TR = Terror

Readers love writers so much, so intensely that they want them to be more than just writers.

Bilal Tanweer April 21, 2011
You’ve heard the rumors: literature is dead, libraries are museums, reading is an outdated practice, and writers are beggars.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.

Sleep sound.

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.
Bilal Tanweer A writer and translator who teaches creative writing at LUMS.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Usman Ahmad | 13 years ago | Reply Well Bilal..I did notice that the pakistani writers were engaged in too much politics and were way too judgemental. Nobody has asked tham because their audience is usually homogeneous. Most of them liberals from well-to-do families. So nobody seems to care that their only speciality is literature and not commentary on stupid war on terror. Besides, if you ask me, honestly, I don't believe that any Pakistani writer has produced any insightful work which carries depth and will be enjoyed and revered by posterity. Instead, they present an apologetic account of some protagonist who has enjoyed woman and wine until 11th of September, 2001. They are, for the time being it seems, unable to write a novel like 'War and Peace' in which problems of middle and lower classes are discussed and the dilemma of the youth is written in an unapologetic manner.
Shumaila | 13 years ago | Reply I guess Fahad is right, a sign of good poetry is that you can read whatever you want into it. But there has to be a limit to how far one can do this, and you're right too, that an analysis of Baa Baa Black Sheep as an analogy for Zardari's regime is just an example of 'reading meaning' into things too far.
Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ