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An Interview with Prof. Mehr Afshan Farooqi on Urdu writer and critic, Muhammad Hasan Askari

By Mosarrap H Khan

Prof. Mehr Afshan Farooqi grew up in Allahabad, India. A multiple gold medallist from Allahabad University, Farooqi is currently Associate Professor of Urdu and South Asian Literature at the University of Virginia. Her research publications address complex issues of Urdu literary culture, particularly in the context of modernity. She is interested in bilingualism and how it impacts creativity. Farooqi is also a well-known translator, anthologist, and columnist. She is the editor of the pioneering two-volume work, The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Urdu Literature (2008). More recently she has published the acclaimed monograph, The Postcolonial Mind, Urdu Culture, Islam and Modernity in Muhammad Hasan Askari (2013). Farooqi writes a featured column on Urdu literature past and present in the Dawn. She is presently working on a project that highlights the great Urdu poet Ghalib’s mustarad (rejected) verses.

In this email interview, Prof. Mehr Afshan Farooqi speaks to Mosarrap H Khan on Muhammad Hasan Askari, foremost Urdu author and critic in the middle decades of the twentieth century. This conversation focuses on Prof. Farooqi’s book on Askari, The Postcolonial Mind, Urdu Culture, Islam and Modernity in Muhammad Hasan Askari (2013).

Mosarrap H Khan: Let us begin with Askari’s formative years, which you write about in your book. During his university days in Allahabad, he was influenced by Western literature, to the point of being a Francophile, who swore by Baudlaire. He wanted Urdu writers to learn the art of writing and thinking from these Western writers. What did he exactly want Muslim writers to learn from the West, in terms of formal innovation and philosophical thinking?   

Mehr Afshan Farooqi: Allow me to unpack this complicated question and answer its many parts separately.

First, I would like to talk about Askari’s formative years as an undergraduate at the University of Allahabad. It was a common practice in those days to live in a relative’s house instead of the University’s dormitory or hostels as they were called. Askari’s relative, Professor Naimur Rahman was a prominent faculty member of the Persian and Arabic department whose house at 17 Bailey Road had a library stocked with books. A cousin was the proprietor of a well-known bookstore, Kitabistan. Askari was a shy youth who spent days reading and evenings walking with friends down Bailey Road. They discussed literature and writing. The new trends in English and Urdu literature. They observed Anglo-Indian girls from the nearby neighbourhood of Muirabad. Askari wrote his first short fictions while still an undergraduate. The stories bore the mark of his keen observation. What is striking here is that he was formally being educated in English literature, but his group of friends encouraged him to write in Urdu. Askari published his first story while he was an undergraduate.

When Askari joined the Master’s Program in English, the Department was home to a number of famous writers. While these writers were professors of English, they wrote poetry and fiction in Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Maithli, and Bhojpuri. Firaq Gorakhpuri was a famous Urdu poet and scholar, Harivansh Rai Bachchan was a rising Hindi poet. Amarnatha Jha wrote in Maithli. Ahmed Ali was a rising Urdu fiction writer who helped launch the Progressive Writers’ Movement. The professor who impressed Askari most was the brilliant Satish Chandra Deb. Deb sahib’s erudition was legendary. He commanded deep knowledge of not just European literature but also Persian and Urdu. Deb sahib inspired his students to first explore their own literary heritage. The academic environment offered by Allahabad University energized Askari to think about the western literature and cultural philosophy in ways that could be incorporated into the Indo-Muslim world view.

MHK: It appears Askari was opposed to both ideology and individualism and considered them to be antithetical to the ideas of art. It was one of the reasons why he failed to get along with the Progressive Writers. As you write, when Askari’s first collection of fiction (Jazirey, Islands, 1943) was published, he had already moved away from the Progressives in his fiction. What exactly was his theory of fiction? Was his formal innovation a way of countering realism of Progressive writers?

MAF: Askari was opposed to ideology but not individualism. At first, he was impressed by the Progressive Writers’ Movement. He was excited by the possibilities and fresh ideas that the Movement was diffusing. He put together an anthology of poetry followed by another one of fiction. In both these anthologies, he invited poets and writers to nominate their current best piece of work along with a personal note explaining their choice. In his introduction to Meri Behtarin Nazm (My Best Poem 1941), Askari eloquently praised, “the new breed of poets and writers who have taken over the reins from the weak, tremulous hands of the old order.” But, as you point out, by the time he published his first collection of short fiction, Jazire (Islands 1943), Askari had moved away from the Progressive fold. He realized that he faced the dilemma of a postcolonial writer whose models and theories were mostly influenced by western thought but whose sensibilities were eastern. He preferred themes of estrangement and loneliness because they reflected his experience as an individual.

Askari’s theory of fiction, at least in its early formulation, is presented in the Afterword that he wrote for Jazire. The Afterword is an unusual document because it addresses the readers directly; it creates space for the creative voice. In the collection of essays, Admi aur Insan (1953), Askari makes a case for symbolism-aestheticism. Askari was attracted to symbolism because of the mystical aspect embedded in its worldview. In art was the path to God. The human condition is mirrored in art. Art is the medium to find ways to bring about changes in how we perceive things.

There are, however, some problems with Askari’s assessment of Urdu fiction. He focuses mostly on the last hundred years. He doesn’t give adequate space to non-Muslim Urdu writers. By pushing for Urdu’s literary tradition as Muslim, Askari was both limiting and marginalizing historical precedents. He was in a rush to give a strong cultural position to Urdu in Pakistan.


From Left: Muhammad Hasan Askari, Saleem Ahmad, Intizar Hussain (Photo: Rashid Ashraf)

MHK: In your analysis of Askari’s short fiction and in his theory of fiction, you mention that Askari’s concerns were unusual because of his interest in themes of homoeroticism and sexual maturation, something that Askari himself dismissed as ‘sensational’. In many ways, we see Askari has much more similarity with Manto’s choice of themes and their emphasis on individuality. Then why did the two fail to get along initially?

MAF: Askari admits that he did not pay much attention to Manto because he was repulsed by Manto’s fiery, attention seeking personality. Askari was a quiet, shy, introverted individual who did not open up easily. He hated publicity. When Manto migrated to Pakistan, Askari initially stayed away from him. The big question that Askari was tackling concerned the nature of Pakistani literature. How would it be different from “Indian” literature? What are the new paths that Pakistani writers must take? Manto in principle agreed with Askari that Pakistani literature would reflect the moment of rupture, the historical birth of a new nation and its culture. Askari had stopped writing fiction. He saw in Manto the capacity to accept reality in all its forms and the ability to make moral judgments. A friendship developed between them. Askari wrote the introduction to Manto’s Siyah Hashiye (Black Margins). He called the vignettes comments on the human condition.

MHK: Your interesting reading of the Askari-Firaq relationship suggests that Askari’s high appreciation of Firaq’s work was based more on his homoerotic feeling for Firaq, who was known for his bi-sexuality, than Firaq’s actual literary merit. You state that Firaq had scant knowledge of Urdu ghazal’s classical tradition. We also come to know that Firaq was the first to endow the lover in the ghazal, as you write, with “a dignity that is new in Urdu poetry and is thus a remarkable addition to Urdu’s repertoire of themes.” What exactly is this knowledge of classical ghazal that is missing in Firaq’s poetry? Did Askari deliberately gloss over Firaq’s lack of knowledge of Urdu ghazal tradition or was Askari himself deficient in his knowledge?

MAF: This is an excellent question. We cannot deny or ignore the fact that Firaq was a champion of the ghazal, and, Urdu poetry as a whole, at a time when the ghazal in particular was being attacked as an uninspiring, melancholic, repetitive form of poetry. Firaq brought in themes from Sanskrit, particularly about nayikabheda to revitalize the flagging themes in the ghazal. Firaq’s lovers are unusual and distinctive in the Urdu classical ghazal. Where Firaq falters is his clumsiness in wordsmithing. His she’rs tend to have superfluous words, unnecessary repetition, and weak metaphors. There is a lot of emotion but little depth. Compared to the great Mir Taqi Mir, to whom he is often compared to, Firaq lacks the nuanced finesse or play with words that the great classical ghazal exponents displayed. The poetics of the Urdu classical ghazal was passed verbally from ustad to shagird, and scattered across tazkirahs. It was drawn from both Indic and Arabo-Persian traditions, but had not been organized. Firaq’s critical essays on the ghazal point to some of the essential qualities of ghazal poetry but in an off-the-cuff style. Askari developed these ideas and generously gave credit to Firaq. I think what impressed Askari most was Firaq’s repertoire of Indic themes which he seamlessly wove into the ghazal’s fabric. The sabk-e hindi poets had done that with Persian by creating new, far-fetched metaphors and layers of meaning. Firaq’s approach was earthier. But to place Firaq at a higher pedestal than Mir or Ghalib, which is what Askari does, seems jarring and quite exaggerated.

MHK: Askari was one of the most vocal proponents for the creation of Pakistan in pre-Independence days. In Askari’s monthly column – “Jhalkiyan” – one important theme was his hope that the newly created country, Pakistan, would become an ideal sanctuary for the creation of a distinct Indo-Muslim Urdu literary tradition. Why did he become disillusioned with that ideal and feel that Pakistan has abandoned its early promise at the time of creation?

MAF: Askari had an almost Utopian vision of what Pakistan would be; something on the pattern of French democracy. The early years were heady. He did not have a full-time job and did translations of important novels such as Stendhal’s Red and Black, Hemingway’s Moby Dick, and so on. He presented his ideas on Pakistani culture, Pakistani literature, worked on enriching Urdu. But, the government did not seem to value Askari’s ideas. His stint with a government publication was short lived.

MHK: Askari seemed to be a staunch advocate of Islamic tradition but this was not so when he started his writing career. Would you attribute this transition partly to his failure in love and personal life as the earlier part of the book seems to suggest?

MAF: This is a difficult question, and I can only presume what might have happened. Certainly, disillusionment with his grand plans for Urdu as a major language in world literature might have contributed to this transition. I wouldn’t say that he was unhappy in Pakistan, but that he couldn’t come to terms with its socio-political trajectory. He was drawn to mystical Islam but he practised a more main-line traditional version.

MHK: In his later writings in Pakistan, we encounter a different Askari far removed from his earlier avatar, who was deeply influenced by Western literature and culture. He seems eager to carve out a distinct Urdu literary tradition and encourage writers to subscribe and contribute to such a tradition. In Askari’s enunciation of this tradition, faith – Islamic Sufism – plays an important role as he explains in his 1959 reading of Mohsin Kakorvi’s poems. As you write, “Mohsin Kakorvi’s poetry showed how the human and the divine come together in the being of the Prophet of Islam. In Mohsin Kakorvi’s experience of the Prophet, Askari found the path through literature to Tradition-Faith that had eluded him thus far.” What did Askari envision as components of this tradition? Does that suggest Askari’s notion of tradition is insular, confined entirely to a particular Muslim way of understanding life and the world? What role does Western thought play, if at all, in his formulation of tradition? Further, an unhindered approach to sexuality is something that Askari seemed to have advocated earlier. How does that square with his later belief in Islamic culture and tradition?   

MAF: After spending nearly half his life admiring western critical thought and urging fellow writers to rejuvenate their links with their own culture and tradition in similar ways, Askari began denouncing western culture and blamed it for the ills of society as a whole. Askari’s epistemic roots were Indo-Muslim. In Pakistan, he expected a new engagement with Islamic cultural consciousness that would be self-defining. Askari was idealistic about Muslims creating and running a state in Pakistan where political and social life could not be separated from literary and cultural life. In the whirlwind of Partition, there had been no time to test or unpack the questions about Pakistani identity. The imposition of martial law in 1958 by Ayub Khan was a big disappointment for those who cherished democracy. Askari naively believed that a group of writers could serve as a pressure group in regard to important matters of state policy.

Askari held that tradition stemmed from religion and its practice in its pristine form. Modernity, because it entailed rejection of Tradition, was the source of modern society’s ills and disequilibrium. He believed that the West in its quest for individuality had created a modernity that was hurtful to the human soul. This emphasis on individuality created anguish and loneliness and led to a sense of inanity in all things.

Farooqi Book cover

MHK: In his quest for a Indo-Muslim literary tradition, Askari seems to be invested in creating a new idiom for Urdu prose, as you write, in the realm of use of verbs, metaphors, and syntactic structure. How far did he manage to push Urdu prose writing to his intended direction from its earlier emphasis on “fluency, limpidity and clarity”, as advocated by Altaf Husain Hali, Syed Ahmad Khan, etc.?

MAF: Askari’s writings on crafting Urdu prose constitute a very important part of his oeuvre. His own prose both in fiction and non-fiction was a model for writers. This is where his straddling of Western and Urdu literary practices comes to the fore. The damage wrought by the colonial literary paradigms on Urdu’s literary tradition was brutal. Generations were deprived of a knowledge of the poetics of the dastan or the classical ghazal. Askari apportions a great deal of blame on Hali and the Progressives. He blames Hali for producing half-baked notions that laid the foundations of modern literary theory and practice in Urdu. In the path-breaking essay Isti’are ka khauf (Fear of Metaphor), Askari argued that Hali’s fundamental error was that he considered metaphor to be distinct from “real language”. Language itself is metaphor, because it arises from finding congruence between outward objects and inner experience.

I would say that Askari’s impact was tremendous on his peers. His early work inspired younger contemporaries as well. If his essays had been translated into English, it would have opened up his brilliant work as a postcolonial critic. He wrote and anticipated much of what we know as postcolonial literary theory.

MHK: Askari comes across as an aloof, marginal figure with a brilliant and unconventional mind. How do we assess Askari’s critical and creative influence on Urdu literature?

MAF: I wouldn’t call him marginal. He was the leader of Urdu’s critical discourse through the Jhalikiyan column in the 1940s and 50s. His essays are seminal. Unfortunately, he stopped writing fiction after only eleven stories or he would have been among Urdu’s greatest, boldest creative writers. Partition cut Askari’s life in two. It impacted his creative arc. At the time of Partition Askari was a major literary figure. Relocation gave him a euphoric energy. He did not lament Partition but saw it as a moment of time for writers to document the birth of a nation. He saw it as an opportunity to shape Urdu literature’s future.  He was idealistic; when his dreams did not translate into reality he began to cut himself off from Urdu’s mainstream. I think his disillusionment came too soon, perhaps because he was a restless soul. It wasn’t that he suddenly chanced upon Rene Guenon’s work. He had read Guenon in the 1940s. Askari returned to Guenon’s writings because he was dissatisfied with his own literary pursuits.

Askari’s deep critical and creative influence is apparent among his many followers. I don’t want to list names. I was drawn to the idea of a book-length project on Askari because I felt the need to understand the evolution of Urdu’s modernity from within Urdu’s literary culture. What were the alternatives to Progressivism in Urdu literature at a time when Progressivism was dominant? The first name that comes to mind is Muhammad Hasan Askari. Askari’s work intersects with such crucial issues, the role of Indian languages and literatures in the postcolonial era, the contexts in which identities meet culture, and the emergence of Urdu literature from the newly founded nation of Pakistan as ‘Pakistani literature.’ Askari speaks to us from the center of a crisis of culture.

Mosarrap H Khan 
is a founding-editor at Cafe Dissensus. Twitter: @aberration007


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