My contemporaries like Abdullah Hussain, Intizar Hussain, Mustansar Husain Tarar have their own place in Urdu literature and I don’t want to pass a judgment on their books. But maybe what they write doesn’t interest me much
An articulate professor of philosophy, an accomplished fiction writer whose debut novel ‘Ghulam Bagh’ compelled young Pakistani readers to hit the bookstores and grab an Urdu book when reading and writing in English is all the rage , Mirza Ather Baig appears to be a hermit to the core. His second novella, ‘Sifar se eik tak- cyberspace ke munshi ki sargazasht’ which is being translated into English, has also earned him accolades from serious critics while the anthology of short stories ‘Beafsana’ presents various avant-garde themes in Urdu.
His third novel, uniquely titled ‘Hasan Ki Sorat e Haal – Khali jaghien pur karo’ will also be out soon. Baig has been writing Urdu fiction and teaching philosophy for more than three decades yet he puts no airs of an erudite. Viewpoint recently had a rendezvous with the man who resurrected modern Urdu literature and kindled readers’ interest in philosophy. Read on:
How do you see the relevance of philosophy in a conservative Pakistani Society?
Answering this takes one far beyond the scope of philosophy or literature since this is our basic condition emanating from our history. I desperately wish to portray the perplexity of this time fictionally. We haven’t been able to produce a single genuine philosopher or scholar with a vision yet we brag about trivial philosophical interpretations of yore. Besides, our flawed educational system is achieving nothing but mimicry or reproduction of western thought. A Pakistani student’s relation with the western knowledge imparted through books to him or her is quite superficial. The degree-holders we produce ‘actually exist’ somewhere else while the world generated through university education is suspended in the midair. We hardly contribute anything ‘original’ or local to the production of knowledge.
This structure of our society is marked by cultural chaos and academic bankruptcy. We live in a highly conservative and ultra-religious society which doesn’t allow the process of independent thinking. In fact, both science and philosophy are impossible in this atmosphere of religiosity. In this backdrop, the whole process of teaching philosophy or logic becomes absurd.
It is often said that Pakistani society is highly polarized and there is a constant conflict between two extreme ideologies i.e. liberalism and conservatism. What do you think of this intellectual divide?
To my mind there is not a sharp distinction between the so-called liberalism or conservatism in Pakistan. It does not imply that both categories are identical still the socio-cultural discourse is not markedly bipolar either. The country is perpetually sliding towards ideological mayhem and various categories of thought are imploding into each other due to global influences. It is hard to distinguish the features of one particular ideology from the other especially in Pakistan where the intelligentsia comprises turncoat columnists and anchors. Similarly I think a truly Marxist or socialist school of thought actually never existed as an ideological system in Pakistan and there were only few people engaged with the progressive movement.
What will you say about the Arabisation of Pakistan and the pursuit of creating an ‘Islamic Identity’?
Perhaps the cultural shock Pakistanis are going through is a dilemma of the whole Islamic world. In fact, the Muslim world has been unable to come to terms with the evolution of Western civilization following the Enlightenment. All the Muslim countries have tried to resist and react to this rise of the West in their own way. Unfortunately Muslims in South Asia have found the worst solution to deal with the western modernity that is to say, total denial of western civilization and violent confrontation.
Now let’s get back to your creative contribution. It seems Ghlam Bagh is inspired by Derrida, do you think its theme is ‘original’?
I do find the Derridian method of deconstruction very intriguing. And I confess there are certain references in Ghulam Bagh especially the accounts of main character ‘Kabeer’s diary. However, Ghulam Bagh is spun around various themes. Except for Kabeer’s confrontation with the craft of his own fiction I don’t see any inspiration from Derrida in the novel. Everything one reads or observes influences one’s conscious or unconscious choices. It is absolutely impossible to assume that a ‘pure’ piece of literature or a genuine author is never inspired by something or someone. All the literature, philosophy and history I have been reading all my life has somehow synthesized into the way I think, behave or write.
Are you obsessed with the process of writing or the author’s relation with the written text?
Yes. I do have a fixation with delving in the structure of language and writing itself. It fascinates me to explore the relation of language and philosophy. For instance, most of the short stories in Beafsana or even the protagonist of Sifar se eik tak is always indulged in the psychoanalysis of written text. My fiction is reflexive in its nature which has an element of self-referentiality always referring back to writing itself.
Do you try to translate contemporary philosophy into Urdu literature through fiction?
No, not at all! Although my whole training is in philosophy yet literature exists independently. I started writing fiction long before teaching Philosophy so they don’t borrow from each other. Nothing in the world comes from nothingness so the recurrence of certain philosophical themes in my fiction might have its roots in my passion for philosophy. Whatever provokes me to create such fiction definitely goes back to my lifelong affiliation with the world literature, philosophy and history. But believe me there isn’t any conscious decision to incorporate complex themes into literature.
Given the anti-intellectual mindset of Pakistani society have you ever wondered whom you are writing for? Do you have a specific readership in mind while writing?
Despite all the upheavals or anarchy surrounding me I never felt discouraged about writing novels or dramas since literature is my catharsis. I can never write for a certain type of audience on a publisher’s demand. I will always write whatever appeals me and what I want to write. While I am writing it really doesn’t occur that whom I am writing for. But writing finally has to be decided by the writer like the protagonist of Ghulam Bagh who remains worried about how the readers will judge his story. I do feel the tyranny of the reader who is going to pass his final judgment on my creation when it is published. So this relation between the writer and the reader, or between the language and the world or the ‘self’ are somewhat intertwined with the creation of prose or poetry. The way Ghulam Bagh was received by even those readers who have no knowledge of philosophy gave me more reasons to follow my heart while writing.
Do you reckon yourself a popular writer? Also, which do you think is ‘pure’ literature: popular fiction or classic fiction?
Though I don’t believe in the distinction of high or popular literature for we cannot say that one is superior to the other. However, it is true that the publishers or the authors of popular fiction, like Stephen King or Sidney Sheldon, are usually more worried about sales and readership. A purely literary work or classic fiction of course attracts a selective readership. For example Maurice Blanchot or Garcia Marquez have a different readership and published far less in numbers as compared to the popular bestsellers.
I personally enjoy popular thriller as much as a classic but the latter is something multidimensional and stimulates varied interpretations and responses while the scope of popular fiction is limited. For example Pamuk’s thriller My Name Is Red is a page turner but you won’t call it a piece of high literature. The element of thrill is not only the domain of popular fiction it can be incorporated and crafted well in the classic literature. Edgar Allen Poe’s horror stories are thriller too but one cannot compare Poe with Stephen King. One is reluctant to say that King is a literary writer but we cannot deny the popularity Poe enjoys. Owing to my long association with commercial screen writing I have developed a penchant for drama and suspense which comes naturally to my stories. I have no preconceived notions about the ‘greatness of literature’ thus whatever is truthfully ought to be delivered through me I’ll do that no matter what the current trend is.
Only a purely popular or commercial writer should be perturbed about the financial rewards or prizes for laureates. Writing Urdu fiction is already limited to a narrow circle and it is foolish to expect big money from publication of one’s book.
What do you think about the contemporary Pakistani fiction written in English? Do you intend to write in English in future?
I am an avid reader of English literature. I am quite in touch with the contemporary global literature that is being translated in English as well but I don’t posit myself with the writer community of our country .I observe a tendency in Pakistani English writers to follow certain ‘global themes’ instead of writing something original which is disappointing for me. I think most of the budding English authors write for an international audience. Therefore, they remain uprooted while a creative person cannot break free from his or her origins.
I started writing forty years ago at that time Pakistani English fiction was almost non-existent. I wish to write a semi-autobiographical novel on my bizarre experiences as a teacher of Philosophy in this part of the world. But I am still in a fix and juggling with the idea whether to switch to English or not. For example to explain the paradoxes perturbing an estranged teacher of Philosophy in a dogmatic society, English becomes a natural choice for describing those anecdotes. But sometimes I think I may not be able to write dialogues as beautifully as I do in Urdu.
If my work is translated then this whole question becomes irrelevant. If am lucky to get this upcoming book translated in English it might be as good as writing in English. After all most of the literature in the world is not written in English language rather it is being translated from Spanish, French, German, Japanese or Arabic literature into English.
Who is your favourite author?
R.K Narayan and Edgar Allen Poe are among those few who impressed me with their fiction. I do admire the short story writers Khalida Hussain and Indian writer Nayyar Masood but frankly speaking in the genre of novel, throughput the history of Urdu literature no one has ever inspired me. Aag Ka Darya is no doubt a valuable contribution. When I first read it, I had really enjoyed but fiction written in other languages has been far more inspiring for me than the so-called icons of classic Urdu literature that have nothing substantial to offer. My contemporaries like Abdullah Hussain, Intizar Hussain, Mustansar Husain Tarar have their own place in Urdu literature and I don’t want to pass a judgment on their books. But maybe what they write doesn’t interest me much.
How do you rate yourself as an author? Are you contend with your literary status?
It is childish to rank oneself (laughing). I am satisfied with my work and I enjoy it without ever being bothered about the intellectual hierarchy or literary hounours. As for dissatisfaction, it is a predicament all authors inherit because the urge to create something novel or ingenious doesn’t let them rest. An author is a person who tries to resolve the problems arising from his intrinsic relationship with language, word and consciousness. So far I have been successfully resolving my creative problems for my own personal gratification and whether my experience is ranked at top of the world literature is something I never cared.
Perhaps the reception of my novels is not that bad as the third or fourth edition of Ghulam Bagh is going to press soon. In Urdu literature, having found a publisher for one single book is deemed literary success while I have been fortunate to have a publisher in England keen to translate my second novel ‘Sifar se eik tak’ into English. I don’t feel apologetic about being philosophic at times or most of the times yet I don’t think that I have sacrificed my ‘readability’ so far.
What is the contribution of Halqa e Arbab e Zauq or Academy of Letters in the promotion of literature in Pakistan?
Halqa-e Arba Zauq is definitely doing its job and contributing to the promotion of literature and Urdu language. I happen to be a very lazy person and never cared much about publishing my work but it was Halqa which introduced many of my short stories to a large number of audiences through its literary sessions.
What is your next novel about?
What I am working on would be way more outrageous than Ghulam Bagh. In my upcoming novel ‘Hasan Ki Sorat e Haal –Khali Jaghien Pur Karo’, I am trying to evolve a type of fiction which deals with a fragmentary situation. In this novel, traditional classical techniques and typical literary models of character, plot or conflict do not exist at all since it is a study of total fragmentation. Because the reality and the world we are confronted with is fragmented and all of us just try to put it in order.
|Duriya Hashmi is a passive activist, blogger and aspiring film maker who writes to vent anguish and believes in art as a catalyst for change. Her cyber self can be followed at