On Wednesday, February 9, I closed yet another chapter in my life and the times gone by. One of Pakistan’s leading Urdu short story writers, Akhtar Jamal, died in Ottawa, Canada. May her soul rest in peace. She authored several books including Unglian Figar Apni, Zard Patoon ka Ban, Khalai daour ki Mohabat and Samjhota Express.
Akhtar Jamal belonged to the generation of writers and intellectuals that proudly held on to their political beliefs, even in the face of adversity, and didn’t sell out for the sake of jobs, positions, cars and plots of land, as many others did later. Like a typical dictator, Ziaul Haq hijacked and transformed the intellectual discourse. He bribed writers and poets through appointments on key positions and gave them prizes for becoming quislings. There were those who reported on fellow writers.
Akhtar Jamal and her husband Ahmed Ali Khan, who was also a poet, did not bow down to the direct pressure from the regime. Their only son, Tariq Ahsan, who was a brilliant mind and had started his academic career teaching at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, was picked up and jailed for two years for his alleged involvement in writing and distributing pamphlets against the Zia regime. I remember a heartbroken, but brave woman taking a taxi, or a wagon, to Rawalpindi every week to meet her son in Adiala jail. This is when she was still recovering from the agony of seeing her beautiful daughter Tazeen die. Yet at no time did she and her husband try to placate Zia and his minion, General Mujeeb Khan, in the information ministry. The couple remained true to their progressive political ideology before and after their intense personal crisis.
This article is not about an individual writer, but a zamana (the word era explains but cannot entirely capture the Urdu term). Akhtar Jamal was part of the constellation of writers and intellectuals that lit up the sky of our national imagination, including poets such as Sheikh Ayaz, Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum, Noon Meem Rashid, Majeed Amjad, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib and many others. Then there were fiction writers and playwrights like Imtiaz Ali Taj, Quratulain Haider, Jamila Hashmi, Hijab Imtiaz Ali and Aziz Ahmed. I am talking about a time when Pakistan had the intellectual capacity to produce a great historian like Aziz Ahmed who is known for his plays, short stories and phenomenal work on Islamic history. Not to forget historians like KK Aziz or sociologists like Hamza Alavi and Feroz Ahmed. Sadly, we have stopped producing such historians, sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists.
The 1980s was indeed a watershed in many ways. Zia not only narrowed our horizons for understanding and interpreting our own religion and hijacked its multi-coloured discourse, but he was also responsible for de-intellectualising society. The influx of drugs and weapons combined with the enhancement of materialism and nibbled at the core intellectual values of Pakistani society. Our literature became increasingly uninspirational and was delinked from our social and political realities. Surely with new names like Mohsin Hamid, Mohammad Hanif, Kamila Shamsie and others, we are witnessing the emergence of a new generation of capable writers that are talking about society. However, the fact that these writers write in English and not in any of the national languages means that there are limits to their intellectual experience and experiment reaching the so-called ‘common man’ who, because he/she cannot access literature that readily, cannot dream and desire as was done in the past.
One of our other misfortunes is that we, as a nation, do not create icons, but make temples for worshiping one deity or another. When talking of progressive writers, we remember just one or two names but forget the constellation that lit up our intellectual sky. Our great names like Habib Jalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Akhtar Jamal were powerful thinkers, but also representatives of an intellectually potent zamana. While a few individuals of that generation are still alive, most have passed away. It would help if we remembered the constellation and paid homage to them. This is in memory of Akhtar Jamal — a great writer — and her zamana.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2011.