TR = Terror
Readers love writers so much, so intensely that they want them to be more than just writers.
You’ve heard the rumors: literature is dead, libraries are museums, reading is an outdated practice, and writers are beggars. But, gentle readers, let me assure you, the truth is as ever: people love their writers — and today more than ever.
In fact, today’s readers love writers so much, so intensely that they want them to be more than just writers. They want them to be their mystics, oracles, psychics, visionaries, political experts, policy makers, cookie monsters, cuddly bears, bffs, everything — that is, everything but writers. And most writers are like attention-famished kids who have managed to trick everybody into believing they have two or more birthdays every year. They stand ready and alert to cut any cake and talk on any subject, wherever they are called to do so. And they are cutting all sorts of cakes out there as we speak.
While writers may be overeager to express their views on politics and everything else with its backside to the sun, the dirty secret is that the only thing they have any special insight into is what they spend most of their waking time cavorting with — and that is language. And while literature is also about the world and mystical insights into it, it is fundamentally about something more prosaic and ordinary, i.e. language.
For some reason, nobody seems to be noticing this.
There is a reason for this: it makes life easy. When writers tell you their book is about current political events, you don’t have to read what is written on the page; just splash the text with its context and it will turn into something nice and identifiable. And if the work is from Pakistan, a spattering of the current events would immediately yield a transmutation of the work into a little dispatch on terrorism, extremism, provincial autonomy, colonialism or Life in the Good Old Days. You think I’m kidding? Let me illustrate.
Here’s one by Taufiq Rafat:
What was inside you
flowered so intensely
it overtook all
with a springtime swiftness.
Brother, you were good
ground. Water and prayer
have done their work.
First think of it this way. Imagine this phrase — ‘flowered so intensely’, how precisely it conveys a blooming that is quick, dense and overwhelming. And this other one: ‘a springtime swiftness’ — a trademark Taufiq Rafat move where he constructs a complex yet exact, easy-on-the-eye adverb or adjective by collapsing it into another noun. In its paradoxical way, the poem finds a way to crown both the brother and the disease: he was chosen, for he was ‘good ground’. The end of this poem is heartbreaking because the reader gradually realises what ‘water’ and ‘prayer’ signify, and ‘work’ really means a hastening of death. But what’s truly, truly remarkable here — and here you see the hand of a genuine poet — is the consistency of the metaphor of spring. It’s so well wrought that it works until the last line. This poem only requires a change in title for it to be read as a call for spring.
Now read this poem again as an elegy for extremism in Pakistan and how Taufiq Rafat foresaw what was coming, like, thirty years ago. And look, there is even a mention of prayer in there. Of course, if you look even more closely: Cancer = Extremism and Taufiq Rafat = TR = terror.
See what I mean?
Good. Next time we’ll read Baba Black Sheep as an analogy for President Zardari. Till then.
Published in The Express Tribune.