The interview with Masood Ashar (1931 – 2021) was done on February 12, 2021, on his 90th birthday but remained unpublished in his lifetime.
he News on Sunday: Please tell us about your early life and childhood.
Masood Ashar (MA): I was born in the princely state of Rampur. It was a Pathan state. I am a Yusufzai Pathan. Our family was one of maulvis, graduated in Dars-i-Nizami. They were enlightened maulvis. Some of them used to compose poetry. My elder brother, Saeed Lakht, wrote for children and worked with Ferozsons. He had migrated to what is now Pakistan before independence.
My childhood was pleasant. My youngest paternal uncle was a friend of Shad Arfi. So literature and poetry were all around me. My father too was a poet but his work was not published in his lifetime. My maternal grandfather, Hamid Hussain Khan, used to compose poetry in a specific genre of Pashto. My elder brother had a taste for literature. Our mohalla in Rampur is known as gher Maqbool Ahmad Khan. It was populated by only our family.
We used to have a sitting in the evening. I loved reading books. I used to read books from Jamia Millia Islamia. When I came of age, it was the heyday of the Progressives. All of them influenced me, especially Krishan Chander. Arfi used to receive all the literary magazines of the time free of cost. Rampur had a literary tradition. Its nawabs had once invited Ghalib. This tradition is still there. Even today my youngest brother lives in Rampur.
TNS: Who did you look up to in journalism, poetry and fiction as a mentor?
MA: After I completed my education, I was unemployed until I came to Lahore. At Imroz, Hameed Hashmi supported me and I got work there. I had a taste for writing and joined journalism. When I joined Imroz, Zaheer Babar and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi were there; Faiz was the chief editor. I learned from them and was trained by them. I used to read Quratulain Hyder a lot. My first short story was published in 1949 in the journal Fasana, edited by Balwant Singh and Siddiqa Begum Seoharvi from Allahabad. It was titled Khaleej Aur Barh Gayi and was about Hindu-Muslim tension.
TNS: What has fundamentally shaped your mind, your ideology and your writing?
MA: When I was a student, I was a member of the Communist Party of India student union, the All-India Student Federation. I was trained there. Bolshevik Russia was an ideal society for us. I never visited it but we used to proudly call ourselves communists.
I was influenced by the Maoist Revolution and have written articles about it.
Feminism is the biggest movement for me. The first short-story in my new collection Kon Darta Hai Norman Mailer Say (Who Is Afraid of Norman Mailer) is sort of influenced by the feminist movement.
TNS: Other than your commitment to freedom of expression in journalism and Progressive orientation in fiction, which writers have inspired you the most?
MA: Journalism is my profession; fiction is my passion. I have been inspired by Manto and Bedi, as well as some Russian writers. Among British writers, DH Lawrence had a great influence on me. His criticism is very good. In journalism, the journal Naya Zamana impressed me. Also I have been influenced by some Latin American writers. For me, writing was a deliberate decision.
TNS: You have been in journalism for 70 years and in fiction for more than 70 years. You are still writing a regular column and your new collection of short stories came out last year. How difficult is it to continue doing both?
MA: It is not difficult at all. The two are separate parts. Journalism is fiction written in haste. It is not difficult if one keeps reading and exploring new things. I love to read new things. I studied the Angry Young Men in the UK and the Flower Children in the US a lot, as well as some black writers. I have also translated them into Urdu, about 15 or 16 of them. Recently my translation of a story from Tolstoy’s last era Ostrapova was published in Dunyazad.
TNS: Apart from writing fiction and journalism, what else do you do?
MA: Reading, listening to good music and watching films. I am a member of the Indian Classical Music Society.
TNS: Had you not been in journalism and fiction, how would you have employed your talents?
MA: That is very hard to say. I never planned my life.
TNS: Why did you not expand your canvas to the novel?
MA: It really takes one to restrain one’s impatience to do so. I was doing journalism and fiction. I really wanted to, but in my fiction you will see a lot of Pakistan as well as autobiography. Among the latter is Apna Ghar (My Own House), but it is not one of my best stories.
TNS: How does one improve one’s fiction writing ability?
MA: Read those who write well. There is good writing happening in every language.
TNS: Have the classic short-story writers gone out of date?
MA: No. What kind of writer ever goes out of date? Manto is, of course, the greatest. Among new writers there is Intezar Hussain, who has joined our fiction with the dastan. It is a totally new thing.
TNS: Who are your favourites among contemporary writers?
MA: Well, this is a tricky question. But Nasir Abbas Nayyar, Kashif Raza, Musharraf Alam Zauqui (he passed away in April 2021), Anees Ashfaq and Julian Barnes. I do not get time to re-read anything.
TNS: What do think is lacking in new fiction writers?
MA: Why should I answer such a question? Today there is an obsession with the act of breaking up words, using symbols and inventing a new language. This is creating density. One should write in a simple language. Some [writers] are successful and some are not. Some are just imitating Western writers like Anthony Burgess. People do keep trying, but I’d rather they should learn from writers like Barnes and Kazuo Ishiguro.
TNS: In Urdu fiction, the afsana has always been the dominant form. Will the novel ever take its place?
MA: The novel is taking the place of the short story now. New novels are being written. Doctors in Karachi are writing many novels. But the trend will likely not last long. We are not used to reading lengthy stuff.
TNS: Does literature, especially fiction, influence a society?
MA: Yes, literature should influence the society. But our society is an ignorant one. It is strange because with Manto and Ismat Chughtai around, we could say that literature influenced the society. It is hard to find such people today. Ours is not a reading society. Religious narrow-mindedness has destroyed us. This is recurrent theme in my short stories.
TNS: Today resistance literature is in fashion. Have you contributed to it?
MA: I wrote a lot of short stories during the Zia-ul-Haq era. Also, all my stories about East Pakistan during the Ayub Khan period are resistance literature, i.e. resistance through symbolism.
TNS: What motivates you to write?
MA: One wants to say something. Also, to include others in the reading experience. To become famous. Journalism is another slot.
TNS: It is said that a writer only writes for himself. To what extent is this true?
MA: One writes for oneself. The writer expresses himself but does not write only for himself. Whatever is happening at that time, he also narrates it.
TNS: But there is a view that some of the experiences are for oneself and not to be shared?
TNS: So the writer should be a man of taste, an avid reader? Apart from the writer, the reader should also have a developed taste?
MA: Yes. Obviously, so that the reader can understand what he is reading.
TNS: Is Urdu a camp language. Why is it not expanding?
MA: The matter of expansion happens alongwith a society. These are the times of English. New writers are writing in English. English is the language that pays.
TNS: Is the literary milieu of Lahore wholesome?
TNS: Are Urdu and Hindi the same?
MA: No. It is claimed that these are the same language but the way they are written is different. There are only a few poems and short stories that can be read equally well in Urdu and Hindi.
TNS: How did your reading and writing pursuits affect your domestic life?
MA: It did not make any difference. My wife gave me room. She worked at Multan Radio. Her name was Zehra Masood. Her portrait was once carried in the Radio magazine, Aahang.
TNS: Do you go for grocery shopping?
MA: My wife never let me go shopping. She freed me from the burden. I did not know the prices of flour and pulses. She chose my clothes. She also had a hand in deciding my children’s profession. One of my sons is in the UK; a daughter is in Karachi. Another daughter is a psychologist; another son is a software engineer. I never needed to go shopping.
TNS: In a city like Lahore, there should have been some improvement in the literary atmosphere over the last 70–80 years. Why has that not been the case?
MA: Lahore was once a small city. There used to be a Halqa-i-Arbab-i-Zauq. Now the city has expanded and people have no time to attend literary gatherings.
TNS: Why are there narrow groupings in literature?
MA: This has always been the case. There are misunderstandings among contemporaries; even Ghalib had one with Zauq. It is natural to feel that ‘I am a greater writer than all others. The Halqa had ideological opposition to the Anjuman Taraqqi Pasand Musannifeen.
TNS: Does this lead to harm?
MA: No. Every circle is separate. It does not matter at all. This happens everywhere.
TNS: The Progressive Writers’ Movement came to the fore with great fanfare but it has now slowed down. What would you say?
MA: The Progressives did not accept new literature. Many people rejected their ideology. Writers who came afterwards were not really Progressives.
TNS: Some say that Urdu will become extinct in 50 years? Do you agree?
MA: Many languages would have become extinct by now if the internet had not come. The internet has saved many languages e.g. the InPage software. Otherwise, it may have been difficult for Urdu to survive. There is the same old issue between Urdu and English. English has given us international recognition. Urdu doesn’t have this status. Urdu will not become extinct, but it will no longer be what it once was.
TNS: Are ‘regional languages’ national languages as well?
MA: They are national languages. What exactly is a ‘regional language’? They are flourishing and a lot is being written in them.
TNS: What do think is the biggest weakness among new writers?
MA: This is a very difficult question to answer. Maybe they should write good language and not imitate others. Our dastaans can undoubtedly be seen as magical realism.
TNS: I do not see much evidence of reading among contemporary writers. There should be maturity in the writing of those who read a lot, but it is not there.
TNS: How many books, including short-story collections, have you authored?
MA: I have written four books. I do not remember the number of translations I have done. Then there are some pen-sketches that are under publication.
TNS: Let me put to you a cliched question. Do you think creativity can be regulated to support a certain kind of politics?
MA: No. Well, it can be done but this should not happen.
TNS: How do you see the contribution of women writers?
MA: One should begin with Khalida Hussain, Hajira Masroor and Neelum Ahmad Bashir. I have not read the new collection of Nilofar Iqbal.
TNS: How about your professional career? You worked as a journalist even under martial law?
MA: I worked for a newspaper when Martial Law was promulgated. Wherever I got the opportunity, I would cheat (the Martial Law regulations), from the Ayub Khan to the Zia regimes. I was not much of an activist. I knew Qaswar Gardezi in Multan, who belonged to the National Awami Party. But I was mentally a socialist.
TNS: Many people think that the NGOs are not the answer to our problems. The right-wing sees NGOs as a Western ploy and the left-wing sees them as a phenomenon that depoliticises the society. Do you agree?
MA: Some of the NGOs have done great work. And they are Pakistani NGOs. The right-wing is wrong.
TNS: It is a grim picture that you paint when it comes to our society and politics. Is there any hope for us? Also, is there any hope for our art and literature?
MA: No. As long as we have religious narrow-mindedness, we cannot progress. Good literature will be written in all kinds of conditions.
TNS: Several prominent political and literary personalities from the Indian subcontinent have birth centenaries this year: Major Ishaq Muhammad, Sahir Ludhianvi, Balwant Singh and Salam Machhlishahri among them.
MA: I knew Major Ishaq. Salam was not such a great poet. Balwant Singh was a good short-story writer. Sahir was the [favourite] poet of a certain class.
TNS: Do you have a message on your 90th birthday?
MA: I normally don’t give massages. But live a good life and associate with good art.
The interviewer is a social scientist and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers’ Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org