Ali Akbar Natiq captivates both young and old with his powerful oratory and deeply contextualized poems and short stories at a recitation hosted by Kuch Khaas
The Friday Times: Published in August 17-23, 2012 edition under the title “It takes a Village…“
In the federal capital of Islamabad, the buzzwords one normally gets to hear are ‘terrorism’, ‘extremism’, ‘Taliban’, ‘Afghanistan’, ‘mullah’, ‘bomb blast’, ‘America’, and so on. Politics and security dominate the lives of people who live in this city ensconced in the Margalla hills, serene and beautiful as it always was, but now cursed with brutal incidents of extremism and terrorism that all cities in Pakistan have been suffering from for half a decade now. Rarely does one get to partake in an occasion where a diverse cross-section of Pakistanis sit together and discuss lively, relaxing topics like the arts, culture, and how literature has developed – and is developing – in Pakistan. Kuch Khaas, the only privately-run arts and culture centre in Islamabad, has recently started a series titled “Sudh Budh”, a weekly event hosted every Wednesday, celebrating culture, literature, poetry, prose and other art forms still alive and well in Pakistan.
The first event of the “Sudh Budh” series was a recitation-of-sorts by Ali Akbar Natiq, an Urdu poet and short story writer who hails from Okara in the Punjab, but traces his ancestry to eastern Punjab (now part of India). Ali Akbar Natiq was selected by the acclaimed Granta magazine as a New Voice and published his short story “A Mason’s Hand” in their special edition for Pakistan. Natiq’s book, “Qaeem Deen”, has also been published by Oxford University Press earlier this year. Natiq himself wanted it to be an interactive evening with eminent personalities of the literary circle in Islamabad, the adeebs, and members of the youth and civil society who still drew spiritual nourishment from Urdu adab and Pakistani culture.
Raza Rumi, noted columnist and policy expert, introduced Natiq to the audience by narrating how he himself was introduced to the poet; it was Dr. Fehmida Mirza, the Speaker of Pakistan’s National Assembly, who referred Natiq to him. Raza, who is also a cultural aficionado and runs the ‘Pak Tea House’ blog, was immediately captivated by the depth and intensity in Ali Akbar Natiq’s poems, and was further assured that Urdu adab is still alive and progressing in Pakistan thanks to new budding poets and writers like Natiq.
“English writers have become adab ke thekaydaar without possessing or exhibiting the depth or profundity that is desperately required for Pakistan’s culture to be acknowledged, recognized and further developed,” Raza said, referring to the monopolization of Pakistan’s culture and cultural representation by those who prefer to use English as their lingua franca. Raza urged for this monopoly to be de-linked and for Pakistan to be recognized as a multi-lingual country, with English and Urdu prevailing in the urban metropolises while regional languages are used and promoted in rural areas.
After this introduction, Mr. Natiq was extolled by eminent writer and literary personality Dr. Rawish Nadeem, who traced Natiq’s appearance onto the Urdu adab mainstream a couple of years ago as a poet and storyteller. Dr. Nadeem not only praised Natiq for writing on concepts of society, politics, village life, and the complexities of the world around us, but also commended him for going beyond previous literary giants like Faiz and Rashid by developing a rich and evocative context for each of his literary products. “There is so much that is yet to be discovered about the dehaat,” Dr. Nadeem said, “and writers like Natiq are bringing aspects of that society to us, in our urban frameworks and our seemingly content modern lives”.
Dr. Nadeem was not alone in his adoration of Natiq; Dr. Waheed Qureshi, another renowned Urdu poet and novelist, acclaimed Natiq and said that he had become the contemporary star of Urdu adab – “he is a ray of shining light” are the words he used. Dr. Waheed was familiar not only with Natiq’s poems (shai’ri and nazm) but also his short stories (afsaana), both of which made him glad that Urdu adab is not dying, but evolving and progressing into the 21st century. Dr. Waheed noted that Natiq’s classical basis and foundation was strong, in addition to which he brings a new touch of sensitivity and redolence to his nazm’s. According to Dr. Waheed, Natiq is a big name in Urdu adab and Urdu shai’ri even today.
Ali Akbar Natiq humbly acknowledged his enthusiastic supporters as he began to recite his poem “Resham ban-na khel nahi”, a powerful, anecdotal rendition of how one’s life – or one’s reflections on one’s own life – is like weaving a cocoon of silk around one’s own body; akin to wrapping yourself in your own life stories when one feels that one’s experiences are a mere mirage of history, and not actual moments that have been lived through.
The recitation drew rancorous applause, and was followed by a short comment from Mr. Farrukh Nadeem, who explained that Natiq retains the qualitative importance of his technique, weight, plot and character by beautifully contextualizing it using the rich complexities and unique intricacies of rural life in Pakistan’s villages. Mr. Nadeem went on to say that Natiq’s work is different because he also sheds light on the hidden politics and societal dealings going on in the background of the ga’on’s or village’s overt and exhibited social life. Words like kismet (fate/destiny), rawayat (tradition/custom), ghayrat (honour) and others are given a new life and a focused meaning in Natiq’s works, he said, and added that “deconstruction runs through the veins of Ali Akbar Natiq’s literature”. “Ali Akbar Naatiq uses the bayaaniya nazm or narrative form of expression, and his contexts are enriched by his exposure to social traditions in the village and the evolution thereof; in that manner, Natiq’s art contains its integrity without losing its focal context”, Mr. Nadeem said.
Natiq continued by reciting his short story titled “Shareeqa”, on popular request by the audience. “Shareeqa” is a story of how the Partition of 1947 affected the lives of Sikhs and Muslims living in a village in what is today Pakistan. The Sikhs sought refuge for three days, then left with their community leader Natha Singh and escaped to what had then become India. In the midst of this turmoil was a story of lust for land, and of love lost. A Sikh of the area, Sardar Sher Singh, was in love with a Muslim woman, Sheila, a scion of the Chaudhries. On the eve of the non-Muslims’ departure from the area, Sardar Sher Singh, went to the mosque and recited the kalma – the only one of that Sikh community to do so – thereby becoming a Muslim and declaring his submission to Allah. His name was now Aaqay Khan. Three years passed by, and despite Sheila’s marriage, tensions prevailed between this ‘outsider’ and the Chaudhries of the area. In one encounter, Aaqay Khan lost the use of his leg. To his friend and confidante Shabbir, Aaqay Khan confides his deepest sorrows and regrets, about how he remembers his mother’s teary-eyed face as she left – 18 years ago, by the time – for Ludhiana. A while later, Aaqay Khan sold the land to Shabbir and left for India, to find his own family; Shabbir, in turn, sold the land to Chaudhry Daray Khan, one of the villains of the story. Ahmed Bakhsh, another friend of Aaqay Khan’s who was interested in the land as well, was shocked at the development. Shocked and disturbed, he asked his friend why this happened. “You do not know what we can do in the matter of shareeqan”, Aaqay Khan said; Sheila had asked him to give the land to the Chaudhry, how could he refuse…
With such a captivating ending, Natiq again leaves the audience at the heights of their emotions and at the depths of their sorrows; the narrative draws a thunderous applause from the audience, in addition to the traditional ‘wah wah, kiya baat hai’ of the Urdu adab class. At that point, Dr. Ashfaq Saleem Mirza of SAFMA had a few important observations to which he wanted to share. He noted that Natiq had localized the diction of his works; that while Urdu adab faced a fundamental problem in overlapping with – or separating from – Middle Eastern and other foreign cultures, Natiq’s context does not objectify any article of the narration or poem from the specific meaning or significance that it holds. “Experimentation of form cannot occur without matter”, Dr. Mirza said as he also shared an anecdote about how Dr. Fehmida Mirza herself ran into Natiq in a bookstore, and could not believe that it was him.
Afterwards, members of the audience requested a narration of the controversial “Maulvi Karaamat”. At that moment, it appears as if the author himself should undertake an experiment and explore uncertain vistas. An enchanting twenty minutes later, when the audience was finally forced to seek within themselves the true values and principles they hold dear, that matter to them, and that they practice, Natiq’s charismatic narration had resulted in an ecstatic response. For some, it was the release that had been required from the very depths of the fundamentalist, dogmatist, imposed narratives that Pakistanis face in their lives, in every way, shape and form. Dr. Haleem Qureshi, another eminent personality and senior Urdu adeeb who had graced the occasion with his presence, praised Natiq for his works and particularly for the manner in which he presented themselves at the Sudh Budh evening arranged by Kuch Khaas.
A few minutes remained for Iftaar, so the audience suggested that Natiq recite a poem titled “Faseel-e-Darya”, a tale of romance and disappointment, of beseeching to the emissary of love for the fulfillment of one’s desires. As the poem and ensuing applause ended, the Maghrib prayers were sounded. Raza Rumi stepped up and thanked the audience for coming as the organizers immediately guided the faithful both to the khajoor’s and refreshments, as well as to the washrooms for ablution and preparation for prayer.
Muhammad Usman, a student of NUST, said that Natiq’s last poem in particular moved him especially, because he drew relevance to his own life and to a few stanzas from the poem. He had no particular interest in poetry or Urdu adab, but said he would look into Mr. Natiq’s writings and pick a work – prose or poetry – that might interest him. His friends, Umar and Basit, were more enthusiastic, and said that they had already read some of Mr. Natiq’s works and appreciated the opportunity to meet him in Islamabad and witness his recitation. “The words came to life for me”, Basit said.
Ali Akbar Natiq’s works, if taken as a whole, are about love and dreams. As subjective as those ideas may seem, the important part is that Natiq is taking Urdu adab, literature and culture forward, into the 21st century, without compromising its true essence and its exclusive, exceptional valuations. There are many Pakistanis like Ali Akbar Natiq who are keeping Urdu culture alive, and promoting real Pakistani traditions such as the Urdu adab and its various forms of artistic expression. One must hope that people like Natiq – who can write words about life, and make words come to life – can continue to work and prosper in Pakistan, a country that badly needs its “human capital”; not only its intellectuals and experts who find the country a hard place to live, but also its youth, the future of any society or nation.
Shemrez Nauman Afzal works as a Project Coordinator for Jinnah Institute, Islamabad. The views expressed here are his own reflections on an event he attended in a personal capacity. He tweets at @shemreznauman and blogs at A Song Of The Wilderness…