Our neighbour’s literary superstar does not like it when critics call him the modern-day Manto.
He says his sister was killed by her husband three days ago. The couple had four children. It was a supposedly happy marriage. The husband’s fingers did not leave the wife’s neck. Not until there was any sign of breath left. It was for insurance money, he says.
This is how the conversation starts. He then closes the topic. Immediately.
He says his job is to tear away veils – “Mein benakab karta hun, sabko.”He says his characters are also ornamented with multiple disguises. And that it is the reader’s job to see through, for he trusts the latter’s intelligence. “And if they can’t decipher, how is it my fault?” he whispers, almost.
Pakistani poet and writer Ali Akbar Natiq, who shook the literary world with his enigmatic collection of short stories What Will You Give For This Beauty, published by Penguin Books India last year, insists it is unfair to underplay the cruelty and corruption of the poor.
As he constantly questions the cliché of rich man being evil personified, this 39-year-old author confides: “I have lived among the poorest. I have smelled their sweat. Don’t think it is sweet. I have never been rich, but have come across many kind souls in big mansions. Point is, I don’t slot people. It is a very unfair thing to do. A writer needs to show the complexities of his character, all his shades and hues. He does not have the right to pass judgment. Neither should he promise any redemption – to the character or the reader.”
Natiq now wants to talk about the middle class because the darkness of this class intrigues him. “See how they are getting all hyper about the ‘surgical strikes’. Banning Fawad Khan in India and Indian soaps in Pakistan. Do you think the poor or the elite are even bothered? The middle-class has always failed to understand the machinations of the political masters. That is why their sensibilities are so orphaned.”
Now that his second collection of short stories Shah Mohammad’s Tonga, available on Juggernaut Books’ mobile application, is out, he cautions that he should still be called a poet first and not a storyteller.
“Poetry is something that comes to me naturally. Effortlessly. And it has to do with the theatre I see on streets everyday. I live among real people, and interact with those who work with their hands. And prose has to sing beautifully like verse,” says this teacher of creative writing at a college in Islamabad.
And all those Arabic metaphors so wedded in his poems? “My father and I went to Iraq and Kuwait to work. I have come back, but the desert has never left me,” says Natiq, who studied Urdu privately – “Literature always came effortlessly. I was always the top scorer.”
The author still builds minarets and domes in Pakistan. “Especially when I run out of money,” he laughs. “On a serious note, I love concrete and the fact that I can mould it into something delicate and beautiful. You know – when I touch mud, it touches me.”
|Mirza Ghalib was classic, according to Ali Akbar Natiq. (Photo credit: India Today)|
Natiq prefers to answer many questions at one time. Answers which can even be non-answers. Other times, he asks questions. And if you complain, he can laugh. “Have you never conducted a non-linear conversation? Have faith, some at least,” he says.
Faith. But he insists that he is not talking about religion. He doesn’t want to take it there. Because he thinks everyone should know that he has always spoken and written against the mullahs in his country who “alienate people from Him”.
For Natiq, “these people have no place in religion. Many hate me for saying all this, but maulvis snatch religion away from people by trying to force interpretations on masses”.
The author’s latest collection of short stories is being received well. “Tell me more, are people in India liking it? What are they saying?” he asks, almost like a child – the man who started reading Urdu classics when he was in grade five at the Union Council Library in his hometown of Okara.
R Sivapriya, executive editor with Juggernaut, who also handled Natik during her days with Penguin, says: “He is a powerful storyteller. Someone possessed of a rare ability of expressing both robust humour and dark tragedy. Natiq is most popular among those who can read him in the original. When we had an event for his first collection in English, What Will You Give For this Beauty, at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, the venue overflowed. And people recited lines of his poems.”
The author, whose family had migrated to Pakistan from Indian Punjab during Partition, sees himself as a product of the amalgamation of the two cultures. “It would be a crime to deny that. The shared history, myths, and beliefs. They make us who we are, no? They guide us in our writing, quietly,” he says.
Isn’t he happy with all the international recognition he has received after being translated into English? “I am happy I have made more friends. But if you really want to be popular in Pakistan, the reader must be able to access you in Urdu,” he replies.
On other writers, he says: “Muhammad Iqbal is over-rated. I like him more as a poet than philosopher. He knew how to play with people’s emotions. Of course, he had class, but then he was one-dimensional. Ghalib was classic. But my favourite will always be Mir Taqi Mir. He knew the universe.”
It is time to ask him about some of the fantastic contemporary fiction originating from authors of Pakistani origin. “Yes, I know everyone in the world is talking about English writing from Pakistan. Frankly, I am not really sure if they represent the real Pakistan. Life in Pakistan crawls in congested streets and dark nooks. Have they been there?” he asks.
Mention the fact that his short story collection in Urdu Aim Din and Other Stories (translated by Ali Madeeh Hashmi in English as What Will You Give For This Beauty), which was published by Oxford University Press in Pakistan, was the first time they published a living Urdu fiction writer and major critics across the world took note, and there is silence.
“I have emerged from real people. I write for them. Anyone who reads me closely will understand that my stories are for the people who I write about. Frankly, it doesn’t really bother me what ‘experts’ say about my work,” he explains.
Whose words bother you then? “Those of my characters.”