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Many shades of Urdu across borders

Bageshree S.
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Meet recalls common heritage across three countries of the subcontinent

MEN OF LETTERS:Playwright Girish Karnad (third from right) and the former bureaucrat Chiranjiv Singh (second left) along with Urdu poets Intezar Hussain of Pakistan, Ahmed Illyas of Bangladesh, Asghar Nadeem Syed of Pakistan and India's Khaleel Mamoon at the poets’ meet in Bangalore.— Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.
MEN OF LETTERS:Playwright Girish Karnad (third from right) and the former bureaucrat Chiranjiv Singh (second left) along with Urdu poets Intezar Hussain of Pakistan, Ahmed Illyas of Bangladesh, Asghar Nadeem Syed of Pakistan and India's Khaleel Mamoon at the poets’ meet in Bangalore.— Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

When Intezar Hussain published his Urdu story Nar Nari , some accused him of “stealing” the theme from Girish Karnad’s Kannada play Hayavadana . A researcher who met the Pakistani writer later told him that the theme was similar to Thomas Mann’s German novella Transposed Heads .

So, who was stealing from whom? “In a way, all of us are thieves!” laughed the India-born writer in his late eighties, now residing in Lahore, because all three works borrow the motive from Katha Saritsagar , the vast collection of Indian legends dated to the 11th Century.

Common heritage

A writers’ meet organised by the All-India Urdu Manch earlier this week was an occasion to not only remember the common heritage that transgresses national boundaries as illustrated by this episode, but also discuss distinct characteristics that mark Urdu literature in different locations.

Hussain’s own stories are strongly influenced by the common heritage of the subcontinent, replete as they are with themes from the Jataka tales, Mahabharata and Betal Pacchisi .

His style marked a return to the tradition of fables. Even though strong political antagonisms made physical travel to his native country difficult in the initial years after Partition, this shared heritage has never left Hussain.

Progressive writers

Asghar Nadeem Syed, also from Lahore, picked up another literary thread binding the subcontinent represented by writers like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Kaifi Azmi and others. “There was a strong movement of progressive writers on both sides of the border.” Interestingly, migrant writers from India who settled in different parts of Pakistan such as Lahore and Karachi brought in their own distinctive literary traditions, he added.

Nasir Abbas Nayyar, professor and critic, spoke on the need to recognise multiple identities within the national identity, which was increasingly becoming difficult in Pakistan, more so after 9/11 when religious identity yet again took centrestage.

Khaleel Mamoon, organiser of the event and writer from Bangalore, regretted that writers in Urdu were losing touch with their immediate neighbourhood, which has resulted in a severe crisis of identity, leaving them in a state of “suspended animation”.

Speaking of an identity crisis of a different kind, Urdu writer from Bangladesh Ahmed Illyas said that division of the country from Pakistan had meant a complete distancing from the language with no primary education available in Urdu anymore.

Dhaka University’s Urdu Department, he said, had to begin teaching by introducing students to the alphabet.

Much in common

What was clear at the meet, which was followed by a brief poetry reading session, was that there was much common ground between writers, though fraught with complexities. A poem by Syed on “travellers of 60 years” who are yet to find their home seemed to reflect this mood.

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