Ali Akbar Natiq
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January 15, 2015
Ali Akbar Natiq is the powerful new voice from Pakistan. A trenchant critic of religious heads, he is also a mason who makes exquisite mosques
There are writers whose imagination is rooted in a landscape, who take sustenance from the everyday evils and the rare benedictions of a place, who keep watching the colour of its soil and the bend in the river for signs. That kind of literary mapping can provide some extraordinary images, stunning because of the acuity of vision. Ali Akbar Natiq, the 37-year-old who is the powerful new voice from Pakistan, writes about the villages and small towns of his Punjab. "I just have to write about my Punjab; there is no getting away. I have shaped my stories from its earth, the tints of the land, its rivers, its people. They have become a part of me," he says over the phone from Islamabad where he lives now. But every month, there is a homecoming, when he returns to Okara in Punjab.
When Natiq talks about Punjab in Urdu that a non-speaker can only be mesmerised by, can only call mellifluous, you would be forgiven for thinking that he is composing nazms on the spot. You will also be forgiven for thinking that his stories- which are translated from Urdu to English by Faiz Ahmed Faiz's grandson Ali Madeeh Hashmi-will romanticise rural Punjab. Instead, he talks about the violence embedded there, about a village who drives a man mad and the floods that drown that land ('Qaim Deen'), the pir with his hunting dogs ('Shahabu's Premonition'), the maulvi who curses a boy ('The Maulvi's Miracle'), the Sunnis who hound out a Shia ('The Guardian'), the beautiful Kareeman who is almost buried alive ('Jodhpur's End'). His stories create the atmosphere of a fable, but through it you see the darkest of deeds being committed. The craft of his writing is only matched by the irreverence in his stories for religious heads.
Pakistani writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi says that "Natiq's best works read like folk myths". He says. "Natiq's short story collection displays a command over his subject, and that increasingly rare quality of storytelling which distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries. His writings can be compared with the best of Abul Fazal Siddiqi and Syed Muhammad Ashraf, two master storytellers who also often set their stories in the rural background." Natiq's own story is of meteoric rise and of marvellous contradictions.
His ancestors travelled an arc of migration: from Faizabad near Lucknow to Ferozepur in Punjab at the turn of the 20th century and then to Okara in Pakistan after Partition. "As a child, I used to snuggle up to my grandmother and listen to her stories of her Punjab in India," he says, "I could never find any difference between her Punjab and my Punjab."
His father was a daily-wage labourer and when his family could not make ends meet he started working. He was just 15. He began to live a dual existence: working as a mason and then reading and writing voraciously. "I started reading the Arabic books my father had brought from Iraq and Kuwait where he went on work," he says. Reading took hold of him, it was like a mainline: he would open a window and raid the school library at night until there was nothing left for him to read there. He would take books to the market or to the mosques where he worked and read on the sly. "I could not live without books," he says. People started calling him Momeen, after the village idiot.
There was something else that people recognised. Natiq was a skilled artisan when it came to building domes, minarets and mosques. Nothing could go wrong with a line if Ali drew it, they said. He was not just drawing the arcs and plans of mosques, he was also writing lines that could not go wrong-poetry and prose, both. He studied privately and got a master's degree from Multan's Bahauddin Zakariya University. The artisan became a published author only when he decided to step out of his village and go to Islamabad, the city that would eventually recognise him but where he would also be hounded for his writings. "I was called a RAW agent, that I was anti-Pakistan," he says. His hands create the most exquisite mosques but his writings unravel the everyday atrocities committed in the name of religion. Our mullahs and pirs and pundits have created divisions in society, and they themselves have become powerful, he says. "I will continue to write against them."
A Mason's Hand, which Mohammed Hanif translated into English and was featured in the Granta magazine's New Voice section in 2011, is about a worker who wanders in Saudi Arabia for a job. Weak and starving, he steals a rich Arab's shoes for his bleeding feet. Under the Shariah law, the expert mason's hands get chopped. That story is the most subtle indictment of orthodox Islamic punishments. Elsewhere, the cruelty ingrained in class divisions and religious differences is raw, like the bleeding maw of Pir Mast's hunting dogs.
Natiq is remarkably nonchalant about the anointment by Granta. "I have been publishing stories and poems but I never realised that it could be so precious, a privilege. I was happy that my name was recognised but I want my writing to remain above it. I don't worry about whether people will like what I write," he says.
He is also caustic about the celebration of Pakistani writers in English, whether it is Kamila Shamsie or Mohsin Hamid, by India and the West. "They belong to an English-speaking, elite class. They mostly live outside Pakistan or in air-conditioned rooms and are unaware of the realities of this land," he says, raising questions about who is the real narrator of a country, whether one has to hold a passport or establish a domicile to be recognised as one.
He wants Urdu writers to be read and recognised. That could happen soon. After Intizar Husain's stories, Ikramullah's Regret and Natiq's own debut novel Naulakhi Kothi, which was published in 2014, will be translated into English and published in India. They could show the other side of the moon.