By Zubeida Mustafa
HAVE our writers and artists met the challenges posed by the 21st century? Have they played the role expected of them to promote human rights in our society?
These were the questions posed to the participants of the Sindh Writers/Artists Convention organised by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan last week.
As was not at all surprising, the answers were as divergent and conflicting as could be expected from the diverse set of speakers assembled for the occasion. There was, however, consensus on the right of every citizen to be educated and to indulge in creative cultural activities and derive pleasure from them. It was deemed obligatory on the state to uphold this right.
It was also recognised that every region in the country had its own culture and language and these should be respected and not exploited to promote divisiveness and conflicts.
The announcement read out at the conclusion of the moot also took note of the most significant and telling observation voiced by some speakers. They accused the writers, poets and artists of pandering to the elites and they said it was time they engaged their creative skills to shed light on the conditions of the rural areas, marginalised classes and politically and socially oppressed sections of society.
This is something that merits a discourse in itself. Why should writers and artists who are generally sensitive individuals ignore rural society and the oppressed classes and their problems that call for greater attention? The fact is that creative writers and artists, unlike court poets of yore, do not produce work on anyone’s directives. They write or paint what touches their ethos and actually spurs the creative process. It is what poets describe as ‘aamad’ (coming naturally) and not ‘awurd’ (brought forth coercively). It is what they experience and the memories of their experience and angst that are the driving force behind their creativity.
That is why, as Zaheda Hina, the renowned Urdu writer, pointed out, it takes a writer some time after an event to experience it, absorb it and ponder over it before it finds expression in his work. Sometime this is a very time-consuming process, especially when powerful emotions are released. A case in point is of two books published 40 years after the event which had a profound and poignant impact on the writers’ lives. One is Aquila Ismail’s Of Martyrs and Marigolds and the other is Raihana Hasan’s Sips from a Broken Teacup.
Both are narratives of the writers’ lives in East Pakistan and their heart-wrenching experience of the events in that part in 1971-72. Aquila says it took four decades before she felt ready to put down on paper the trauma she had undergone.
The speakers, namely artists Fateh Daudpotho and Khuda Bux Abro, and writers Noorul Huda Shah and Nazir Leghari, had a point when they complained that the painful events in Sindh and Balochistan have not found sufficient expression in the mainstream literature of the country. The absence of translation, a neglected genre in Pakistan, has been responsible for our failure to bridge the language divide. By translating her Sindhi poetry into Urdu and publishing it alongside the original, Amar Sindhu, a professor at the Sindh University, has rendered a great service to the cause of promoting harmony among the various language speakers.
It is disturbing that only Sindhi writers are writing about what is happening in Sindh. Those writing in Urdu are so isolated from the events in the province and in Balochistan that their creative urges are not stirred enough to prompt them to write about the sufferings of the Sindhis and Baloch.
Unlike journalists who visit a place, look around, talk to people and write, creative writers have to be witness to the agony of the people and should be submerged in the pain that surrounds them to write about them. It is, therefore, a matter of great concern that the fragmentation of our society has segregated various sections of the population from each other. This is already having dire consequences for the country. Again, the social horizontal and vertical stratification of our people has also resulted in large sections being ignored by our mainstream writers. Since a writer throws light on the conditions of the people he writes about he must have knowledge about them — their lifestyle, their socioeconomic concerns and their culture and must experience firsthand their loves and sorrows — to write about them.
There is an urgent need for greater intermingling and assimilation of people of different ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Thus alone the stories of the people of remote areas will be told at the national level. True, artists have managed to capture on their canvas many issues that are confined to a small section of society, such as honour killing. That is because what hits the emotions can be portrayed symbolically in images if the artistic instinct is stirred sufficiently.
Art critic Niilofur Farrukh summed up the power of writers and artists aptly by describing culture as a transformative force.
That is what writers, poets and artists should aspire to be — catalysts for change in society. Music can also have the same effect.
One only hopes that the HRCP, which has entered this uncharted area, will take its endeavours further. The awareness one sees about human rights at all levels is remarkable. This is only the first step. Progress is possible only when awareness is accompanied with empowerment. This is not possible if development is not uniform. If there is growth in one area of life and backwardness in another it leads to either frustration or confusion.