Letter from Karachi |
Of palm and cactus
A few days ago, I received a new English poetry collection Body Loom by M. Athar Tahir in Lahore. He is a bureaucrat, scholar, poet, translator and calligrapher. His publications include books on Pakistani art: my favourite remains the sumptuous Calligraphy and Calligraphy-art. His poetry collection begins with a poem "Dot" which both a celebration of Creation and the skill of a calligrapher's pen. The volume includes sparse elegant poems on landscape, nature and seasons, but my eye instinctively fell on the title 'Karachi'. I thought aha, what better way to start this column? But his view of "this sea-edge/ city, sprouting beyond comprehension did seem a bit gloomy.
I began to look at English verses written by Karachi poets including 'A Better Man than I: Six Poems for Kipling' by the erudite Salman Tarik Kureshi. The poem appears in Kureshi's collection Landscapes of the Mind and includes the lines:
Rudyard, where I live now --
the southern town of Richard Burton and Bartle Frere --
pulsates with the throb of a commerce
different to yours
is frozen prawns and colour television --
The noise is of jet planes and motor cycles
and the clang of a bellbuoy on the swell;
the reek tells of diesel oil and the fish harbour
and food cooked in the shacks
of the poor
This is a loud
city of palm and cactus
where a beachless sea is shut behind
a wall of unrounded rocks.
This August, while the city struggled with unprecedented rains, floods and power breakdowns, the weather was cool and breezy and the trees, lush. In the midst of this, was a major literary event: the visit of Zulfikar Ghose, expatriate poet, scholar and critic. A sizeable audience gathered at the Beach Luxury Hotel to hear his illuminating talk on literature followed by a poetry reading. The function was organized by OUP, the publisher of Ghose's: Selected Poems (1991) He read new poems including "Nusrat" an elegy for the qawwali maestro; while the multilayered "In Essex" about a train journey typifies Ghose's preoccupation with mortality, illusion and time. He writes:
and for a few miles the landscape mimics
a sentimental picture of pastoral charm,
a moment's regression to a presumed
more peaceful time--the horses feeding
outside a barn as if in preparation
for a journey to Smithfield or Covent Garden
or the heavy-uddered Guernsey cows
profoundly ruminant while two dogs run
around them senselessly--there is in that
quick exposure while the eye opens and blinks
barely thrice an affirmation, however delusional,
that this present world is really as unthreatened
as any imagined fairy-tale epoch--
Ghose is a soft-spoken, informal man with a quiet humour and a passion for literature and cricket. He was born in Sialkot in 1935, moved to Bombay in 1942 and migrated to Britain in 1952. He says his British education forged him as a writer but his literary ancestors include Bocaccio, The Arabian Nights, Proust, Becket, Joyce, Virginia Woolf.
Ghose is an early example of the diaspora writer who defines himself through literature and story-telling. He is vocal on the tendency to categorize writers into an ethnic slot and says all that matters is language and form. There are autobiographical and metaphysical elements in his eleventh novel, the intricate The Triple Mirror of the Self, an exploration of migration and exile across four continents. The narrator's search for his core, his essential self, takes him backwards in time to his Bombay schooldays and his early Punjab childhood The book begins and ends with mirror images of the Andes and the Hindu Kush.
Ghose has taught at the University of Texas in Austin since 1969. He is married to a Brazilian artist and won great acclaim in the 1970s for his historical trilogy The Incredible Brazilian. These novels and his others about South America display a clear sub-continental resonance. In Pakistan, he is best known for his 1967 novel The Murder of Aziz Khan, which touched a deep chord and revolved around a proud Punjab farmer destroyed by a group of ruthless industrialists: this was also the first cohesive, modern English novel by a writer of Pakistani origin. In those days, Ahmed Ali and Shahid Suhrawardy dominated Pakistan's English language scene: Taufiq Rafat (perhaps Pakistan's best English-language poet) and Zulfikar Ghose were new voices. Today there are several dynamic young writers on the horizon.
This August, the Pakistan Academy of Letters announced its annual literary awards in each of Pakistan's literatures. To my great delight The Patras Bokhari Award for the best English book was given to Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie - my daughter! Last year the winner was the poetic Maps for Lost Lovers by the expatriate Nadeem Aslam. The academy has also brought out a series "Pakistani Literature" consisting of English translations, but there is also a separate section for English-language writing which is very welcome. Otherwise there exists this strange literary apartheid between English-language writing and other sub-continental literatures. There rage these passionate debates about the 'authenticity" of English as a creative vehicle, particularly by diaspora writers. To me, all these diverse voices are part of the whole.
As I write this, Karachi is settling into Ramazan and we wait with bated breath for the president's memoirs.
Muniza Shamsie has edited three anthologies of Pakistani English writing. She is a regular contributor to Dawn newspaper, Newsline and She, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature and www. LitEncyc.com.