Translator’s Note: One of Pakistan’s last truly Renaissance men, writer, novelist, artist, actor, dancer and playwright Dr Enver Sajjad, passed away on June 6.
His work was appreciated in equal measure in both India and Pakistan. Along with the likes of his late Indian contemporary Balraj Menra, Sajjad was known for being one of the founders of abstract and symbolic fiction, perhaps one of the rare members of the Progressive Writers Association to do so.
According to this writer, his Urdu translation of Soviet writer Emmanuil Kazakevich’s little-known account of Lenin’s revolutionary days The Blue Notebook (1982) and his experimental novel Khushiyon ka Bagh (1979) will stand out as his everlasting literary legacies for posterity. I also think his prescient essay on the definition, dynamics and discontents of Pakistani culture, “The ‘Issue of National Character and Culture’ and Judicious Mismanagement”, which forms part of his essay collection Talaash-e-Vujood (1986) and was written at a very important time in Pakistan’s history, deserves a re-reading in Naya Pakistan.
I have translated his preface to the aforementioned essay collection as perhaps the best representation of his eventful artistic life, rather than a conventional obituary, which might do him considerable injustice. This original translation (to my mind and knowledge, the very first translation of any of his works in English) not only sums up Sajjad’s person and views on art, but for the uninitiated, and especially for our younger generations, serves as an entry point to a deeper engagement with his work.
Man is so obsessed with classification, meaning homogenisation, that if he cannot stick a label on any discovery, cannot fit it into one frame, he deems it meaningless or worthless, closing the doors of research and inquiry. Then sometimes a rebel arrives, picks it up after dusting off the new discovery of that time, evaluates it, and if that discovery does not fit the customary principles, he then creates principles to give status to that discovery.
The world of art is indeed very different; here the entire arrangement is fluid and there is great room in its logic. But the scientific world too is full of rigid dogmatism. It cannot be said conclusively whether this attitude is due to the entry of limited perception or mere negligence. I always view homogenisation with suspicion in that this method gives rise to commodification and encourages those who fill prominent brands’ bottles with their self-prepared beverage from home.
I write stories and for this I have to work hard, and I do not dare invent rare ideas, in that between the Unseen and myself there is a human. I can humanise the Unseen but cannot unsee the human; I do not come within the range of divine inspiration. With the qualities of my weaknesses, deficiencies, virtues, energies and generosities, I am an ordinary person.
I am grateful that I do not consider myself faultless, otherwise I would have become a victim of hysteria trying to have my first weak volume (of short stories) accepted indeed as divine revelation. In every story, there is just this much of an attempt from my side to be successful in somehow maintaining that deep, delicate dialectical balance between the topic (idea) and form which will destroy the order of the story if one of its scales even bends just a fraction. In this connection, I have to work even more. Faulkner says that no story in the world is new, only the tone and style is. I am not so short-sighted and foolish as to disagree with this truth.
“Enver Sajjad is the great architect of the new Urdu afsana,” said Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. This proves the large-heartedness of the opinion-maker and I respect this encouragement.
“What a big fraud Enver Sajjad is. He cannot narrate a story. He is not a man of the story indeed.” I also do not dismiss this learned opinion. I respect this narrative and am also happy that such scholars, intellectuals and great creators, while having such opinions about me, despite condemning (me) in the prefaces they write, are forced to give space to the short stories of this good-for-nothing, which they publish in order to establish their authority in the market for stories.
Keeping aside the mass-produced volumes, victims of diabetic corpulence, written in the excitement of assault, thank god this fakir never felt that he has done literature a great favour by writing just a few stories, publishing a weak and lean collection.
I am interested in history, but not the construction of history; that too, the frail and deadly construction of history. I am in the field of fiction; I accept the taunt of being lowbrow. I am also not fond of proving myself as the founder or framer, inventor or leader of any literary movement or method, in that I run a campaign with the support of various means of communication. I do not have so much time.
Those whose chest is narrow and back wide are welcome to their self-awarded honours and medals. I have no shame in admitting my secondary status in the arts (especially in fiction, in that attacks from invaders are greater) while all the others remaining keep proving themselves as being in the top rank, rather the very best artist. There should indeed be an artist of the second rank or a second-rate artist, so that the existence of superiority be proven, and this crisis of artists (especially short story writers) be at an end. They can then turn their attention towards creative work with encouragement and focus, and maybe the matter may prove a success.
Various arts, be they fiction-writing or essay-writing, drama-writing or acting, painting or dance, all these sources for me are resources for comprehension of my own and others’ internal and external circumstance, to understand the earthly and cosmic relations of Man; and create space for having a dialogue with other humans. To attain an exalted status among them all or with anyone is not my issue; neither do I have any pretensions.
I think fiction-writing is a difficult task; to write good fiction even more difficult. It involves going through great troubles – circumstance, experience, observation, study, perception, way of feeling and then the use of language.
If the writer has capacity, he grants a wide perspective to everything; if the writer does not possess a vision and is unable to use creative language in an effective manner, he gives birth to an abnormal child who breathes for a little while then dies. Of course people may still come to see this creation from afar – its photos are published in newspapers, it becomes famous on the radio and television, and even a focus of scientific study and interest for some time. But eventually a jar of formalin is its fate, or a mention in Ripley’s Wonder Book. There is no dearth of such wonders in the present age – and when there is an abundance of wonders, they do not remain wonders.
The desire to have attention lavished on oneself is so strong, and the inclination to attain eternal fame without hard work, labour and study so intense, that it testifies to fake creative delirium. (“The desire and hurry for publishing or having published one’s book and such that it is an example of the speed of descent.”) Circumstance, experience, observation, comprehension and way of feeling are often so incomplete and limited that neither are they understood, not do they translate for outsiders.
A passing acquaintance with the command over words, the arrangement of words, their meaningfulness and the structure of sentences leads to crafting fake prose. Given the passion for attack, mass production and the desire to be called modern on top of that, stories begin to look more and more alike; as if all stories have emerged from the same pen. In these circumstances, one feels that if the short story has not already passed away by choking, it is definitely breathing its last.
By all means destroy the warp and weft of the short story; do demolish the idea of time and space; even treat language with contempt; smash the basic elements of the story into pieces. But with reference to your masterpiece, at least do not let it be known as to why these extreme steps were needed. There is logic within creation itself, which brings about the validity of its existence.
Note: This is the first part of a two-part essay.
The translator, Raza Naeem, is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore. He is currently the President of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.