THE WAY IT WAS: Amazing my foot! —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Longinus described puerility as an actor who is fired with emotions but his audience is cold. This is also true of painting and poetry but some people say their feelings cannot be shared with every one. But then why write or paint? I should have thought that the whole purpose of creativity was not to be possessive

When spicy food is eaten over the years, taste buds gradually grow insensitive and the mouth fails to register subtle flavours. My friend Irfan Hussain, who eats better than he cooks and loves to write about food, gave up smoking in order to enjoy food better. We Pakistanis like our cuisine and can eat more per sitting than the French without essential lubricants. This excludes, of course, those who have to forage at dumps for left over morsels.

Taste buds get particularly worn out by chewing too many paans. Paan-eaters cannot register the presence of food in their mouth without the extra-sharp heat of chillies. That is why they have to add spoonfuls of chillies to their food. In a similar manner, I believe, brain cells of a person continuously subjected to speeches and invaded by rhetoric are likely to slow down, even get discharged. Once this happens it becomes arduous, even for a perfectly intelligent listener, to decipher a fairly simple argument.

Most seminars — as opposed to other learned or less learned functions — that rely on paper reading frequently end up boring the audience, causing embarrassment to them as well as the academics who have the courage to read through several sheets. It is safer to be brief and have your ideas known in half the time. The rule of thumb should be: if there are ten written pages read only five and hope for the best.

We have become so accustomed to listening to speeches and statements that we have lost the inclination to listen and make the needed effort to follow written prose — usually more complex than speech — read to us. This is why we find paper reading tiresome. Even if someone were to read a few pages of Dickens or Ismet Chughtai I am afraid listeners would get impatient and start shifting in their seats. It is true that when Zia Moheyuddin reads no one moves. He reads extremely well but more than that he puts up a performance. Don’t ask me how, but only he can do it.

At the seminars, smart speakers take a written paper along but instead of reading it, they address the audience, occasionally referring to the paper. The cleverest of them always have an excuse for not having a paper to read. They stride up to the rostrum and speak extempore, cheerfully pontificating on the subject of the day. They treat the seminar like the ‘soup of the day’ at a restaurant. The soup of the day is expected to be steaming, spicy and generous in quantity. The extempore speaker often takes more time but gets a better response. He puts in all the ingredients that he considers hot and popular. Since he is not reading he can scan his audience, manipulate their emotions, make them sad, laugh or be angry. A good orator can actually do whatever he likes. He can transform a gallery of people into a herd of sheep that can be chastised and humoured with a well-timed word and phrase. The intention of the orator is to reach people’s heart and not to address their minds, spur them to action and not to change their thoughts. At times, the intention of a paper reader can be obscure.

One thing is certain. An audience cannot be moved by the reading of a paper. A person presenting an argument and trying to carry it forward logically and rationally requires patience and reciprocity on the part of the listener. The reader has to stick to a defined course and assume that the audience will go along with him. But the academic must know his audience. There is little point in reading if the audience are not on board?

Getting an audience on board reminds me of a man who, accompanied by a friend, arrived at the railway station just about when the train was taking off. Without a thought for his friend he took off at good speed, managed to catch up to the train and with unusual dexterity pulled him self off the platform into the bogey. The passengers in the compartment who had cheered him on were thrilled and said, “Man, you are amazing!” The man was unmoved. He exclaimed with a grimace, “Amazing my foot! The person I had come to see off has been left standing on the platform.”

The Greek writer, Longinus, describes puerility as an actor who is fired with emotions but his audience is cold. He pretends to be moved but cannot move others. This is also true of painting and poetry but some people have different views. They say their feelings cannot be shared with every one. The feelings, they assert, are personal — a private, not a public matter. That makes sense, but then why write or paint? I should have thought that the whole purpose of creativity was not to be possessive but to share. Would you say that some artists were puerile or just mean? However, there is no point arguing, every one is so committed to what they believe or not believe. Would you believe in something rather than not believe in nothing? I wonder if it is better to be ideological than diabolical?

Sometime we can make things so difficult for ourselves. There were these two friends who bought a horse each. At night before going to bed Heera suggested to Jeera that it would be sensible to mark a cross on one horse so that on waking up they were not confused which belongs to which one of them. Jeera readily agreed and one of the horses was inscribed with a cross. On getting up next morning they were surprised to find that both horses were inscribed with crosses. Before retiring that night Heera insisted that an ear of one of the horses be clipped off. Jeera again agreed with his friend only to be astonished the following morning to discover that both horses had clipped ears. This time before Heera could make a fresh suggestion, Jeera intervened and proposed, “Brother, why don’t you just have the white horse and let me keep the black one.” A splendid thought, wouldn’t you agree?

Prof Ijaz Ul Hassan is a painter, author and political activist