There was nothing I could do to make a difference: Raza Rabbani
Senate Chairman and veteran Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) politician Raza Rabbani has kept busy in and outside the Parliament. His book of short stories entitled ‘Invisible People’, which came out earlier this year, is his first shot at writing fiction. The Herald recently caught up with the constitutional expert to ask him what compelled him to tell these tales of destitution .
Mushtaq Bilal. Having had successful careers as a politician and a constitutional lawyer, what made you turn to fiction?
Raza Rabbani. What made me turn to fiction was this intense feeling of not being able to achieve, not being able to deliver. And this feeling became even more acute when I became chairman Senate. Prior to that, I had written, but those books were on the constitution and federalism. When I became chairman Senate I realised that even after becoming the chairman there was nothing tangible I could do to make a difference in the society. It was this frustration with not being able to deliver, coupled with an anger at my class of society, that made me write these stories.
Another reason could be that my parents taught me that every individual regardless of their financial status must be respected . When I was a kid I once addressed our servant a bit loudly and both my parents gave me such a dressing-down that I remember it to this day. They told me that regardless of the fact that the man was working as a servant he was still respectable . They told me he was as respectable an individual as they were.
And when I joined politics I didn’t have any silver spoon. I had to work my way from an ordinary political worker to where I am today. That included running [to catch] buses, pasting fliers [on the walls] and laying darees (cotton rugs) for [public meetings]. Then during the two-and-a-half years that I spent in jail, I got to meet a wide cross-section of Pakistanis. I would say the jail afforded me the unique privilege of interacting with the real Pakistan. The Pakistani elite calls itself Pakistan but it is actually not.
I think these were some of the factors that led me to these stories and I really had to make no effort because I felt the characters were holding my hand and taking me along. The personal, emotional lives of people like these characters are never visible to us. There is a story in the book about how a labourer falls in love with a woman. Similarly, there is a story about a poor boy who stands in front of a school every day and watches a particular girl going to and from school. There was no conscious effort on my part to create such characters.
I think during Zia’s regime the state had realised that the movement against Ayub was to a great extent spurred by the writings of Jalib and Faiz.
Bilal. How has the experience of writing fiction been for you?
Rabbani. It has been very fulfilling. The book has not broken any records in terms of sales, but the kind of feedback I have received from the people who have read the book is very fulfilling. Some readers told me they felt like crying after reading the stories.
A young girl who had attended a grammar school and had come from Dubai told me that after reading the story of that boy who stands outside the school she realised that there used to a number of kids like that boy who would stand outside her school looking for odd jobs like cleaning a car. She said she had never thought of the personal life of that boy. I don’t expect my book to create the slightest of ripples in our society. That said, even if only a few privileged people in our society read the book and it creates even a shade of empathy in them, I would be satisfied.
Bilal. As a writer of fiction, and not as a lawyer or a politician, you feel a certain moral obligation …
Rabbani. Yes, I do. I feel that I owe it to the society because it has given me so much and I must pay back in whatever way I can. Perhaps I have not been able to do so as a politician, as a lawyer, as a senator. Through the medium of fiction, I might be able to pay a fraction of what I owe to the society.
Bilal. You have talked about a certain social class which is educated and privileged. Was this the reason you chose to write in English and not Urdu?
Rabbani. No, this is not the reason I have written the book in English. Frankly, I would have preferred to write it in Urdu. But unfortunately my written expression in Urdu is not very good. I received my early education in England and then in America. So when I came back to Pakistan my Urdu was not very good. I would have liked to have written in Urdu because then I would have been able to reach a much wider audience. But my incapacity to express myself in written Urdu was one of the major constraints.
Bilal. I asked about writing in English because when a Pakistani writer chooses to write fiction in English a lot of people here in Pakistan assume the writer is writing for the West.
Rabbani. I have not written the book for a Western audience. I wrote this book for a Pakistani audience. This kind of book would probably find no audience in the West because they are not interested in what the internal contradictions of the Pakistani society are.
Bilal. Urdu is considered the ‘national language’ of Pakistan but if we look at our history the nationalisation of Urdu had produced very divisive politics in our region. Even Jinnah proclaimed, in 1947, that Urdu alone was the national language of Pakistan and disregarded approximately half the population of the country that spoke Bengali.
Rabbani. You are absolutely right. The very first point of order raised in the constituent assembly was about language. Urdu was declared the national language but there were people who said at the time that since Bengali was the language of the majority of the people it should also be given the status of a national language. Language riots started soon after.
Of late, the situation has improved a little but until very recently the conflict between Punjab and the smaller provinces was embedded in language politics. If Sindhis or [the Baloch] or [Pakhtuns] said they wanted their mother tongue as mediums of instruction in their schools they were told by the state that they were trying to break up Pakistan. If someone voiced concerns about using their mother tongue they were told they were trying to divide Pakistan.
The Pakistani state has failed to understand that unity is born out of diversity. The crisis Pakistan is in is a crisis of identity. Pakistan has not been able to find its identity. We are still a rudderless ship. There is an attempt to create a Pakistani identity by, for example, making the sherwani the national dress. But the sherwani is not my national dress.
The sherwani is worn neither in Punjab nor in Sindh. The state has been trying to foist a national culture and has incorporated various elements of Arab culture in that. But Arab culture is not my culture. What the state did not allow deliberately was the flowering of local, indigenous cultures of Pakistan. Had the state allowed that to happen all these indigenous cultures would have over time synthesised into an organic Pakistani culture. That organic growth was stemmed by the state deliberately.
Bilal. The state also used Urdu literature as propaganda …
Rabbani. Yes, initially Urdu literature was used as propaganda but when Ziaul Haq came into power the state deliberately decided to wipe out literature completely.
Bilal. But long before Ziaul Haq came into power there were people like Qudratullah Shahab who were appropriating writers during the 1960s.
Rabbani. During Ayub Khan’s time they were only appropriating writers, but when Ziaul Haq came to power he totally obliterated the enterprise of literary production. I think during Zia’s regime the state had realised that the movement against Ayub was to a great extent spurred by the writings of Habib Jalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The other two instruments of resistance that the state muzzled were trade unions and student unions, which were completely banned. The state came down very hard on all three of these instruments of resistance.
These days we often talk about the lack of a narrative to counter the curse of terrorism. This is because the culture of debate that generates a spirit of questioning has not been allowed to develop in Pakistan. Had the state allowed that culture of debate to flourish, over time the debates would have synthesised into an inclusive worldview and that worldview would have automatically created a counter-narrative. We used to have a counter narrative once, but the state and the ruling elite deliberately muzzled it in order to consolidate their power and position.
Bilal. Coming back to your book, reading through your stories, one feels that your poor characters do not have a lot of agency. They don’t act and only let things happen to them.
Rabbani. The stories are based on my observations of these characters. People like these characters do not have any control over anything in the society. It isn’t that I have created them as helpless. If you look at these people you will realise that they are indeed helpless. The first story in the book is about an old woman [who] keeps asking, Are you the magistrate? Are you the law? Whenever I go to the city courts I run into people like her. I think people like my characters have no control over their circumstances.
Bilal. What are your literary influences?
Rabbani. I don’t think of myself as a very literary person. But when I was a student my mother prepared a reading list for me. My mother made sure I read all those books. So I developed a reading habit very early in my life. But I am not a man of letters.
This book of stories is an expression of my inner self. What I felt, what I experienced, what I saw over the course of my life, the book is a reflection of that. I won’t make any claims that I have become a fiction writer. I have only penned down something which was in me and I wanted to share.
Bilal. Let me rephrase my question: which writer(s) inspired you to write?
Rabbani. Well, in that sense, I think Charles Dickens inspired me a lot. Closer to home, I found Faiz sahib and Habib Jalib very inspiring.
Bilal. How do you foresee the relationship between literature and politics, especially in a country such as ours where Urdu literature, in particular, has been used as a tool for indoctrinating the society?
Rabbani. I am not very optimistic. You can virtually count on your fingertips politicians who have written. Aitzaz Ahsan has written a book and is also a practicing politician.
Literature can also express the depravity that is present in a society. I think literature and social justice to a great extent are interlinked
Looking at the contemporary literary landscape I think our literature is once again at a very nascent stage. We have not produced anyone after Faiz, Jalib, Jaun Elia who is in any way near [their literary genius]. So these great men of letters are going away and there are no replacements.
The priorities of our political class have been so warped that barring one or two politicians, not many politicians are inclined towards reading or writing. And then we have become a hugely materialistic society. We don’t touch anything that doesn’t ensure a healthy profit. Our aesthetic sense has died unfortunately.
Bilal. You have talked about social justice and it shows in your stories too. Do you think there is any relationship between literature and social justice?
Rabbani. Yes, there is. I think there is a very close relationship between literature and social justice because literature is a mode of expression for social justice. Literature can also express the depravity that is present in a society. I think literature and social justice to a great extent are interlinked.
Bilal. Do you think our literature has the potential to create a counter-narrative in the near future?
Rabbani. I think it can. And it will if it is allowed to flourish. But there is a caveat. It has to be allowed to develop on its own. If we try and create literature in an incubator we are heading for disaster. I am very optimistic. Pakistan is a land of saints with a very rich culture and history and if we let our culture and traditions take their natural course it will convert this entire strife-ridden society into a peaceful haven.
Mushtaq Bilal is the author of ‘Writing Pakistan: Conversations on Identity, Nationhood and Fiction’.