father as well as the city of Karachi as it used to be. While the “wet wall of air” of the sea-city is the same, the “more brightly lit” advertisement boards reveal a change towards a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. In Poem for my Father, he writes, “Much more than one man perished” that day. As a result, their economic fortunes dwindled and his marriage also suffered. It is a deeply moving account of what a normal Pakistani family goes through when the father who is be all and end all dies. Family, memories, country and nostalgia are recurrent themes of Omer’s literary works.
Shoaib bin Hassan was born in 1924 in Quetta. His father served there as a doctor in the British Army. Educated in Sialkot, Lahore and Birmingham, UK, he was a professor of English language at Government College, Lahore. In his book Aesthetics of Incompleteness, he writes about people who migrated to England. He says, “they saw England and England saw them.” His writings are replete with literary wit. He uses Urdu, Punjabi and English to create undying humour. His conclusions on politics and society are diverse. His wordplay is fantastical. Bin Hassan was a writer born “to wit to woo” the readers and also, in his own words, “in good time, in good season and for a good reason.”
Talking about his headmaster from childhood (Allah Ditta) Hassan says, “he took pains with us and inflicted pains on us… he was more noise than rain…” – hence directly translating Urdu idioms to further the sensibility of the time he refers to. Allah Ditta constantly referred to the Oxford Dictionary for words whose meanings he knew, just to inculcate in his students the habit of referring to a dictionary. About this, he says, “We knew he knew. He knew we knew. Books and men matter.” He says that when his headmaster died a dire need was felt for the void created by him, to be filled. Unfortunately, people who were loyal to their profession are an absent species in our day. He says, “replacements matter… otherwise there is nothing remarkable left under the visiting moon.” Oddly enough this is relevant for writers true to their craft as well. And before long, I hope we find replacements for the pearls that have been swept away in the tide of time.
The writer is a columnist and an author of A Child of the New Millennium Stories and Essays from Pakistan (2015)