May issue 2009
Interview: Mirza Athar Baig
Mirza Athar Baig is a rarity in modern Urdu literature. A veteran philosophy teacher at Government College Lahore, he initially made his name as a TV playwright. And just when he had completed scripting around 100 plays for television, he shocked Pakistan’s cosy literary world with a first novel so brash, so ambitious and yet so accomplished that it is still reeling from the experience.
Mirza Athar Baig’s show-stopper of a novel, Ghulam Bagh, has been described as the best thing in Urdu literature since Aag Ka Darya and Udaas Naslain. Conversely, it has also been described as the confusing rants of someone who has spent too much time trying to teach philosophy to Punjabi students. The novel has found a loyal readership outside the literary circles, as well, and has in fact achieved cult status, so much so that some of the readers have named themselves after the characters in the novel. Three editions of Ghulam Bagh have been published in Pakistan within two years, and now Random House India is pursuing Baig for an English translation. Mirza Athar Baig talks to Newsline about his epic novel, some strange reactions he has received to the novel and the pleasures of teaching philosophy.
Q: Your novel is epic in its scope and size. Whenever people ask me what it is about, I end up saying that it is about everything. What is your response when they ask you?
A: Well, I sometimes end up telling them that it is about nothing, which amounts to the same thing, an impossibility like its being about everything. To complicate matters further, I sprinkle outlandish jargon here and there, like the novel being self-referential, reflexive or caught up in a narrative loop etc. Such exasperated responses, however, are reserved for some select members of the literary establishment, who either already know what the novel is all about or are never going to know. To my ‘pure readers’ I would rather offer, humbly, thinly disguised conceit: “Well, I have made a little effort to understand the totality of our collective experience as reflected in my personal experience.” So the illusion of Ghulam Bagh being about everything springs from my belief in the limitless textual and cognitive possibilities inherent in this wonderful genre of the novel.
Q: What has been the response to your novel? What are some of the strange things you have heard about it?
A: It has been pretty good, by local standards. I would say, the publication of the second edition within a short time, and my publisher’s aspiration to publish the third within this year, are markers enough to boost a writer’s optimism. But, yes, the response has been interesting and at times, what you would call strange as well. For one thing, the highest echelons of literature in Pakistan, institutions like the Pakistan Academy of Letters, completely ignored the Ghulam Bagh stuff. But that was interesting not strange; stranger perhaps, was the response of some young readers of my university and elsewhere, who were so infatuated by the world of the main characters of the novel that branding themselves as the “Ghulam Bagh Group,” they not-so-playfully adapted their names and identities, frequently quoted their dialogues, referred to situations [in the novel] or indulged in heated discussions on their alternative interpretations.
I continue to receive calls from young aspiring writers, mostly from smaller towns, who tell me that they, like the protagonist of the novel, have started a ‘blue register’ of their own to record their la likhaee (non-writings). I have strongly felt that the novel does have the potential to bring about a deeply transforming effect on some, let us say ‘vulnerable’ type of readers. As regards the response of the writer community, well, it ranges from honest critical appreciation to hushed indifference to the occasional barbed one-liners like ‘I hate all types of Baghs,’ ‘I would rather call it Kala Bagh’ or even unprintable stuff. But there is a certain degree of academic recognition as well.
An MPhil thesis has already been done on Ghulam Bagh at Faisalabad University. On a personal level, there has been a strange and disturbing response from some of my friends who have ended all contact with me after the publication of the novel.
Q: There is a labyrinth at the centre of your novel. Tell us about labyrinths — why are you interested in them?
A: Labyrinth is the ultimate metaphor for incarceration and a perpetual struggle to escape from it. I have been fascinated by it, as I am by many other Greek legends, since my childhood when I read the myth of Minotaur and, later, the spell on my imagination was further deepened when I read the works of Borges, the great Argentinean master of mirrors and labyrinths. So labyrinths had to find some place in my writings, sooner or later. I had once presented an idea for writing a TV play focusing on a labyrinth, but the idea was rejected because of the limitations of the set designing department.
Q: A recurring motif in the novel is that of aphrodisiacs. A secret club called Khassi Club also figures. How did these motifs find their way into your book?
A: You see, like labyrinths, the motif of aphrodisiacs has a primordial magical fascination for human beings, especially for the male — a panacea for eternal virility. It personifies the convergence point of the male sexuality and a lust for power.
Through this theme, as you might recall in the narrative of the novel, the intertwining trajectories of the sexual and the political dominance running through our history have been explored. The psychosomatic dynamism underlying the relationship between male sexuality and despotism has frequently been explored in fiction: in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch for instance, though rather indirectly. The dementia of the Khassi Club runs parallel to the paranoia of the elusive paranoid woman and the nurse with a deep-seated trauma of child abuse in her unconscious, and there the novel points to the labyrinthine depths of the female sexuality.
Q: Your hero struggles to write; in fact, somebody said that your novel is about the process of writing. Tell us about your own struggle to write.
A: That brings us back to some of the phrases which I used earlier as illustrations for bamboozling some of my non-readers; I mean the essential reflexivity inherent in the structure of the novel. Yes, in a very important sense it is about the process of writing as well and, especially the process of writing fiction, as epitomised in the sentence, “Fiction kai khaliq ko khuda bun’nein ka ikhtyar kis nein dia hai” (“Who has granted to the creator of fiction the right to be God”) reverberating throughout the fictional space of the novel. In fact, at this plane of the novel, the events become intra-textual and each linguistic catastrophe and wordplay experienced by the struggling writer/hero becomes an event in its own right.
This aspect of the novel has been ignored by some of the otherwise astute readers, who have been demanding that an abridged version of the book should be marketed: that would amount to the demise of the novel through the elimination of intra-textual events. If you allow me to dwell on this issue, even if at cost of running the risk of playing critic to my own work — a rather distasteful prospect — there are three types of events in Ghulam Bagh, textual in the usual sense, intra-textual as I have just explained, and inter-textual, not in the usual sense of referring to real books but to imaginary works. Urzal Nasloon ki Asaateer (The Legends of the Damned) by Gilbert Walton, exists nowhere of course. Through these literary tropes, I tried to synchronise the lurking sense of disaster in the unfolding of the events of the novel with the disaster which all the time prowls around language to dismantle it. I will take the liberty of quoting here from Maurice Blanchot, one of my great favourites. In his book, Writing of the Disaster, he says, “To write is perhaps to bring to the surface something like absent meaning, to welcome the passive pressure which is not yet what we call thought, for it is already the disastrous ruin of thought.”
My own struggle to write is no exception, [it is] a continuing story of the search for absent meaning and living with the premonition of disaster. But I should check here my narcissistic temptation to slip into the details of my understanding of fiction as a form of art. Perhaps, it would find its place in something I am working on in the perspective of the contemporary debates in Philosophy of Literature.
Q: You wrote quite a few teleplays before this novel. How different was the writing process?
A: I wrote some 100 odd plays, including around 15 serials. One big difference between literary writing and TV playwriting is the commercial factor. In order to be a successful and popular TV playwright, you should not only be a passable writer but more importantly, you should be a master craftsman in the fine art — or is it the performing art of PR? Unfortunately, I have always had and continue to have the worst possible PR. I have a special knack of annoying the people at the helm of affairs and of doing the right things at the wrong times and vice versa. So, my relationship with television writing has always been ambivalent at best or one of outright misery at worst. But then, when it comes down to picking up the pen and facing the blank paper, it is the same cerebral centre which starts functioning. You can’t allocate separate chambers of your mind, one for writing a literary piece and the other for scripting a commercial play. At least, I failed to do so.
Q: You have been teaching philosophy for several years now. How have your students changed over the years?
A: Teaching philosophy in Pakistan is a weird business, if you have any funny ideas about ‘love of wisdom’ and happen to be ‘love-sick’ yourself. The only factor which continued to save my vocation from degenerating to a mere nine-to-five job, were my students or, at least, a special breed of students who came to philosophy with, what I would call, a sense of original loss and a shudder of romanticism. Invariably, they exhibited a flair for literature as well; some of them are creative literary artists of some rank themselves now. I am lucky to have maintained my relationship with them, something that I value most in my life.
Q: Tell us about other Urdu novels or for that matter any other novels, that have inspired you.
A: Well, in Urdu the list would be too short — it’s hard to go beyond the works of Abdullah Hussein and Qurratulain Hyder. But in global literature, it would be too long: Russian, French and German modern classics, Joyce, Kundera, Blanchot of course, and Latin American masters. Recently, however, I have read Jose Saramago’s Blindness, which inspired me tremendously as a synthesis of an awesome thriller and a great work of literary art — a rare combination indeed.
Muhammad Ziauddin is one of the senior most journalists in Pakistan. His career in journalism spans over 50 years. He has been associated to Dawn, The News and Express Tribune. He regularly contributes to Newsline.