Friday, 17 July 2015

Here is My Story

Choosing the short story writer is like choosing architecture of one’s house

Life is a story or has to be lived as a work of art for getting meaning from it. All of us tell stories. The choice – a vital and fateful choice indeed – is what kind of stories we chose to tell ourselves and our children. Great short stories constitute the staple diet  of great education.
We do spend a lot of time daily – six hours on average – day dreaming or what amounts to the same – telling ourselves stories with oneself as a hero. Jataka tales, tales in Rumi’s Masnavi and Saadi’s Gulistan, Panchtantra and fables of Aesop have been so central to education across cultures.
Even scriptures have to make use of tales and the Quran asserts that the greatest tale – an odyssey of soul searching in fact – is that of Joseph (this tale is retold in many volumes by Thomas Mann in modern times- in fact our challenge is to retell great archetypal stories in a language postmodern man can relate to). In the modern world, we have somewhat different kinds of tales we call short stories.
Choosing the short story writer is like choosing architecture of one’s house or ambience in which we choose to live. There are short story writers who don’t merely delight but teach wisdom as well. For instance, Tolstoy.
I immediately recall his three short stories “The Three Questions”, “God sees the truth but waits,” “How much land does a man require” that teach us  the key lessons in ethics. Let us not forget such masters as Russian  Chekov, German Kafka and French Maupassant and Indian Tagore. Urdu language has its great and well known names we all know but must not forget Intizar Hussain as an indispensable source who connects us to the Tradition. The genre of short story, as worthy inheritor of dastaan goi, has to go a long way  if it is of great educational value for generations.
We have many short story writers and thousands of short stories in Kashmiri  and it is only few that qualify on the exacting standards that deep consciousness of the Tradition (what connects man to Heaven, everything to First Principles, eternal verities of Ad-Deen, constitute Tradition and all great writers assimilate it and what appears anti-tarditional but great is really a different flowering of The Tradition. We need to read at least a few anthologies of great short stories of the world and of Kashmir. Thanks to Dr Tasleem Ahmed War’s Vignettes: Short Stories from Kashmir we have English translation of some of the most important short stories and an attempt at representative anthology of more important short story writers.
The only barrier for enjoying Kashmiri stories till now has been language that has been Greek to most Kashmiris (if any proof of our occupation and imposed alienation from language and culture is needed, this is one, and disappearance of Persian is another).  Some remarks on some short stories follow:
The book begins with Samina Ashraf’s “Bear Dance” that satirizes modern job market where souls are auctioned and forced to play roles that are revolting and dehumanizing.
None of the academic degrees matter for the protagonist and he gets the job of entertaining people by performing bear dance with a mask.  Almost all of us wear masks. Our souls, our aspirations and our training are not taken into account while careers or jobs are imposed on us. There are four stories of Akhatar Mohi-ud-din including “Home Fires,” “Fortune,” “The Roasted Fish” and “Trauma.”
The virtue of a writer is that he gives you eyes or removes habitual veils on our sight. Trauma reminds me of devastating lecture (considered to be the most influential in history of YouTube lectures) by Gary Yourofsky. A chick, rescued from predator with great difficulty by the protagonist, has been killed mercilessly and the protagonist can’t tolerate and the one of us who watches trauma in him fails to understand why it should matter.
Nothing matters to us, not the deaths of humans, what to speak of a chicks. 60 billion animals are killed annually in the world and they are grown under brutal conditions and fed food at the expanse of humans and environment and for the select few. “Cock Fight” – perhaps his most memorable story – and “Poundage” from Amin Kamil, another short writer who can’t be ignored by any anthology and who is  also arguably our greatest modern ghazal writer, have also been included.
There are to stories of Gulshan Majeed, one of our most gifted writers who has of late chosen silence. One is “Short Story” that tells story of a lost shoe in such a hilarious manner that one can hardly enjoy it in translation. Gulshan has argued in his well crafted and insightful critical essays regarding the key importance of form or attention to language and he himself uses it so dexterously to create magic. Another story “He” portrays, in his characteristic manner, a character that is specifically Kashmiri and now missing. Majeed is a philosopher of the ordinary and the last thing he would allow is judging character in terms of this or that ideology.
This last named virtue is noted in Shankar Raina’ s stories also including the one “Whose Turn is Next” that figures in the anthology. Sufi Ghulam Muhammad’s story “The Pilferer” documents machinations of modern slave owners called owners of shops. Today in Kashmir salesmen or labourers are treated in a way that ancient slave owners look like angels as they never discounted humanity of their slaves.
Bansi Nirdosh’s story “Till I burnt my own Fingers” shows how faith sustains people and skepticism is killing, at least for those who have chosen to believe with all their soul and mind. It brilliantly illustrates Kashmiri adage “peer ni boud, yaqeen boud” (It is faith rather than faith healer who does wonders). Hari Krishan Koul’s “Macabre Thoughts” is one of the most powerful short stories that explores human frailty or the reign of desire. A mother’s death has ceased to mean anything serious for many today – its most horrible illustration is Camus’ Mersault in The Stranger who is totally unmoved by his mother’s death and very soon forgets her to enjoy revelry with a woman.
The occasion of mother’s death and carrying a coffin is not able to erase for a moment at least, for the protagonist, the interest in following commentary on a match. Other stories that are included are Alter-Ego by Hriday Koul Bharati that explores alienation, “It is Night at the Moment” that explores unconvincing nature of all idealistic mayaistic absolutist thought currents that fail to engage with the concrete or the individual, “Some Poses, some Snaps” by Bashir Akhtar  that also shows need to note the unpredictable action or behavior of humans that defies formulaic ideological frameworks and Shant’s “First Lesson” that along with  Farooq Masudi’s “A Revelatory Moment” resists an easy engagement from the reader. Lastly a few words about Amin Kamil whose two stories “Poundage” and “Cock-fight” find a place in the book.
There is well written and highly useful introduction to the book that introduces the genre and its evolution in Kashmiri and this is followed by brief notes on the writers that figure in the anthology.
Stories that have been included have been only selectively, for reasons unknown, commented upon by the translator.  Only occasionally can one spot minor errors in translation or in typing. Although the author has stated rationale of his selections – innovation in form and theme – he has not individually defended his choices.
Let us not forget extremely exacting standards set by such acknowledged masters of the task of anthology making as Raul Zurita in his Pinholes in the Night: Essential Poems from Latin America  who selected a handful of poems, one only from each poet and then had the confidence to write that only the most important poem has been selected and that but for the selected poem, some important event that happened to language would have been missed. Zurita’s introduction is a classic introduction that may profitably be consulted by all those who attempt such a work.
Thank you and congratulations, Dr Tasleem, for attempting and largely succeeding in preparing a lucid and accessible anthology and translation of some of  most important Kashmiri short stories and providing a sort of passport for Kashmiri writers for international travel. I hope it will be followed by another work of translation that is largely a virgin field.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Ramazan: A Time for Waiting on God

Itikaaf is especially a time for waiting as is the whole idea of seeking shab-i-qadr
We all know that Ramazan has been characterized as “month of patience.” What does it mean? Today we seek to understand how patience, or what we may call waiting, is what essentially characterizes human destiny and how proper waiting constitutes a great wazeefa for proper living. Understanding our destiny as patiently waiting for Darshan or Deedar, for the Friend or more precisely seeing Deedar in waiting, will answer such questions that are commonly asked during this month such as why God doesn’t come and why our rendezevous with Satan doesn’t seem to end. Itikaaf is especially a time for waiting as is the whole idea of seeking shab-i-qadr (We are subtly told to wait for it as its time isn’t strictly specified).
Paul Tillich in one of his sermons,collected under the title The Shaking of the Foundations, has insightfully appropriated the metaphor of waiting in explicating the Semitic religious worldview. Keeping Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in our background that parodies human condition involving waiting we may venture a few remarks on his explication of the issue. He states “Our time is a time of waiting.. All time, both in history and in personal life, is expectation. Time itself is waiting, waiting not for another time, but for that which is eternal.” Commenting on a scriptural verse he says: "Both the Old and the New Testament describes our existence in relation to God as one of waiting….Waiting means not having and having at the  sametime. For we have not what we wait for; or, as the apostle says, if we hope for what we do not see, we then wait for it. The condition of man’s relation to God is first of all one of not having, not seeing, not knowing, and not grasping."
Tillich argues that it is not misfortune or a matter of despair to be a waiting creature. If only men knew how to wait they would have no problem with their creaturely vacation. To quote him: “But, although waiting is not having, it is also having. The fact that we wait for something shows that in some way we all already possess it. Waiting anticipates that which is not yet real. If we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. He who waits in an ultimate sense is not far from that for which he waits. He who waits in absolute seriousness is already grasped by that for which he waits …. We are stronger when we wait than when we possess." (Tillich 154).
The Greatest Good can only be contemplated; it is too sublime to be possessed. We need to note that even ordinarily, in our deepest loves and friendships there is always an element of non- possession. The other never ceases to be the other. As Tillich observes: “How can God be possessed? Is God a thing that can be grasped and known among other things? Is Godless than a human person? We always have to wait for a human being. Even in the most intimate communion among human beings, there is an element of not having and not knowing, and of waiting. Therefore, since God is infinitely hidden, free, and incalculable, we must wait for Him in the most absolute and radical way. He is God for us just in so far as we do not possess Him. The psalmist says tha this whole being waits for the Lord, indicating that waiting for God is not merely a part of our relation to God, but rather than the condition of that relation as a whole. We have God through not having Him.”
Whitehead’s famous characterization of religion in his Science and the Modern World captures the importance of waiting as a keynote of religious/mystical viewpoint. To quote him: “Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of the present facts; something which gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.”
God is the Last, the End. He is after all distances because he is not in the net of space and time. He is behind everything and man can’t but deal with things only, even if these be spiritual things. God is within as well, but within is more distant than any without. In a beautiful Upanishadic narrative it has been said that in order to conceal the greatest treasure of God it was resolved to put it in the depths of man’s being, in the in most recess of his heart to which he ordinarily doesn’t turn.Though spirit lives in the present moment but man is predisposed to live either in past or in future.

Every spiritual master has declared that the present moment is the home of the spirit. But for most of us the present moment is very difficult place to reach, despite the obvious fact that we are already there. Chopra thus formulates this insight “Every second is a door to eternity. The door is opened by perception.” But difficult indeed is the art of cleansing the doors of perception. Most men choose to live blind instead of clearing the dust that accumulates on the perceiving lenses of the heart. God is waiting to be realized and in order to be fully realized man has to pass away, to consent to be utterly annihilated. God is a  “remote possibility.” He is beyond all apprehension, all reach. He is and signifies the hopeless quest. Stace in hisTime and Eternity has beautifully appropriated the waiting metaphor of Whitehead as the essence of religious/mystical approach. To quote him: “Religion is the hunger of the soul for the impossible, the unattainable, the inconceivable.... Religion seeks the light. But it isn’t a light which can be found at any place or time. It isn’t somewhere. It is the light which is nowhere. It is “the light which never was on sea or land.”  Never was. Never will be even in the infinite stretches of future time. This light is non-existent….Yet it is the great light which lightens the world. Religion is the desire to break away from being and existence altogether to get beyond existence into that nothingness where the great light is. It is the desire to be utterly free from the fetters of being. For every being is a fetter. Existence is a fetter. To be is to be tied to what you are. Religion is the hunger for the non being which yet is…..So long as there is light in your ife, the light has not yet dawned. You must see that all things all places, all times,all experiences are equally dark.You must see that all stars are black, only out of the total darkness will the light dawn. Religion is that hunger which has no existence past, present or future, no actual existence and no possible existence, in this world or in any other world on the earth or above the cloud and stares material or mental or spiritual, can ever satisfy. For whatever is or could be will have the curse of thisness or thatness.
While all this dissolves key complaint of secular mind regarding God’s absence or his supposed failure to turn up as He is called, say in concentration camps of Hitler or all who suffer for no sins of theirs, it also explains why shab-i-qadr has to be eternally waited on – there is no account clearing by spending a night without sleep and saying for 1000 months on one can take rest. We are not hoping for Godot to come but learning to see how very waiting is our destiny, our glory, our salvation as are not God but humans. Almost reversing attitude of Beckettian tramps we refuse union (lazati wasal haraam) and say to God “Kari jehan daraz hae, ab mera intizaar ker.” As long as we are human, we are “condemned” to pray, to submit, to serve, to be patient . Ramazan only recalls our destiny as waiting, as patience under hardships, as hunger for the “unattainable,” as discipline of senses for cleansing the doors of perception that sees everything as it really is – infinite light and beauty.