For the love of literature

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Asif Farrukhi

IT all began when one eager and bright-eyed young person asked me to recommend some good books for the summer. But then again, young people keep coming up with such demands and I thought no more of it until I was accosted by another similar request. These were university students who could hardly wait for classes to be over, who were ready to settle down to the long summer days; students whom I had seen struggling daily with heavy and challenging course packs, some of whom had literally been struggling to acquire the habit of reading.

I am not a believer in making such sort of lists as I want everybody, especially younger people, to have their own adventures and make their own discoveries in reading. I was thrilled that they suddenly seemed to have time on their hands. I wanted to tell them that you can go back to reading for the sheer pleasure of it, reading for information, instruction or any other reason you can think of. So, here I am, sitting in the midst of a pile of books, picking up some, rediscovering old favourites and making new friends with the fond hope that some of you will enjoy a few of these books.

I would use this opportunity to urge you to read the classics. Many people seem to have the mistaken assumption that you turn to these great books as a last resort, something which you should only do when you have unlimited leisure. The heat of these long and interminable days notwithstanding, nothing could be further from the truth. These books are forever, to be read and relished come rain, hail or storm. I recall that I discovered Tolstoy’s War and Peace — or was it the other way around? — when I was an intermediate student, and for many months the book accompanied me till it became dog-eared and the pages started peeling out. I read it on the college bus, the interval between classes and every other place I could think of. As I reached the last page, I knew that I had crossed a milestone. So Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky should be read before any other novelist. They are at their best not only in their long books but some of their best writing is to be found in their shorter novels. Among the Russian masters, Ivan Turgenev’s almost perfect Fathers and Sons is refreshing and very relevant. My all-time favourite is Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, the entertaining adventures of a gentleman out on the dubious mission of purchasing dead serfs who are still recorded as alive in the official record. If I was compelled to make one selection, it would be nobody else but Chekhov with his poignant and heart-warming short stories. The best example is “The Lady with the Dog” which seems to compress a lifetime of heartbreak and anguish in a few pages.

The promise of a long summer is all I need to goad me into plodding through Madame Bovary as I missed out on many of Gustave Flaubert’s subtleties when I first read it. This time I am inclined towards lazily leafing through The Count of Monte Cristo. Fed by the dizzying tales of corruption, wealth, unlimited power and the stupendous schemes of minting money, Alexander Dumas’s tale of the mysterious Count and his vengeful mission may hold the clue to all that is being churned out by the ubiquitous media channels.

For all practical purposes, I would broaden the definition here to include some modern classics too. A few weeks back when I mentioned Gabriel Garcia Marquez, some younger friends were embarrassed that they had not read any of his books. They thought that this would make me annoyed. On the other hand, I envy them — they will be able to experience the luxurious joy of A Hundred Years of Solitude for the first time. This will be the experience of a lifetime, but for starters I would recommend Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a perfect little gem which begins at the end and then proceeds to the beginning. Once you are hooked on to Latin American literature, follow it up with something — anything — by Mario Vargas Llosa; his Captain Pantoja and the Special Service is the wickedest novel that has been my good fortune to have read. Not to be missed on any account is Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, which, at 127 pages, is arguably the most intense novel. Recently Fatima Bhutto called Pakistan “a land of ghosts”. A grim pronouncement but then Rulfo’s novel tells us what a village of ghosts looks like, let alone a whole country.

Before I got distracted with other books, I must mention Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s just published Pandra Kahaniyan (which I am half-way through) — a collection of stories which covers many social issues of our time and place. The well-known travel writer brings out contemporary concerns. For those who have not read Abdullah Hussain beyond the perennial Udas Naslain, I propose a toast to Bagh in which love and political violence creates a heady mixture leading to terrorism. For those who have good language skills, do look at Sanghassan Battisi, the ancient Sanskrit tales-within-a-tale edited by Intizar Husain. Written to delight and instruct ancient kings in statecraft, I wish this was mandatory reading for all politicians. But then our politicians hardly read, not even the writing on the wall.

For a good mix of stories, look at the series I am editing for Oxford with a volume focusing on major writers. The volumes out so far are: Manto, Ghulam Abbas, Hasan Manzar, Syed Rafiq Hussain and Naiyer Masud, each one different from the other. More power to the imagination, Naiyer Masud seems to say, as he moves in the company of the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. If you want to read short stories, you cannot do any better than start with Abbas, and you will immediately realise that you are in the company of a master.

Smaller in scope but packed with delight is the slim selection of Zehra Nigah’s poetry characterised with her sophisticated demeanor and classical finesse. No other poet brings out the wistful charm of the ghazal the way Ahmed Mushtaq does, whose kulliyat remains a connoisseur’s delight. A somber voice from the wrong side of history is to be found in Afzal Ahmed Syed; grim but highly relevant. Probably the finest poet in Pakistan at the moment, his collected poems were published as Mitti ki Kaan, and a fine, sensitive English translation of his previous three collections of Urdu poems, Rococo and Other Worlds, just came out from Delhi. Poetry such as this is more temperate than a summer’s day!

Asif Farrukhi, “For the love of literature ,” in Dawn, July 12, 2015. Accessed on July 12, 2015, at:

The item above written by Asif Farrukhi and published in Dawn on July 12, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on July 12, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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