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Senate chairman Raza Rabbani speaks at an event | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
Senate chairman Raza Rabbani speaks at an event | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

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.

Two lieutenants of prime minister Yousuf Raza Gillani and Raza Rabbani (centre) | White Star
Two lieutenants of prime minister Yousuf Raza Gillani and Raza Rabbani (centre) | White Star

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’.

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Comments (14) Closed

Copper Mar 14, 2017 02:59pm

Its incorrect Raza Rabbani is new to fiction..all those PPP promises in passed are proved to be fiction too. He being senior most leader never objected to rampant corruption which deprived people from their basic rights

ali shah Mar 14, 2017 03:00pm

He is undoubtedly on of the great politicians of Pakistan having high considerable intellect.

KARACHI WALA Mar 14, 2017 03:27pm

Refreshing to know the other Raza Rabbani. Thanks Mushtaq Bilal.

MAT Mar 14, 2017 06:39pm

He discovered the 'real Pakistan' in jail. What a discovery!!!

He wrote his book in the English language because his urdu is not good enough. That is because his early education was in England and the US! Wonderful logic! He claims he has written his book for the Pakistani audience, not for readers in the West. Well, he will not find many readers in Pakistan also except the fringe that has lived in English speaking countries. On top of it all, he claims people cried after reading his stories.

He seems right only about the Sherwani and the way Urdu was imposed.

No time for his politics!

javed Qamer USA Mar 14, 2017 07:00pm

Raza Rabbani did not do anything for the masses while the PP was in power. There is not a single instance when he stood up against the policies of PPP against the people of pakistan. Now he realizes time is close for him to depart to another world and his conscience has come out.

Imtiaz Mar 14, 2017 11:03pm

The 18 constitutional amendment that made Pakistan the only country in the world out of 199 countries without central health, education, labour, agriculture etc. ministries can hardly be called an achievement. A weak, hollow federal structure will cause more problems than solve them. And we have RR to thank us for this.

Paravez Mar 14, 2017 11:23pm

Where there's a will, there's a way ........ Mr. Rabbani being in a position of power, just does not have the will ....but at least his conscience is pricking him.

Akram Mar 14, 2017 11:28pm

@MAT he did not study in the US or the UK.

shahid Mar 14, 2017 11:58pm

So unfortunate that Pakistan is led by people such as Raza Rabbani. The shallowness of his thoughts and ideas is pretty obvious. That he could not write his book in Urdu is proof enough how deeply rooted and linked he and others of his ilk are to the former and present colonial masters. To expect anything independent from people such as him is really absurd. A tru "His Masters's Voice" ...

WASEB Mar 15, 2017 10:34am

Slaves-like life of the people of south punjab is always a question for the gentleman. During 18th Amendment, 'why did PPP ignore constitutional enablers for new provinces of the oppressed regions (especially for the Bhutto-loving Saraikis)', the gentleman has to answer.

ag Mar 15, 2017 08:28pm

You always have choice, if you think you can't do anything then you can resign. If you can't? Then you are part of the problem too

MUHAMMAD KAUKAB Mar 16, 2017 12:22am

Rabbani Saheb you are right U cant do anything until u abolish the feudal system in Pakistan

ViJay b. Mar 17, 2017 12:42pm

If his book is really worthwhile, it can be easily translated in to Urdu or any other language for that matter. I fail to see the problem.

Mustafa R. Mar 18, 2017 11:10pm

Did he ever question Zardari as to under what 'Law' have his children been accompanying him on foreign trips as the President of Pakistan.