The way it was: Other side of nationalism

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

The awesome might of our two respective countries is demonstrated at the closing ceremony at the Wagah border, when the two national flags are brought down at dusk. It is much ado about nothing

I cannot recollect who taught us English poetry. Obviously it needed to be taught by someone better. As far as the novel is concerned, a student does not need guidance on how to read Emma or Tom Jones, which were part of the MA compulsory reading coarse. Tom Jones along with the Godfather is probably the best film ever so faithfully made to an original text. The Hollywood version of the Brothers Karamazov was quite terrible and so was the version of Tolstoy’s, War and Peace. English literature in our days was confined to the English. Aristotle and Longinus were the only foreigners included in the Paper on Literary Criticism.

I believe now a number of writers from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, including some of our own writings in English, are included in the syllabus. Besides Shakespeare and Dickens a student now can also read Sophocles, Dostoyevsky, Ahmed Ali, Taufique Rafat, Edward Said and others. The scope of our literary engagement can be further enlarged if a student could benefit from our writers who have not written in English. It would be rewarding if students could read Khwaja Fareed, Shah Hussain or Shah Abdul Lateef. There is of course the need to have our poets adequately translated in English but some work has already been done.

Taufiq Rafat has translated Bulleh Shah and Qadir Yar’s Puran Bhagat. There is a learned critical introduction to Qadir Yar by Athar Tahir and a splendid book The Recurrent Patterns in Punjabi Poetry by Najam Hussain Syed. There is then Christopher Schakell’s Sassi by Hasham and his translation of Khwaja Fareed, Charlotte Vaudeville’s translation and transliteration of Kabir, and Denny Matringe’s translation of Waris Shah in prose. Similarly there are translations of the works of eminent poets of other national languages.

I am aware that some of us can read them in the original but there is no harm if they can be made accessible to students and scholars who work in English. I for instance read my first text of the Tuzk-e Babari in an English translation of a French translation from the Turkic original. I am more than certain that the Urdu translation of the biography had been from the English and not the Turkic original. If someone had not undertaken the burden of translation, most of us would be unacquainted with what EM Forester considered the greatest autobiography of all times.

It is a positive step that the teaching of literature in English is no longer confined to the English but includes the best of poetry, prose and drama from all over the world. This should be made possible even for the arts. In most art schools for instance, history of art means teaching European History of Art, thereby denying a student awareness of his own heritage and knowledge of the great achievements of other cultures and civilisations. To know about the Renaissance is splendid, but not to know about Ajanta and Mughal paintings would be tragic. A student raised on the foundation of self-realisation is better equipped to perceive and gain from the achievements of others.

Unfortunately it was part of colonial educational strategy to denigrate local art and culture and encourage natives to worship whatever was English or foreign. Painters for instance were patronised for their skill in copying western things. Instead of stimulating the mind to be creative and inventive, artists were encouraged to ape and plagiarise.

The initiation of European aesthetics and artistic standards were the vanguard of physical aggression to capture markets, material resources and strategically located territories. Conquest could not have been accomplished and sustained without establishing cultural dominance. If people are raised on reading the best of English verse and encouraged to stay away from their own poets, naturally they would not only defend English poets but also the culture and people which they represent. It does indeed greatly soften a person’s heart when he looks West towards England and thinks of Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Keats, doesn’t it? Who cares about these Bullas and Tullas writing in their coarse mother tongue?

It is true that cultures, which neglect to benefit from others, gradually dry out. But obviously there is a difference between being a passive recipient and an active recipient. A passive recipient is a Wog trying to be English. An example of an active recipient is a Mughal miniature, which absorbs Chinese, Central Asian, Persian, South Asian and later European influences to enrich itself.

A passive recipient receives, as a slave does from his master. There is undeniably an imperative need for the people of the world to share their achievements, perceptions and concerns. The world has indeed, due to improvement in information technology and modern means of travel become a global village. It is a village, which should be ideally governed not through fear and arrogant assertion of the one over the other, but based on mutual recognition and appreciation of talent and virtue. The winner should not take all. There should be no losers.

The history of the West since the Renaissance can be looked at from two angles. For the Europeans it has been truly a period of great scientific and technological advancement. It is a period of immense development of the arts and literature. It is a period of great inventions and new challenges. But to others this glorious era of the Europeans is remembered as a period of plunder, when vast populations were brutally wiped out. When their treasures and resources were looted and their economies ravaged and destroyed.

It is an era, which represents their subjugation and humiliation at the hands of a new breed of conquerors, which did not even consider their subjects human. By adopting different forms and strategies these forces have survived to this day, and continue to deceive, plunder and monopolise the world. It is irrelevant that the world has become a global village. What matters is who runs it?

To resist and restrain the common enemy of all inhabitants of the global village, it is necessary that nationalist aspirations are curtailed and a vision of a larger human community is evolved. It is true that nationalism was very important in the struggle against colonialism and imperialism. But it is also true that nationalism is essentially divisive. It encourages people to claim superiority over others. Nationalism asserts itself by denigrating other nations and people who are religiously, culturally or ethnically different.

In Europe it led to the emergence of Nazi Germany based on the belief that Aryan Germans were racially pure and a better race. In the Middle East the Zionist State of Israel has been founded on the same principle. If Gandhi had not pandered to Indian nationalism, Hindu chauvinist sentiment may not have raised its head and the entire post-war history of the subcontinent may have been very different.

In our own country Pakistani nationalism has been a tool in the hands of the federal establishment for depriving and exploiting the federating units. It has provided succour and strength to an intellectually barren, dogmatic minority who have helped the establishment to nurse and nourish an ideology of its own fabrication, which is an anathema to what Iqbal envisioned and the ideals Jinnah fought for.

The two mighty countries Pakistan and India both suffer from over-inflated nationalism. I am sure that if there were a drinking bout, each would drink the other to death. Why not sit back and enjoy the drink? Instead of working together and letting our people relish life the two mighty nations, to quote a friend, are ‘intoxicated with the exuberance of their own verbosity’ in a bid to run the other down at any expense.

The awesome might of our two respective countries is demonstrated at the closing ceremony at the Wagah border, when the two national flags are brought down at dusk. It is much ado about nothing. In fact it is positively pathetic and embarrassing. Our soldiers strut and stamp their heels, kick in the air, rattle gates, stare and glare across at their counterparts. They stride up and down, again and again, strut back and forth, kick, strut and snort.

All this is done to overawe the Indians, performing exactly the same routine to overawe the Pakistanis, a breath away across the border. Can you imagine that this has been going on for fifty-five years? I wonder what purpose it might have served, except to make us both look silly!

I fear repeated stamping on the tarmac can only weaken the patriotic spine and the martial brain. I confess it is better than going to war. At least no one gets hurt and the farce keeps the silly spectators on both sides entertained for free.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist