The session on Urdu short stories was undoubtedly one of the finest the Karachi Literature Festival had to offer, for two reasons. The well-moderated discussion actually revolved around literary debates rather than fundamentalism and politics with the panelists sticking to the assigned topic. And secondly, the panel included some of the best known writers of the Urdu world namely Intezar Hussain, Hasan Manzar and Fahmida Riaz, with writer Asif Farrukhi, editor of the literary journal Dunyazad, and co-organiser of the festival, moderating.
When asked how she felt about seeing Hussain in the flesh, a member of the audience said, "I don't have words for it, his writings, about the personal impact of partition on families, being uprooted from their homeland. I haven't been to my native village in India but I understand all those things through him."
The past and literature's relation to a culture's history was what Hussain made the focus of his discussion on Saturday. He traced dominant trends in Urdu short story writing to the progressive writer's movement, modernism and now symbolism. Critical of the first trend, he said that at that time writers were encouraged to concentrate on present social problems rather than delve into the past; he was critical of writers who had no sense of their own history.
Giving the example of extremism, he said that its roots were not recent but stretched to the earliest years of Islamic history as Hazrat Ali (ra) was killed by a Khariji, someone who had earlier accepted his leadership but upon a disagreement, assassinated the caliph in a mosque. "Why do you now say that we (Muslims) do not do such things (murders) in mosques?"
He said that at the height of the progressive movement, writers were derided and insulted for doing merely art for art's sake. He criticised the progressive writers’ movement’s emphasis that art or literature should have a social purpose. He said that short stories of writers such as Qurratulain Haider and Ghulam Abbas were appreciated and quoted today, but they were great because of their use of imagination and not because of an effort to mirror and criticise contemporary reality.
They managed to do this because they did not belong to the progressive writers' movement and had a sense of the past. The stories under discussion were “Qaidkhane mein Talaatum Hai kih Hind Aaati Hai” and Ghulam Abbas's “Dhanak”. He said that they may have been taraqqi pasand but certainly not part of the technical movement. The afsaanas have been performing this function despite taraqqi pasand opposition.
Hasan Manzar took issue with the latter statement. He said that Qurratulain Haider and Ghulam Abbas may have left the movement but they were progressive to which Hussain responded saying he meant the term and not the word and that there was a difference.
Manzar continued by pointing out that Qurratulain Haider and Ghulam Abbas were progressive (taraqqi pasand) by nature and that's what counted. He said that when they left the movement, it was because they were forced out as journals refused to publish them as they would not get ads and that radio shows would not host their literature.
Manto and Shifai were persecuted. He said that the taraqqi pasand movement was an extremely old, ever since the first murder of Abel by Cane. And that although he had never joined it formally or ever visited the organisation’s office, he supported what was right and so he was a taraqqi pasand therein because he supported the human, the worker and the farmer.
Fahmida Riaz, like Manzar, also came out on the side of the progressive writers’ movement. Talking about Hussain's preoccupation with the past, Riaz said that "Aaj kal koi bhi faanoos naheen jala raha hai kyoon ke bijli hai but koi fanoos jalai gai to khoobsurat lage ka" (These days nobody lights lanterns because there is electricity but if someone does light lanterns, it will look beautiful).
Talking about a new short, Riaz said that many new writers had emerged in Aaj and Dunyazad. She made special mention of Ali Akbar Natiq among others and mourned that people sidelined good writers and appreciated second-rate ones.
Hussain continued by pointing out that the feminist movement was one of the biggest movements in current Urdu literature. “Having passed through periods of great rebellion, the phase that we have entered… in that great meaning is being born in Urdu short story and verse," he said.
The session was one of the best since Asif Farrukhi directed the session crisply and with great purpose. However, one weakness that people complained about was that some panelists were more interested in chatting with each other than helping educate the audience. An audience member said, "these panelists are the ones who have failed, failed to carry Urdu forward for the next generation which is increasingly English-educated and out of touch with this." He was referring to the panelists' failure or lack of desire to give specific answers to the audience's questions.
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