A Tribute to Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Pakistan's Renaissance Man

Apart from a few semi-official celebrations, there have been no commemorations for Qasmi in the centenary of his birth. Why such neglect for someone who when alive was regarded as the greatest Urdu writer?

Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi. Credit: The Qasmi family

In her tribute to Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, the popular Pakistani poetess Noshi Gilani begins:

‘We are alive

Alive in the age of Nadeem’

It has become fashionable of late at literary festivals and functions to say that the demise of Intizar Hussain marks the end of an era for Urdu literature. This scribe has himself heard and read literary critics proclaim that Intizar was the ‘most complete’ Urdu writer of all time, taken to mean that he dabbled in such diverse literary forms as short stories, novels, reportage and plays. Also present in this overgenerous sweeping statement is a bias in favour of those Urdu-speaking writers who have somehow achieved a place on this hallowed pedestal owing to their experiences of Partition, specifically migration from India to Pakistan.

I am simply making this point because 2016-2017 is being celebrated as the birth centenary year of Qasmi, who perhaps might have an equal or better claim to being our renaissance man, given that he excelled in poetry (some aficionados consider him a rival of Faiz Ahmad Faiz in that department), short stories, column writing and a novella. In addition, unlike Intizar, Qasmi left a living legacy in terms of writers and poets whom he inspired and nurtured over the course of his long life – Parveen Shakir, Hajra Masroor, Mansoora Ahmad, Najeeb Ahmad, Amjad Islam Amjad, Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi. In these circumstances, does the fact that Qasmi was born and lived through the course of his life in undivided Punjab, thus saving him from the trauma of migration to a new homeland, count against him as a criteria of literary greatness?

Pitted in this manner against Intizar and Quratulain Hyder, the likes of ‘Punjabi’ stalwarts like Qasmi, Abdullah Hussain (who passed away just eight months before Intizar) and Mustansar Hussain Tarar stand little chance.
Back to Qasmi. He was born today, 101 years ago; 2016, his birth centenary year, was also incidentally the tenth year of his passing. Yet apart from a few semi-official celebrations in Lahore and Karachi last year, there have been no major commemorations so far, for instance at Pakistan’s premier literary festivals. Why such amnesia and neglect for a writer who when alive was regarded as the greatest Urdu writer, just a few generations removed from Intizar?

Qasmi was one of the most visible exponents of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA). He struck up a particularly close friendship with Saadat Hasan Manto, which is evident in the fond – and frank – exchange of letters between the two, beginning before 1947 and continuing until Qasim’s momentous decision as secretary-general of the PWA to expel Manto from its fold, a decision he regretted years later. Qasmi’s writings form an important corpus of the battle of ideas that began soon after the birth of Pakistan not only between the conservatives and progressives over the definition and future of Pakistani culture, but also within the progressive camp. Yet Qasmi, perhaps limited by his pir lineage, soon found himself at odds with the party line, whether over the expulsion of ‘renegade’ writers like Manto, the extent to which the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) should dominate the PWA, or even whether communism was more potent than ‘true’ Islam as an ideological weapon in order to rouse the masses for revolutionary purposes. This forcefully comes out in an exchange Qasmi had with the first secretary-general of the CPP, Sajjad Zaheer, reproduced in Kamran Asdar Ali’s recent book on the communist movement in Pakistan, Surkh Salam. Asdar Ali writes:

“…Qasmi maintained that Islam and communism complemented each other and, if they were intelligently interpreted, social justice would be established in the country….The way forward, according to Qasmi, was to reinstitute the practice of ‘ijtihad’ which should reflect the needs of the majority. In this sense Islam and communism were much closer than previously thought. If, Qasmi contended, Islam can help in the eradication of the class system and communism absorbs the spiritual and moral values of Islam, then both can serve the same purpose: that of betterment of human life. If communism stood for economic welfare, then such a system could only become better if a moral code was also attached to it. Islam, according to Qasmi, provided such a code. …the moral arguments of Islam and communism are the same…. Within the parameters of such concerns, the issue of Islam was hence understood more as a cultural question that had to be respected if political work was to be accomplished within the masses.”

Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi. Credit: The Qasmi family

Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi. Credit: The Qasmi family

Thus Qasmi’s attempts to strike a balance between the progressives and his own proclivity towards Islam won him enemies on both sides of the ideological divide. His arrests under the Safety Act, first in 1951 and then during the Ayub dictatorship, and apparent cavorting with the Zia-ul-Haq regime were clearly not enough to endear him to either camp.

Rather than discuss Qasmi’s greatness as a poet and short story writer, I want to devote attention to his lone novella or short novel Aik Rewar Aik Amboh (A Flock, A Multitude), whose publication history is as interesting as the book itself. First published in the 1950s during Qasmi’s lifetime in the journal Funoon in installments, it did not generate much fanfare or critical acclaim. Then, it was posthumously included in a volume of his last fictional works, brought out in 2007, yet again unable to garner the attention it so richly deserves. The novella has finally been published as a separate volume as part of Qasmi’s centenary celebrations, with a beautiful cover done by Qasmi’s artist-granddaughter and a new title, Us Rastay Par (On That Path).

At about 40 pages, the novella is a remarkable achievement when compared to its more known and considerably voluminous counterparts Aag Ka Darya by Quratulain Hyder, Udas Naslein by Abdullah Hussain and Basti by Intizar. The achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the novel manages to capture the anti-colonial struggle, the dilemma of the Partition of the subcontinent and the failure of the postcolonial moment in less than 50 pages, whereas its counterparts do not even provide closure after several hundred pages. Could this novella then be a candidate for the ‘Great Pakistani Novel(la)’?

The novella begins with the impoverished youth of the village waiting to be recruited by the British overlords for the war (World War II) effort, what Qasmi playfully calls the politics of ‘suit and boot’. After a torrid encounter with a local boy who has risen to become a captain in the British army, the protagonist Janbaz is among those who is recruited for the upcoming war. Qasmi describes how on being captured by the Japanese, they were tortured and subjected to inhuman treatment, conditions in which our hero Janbaz “had become so devout in those days and then so mean. I had made saliva in my dry mouth while reciting prayers and then had swallowed Gul Khan’s lone biscuit by picking it from where he slept. I spent the nights remembering Allah and then early morning wandered around every sleeping comrade to steal his week’s ration by any means. And one day when I was pulling out a worn out piece of soap from a comrade’s pocket, he awoke. He went into a shocked silence and then started crying and while sobbing, said, “Take it Janbaz, take half the soap. Take it bhai”…and carrying half a piece of soap I came out in the verandah and putting it aside began to clear my throat of whatever was blocking it; a crow flew away with this piece of soap and I thought someone had removed the Union Jack from India’s head.”

This was the first instance where the youth had experimented with being part of a flock, every man for himself. They returned to their village, their hopes and expectations dashed, amid the collapse of the old world. As Janbaz’s savings and the stories he has saved from the war itself whittle away, he begins to question the order of things.

The Muslim League campaign for a separate homeland intervenes at the right moment for Janbaz who enthusiastically joins it along with his comrades from the war. We are informed in the informative preface written by Qasmi’s daughter Naheed that the figure of Janbaz is autobiographical, based on Qasmi’s own days spent during his youth in his beloved Soan-Sakesar valley following the heart-rending failure of a love affair. Soon the efforts to raise the standard of the League in the village lead to opposition from the village grandees, notably the zaildar, who was an old and trusted British lackey.

The confrontation between the dedicated Janbaz and the crusty zaildar provides some of the best and most riveting scenes in the novella. From highlighting the confrontation between the zaildar and the youth over Pakistan, Qasmi skillfully pitches the battle over Pakistan to be not just about La Ilaha Il Lallah or as described in the novella, If you are Muslim, join the Muslim League”, it also turned into a class war between the privileged zamindar and the landless peasants.

“In the interim, several people expressed the doubt that while we were transporting the non-Muslims in our protection towards the village, the zaildar and the landlord had entered the former’s homes and looted them. Upon my return, I approached the zaildar alongwith a few comrades and said by way of a threat to present us with the loot. The zaildar returned from his house with a huge pot and uncovering the lid, said, “Divide it amongst yourselves.” These were a lot of gold and silver ornaments which we divided up without a thought that we were partaking in the cruelty of the zaildar and the landlord. Two earrings fell to my lot. I was returning home with these in my pocket, when suddenly I recalled the sick comrade from my captive days, beneath whose pillow I had tried to steal soap. My conscience reprimanded me but I regarded these ornaments as spoils of war, which is not illegitimate. I gifted these earrings to my sister. She was about to wear one, when my mother pounced on her and snatching the earring, threw it down at the floor and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

I said, “Mother! This gold is ours, shaped from our own blood.”

Mother began to thunder, “And what shaped the gold which is now lying in the safes of the landlord. If this gold belonging to the Sikhs and Hindus is legitimate for you, why isn’t that gold which possesses the glow of your blood and sweat and the warmth of your homeland.”Mother had slapped me hard after saying this. I seized both earrings in my fist and reached straight for the zaildar’s place. Many people joined me upon witnessing my mood and when I knocked hard on his door, he opened it and said, “Do you need more ornaments?”

I threw the earrings at his belly and said, “I have come merely to tell you this that the gold which you have accumulated in your safes, will be divided one day and I will be the one to do it. Understand?”

The zaildar slammed the door shut in anger and I paid attention to the crowd. “How blind we are friends that we consider looting the Sikhs and Hindus as legitimate but a crime to loot the landlord’s house, since he is a Muslim like us. Why? Oppression does not have another name whether practiced by a non-Muslim or a Muslim and to combat it and remove it is a noble deed.”

Following the creation of Pakistan, the disillusionment of the post-colonial moment quickly sets in for Janbaz and his comrades, one of whom, Begu, had earlier been arrested on the trumped-up charge of hiding a pistol in his home. Following an unsuccessful attempt to plead the latter’s with the minister, Janbaz becomes a part of a demonstration demanding an end to hunger, increase in worker’s salaries, end to privatization and police rule, nationalization and land reforms. The leader of the demonstration inspires Janbaz with his call to arms and appeal for unity.
Thereafter, armed with the weapon of ‘the unity of the hard-working and loving poor to fight against tyrants and usurpers’. Janbaz returns to the village. In a beautiful passage signifying his own transformation from one in a flock to one who is part of a multitude. Qasmi writes:

“I returned to the village in a very transformed state…when I had left the village I was so alone…and today while returning it seemed that a whole world was accompanying me; and the sound of my footsteps is the sound of the footsteps of a whole world. I entered the British army because I was poor and since I was literate, I had hoped to earn a lot of money. Upon my return I realized that the British had left me to be ravaged. I joined the (Muslim) League with a desire for vengeance; to avenge the British and that’s it! But when the British departed I found out that I am again passing through a horrifying silence. So alone…and those (leaders) who wore malaysia and began praying on the very stage; they were just interested in filling up their hoards. After the British, they were now the custodians of the treasure key.”

Ahmad Nadeed Qasmi with his daughters Naheed and Nishat. Credit: The Qasmi family.

Ahmad Nadeed Qasmi with his daughters Naheed and Nishat. Credit: The Qasmi family.

The fifth and final chapter opens to a dramatic scene of confrontation as Janbaz rallies the peasants to unite against the zamindar and refuse to pay the customary tribute. Confronted with thecollective wrath of the multitude, the zamindar calls the village maulvi sahib to his defence, who duly produces a few Quranic verses to justify his patron’s extractive policies. The entire passage deserves to be reproduced here in full:

“The landlord looked behind him and then stood to one side. The village maulvi sahib came forward. He wore the same neat and clean dress which he apparently wore on Fridays. There was a green handkerchief on his shoulder and a small book in his hand. He stood on the bed and clearing his throat, said, “I seek refuge in Him from the accursed Satan, in the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful. Friends! It is my duty to bring you on the right path when you stray and to reprimand you when you disobey Allah’s commands. You are Muslims and fools! It is said in the Koran, it is Allah Who has made you each other’s successor on the land and to give a position to some over others and then commanded that Allah has give some among you greater status in livelihood over others and friends! Allah has given the respected landlord greater status in livelihood over you peasants, and when all this is granted by Him why do you complain? And… ”

He was about to say further when I said, “But maulvi ji! You are talking about greater status in livelihood and the main issue too is livelihood, the question of status is only created when we also possess livelihood, but whatever livelihood Allah grants us, it is looted by the landlord. Instead of admonishing him, you are talking in his favour. It was mentioned in your own sermon that the entire land belongs to God. Maulvi ji! We too are servants of the same God. We should also be entitled to the reward from our hard work on His land.”

Gul Khan called out from somewhere afar, “And maulvi ji! Pray tell us how much gold seized from the Sikhs did the landlord give you?”

Another said, “Maulvis are not peasants. Had there been even a tiny match, there would be some force in the argument.”

Maulvi ji inquired, “So you won’t accept?”

Without waiting for my signal, all the peasants cried out in unison: “We will not give the tributes. We will also not give the crop-shares and one day will come when we will not give even the land.”

Maulvi sahib began to read the surah of ‘The Elephant’ when I called out, “Why don’t the pebbles held by the beaks of these heavenly birds ever fall on the plundering landlords maulvi ji?”

And maulvi ji in his anger gave us the fatwa declaring all of us as infidels.”

It is to Qasmi’s credit that despite the fact that in the 1950s when the novella was originally written, when Qasmi was in his acute progressive phase, nowhere in the novel does he moralise or propagandise the virtues of communism or revolution. The final scene of the novella is ambiguous and it is left to the reader to make the obvious conclusion from the determined resolve displayed by the newly-empowered multitude.

“And now six years on, we were again sitting since long in the shadow of the same clump of mulberries, waiting today for yet another sahib bahadur, who wants to say a few words before we go to jail. Who knows who is this sahib bahadur? I am not thinking about him…I am actually thinking of how so alone we appeared six years ago when we had assembled under the same clump of mulberries. We were so greedy and worried at that time.

Looking at the other young men approaching from all around we were in a quandary why they too had come there? We were being assessed, evaluated and frisked like sheep and goats and at that time everyone present in that flock wanted to be the one to be recruited, even if all the others were rejected…but today every person sitting in the crowd around us is sitting in close proximity to the other and much more than themselves, is thinking about the others. The sun on our backs is rolling towards the western summit and right in front of us every young lad of the village is looking at us with the glow of respect and determination on their dawning faces. Here being present at the moment in this multitude it is as if all our hearts are beating together and today there is complete solace in our hearts.”

Humour is also deployed beautifully throughout the book.

The only weakness in the novella is perhaps the absence of a strong female character(s), with the exception of Begu’s courageous wife, who makes a worthy cameo appearance at crucial moments in the novella, most importantly when she enables Janbaz to grasp that the government and the landlords were in fact the same party.

Us Rastay Par

Qasmi is widely regarded as the pre-eminent Urdu writer of the second half of the 20th century after the hallowed quartet of Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi. He was certainly the greatest Urdu writer when he was alive, in a period in which junior writers like Intizar, Abdullah Hussain and Mustansar Hussain Tarar were also writing. But his enduring legacy has been forgotten by critics just a decade after his death, which is surprising for a writer who gave to Urdu letters as much as he nurtured budding writers who went on to achieve much public prominence themselves in Qasmi’s own lifetime. Perhaps one major reason why this is the case is the fact that his vast oeuvre of both poetry and fiction has not been as much translated into English or picked up by a major Western publisher, unlike the work of Intizar. Only two volumes of his translated stories exist, a gross injustice to a writer of Qasmi’s stature. The timely republication of Us Rastay Par as a separate volume and some more translations into English in his centenary year will hopefully change that. For we are all still living in the age of Qasmi.

As Qasmi himself says,

“I light life like I do a lamp, Nadeem,

Extinguished I will be, at least I will have created morning”

Raza Naeem is an academic and translator based in Lahore. He is currently translating Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi’s novella ‘Aik Rewar Aik Amboh’ and another volume of his short stories into English and can be reached at: [email protected]

All the translations from Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi are his own.

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