Abu Jar M Akkas translates the interview that the famous Urdu short story writer Zainul Abedin, who died on March 9, 2017 in Dhaka, gave to Humaira Athar of the Karachi-based Akhbar-e-Khwateen, published in the August 13–September 6, 1987 issue of the women’s periodical.
THE year 1936 means the Progressive Writers’ Movement. And the famous Bangladeshi Urdu short story writer Zainul Abedin was born in the year too. The Progressive Writers’ Movement and Zainul Abedin have, therefore, grown up together.
Zainul Abedin was born in Allahabad. He went to Dhaka after the emergence of Pakistan in 1947. He received his master’s degree there and took up journalism as his profession. He worked with the Bangladesh Time as senior staff correspondent that time. Now he is [the Bangladesh] correspondent of the most-circulated newspaper of Pakistan. I met him a few days ago when he came to Karachi on a personal visit. I asked him: What is your take on the fact that politics has a heavy influence on your stories?
Zainul Abedin replied: I had been into politics. I believe that politics is a manifestation of the economy as a whole. People are also into politics when they talk about trade unionism. Although my stories have politics underlying, I have honestly projected the best of the emotions called love. I write about love set against reality when my heroines fall in love. I believe that story writers and artistes need to stay close to the truth and close to life. This is not possible by going away from people. Writing lasts until the death of the writers when they do that.
Zainul Abedin is among the progressive writers who became famous after Pakistan came into being. He said: I am involved in the Progressive Writers’ Movement as I started seeing life in its real sense after I had come to Dhaka. This is why I think that writers who rely on reality reflect their lives in their stories. I also do it. I write for progress when life marches the path of progressiveness. I am undoubtedly for progressiveness and against fundamentalism. I am not bounded by ordinary life. I think that every story should have a story.
Do you think that you are still related to the Progressive Writers’ Movement although the movement itself is no longer active? In answering the question, Zainul Abedin said: People still talk about the Progressive Writers’ Movement and still work in that end. They also have a large leadership. The relation, therefore, continues. Does it not prove that the Progressive Writers’ Movement is still going on? If it was not there, people would not talk about the movement now. What is important is that the basis that provided for the movement that time no longer exists as a basis. Life continues to progress and continues to have its manifestation in work. This will continue. In this vein, the Progressive Writers’ Movement is still there. The situation has definitely changed. It was different that time. People then would work together. Now they keep writing outside any organisation.
Zainul Abedin has also written stories in allegory. Answering a question on the use of allegory and modernism, he said: People involved in the Progressive Writers’ Movement had a question: What is modernism? But where are these people now? They have withdrawn themselves in their own way. We have experienced this. There have been problems in communications. Readers have turned away from us. But people yet now talk about Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi. They want to read them. But how many modern writers are there who are in high demand among the readers? Modernists have surrealism and expressionism as their goals. These are issues of painting. But Picasso, who broached these ideas, himself nullified them. I wrote some stories using allegory. When I cannot say something directly, I tell them in allegory. I communicate with readers through allegory because I take the allegory that I use from my own world. I, therefore, face no problem in communicating with the readers. I tell them directly in my simple language.
The elements and surroundings of the stories of Zainul Abedin centre round Bangladesh and the life there. He writes stories in a masterly crafted narration. There is no climax in the end of stories but sentences that provoke thoughts are aplenty. This has happened as Zainul Abedin is an experienced story-telling journalist because of his profession. He said: Journalism and literary work are different issues. But journalism has definitely played a role in the development of literature. I have known life closely because of journalism.
He has in his writing a reflection of the language of ordinary life and simple surroundings. An example of this could be a few lines from his story named ‘Tokai’ (gleaner) which is yet to be published:
When children playing in groups on the footpath, making a noise, were walking past Bhai Bhai Hotel, Abdul snapped down the shutter of the shop. He started murmuring: They have everything yet they dared ousting the government.
Abdul then put a kettle of water on the burner and started cleaning dirty utensils heaped overnight.
‘Whoever I come by is shouting. They are not afraid of God and not even the martial law. A single firing would send them packed; they will hide behind the elders.’ Abdul started washing the plates so boisterously that one fell off his hands and broke. Abdul stopped murmuring as someone has just kicked him hard in the belly. He felt almost choked.
When he came back to his senses after a while, he gathered the broken pieces and dumped them in the bin as if he was discarding his old age.
Garcia said: ‘Literature is nothing but carpentry… Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table.’ Zainul Abedin holds a different view. He thinks that the writer and the carpenter are different people. In literature, emotion and feeling come first. In carpentry, wood is the reality. Problems are the reality for writers. This makes the two different trades. I think that I have problems and the life before me. Wood is wood and nothing else. No writing or life has a value if it is devoid of objectives. On the issue of critics, Zainul Abedin said: I do not get into criticism. I write. And critics say what they want to. I do not heed their words.
On the current trend in the Urdu literature in Bangladesh, Zainul Abedin said: If we look at the history of Bangladesh, we know that a large number of writers there migrated to Pakistan. Umme Amara, Banu Akhtar Shahad, Salahuddin Muhamad, Nazir Siddiqui, Zaki Siddiqui, Anis Siddiq, Shahzad Manzar, Mehmud Wajed, Ali Haider Malik, Dr Hanif Fauq, Nurul Huda Syed, Ahmed Zainuddin, Shahzad Akhtar and Adeeb Sohel are some of the names.
Like me, there are few left there such as Ahsan Ahmed Ashq, Nausahd Noori, Ataur Rahman Jamil, Ahmed Ilias, Seen Meem Sajid, Ayub Jauhar, M Naeem, Kalim Ahmed, Ghulam Muhammad, Hafiz Dehlvi, Akhtar Analvi, Ahmad Sadi, Dr Kalim Sahsarami, Dr Nuruddin, Professor Shams Shaidayi, Shameem Zamanvi, Sham Barikpuri, Professor Yusuf Hassan, Shoeb Azim and others.
Works in Urdu keep being published there. But people publish them dishing out their own money. They include Intekhab, Qalmkar, Inqishaf and Al-Akhbar. Literary and cultural pieces are published in them. Even then, the standard of printing and binding there is not as high as it is in Pakistan. A major reason for this is that writers and people involved in the publishing industry have come to Pakistan. But the quality of printing in Bangla is high. Text can be composed in Bangla but in the case of Urdu, it needs to be handwritten. Regular Urdu periodicals are also absent. Digests are hard to come by.
As for Urdu in Bangladesh, Zainl Abedul said that it was not easy to publish Urdu books and periodicals there. I have written a story based on the time of the fourth century but could not have it published in the form of a book as the quality of publishing is not that good. But I continued writing. I and some others like me have made writing our destiny. I bring people’s problems to the readers. This is why I keep writing even when the situation is not in my favour.
Why did you not come to Pakistan as your companions did? You did not get married and you had no family to look after? Zainul Abedin heaved a long sigh and said: My father left his native land after the emergence of Pakistan. I could not muster up the courage to do that for a second time. Besides, I could not view this as leaving home.
As for short stories being written in both Bangladesh and Pakistan, Zainul Abedin said: We are people of a small area and our writings are more or less similar. There have, however, been changes in the way and style we write. But in writing stories, I believe, writers of both the places seem to be searching for something, which will make us look big. This is good that we are searching for something. Basically, we are faced with similar problems, which are manifest in our writing.
As for Urdu, there has been a big change there. New generation people are learning Bangla. As is the case with India, there are many Urdu-speaking people there but their children do not know Urdu. Ahmed Ilias is a noted poet of Urdu but his daughters write poems in Bangla. The daughter of poet Naushad Noori always scores the highest marks in Bangla. Thinking Bengali writers and poets still advise us to do something for the development of our language. But we were afraid and the fears are still there. But it was not to happen. The obstacle that we had went away. But I cannot tell you why Urdu writers and poets do not attend to this issue.
Mushaira, or sessions of reading of poems, is very limited there. Fifty to a hundred people attend such a session.
In narrating how he became a writer, Zainul Abedin said: My uncle Muhammad Wazir Khan used to write. He even acted in plays. Plays were staged in our house. My father also had a cultural bent. This is why I inherited the bent too. I came to be involved in the Progressive Writers’ Movement when I tried not to get into writing after I had read Munshi Premchand. As I grew more inclined, Adeeb Sohel and Arif Aman, who were then in Lahore, and Nawab Muhiuddin (who wrote for a digest called Farhad-e-Taimur) helped me a lot.
I started writing in 1960. Before that, I was a novice journalist, working with small newspapers. My first story ‘Ghuroor’ (Pride) came out in the Weekly Nusrat published from Lahore. Hanif Rame was the editor. My second story ‘Pinto’ was published in Adab-e-Lateef, which was edited by Mirza Adeeb. I started getting published in Afkar and Funoon too. Modernism had a growing influence then. I could not help but being influenced. I have written a few allegorical stories based on folk tales. ‘Sat Bhai Champa Jagore’, ‘Dard Ayega’, ‘Be-Paon’ and ‘Jackie’ were among them. After the fall of East Pakistan, the situation as it turned out stopped me from writing for some days.
I started writing anew after 1975. My first story then was ‘Kacchi Sadak’ (Dirt track). I had the indication of the direction in which Bangladesh was going forward. The next story was ‘Krishnachura’. Krishnachura is the Bangla word for Gul Mohar. I believe that I started writing stories in the real sense after this and I have kept writing since then. I have written a dozen of stories in the past 12 years. A yet-to-be-published of my allegorical stories on Bangladesh is ‘Adhe Khar Ki Kahani’ (Story of half a room). My second such story is ‘Phir Kya Hua? (What happened again?). He has plans to have them printed in a volume in two to three years.
Zainul Abedin also wrote dialogues for films. He wrote the dialogue and a song for the famous Urdu film of East Pakistan called Sangam. He also wrote dialogues for famous films such as Chakori, Chhote Sahib, Anari and Payal. The films in Bangla that he wrote dialogues for that time included Taoba, Ganga-Jamuna, Kathor and Samyog. He has so far written dialogues for 15 to 20 films.
How do you write pure literary pieces along with dialogues for films? They are different matters.
‘Film is an art and medium. When someone knows this, he writes them keeping this in mind. Films have messages and the stories revolve round them.’ Zainul Abedin said: I keep in mind the commercial aspect when I write dialogues. The stories have basis such as eternal love. I start writing on this and the story stands. I did this in the case of Chakori. The locale is simple. I have put aside seriousness when I wrote stories for films. I became light.
Just as you are a writer, you could stand readers to literary flavours through your writing? You could add to their entertainment? But, instead, why did you step into commercialism?
Yes, during the initial period, I tried to do this. I started colouring my stories for films with literary flavours to create awareness of a sort. But producers had objections just because they dish out the money. I could not ignore them. I definitely tried to make the dialogues literary. I did this in the case of Chakori:
Shabana: What are you thinking?
Nadim: The days that went by and the days yet to come. What we have lost and what we have gained.
I could make the dialogues a little serious. I grabbed any chance that I had. I tell you today that when I was writing the dialogue for Chakori, the producer Ehtesham was standing over my shoulder. I wrote the following in one place in the dialogue:
‘The thing is that boats rowing against the tide sometimes sink. Get back this way…’ I had a quarrel over some places in the dialogue. I turned away in protest. After that, I tried to make dialogues literary whenever I got the chance.
Be it literature or film, Zainul Abedin never had to struggle with the story. He said: The work of creation is very hard. The situation and the problems both make the stories. I bind them together in my stories for people. I write what I think I should write independent of my situation. I never need to have issues organised. But the problem is that my busyness hardly allows me to write.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.