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Who’s Afraid Of Urdu Literature?

Sassi (1954). This Urdu film was made for a largely non-Sindhi/Baloch urban audience. Even though the plot was largely faithful to the original folktale, the ethnic underpinnings of the tale were removed.

After I finished the short story “Itr-e-Kafur” (The Essence of Camphor) by Naiyer Masud, I sat wondering about it – as if the separate items of the story had become a perfume, intense and empty at the same time. Intense because of the impact it had on my senses, so lost was I in its texture and rhythms. On the other hand, empty because this was a ‘written’ perfume, such that did not have any scent. The paradox created its own spell, and it had clearly been cast on me. Also, as I realized that these very two features were in fact induced by ‘Itr-e-Kafur’, I found myself at a strange loss of words. The written empty perfume, took me far away into a subconscious land which perhaps I had not visited before. Yet, it was familiar to me, made of the items of my very soul.

Then there was the certain impact of the Urdu language; its infinite and absolute beauty. This was the language that certain teachers in my teenage years had discarded off the shelf – rendering it useless. They did not speak much in their own native language, and in an English medium school, we were geared towards a particular disdain towards Urdu. The focus was more on acquiring the skills of English, and therefore reading, writing and breathing in it – pure immersion, which is perhaps the only way to learn a language.

In later years, I would sometimes, by some compelling of its own accord, take to an Urdu verse or book, and try to read in my own broken rhythms. It was at such a time, that a teacher I had admired, told me rather rudely “to never even attempt Urdu” as it wasn’t for me. For years I felt a strange silence and emptiness occupying some corner of my soul.

Recently, by some chance-encounter whilst reading Nadeem Aslam’s works, something he wrote triggered me. This was: “To me Urdu is always the first point of reference.” He writes copiously in English, and yet it is his native tongue which provides him with the necessary inspiration. This struck me deep inside, and I decided there and then to re-visit the Urdu language. I found my interest reignited. I have started with Urdu short stories and have read about nine stories so far. These are penned by Intezar Hussein, Naiyer Masud, Ghulam Abbas, Zamiruddin Ahmed and Enver Sajjad. Each one struck a chord, but it was with Naiyer Masud that my heart swayed to a symphony.

It’s been just a few days since I read “Sheesha Ghat” but the impressions of the words, for example, the description of the girl, Parya, as “Jheel kee ruuh…ajooba” (Soul of the lake…miracle), along with the story in its strange entirety, stay with me. The inability to speak rendered enigmatically in a boy who stutters, is a beautiful metaphor and an anguished state that has come upon me hundreds of times. Is this the power of literature, then? That it can say out louder even those things that you thought were simply inexpressible.

“Vaqfa” by Masud was also a strong drink. Again, certain phrases were bound to me within instants, such as, on the death of his father, the narrator writes: “teen din tak mei khoya khoya sa raha” (I remained lost for three days) What an accurate description of the time when nothing is making sense, due to the shock and insensate sorrow of death! It perhaps seems simple out of context, but it has been woven into the story with ingenious strokes. The reader is lured back into contemplating the title of the story, and it is indeed a strange lapse of time (“Vaqfa”) in these three days when one is confounded by some news that is impossible to digest.

The eerie esoteric gloom of “Sultan Muzaffir ka Waqea Nawees” (Sultan Muzaffar’s Imperial Chronicler) follows you like a shadow. It raises the relevant question of whether to follow the dictate of authority, or dare to rebel? Also, it mysteriously points out the poisonous consequences of such a rebellion. Anyone in the business of writing, will find themselves relating to this work.

It is not as if Intezaar Hussein’s “Humsafar” (translated as “The Wrong Bus” by Basharat Peer) did not have its hold on me. But I could only read this one by him so far, possessed by Naiyer Masud’s incantations as the wedding guest was by Coleridge’s Mariner.

“Humsafar” makes you think for a long time, if perhaps life is like riding on a bus, and catching the wrong one, you are somehow compelled to stay on it. People you meet, come and go, destinations differ and all the time you are thinking: what am I doing on this bus? It is really an existentialist crisis.

I’m finding with the conversational skills at my hand, and some strange connection to this language, it is even easy and compelling on the eye. The more you keep reading, the more acquainted you get with the script. Keeping a dictionary handy for several English texts – so why not for Urdu?

Whereas Urdu poetry often uses more difficult language and complex metaphors which require a knowledge of the history of the usage of a certain expression, these stories were speaking to me simply and directly. After the negative constellation that befell me for years, here was an opening. It is striking me as rather silly that I was too afraid to approach the literature before. But this can happen. You can live years in a darkness.

In any case, my personal relationship to the Urdu language has evolved to a state which is both foreign and known to me, and I can’t tell which is which! It is even like an affection that is newfound but seems familiar to the soul, like a long-lost connection. You are enamored by the moves and inclinations of your love-interest. This is, I think, the perpetual state for me with the literature of this language.

Years ago, I met a lady in a newspaper office, and upon not knowing a serial considered a classic, she said: “Oh, how lucky you are! You are yet to discover it!” I don’t know whether it is luck or loss, but either way, I have embarked upon a journey, not caring finally what others might say or think. The first promise one makes, should always be to oneself.

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Naya Daur