Face-to-face with the reader
LAHORE: Ajmal Kamal has recently published his collection of essays titled Achi Urdu bhi Kia Buri Shei hai. Kamal is known primarily for his quarterly journal Aaj, which is a treasure trove for anybody interested in Urdu language and literature.
Unlike any run-of-the-mill Urdu journal,Aaj reflects Kamal’s perspective of literature as a human phenomenon, which transcends linguistic and cultural barriers and fuses the seemingly different horizons with one and other, as the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer would call it.
Keeping Aaj in line with his transcultural perspective of literature, Kamal has not only published articles and critical pieces but has also translated various world literature masterpieces of writers such as Milan Kundera, Gabriel García Márquez and Sadegh Hedayat.
Going through the Aaj archives it is hard to ignore that it’s a journal that not only blurs boundaries between languages and cultures through reading as an act of surrender, but also offers critical insights into our own literary sensibilities, which is a very important aspect of any such publication.
It is interesting to note that Kamal was never trained in the field of literary studies, in an academic sense. He was born in Karachi in 1959 and was trained in the fields of engineering and business administration. It is evident from the kind of work that he has done up till now that there is no formal degree required to make meaningful contributions to literature. It’s a common but grave misunderstanding that only people who are academically qualified to study the nuances of literature are entitled to talk about it.
As it happens, Pakistani academia is full of people who are indeed ‘trained’ in studying literature according to the ‘dictionary of literary terms’ but lack the voraciousness and a critically involved concentration, which can only be achieved through entering the protocols of any text on its terms rather than following one’s acquired ready-made notions about it.
It’s also noteworthy that it is because of this narrow framework of training, which is either in English literature or Urdu literature, that a literature student hardly ever becomes a reader in the strict sense of the word, and is only capable of regurgitating and recycling the notions of ready-made literary terms theorised in the context of Western literary forms and cultural criticism.
In other words, by following such methodological tools of reading, one reads only a certain kind of literature and when it comes to reading something in another language, for example Urdu, one usually tries to read it with a certain pre-given conceptual framework.
Clearly, Kamal doesn’t fall into the category of being a literary scholar. He is most definitely a reader who lets the text form an interpretation in his mind. Throughout the book, Kamal emphasises that his point of view is that of a reader’s and also forms, what may be called, the ‘philosophy of a reader’s perspective’.
Explaining the rationale of writing and the publication of a journal like Aaj, Kamal suggests that reading is an experience of sharing, which he does by translating and anthologising various literary and critical points of view. He hopes to deconstruct the commonly agreed upon matters in local literary circles and tries to break the ‘holiness’ of various historical discrepancies, which do not let the canvas of Urdu criticism expand on an epistemological basis. By raising various crucial questions in his 10 essays collected here, he invites a dialogue on issues which have hardly been addressed critically before.
Including Syed Kam Kerta Hai, all the essays in the book have been previously published by various platforms in India and Pakistan. Critical as they are, all the essays in the book share his experience of reading with a wider audience. Each piece requires an extended dialogue with it, which is unfortunately not possible in the space of a single book review. However, one can see that every essay draws its reader’s attention to some of the most pressing historical, literary and social concerns.
For example, in his essay titled Matan ki Tabeer aur Shamsur Rehman Faruqi, Kamal highlights the nuances of the act of interpretation and the role of the interpreter/reader in creating or contesting the meaning of any text. Drawing on Faruqi’s Tabeer ki Sharah, a brilliant and much needed essay in its own right, Kamal makes a case for the act of interpretation and reading as a political one: a fact that most pedagogical approaches to literature in Pakistan conveniently ignore. Furthering the case with his autobiographical experiences through his travels in various parts of the world, Kamal studies the question of interpretation in comparison to other Muslim societies, like Egypt, struggling with the question of tradition and modernity.
His essays such as Ijtehad aur Faisla Saazi, Tarjuma, Tabeer andSiyaasat-e-Ijtehad bring out some of the most crucial concerns faced by Pakistani society today. In the former essay, Kamal dwells on his encounter with ‘Ahya-e-Uloom’ in which he comes across some important writings on the issue of Ijtihad. Engaging with Allama Iqbal’s philosophy of ‘reconstruction’ in Islamic religious thought, Kamal pits Syed Suleman Nadvi against Iqbal. Nadvi, who apparently chose not to critique Iqbal’s work in Iqbal’s lifetime, eventually critiqued him in the frame of character assassination. Pronouncing Iqbal as an infidel, Nadvi blocks the possibility of thinking and rethinking and considers such efforts of self-reflexivity as Western agenda.
One is also reminded of the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt who was subjected to the same kind of character assassination when she reported and analysed the trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem and offered a unique perspective of ‘banality of evil’. This essay is especially and highly recommended to readers who hope to gain some sane perspective on Pakistan’s increasingly intolerant social spaces.
Kamal’s last four essays, Urdu, Bayaan-e-Urdu aur Barr-e-Sagheer ka Muslim Maashra, Hamara Qaumi Khawab: Aik Jaiza, Manto aur Urdu Tanqeed and Achi Urdu bhi Kia Buri Shei hai are exclusively on the subjects of Urdu, its history and the politics of identity.
Analysing from various frameworks of recent phenomenon of literature festivals to the placement of Urdu in unfounded historical and memorial realms, Kamal questions everything and presents an alternative narrative, which may be instrumental in opening up new avenues of debate and conversation.
Indeed, Kamal’s book is a very important contribution to the contemporary literary discourse in Pakistan and the genre of essay writing, which hardly finds its currency at the level of intellectual culture these days.
The writer is a former American Institute of Pakistan Studies fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and is currently translating Mirza Athar Baig’s short stories, ‘Be-Afsana’, in English