Who will ever think of interviewing someone who has interviewed others scores of times? Reflecting on this tragicomedy of a man – no other than myself –I thought of putting some questions to the second self of me which is not me. The difficulty arose when not I had any knowledge of me in first person pronoun per se. So I reversed the roles and let not me ask all the questions.
Not me: . ..How is it that you have started writing and publishing more in English than in Urdu, a language that was your forte for more than half a century?
Me I am afraid that is a question to which I have a ready answer. Firstly, I did not stop writing in Urdu; I just cut it down to its size in the reservoir of my mental and physical capacity. You see, except for a few hundred – or maybe, a few thousand modern poetry enthusiasts more in Pakistan than in India, no one ever found a vernacular writer worthy of notice, while writers in English reaped – and are still reaping – the rewards of name and fame in both these countries. Besides, I had been writing in English even while my main field was Urdu. Well, now I have both, side by side. It is like having a wife and a concubine on the same bed with you, or on both sides of you. How do you like this comparison? : Besides, there is no money in it at all.
Not me: You mean, no one gets paid in Urdu?
Me Only those dealers in the trash are paid who write columns for daily newspapers. No one is paid for creative writing, such as short stories or poetry. So many, like Zafar Iqbal, the poet (still alive) or Intezar Husain, the novelist, (now no more) started writing columns to make some money.. Well, there was a time when I was also paid, say a hundred rupees for a short story, but that was in the fifties of the last century. Now, the position is in reverse. Not only Urdu publishers don’t pay to the authors, they expect the author’s to fray the total cost of the publication of the book – and for their help in getting it published, they retain any number of copies, a hundred or a few hundred free of cost for selling themselves….Let me share a secret with you. I have more than a dozen books published by a Delhi publisher and Pakistani editions of three of them are published from Karachi. My total royalty from these books is nil. Repeat nil. The publishers’ notion is that publishing an author’s book is an act of social philanthropy … and a personal favorite too. So they don’t pay.
Not me: And the readers in Urdu?
Me. Readers, did you ask? I don’t understand, my dear, what readers? Are there any? Some there are, of course, that buy books but, by and large, not even one in ten thousand of our countrymen read. And this includes men and women of all classes, the super-rich, the rich, the upper-middle class, the middle class … and you keep on descending these stairs till you reach the slave workers – or working slaves. Of course, some are there who read film magazines, and adolescents, particularly in Pakistan, buy media poets’ works that contain love poetry. There are no serious readers, my dear.
Not Me: I agree, but did writing in English brings you quick money?
Me: Well, not much, but even a small cheque would be welcome when you know that Urdu and Hindi are but dried up cows.. Look, shall we talk about what I write rather than why I write?
Not Me: Well answered Sir; Will you mind if I address you as Sir now?
Me: Yes, I will.
Not Me: O. K. Then, I will not insult you by addressing you as Sir. I do know a little bit about what you write. Poetry, of course, both in English and Urdu is your forte. What about this book? It is not poetry: It is a hold-all of all of your literary baggage in English prose. Pieces and parts, specimens and slices, chips and sips – indeed, all kinds of prose are there. Satire, both sarcastic and sardonic is there. Personal memoirs, both delightful and disturbing are also there. A tongue-in-the-cheek approach is about Urdu-wallahs’ scatter-brained writing. What else can you say? Haven’t I summed it up?
Me: Yes, but in all ‘pieces and parts, as you call them, have that uncontrollable quality of a clicking tongue in a reddening cheek. I disrobe everything and everybody. I don’t spare the small fries who act as Goliaths. I think, in this collection, the only person I have written about with unadulterated admiration bordering on reverence is His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Not Me Yes, I understand.… But what is so special about you? There are many of us who can guffaw at a funny story, at a limerick, or at a pun. (What was Joan of Arc made of? … She was Maid of Orleans). Why is your humorous writing so special?
Me: I don’t know. Could it be that I use the first-person pronoun as a narrator in all my ‘chips and sips’ as you call them in your colorful parody? Telling a story in the first person is not a formula for success in writing comic pieces unless of course, one makes oneself the butt of ridicule. The laugh is on the author, you see, and he doesn’t mind acting the proverbial fool … Falstaff or Sir Toby … or even Khoji of Ratan Nath Sarshar’s Fasana-e -Azad.
Not me: Yes, but what about non-humorous tidbits?
Me: You see, the personal-parody type is a civilizing attempt to put some order in the jungle of the mind of all readers. Which of us, who is given a column to write for a newspaper, and who sets out happily to fill it with accounts of his domestic adventures, unless he is writing about his friends? This, of course, is the cult of the Columnist as a Fool. But I do not indulge in this luxury all the time. I have very serious pieces that have adorned the pages of a galaxy of literary magazines.
Not Me. I see, you do have quite a variety. I do see the scholar in you standing apart from the clown in you.
Me: You know, being Not Me you have the uncanny ability to divine the nature of my words before I utter a single syllable. Yes, the scholar in me often stands at a distance and pooh-poohs the joker in me. This is a kind of writing that is not on the shelves of the drugstore of humorous writing. There are, of course, clowns of the suburbs in Urdu columnists, I dare say, particularly some in Pakistan. Their creed is simple. What is the use of being wise if you are not sometimes merry? The merriment of men is not the uninformed, gross fun of ignorant men, but it has more kinship with that man who has pinched look, who is frightened and cowering under the shower of words from the wise.
Not-Me. What about really serious, let’s say, just short-short remembrances of things about your students or colleagues? Aren’t these a category apart?
Me: Yes, I agree with that summation. These write-ups show the softer side of my approach to men, manners, and matters – indeed – in these pieces, I am not myopic at all. I am all feeling, all emotion, all sympathy ….
Not-me: Well. I think it is well nigh enough for one sitting. Shall I say it was a pleasure to talk to you? … I mean it was your pleasure in talking to yourself.
Me. I agree but what I said about myself as an example of my art of masochistic self-parody: indeed, it was not self-glorification.
Not-Me: Let’s have the last nail in the coffin of this interview. Have you decided to write more in English than in Urdu now? (Mark the absence of the laughing icon!)
Me. Well, I don’t know for sure, but the way I’ve started digging the gold mine of my memories, I think I will have to dig up more dirt and experience the self-inflicted pain of many, indeed many more shards that will be collected in the second part of this book.