Opinion: Settling a point with a clean, single blow

  Mian Ijaz-ul-Hassan

Symbolism was out. How could a progressive writer hide behind a symbol? It was like a warrior hiding behind his damsel’s skirts. Truth had to be out in the open. And the more naked, the better, like a red painted terracotta pot resting on unswept earth

There was a time when artists and writers got pretty worked up about what was progressive and what was reactionary; what was literature and what was journalism. What was poetry and what was propaganda? What was painting and what was illustration? And so it went on. It was not easy. Everyone believed he was right. No one would budge. Theoretical debates were the order of the day. The left and the right were at daggers drawn. Often issues couldn’t be settled with words alone.

Maulana Kausar Niazi once a Jama’at-e-Islami stalwart acquired notoriety when he blatantly slipped through a contingent of army jawans who had been sent out during the martial law to flush him out of the Wazir Khan Mosque, where reportedly he was hiding. Maulana, a man of wits, hid in an empty deg of ‘halva’ and had himself transported out of the mosque without arousing any suspicion. On another occasion I believe he got away in a shuttlecock ‘burqa’, something which the artless Sheikh Rasheed of the PPP was not able to do with success. Sheikh Sahib was a tall lanky person but tried to escape in the ‘burqa’ of a lady who was only five foot three. Sheikh Sahib did not notice that his hairy ankles and big feet were visible to Zia-ul Haq’s secret service agents when he tried to coyly amble through their ranks.

After leaving the Jama’at, Maulana Kauser Niazi became its bitter critic and since he was an insider, he knew where it would hurt most. The Maulana published the deadly weekly “Shahab” which was edited by Nazeer Naji who had incredible invective facility, a skill rarely equalled and for which, and other things, he has acquired fame. Shahab ruled supreme for almost a year, exposing and demeaning reactionaries with colourful adjectives. The Jama’at was put on the mat. Only a few months earlier it had been on a physical rampage against the progressives. On one occasion, Maulana Niazi, popularly known as Maulana whisky because he had so ingeniously whisked himself away from the Wazir Khan mosque, was buying some groceries from the Tollington Market on the Mall. Maulana was in the process of squashing some grapes in his mouth, which he had picked from a ripe bunch, when Shorish Kashmiri, a loud right-wing stalwart hailed him. Shorish edited the weekly “Chitan”. It never suffered his conscience calling black green. He also had great talent in hurling abuse at his ideological adversaries.
The Maulana and Shorish did not waste words in idle salutations and got down to the business at hand. Often, as I mentioned earlier, differences could not be settled with words alone. So as soon as the Maulana realised that he could not prevail upon his adversary with mere words, he effortlessly picked up a tin of cooking oil, resting on a rack with its other companions and let Shorish have it on the head. Maulana had made his final point. The argument was instantly brought to an end. Not the best way to settle scores, its only virtue being that it was settled with a clean single blow.

It was perhaps for this reason that when ideologues admonished writers for their lack of commitment, most writers preferred to exercise ‘their right to remain silent’. But it was often not easy to take their bullshit. I remember in meetings of the Halqa e Arbab e Zauq, a progressive literary organisation, no one dared mention Iqbal or Manto because they were not considered kosher. The Halqa held its weekly meetings in one of the dingy rooms lighted by a naked bulb, across the inner courtyard at the YMCA on the Mall. I recall that on one occasion a young writer who had recently passed her university exams was to read a short story. She seemed a little nervous at first but soon got in step with her narrative, hoping to make an impression by the end. It was not a big audience, most of which was gathered around a long well-used pinewood table, with a dark brown varnished surface full of graffiti. When she had read through her manuscript she expectantly looked up to see the reaction. Since I had found the story quite pleasant I joined others in giving a hand to applaud the effort. Probably her first, at least in the Halqa. Little did we know that there was one among us who had the sense to detect that things were not quite so well as we had thought. He proceeded to point out where she had erred. There was a character that was actually an imperialist agent, who had escaped our attention and another who stood for the feudal class. Furthermore there were several other matters, which were scientifically debatable. We were all suitably ashamed for not having been able to see what was so very obvious.

Thanks to these ideologues who only dipped their nibs in red ink to correct others but never dipped it in blue or black to their own creative pursuit. As a result the Halqa Arbab- e- Zauq was split into two parts, Halqa-a-Siasi and Halqa-a-Adabi. These ideologues and pamphleteers riding higher commitments, writers were brushed aside and the revolution saved in an ideological preservative, a skill, which the Mitchel Farms of Renala Khurd, has accomplished with greater expertise over the decades.

Symbolism was out. How could a progressive writer hide behind a symbol? It was like a warrior hiding behind his damsel’s skirts. Truth had to be out in the open. And the more naked, the better, like a red painted terracotta pot resting on unswept earth. Little did they realise that in literature and art things have not only to be perceived and experienced but also to be recreated with appropriate language and form before they can be transported across to the heart and head. There is a wide chasm between knowing and having the ability to capture it in words and images.

Presuming to know the truth is not enough, unless it can also be tested in a heart lab. Actually, there is more to literature and painting than can be fathomed by scholars and critics. Can you become a poet if you know all the words in a dictionary or a painter if you have acquired the technique and craft? No you can’t! If it was so simple then all the encyclopaedists and grammarians would be writers and every student who has been through an art school would be a painter. But this is not so. I have seen more artists getting killed in an art school than wayward pedestrians.

Art and writing is not an accomplishment or a profession but a passion, a natural endowment of some individuals that cannot be acquired through mere practice or technique. Van Gogh’s drawings look so clumsy but why do they have the ability to move our hearts. There are painters who can render crunchier apples than Cezanne but what is it that makes Cezanne’s apples stay in our minds while the taste of others is soon lost on the tongue? In the end, art really is not a product but a by-product of an artist’s personal vision and inner life which is forged out of his own everyday existence.

Coming to another point, I wonder if you have noticed that most ‘afsars’ of the establishment betray a slight discomfiture in the company of artists and poets. Ghalib is all right because he has been long dead. Moreover, he wrote in the national language even before the nation, which spoke different tongues, was born. The ‘regional’ poets who wrote in their ‘native’ tongues were regarded too coarse to be even included in official literary discussions. The less said about them the better. There was a rumour that one of them was a gay and liked the companionship of a handsome boy who was not even a Muslim. After decades of struggle when finally some of these regional poets were allowed on the radio, and later on the TV, they were introduced not as poets but as Sufi poets, which made their official acceptance less embarrassing. General Yahya Khan and others never ceased to drool over the Melody Queen but never had a moment for Khwaja Fareed and his lot. Without Fareeda Khanum, Iqbal Bano and Abida Perveen, no one in the officialdom would have recognised Sufi Fareed of Shakarganj or Sufi Bullah of Kasur and other sufis hailing from even more distant ‘mufassalat’. I must say that inducting Madholal Hussain under the garb of a sufi must have required some work.

But the situation could yet change for the better. Never underestimate the new and the young. We all know that General Musharraf can pat a dog. He can also rap a jehadi on the knuckles. His government can even seize young actresses on the stage for flaunting their figures. But I wonder if he can whistle a tune in the bath. Nawaz Sharif couldn’t whistle because he had his mouth always full of sweet turnips, but I am told he could sing. Loved singing duets whenever he could. Are we not glad that Nawaz and Musharraf did not sing one together? One should never forget to count one’s blessings. But then there is this matter of the Referendum. A wit observed that if Musharraf were to win the Referendum, he would rule for five years, but if he were to lose it he would stay for ten. I say he has been around all the time.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is Pakistan’s leading painter. He is a teacher, art critic and political activist. He was awarded the “President’s Pride of Performance” in 1992. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee