Trees and the Arts

The following is reprinted by permission of translator, editor, and writer Alok Bhalla. It is an English translation by Rakhshanda Jalil of a lovely essay by Intizar Husain on the writing of short stories.

Between Me and the Story

That day I had picked up the pen with the intention of writing a story. I had sat down with complete concentration. But, the television set had been left switched on. Since I am no TV addict, even popular serials and programmes leave me cold and ordinarily I can continue with my reading and writing, unperturbed and unaffected. That day, it hadn’t been so; even though, that day, there wasn’t a particularly riveting serial or a fun and games show on air. In fact, a very serious programme was being aired—a demonstration of national pride. A film on Pakistan’s experiments with the atomic bomb was being shown. A mighty explosion occurred. The earth rumbled and shook. Then I saw the mountain quiver ever so slightly and its colour began to change imperceptibly, almost like the colour fading from a human face. I put my pen down. Or, perhaps, it stopped writing on its own and I had no other option but to put it down.

In my childhood, whenever there was a lunar or solar eclipse, my father would put away all his chores and sit down on the prayer rug. He would offer two prayers, which he called the Prayer of Fear. He would say that a great misfortune had befallen the moon, and we must pray to God that the crisis be averted and the Hour of Reckoning pass without mishap. Perhaps, at this moment, just such an Hour of Reckoning had approached a mountain in Pakistan. In its moment of trial and tribulation, that mountain showed such amazing grace and strength! It bore the brunt of the havoc and destruction that the explosion brought in its wake and did not allow even a hair to be hurt in Pakistan. How it must have suffered can be gauged from the fact that it quivered and lost its colour when the explosion ripped through it. Now it would never regain its lost colour.

Till yesterday, the atom bomb had been beyond our reach; it was, after all, a rare and exceptional weapon of mass destruction that could only be the prized possession of superpower armories from across the seven seas. In the blink of an eye, it had fallen in our hands. Strange, very strange indeed! Now we too are an atomic power. An atomic power is a superpower. And who doesn’t want to be a superpower? So now the people of India must be very happy. The people of Pakistan are also very happy. It is the superpowers who are a worried lot now. They had signed countless agreements and counter-agreements among themselves that come what may, they would never use these weapons of mass destruction. Now they are bedeviled by this classic instance of the runaway monkey and the razor; no one knows who the runaway monkey will slash! What is more, who knows when these two will press the button and annihilate the rest of the world as well as themselves?

* * *

These days, I remember so many stories I had heard in my childhood from my grandmother. One of the stories was about a down-at-luck prince who gets caught in the snare of a genie. The genie lived in a grand fortress. He took the prince to his fortress and let him loose, saying: You are free in every way inside this fortress. There are seven doors here. You can open six; they will lead you to several amazing delights. You may have your fill of those delights. But do not open the seventh door. If you do, a great calamity will befall you. The prince followed the genie’s advice for many days. Of the six doors, each door led to a cornucopia of plenty—there was every manner of bounties to suit every taste and delectation. Finally, the prince tired of these gratifications: One day he decided to open the seventh door to find out what great pleasures it hid. And the moment he opened the seventh door, a great calamity fell over his head.

Our times, too, are caught in a genie’s snare—the genie of science and technology. In small countries we are not fully aware of it. Go to any developed country in the West. Truly it appears as though the genie from Aladdin’s lamp has created those magnificent buildings and fortresses. Open any door and you will find such a bewildering array of luxuries and delights that you will be stunned. But a seventh door, too, has appeared in these fortresses. The genie has instructed us to open all other doors but to always keep this seventh door shut. But sometimes I think, what if some eccentric prince were to take it in his head to open the seventh door, what would happen then…

The problem, however, is that this is an age of science and technology and I still subscribe to ancient tales and old stories of genies and fairies. My friends tell me that these old yarns are a reminder of mankind’s earliest childhood when the human intellect was not fully formed and superstitions reigned supreme. Today, in this age of scientific temper, man depends solely on his wit and intelligence. But I want to know: Has the child really grown up? One hears that in the West, he has grown up in the lap of science and philosophy to full adulthood and become a veritable model of intelligence. The atom bomb was crafted by his genius, just as Hiroshima was a spectacular example of his brilliance.

Anyhow, in this age of knowledge when technology is at its zenith, forests and deserts and oceans and mountains and birds and animals are all at risk. My friends say, brother, this is a manifestation of the conquest of nature and they quote verses by the great poet Iqbal to buttress their theory. I too recall some bits of Iqbal. Two couplets are as follows:

Dhoondnein wala sitaron ki guzargahon ka
Apne afkar ki duniya mein safar kar na saka
Jisne suraj ki shuaon ko giraftar kiya
Zindagi ki shab-e-tareek sahar kar na saka

(He tracked the orbits of the stars, yet could not
Travel in the world he had created in his thoughts
He captured the rays of the sun, yet could not
Make the sun rise on life’s dark night)

If anything, life’s dark night has become even darker ever since. And is darkening every day. If there was a ray of hope left somewhere, that too was snuffed out by the coming of the atom bomb.

So here I come back to my old song of distress. I have been singing this song for a very long time. In 1960, when the magnificently tall peepul tree beside the gate of the Punjab University was cut down, I had felt as though a murder had been committed in broad daylight and a benign presence lifted from over our heads. For so long I had seen passing eager, young students chitter-chatter under its dense shade. How many stories lay behind that guileless chit-chat—the tree alone could have told. But there it lay, face down on the Mall, with the stories buried forever in its bosom. I used to work for the Mashriq2 those days. I had turned my face away from politics and wrote only of small matters concerning people, trees and birds. So I wrote a column on the martyrdom of the tree and went to various literary circles pleading its cause. Those days, progressive and traditionalist writers met at these soirees and discussed all sorts of literary issues. The traditionalists couldn’t understand why the hacking down of a tree was being presented as a human tragedy and a literary concern. My progressive friends made my plea out to be a war between the progressives and the regressives. Their argument was that Pakistan is entering an industrial era. So trees will be chopped down. How can the nation progress otherwise?

Soon, trees began to be cut indiscriminately. One day I received a strange phone call. Begum Hijab Imtiaz Ali was on the line: “Intizar Sahab, are you aware that the koel is silent in the city this year. The month of June has begun, and one hasn’t heard the koel coo. Tell me, have you heard it?”

I thought of my morning walks in Jinnah Bagh and remembered with surprise that the season for the koel’s calls had begun. But so far I hadn’t heard its call, neither from close quarters nor from far away. Why had I not thought about it sooner?

“You are right, madam. I too haven’t heard the koel’s call so far this season.”

“Then why haven’t you written about it in your column? People should know about it. Write about it, Intizar Sahab. Tell people that this is a matter of grave concern. So, will you write then?”

“Yes, I will.”

Truly, this was a matter I should have written about. It made perfect sense to me. After all, some part of the natural world had to protest against the massacre of trees. And the protest came from the koels. They decided to go silent and thus deprive us of their mellifluous cooing.

* * *

The latest issue of Savera has just reached me. Salahuddin Mahmood has written in his article that birds, butterflies and fishes are committing mass suicide in different parts of the world. Nasir Kazmi had written:

Urh gaye yeh shaakh se kah ke tayoor
Is gulistan ki hawa mein zahar hai

(The birds have fled from the branches, saying
There is poison in the air of this garden)

But where will they fly off to now? Man has poisoned not just the air in the garden, but all over the created world. The birds and the butterflies cannot grasp the hands of foolish, barbaric man and stop him from leaking poison in the air and making life lifeless on the earth that God created. At best, the koels can fall silent in protest. Birds and butterflies can turn despondently away from this foul universe and commit mass suicide. A sensitive butterfly and a twittering bird can give no other answer to man’s cruelty and ignorance. They have no deterrent.

But we come back to the same thing; what good is our crying and pleading? We aren’t persons of any importance. Even Bill Clinton is ignored. No one pays any heed to him. In the atomic fracas between India and Pakistan, even American bravado has disappeared in a wisp of smoke. This sea change in the world order is remarkable. In a young Pakistan, we had learnt to live in the shadow of two giants, both superpowers, both astonishingly terrifying. Small countries sought refuge from the wrath of the superpowers. If they annoyed one, they would immediately scurry to find a safe haven under the wings of the other. If one frowned with annoyance, the other would rush forward to provide shelter and patronage.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this balance of powers was overturned. Anis had written an elegy at the death of Dabeer, both famous elegy-writers: the joy of writing elegies is gone. He was right. Be it poetics or literature, politics or sports, the cricket field or any other field, a virtuoso’s real talents are unfurled only when he meets his match. America failed to grasp this truism. But so what? In the past, recalcitrant children would flout the instructions of one grown-up, but submit to another. If they disobeyed one elder, they would obey some other. The practice of obedience, nevertheless, remained intact. But now, only one elder remains. If someone disregards him, who can he be expected to listen to? Children have become headstrong. Their disregard knows no bounds. Earlier, it was the leftist intellectuals who were hell-bent on breaking all the rules. It was a strangely piquant situation. The more headstrong the leftists became, the loftier became the stance of the extreme rightists. American hegemony still remained intact. However, the leftists soon became an endangered species in Pakistan. In fact, the breed seems to have died out since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But how has that helped America? No, if anything, it has harmed American interests. With the fall of communism, the anti-US chant has been picked up by the Maulvi-Mullah brigade. The Maulvi-Mullahs may not have gained the same mileage as the leftwing intellectuals, but America has certainly lost out in the bargain. It is no longer the presiding deity it had been for so long.

Anyhow, as I was saying, children have become disobedient. Their irreverence knows no bounds and those who were once the elders are now completely disregarded. In such a scenario, anything can happen now that the atom bomb has fallen in the hands of the children.

Only time will tell what will happen next. For now, our heads are raised high with pride. But see, what a firecracker our friend Anwar Sajjad has let off. At a time like this, when the People’s Party is trying to remind the people of Pakistan that the credit for acquiring the atom bomb must rightfully go to Bhutto Sahab, Anwar Sajjad has dug up evidence to prove that Manto was actually the first man who dreamt of atomic power for Pakistan. And he has cited Manto’s writings in the form of letters to Uncle Sam. Sajjad read his article in a discussion organised by a newspaper and sent a copy to me. I read the article and was consumed by sheer astonishment that Manto had had such a dream! According to Anwar Sajjad, Manto’s dream simply awaited a man of action who would make it come true. This vision eventually took the form of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who was instrumental in giving it a concrete shape.

I read Manto’s letters to Uncle Sam a second time. Once again, I was lost in amazement. This time, I was perplexed more by Anwar Sajjad than the letters. There was a world of difference between what Manto had written and the meaning Anwar Sajjad had derived from it. Manto never wrote the Anwar Sajjad brand of abstract short stories where anyone can ascribe any meaning he or she wants. Manto has a fairly straightforward satire. He asks Uncle Sam why the hydrogen bomb is being prepared. Which countries are going to be wiped off the surface of the earth? And if that is the plan, then how about giving a small atom bomb to the favourite nephew who is sick and tired of those fellows from across the border who don’t believe in washing their butts? Why not just get rid of them once and for all?

This reminds me of a Bombay film called Eight Days, made shortly before the Partition. Manto had acted in this film and probably also written its script. He had enacted the role of a halfwit who goes around with a ball in his hand, which he calls an atom bomb, and scares everyone by threatening to hurl it. The thought of this film scares me. But then, I am a coward. These days, the people of Asia are under the spell of the atom bomb. Some are worried about its long-term consequences, but many others are delighted at the magical wand that has fallen in their hands. The atom bomb has had different effects on different people. Its effect on me is that I cannot write a story anymore. On Anwar Sajjad, the effect has been totally different. Strange, very strange indeed… First, he saluted the Marxist revolution, then became a fervent devotee of the Islamic bomb. In his article he has appealed to the Muslim community that now that we have become an atomic power, we must strive to become an Islamic superpower.

May the revolution bring happiness to the Believers!!!

Consider this: even in this new world order Anwar Sajjad has found a mission for himself. And I, I have again got left behind. I can see no other mission save the modest one of writing a story. And my story, too, is surrounded by afflictions. Whenever I pick up my pen, the mountain of Chaghai comes and stands before my eyes. First a slight rumble shivers through it, then its colour begins to change. After every little while, a sound emerges which causes panic among the people. The entire city lives in the thrall of this Mountain of Summons. No other sound reaches here. Suddenly, the mountain loses all colour. Its effect on me is like the call from the Mountain of Summons. The magic of the atom bomb does not work on me. I live in the tormented shadow of that mountain. I can write my story only if I am able to come out of its paralysing fear. But this pain-riddled mountain has come and stood between the story and me.

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