People & society

I was not influenced by any local writers: Mirza Athar Baig

Published Jul 17, 2017 03:42am

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Photo by M.Arif, White Star
Photo by M.Arif, White Star

The first thing you notice about Mirza Athar Baig is his detached way of interacting with the world, as if the world were a philosophical problem which needed to be probed with a long-handled fireplace poker.

I arrive at his residence in a gated community on the southern outskirts of Lahore. After he opens the gate, I share my assumption with him that he has bought this residence after selling an older one in Lahore's Samanabad neighbourhood. He immediately corrects me, by first telling me that he has never owned a house – not even the one in Samanabad, a lower middle-class locality in central Lahore – and then by calling the idea of building or owning a house a fazool kaam (a senseless act).

There are always people who are happy with building and owning houses; let them be happy with this, he tells me, and let writers, artists and thinkers just rent a decent place and get on with their work.

This is how begins a conversation with a man of ideas, a writer of gargantuan novels, a teacher of creative writing, a professor of philosophy and a man of Renaissance habits, living in the postmodern age.

Born in March 1950 at Sharaqpur, a town some 35 kilometres west of Lahore, Baig retired in 2010 as the chairman of the philosophy department at Government College University, Lahore. His first novel, Ghulam Bagh, was published in 2006. His second novel, Sifar Se Aik Tak, came out in 2009 and the third, Hassan Ki Surat-e-Haal: Khali Jaghain Pur Karo, in 2014. Bay Afsana, a collection of his short stories, was published in 2008.

Baig has also written around 15 multi-episode television drama serials (including Doosra Asman, Daldal, Hisaar, Pataal, Nashaib, Yeh Azaad Log, Gehray Paani and Khwaab Tamasha). In addition, he has written more than 50 single-episode plays for television.

The following interview documents what Baig has to say about his life, his craft and the world around him.

Saeed Ur Rehman. How did you become interested in ideas?

Mirza Athar Baig. It began with science. We used to live in Sharaqpur, where my father was a schoolteacher and I was a student — I am talking about the early 1960s. We were both at this pilot school, which had received an astronomical telescope donated by the American government.

Somehow, my father, who was a language teacher by profession, learnt to operate that telescope and got to see the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. It was a big event in that little town. In the same manner, we laid our hands on a microscope. My father would sometimes even bring the microscope home. That started my immense interest in the natural world, the observable universe, and how science could give us a new way of looking at things.

My mother was also a schoolteacher, so our house was full of books. You could find all kinds of literary volumes scattered around the house. The summer break was a time to worm through heaps of story books.

Combine all these things with my father's Sufistic outlook on life, which is basically a very forgiving, non-guilt producing way of looking at human affairs.

Rehman. From being a student of science, how did you become a serious student of philosophy?

Baig. When I started my pre-engineering studies at the intermediate level at Government College, Lahore, I realised that my classmates were only interested in engineering at a very superficial level They were not concerned with the sense of wonder that makes you ponder over the nature of existence.

Photo by M.Arif. White Star
Photo by M.Arif. White Star

They were only studying different subjects to get good grades and even the teachers were not trying to inculcate [in students] any such sense of wonder. In those days, I somehow got hold of The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature by [American psychologist and philosopher] William James. That was my introduction to philosophical writing in English. With this book, I moved away from the world of officially prescribed books.

Rehman. What were some of your early intellectual influences?

Baig. In those days, Marxism and existentialism were the most influential schools of thought and I was influenced by them. I had read my share of [writers such as French author] Andre Gide, [French theorist] Maurice Blanchot, [Argentine fiction writer] Jorge Luis Borges, [French literary figure] Georges Bataille and [Russian novelist] Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

I was not influenced by any local writers. The only Urdu writer who I read seriously is [humourist] Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi. My first short story [was] Sou Pehla Din Hua. Its title was influenced by the Bible's Book of Genesis. When I presented it during a meeting of Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq in 1972 at the Pak Tea House [in Lahore] it was so different that it shocked the audience. They thought that I was carving my own path away from all the traditions of writing in Urdu.

Rehman. What Is the main problem that you are trying to address in your writing? Why do you write?

Baig. The desire to write itself is a problem which just springs up in some people. It does not have a purpose and is not a way to [find] any specific solution to anything. There are no sociopolitical things that can turn someone into a writer. And that is all there is to it. When you have this desire to write, you have to yield to it or try to resolve it in some sense.

Rehman. How was Ghulam Bagh received being such an overwhelming novel in its size and scale?

Baig. So far, it has gone through five editions, which means 5,000 copies have been sold. It is a very good figure for a novel that has a daunting thickness and contains philosophical debates. I still do not think of myself as a popular writer in the sense that some others are.

Rehman. Perhaps you should not even compare yourself with them.

Baig. Yes, my writing is conceptual I think I have not written any drama, novel or short story to appeal to the lay reader. My writings are not 'spicy'. It was perhaps a mistake that I was writing for television and still debating highbrow ideas in my dramas.

I think if I imitate other writers just to become popular, I will not be able to copy them very well and I will also lose my identity. Therefore, I have decided to stick to my own obsessions and concerns. As they say, a crow should not try to walk like a swan.

Rehman. What are your main philosophical concerns in Ghulam Bagh?

Baig. It is about the condition of dominance. It tries to deal with all aspects of dominance — be they interpersonal, intrapersonal or inter-civilisational. You can even say it is about our postcolonial condition.

Ghulam Bagh was an attempt to synthesise everything I have felt about this region [of which Pakistan is a part], at this moment of history. I have tried to capture the ethos of the ordinary person of this region, of someone who can both feel and imagine. The main character of the novel is a failed fiction writer. It is about his defeat and the defeat of this region in dealing with so many things. At some level, when [I am writing] about a failed fiction writer, [I am] writing about writing. [It becomes] a certain type of metafiction.

All of my novels try to grapple with some conceptual problem. I try to deal with that concern in a fictional space-time. I make my characters wrestle with that philosophical problem. That [struggle] generates the texts of my novels. The characters are the agents which act out the main issue I am trying to explore.

I think I cannot get rid of my habit of being hyper-reflexive about everything. It is in all of my stories. I keep prying open the layers of different ideas in my fiction. It is [there] in Ghulam Bagh and in Hassan Ki Surat-e-Haal. This reflexivity is perhaps not that pronounced in Sifar Se Aik Tak. It is quite prominent in my collection of stories.

Rehman. What is the result of your exploration into the condition of dominance?

Baig. I am not sure if we can answer this question: what could have been there if no civilisation had dominated this culture? I think history is not about the possible scenarios. We have to deal with what has happened. I think the local [cultural] processes are still trying to deal with modernity. There are some strains [in our culture] which are suspended now. Our acceptance of modernity has been only imitative and superficial. We are now neither with tradition nor with modernity.

Rehman: We can say that about any civilisational encounter. We can say that about the arrival of the Arabs in South Asia, about the arrival of the Mughals in South Asia ...

Baig. Yes. We can. These encounters are entirely different [from our encounter with the West] and very complex historical processes. These encounters have also produced an inferiority complex in our civilisation. We are not organically connected to any dominant civilisation.

Rehman. What are your writing techniques? Do you have any particular methodology that informs your writing process?

Baig. I find novel writing as a way of doing philosophy. There are many ways of doing philosophy, but I find writing fiction as my favourite way. [This is] because the novel as a genre is very similar to life.

Rehman. What is the origin or the rationale for the postmodern devices in your fiction? For example in Hassan Ki Surat-e-Haal you have written at the start of a chapter that those readers who do not like complex philosophical discussions can skip it.

Baig. I mean it.

Rehman. If a reader skips that chapter, will he or she still enjoy the complete story?

Baig. Yes. Absolutely.

Photo by M.Arif, White Star
Photo by M.Arif, White Star

Rehman: You are doing something that [American writer] Dave Eggers has done in [his 2000 novel] A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. He also gives directions to readers on which parts of his book can be skipped.

Baig. I have also introduced a character who actually functions like an editor in the narrative. Hopscotch [a 1963 novel by Argentine writer Julio Cortazar] uses similar devices. [Chilean novelist] Roberto Bolafio has also done similar things. The problem is [that] I am trying to do these things in Urdu. But, slowly, I have gotten a steady stream of readers. Perhaps it is because I try to maintain the readability of the story.

Rehman. How do you deal with contemporary political and social issues in your writing?

Baig. First of all, I want to say that a writer should not even think of being a reformer. I have a certain [political and social] viewpoint underlying all of my writings. It is, however, not a prescription for the reader [to address his social and political problems].

I do not have any prescription for anyone. I am self-referential in the sense that my writing is about writing. That is my perennial obsession. I want to find the impossible. I want to try and see if the unsaid can be turned into the said. I do not draw [my stories] from real-life experiences. I become afraid of using real life experiences in case I make people vulnerable by revealing their identities. Therefore, all my fictional characters are the creations of my own imagination.

Rehman. You have written a lot for television which is nothing if it is not about real-life characters. How did you address that in your television dramas?

Baig. I originally just started with reading my short stories at the Pak Tea House [in the early 1970s]. It was in those years that I met Arif Waqar. He had been my friend in high school days and then we lost contact. When we met again, he was a producer at PTV [Pakistan Television]. We instantly bonded, as a writer and a producer, and I still cherish his friendship. Arif took me to the PTV station in Lahore and I started writing for television in those days of black-and-white television.

The first drama that I wrote was titled Wajood Barabar Hay Manfi Aik Ka Jazr. All my years of studying philosophy and literature were reflected in this play. It was a drama of 25 minutes about a young philosopher and an anthropologist and, I think, a poet.

Rehman. Can we say that it was Ghulam Bagh in the making?

Baig. No, it was a very short play about the square root of imaginary numbers, an impossibility in mathematics. In those days, it was possible to write plays about these things. It was an era before television producers became obsessed with advertisers and ratings. I kept on writing plays like this. It was interrupted for a while when I went to Pind Dadan Khan [to teach at a college there], but I resumed it when I returned to Lahore.

Rehman. Do you have any records of those plays?

Baig. There are only some left. There are no archives [of most] of these plays. The situation is so bad at PTV that I cannot even find my scripts.

Rehman. So there is no evidence of your television writing left?

Baig. No, [although] I have some copies of some of the scripts with me.

Rehman. If you were going to lose most of that work, perhaps you should have written only novels instead of those television plays.

Baig. Yes. I have been thinking about that. In those days, I needed extra money that writing for television brought me. But now when there are [almost] no records left, I feel I should have written novels. At least novels survive in the form of physical books. I feel every serial was a complete novel and every single drama was a short story. I have another regret: people believe writing done for television is not literature.

Rehman. But people read screenplays.

Baig. Yes. But that is done only in film schools.

Rehman. Films are novelised too.

Baig. Novelisation means that a film's screenplay is not something that the public wants to read.

Rehman. But people read theatre scripts.

Baig. Yes. Absolutely. Theatre is literature. A film's screenplay is not literature in that sense. Plays written to be performed on stage have been [considered] literature — from Aeschylus to Edward Albee. [There is] no doubt about that. A work written on paper to be turned into a film somehow does not become literature.

Photo by Tahir Jamal, White Star
Photo by Tahir Jamal, White Star

People have got their television dramas published. For example, you can [find dramas written by] Ashfaq Ahmed and Bano Qudsia [at bookstores]. I am not convinced that what is written for television should be published in a book format.

Rehman. How did you get out of the rut of writing television plays?

Baig. After writing Daldal, a television serial, I started writing Ghulam Bagh in the 1980s. I kept writing it for years. But I was also writing for television while I was writing this novel. Then there came a point when I decided to stop writing for television.

Rehman. So you gave up writing for television altogether and devoted yourself exclusively to writing novels.

Baig. No. Not entirely. There are some interesting incidents that happened along the way. In 1997, when Pakistan was celebrating its 50th year of independence, I was approached by PTV's Lahore station to write a drama serial for the celebrations. I went to the television station and asked why they thought I was a suitable writer for such a celebratory act. They said that they had initially approached Ahmed but he had recommended my name and had promised to guide me if I ran into any ideological quandary.

When I met him, he told me he would guide me to the right direction, if the need arose. I wrote a serial, titled Yeh Azaad Log. It was to be produced by Rashid Dar, a person who never altered a writer's script. But I was waiting for some sort of intervention from Ahmed. He just simply did not bother me. Even when I tried to contact him on the phone, he did not respond. I have a theory about this episode — that in his heart of hearts, Ahmed was a very emancipated and free person who had somehow taken up the garb of Sufism under some kind of compulsion. I do not know what else to say about this interaction with him.

Rehman. What do you plan to do with your writing for television?

Baig. I plan to turn some of the television plays into novels and stage plays.

Rehman. Other than being a writer, you have been a teacher of philosophy for more than 35 years now. How did that come about?

Baig. After doing my BSc, I took an additional exam in philosophy and then did an MA in philosophy as an external/private candidate. Then I applied for a position as a lecturer of philosophy with the department of education. There was only one position available. Many candidates from the Punjab University and Government College, Lahore, who had formally studied philosophy, were competing for the post.

I had [entered the selection process] as a private candidate and did not have high hopes — but I got selected. The education department gave me the choice of three locations where I could be posted. I could go to Nara Kanjoor [in Attock district], Kallar Syedan [in Rawalpindi district] or Pind Dadan Khan [in Jhelum district]. I opted for Al-Beruni Government College, Pind Dadan Khan.

In those days, there was no motorway. You had to go [from Lahore] to Kharian and then travel left into the Salt Range, through a dusty plateau. The college was right next to Khewra Salt Mines. I did not find anyone willing to study philosophy in that college. In bureaucratic documents, I was a lecturer of philosophy at a degree college in Pind Dadan Khan but, in real life,

I did not have a subject or students [to teach]. I spent almost three years there, trying in vain to get a class of philosophy going. There was not much to do in the evenings. I explored the salt range and lived in the hostel attached to the college. Then I got myself transferred to Government College and I am still teaching there, even after my retirement. I taught creative writing at an elite institution for a while, too.

Rehman. How was the experience of teaching creative writing?

Baig. My students, who belonged to a certain class, were highly motivated as far as grades and achievements were concerned — and, that too, in a very narrow sense. Of course, those students were selected because of their higher scholastic achievements and they could demonstrate this cognitive advantage in their academic performance. But when you teach creative writing, you expect students to be creative. I felt that element was rare even in otherwise high-achieving students.

Rehman. Do you think this, in a sense, is the fault of the present higher education system in the country?

Baig. The system that we have now has been imported from a civilisation where it has a long history of institutional evolution. Here, it has become a game of numbers. You need this many publications to become an associate professor and this many to get the rank of a professor. An unintended consequence of this insistence on research is that teaching is now looked at as a degraded activity, as if research were the only function of higher education. I think research should have evolved as a deep-rooted need for society and not as a forced participation in the global academic culture.

Rehman. Living a semi-retired life, do you think that there are things that you still want to do in the future?

Baig. There are many things to be done. I am thinking of writing stage plays now, which, I hope, will be performed . I am also working on more than one book at the same time. One is 350 pages long. I have 100 pages of another book done. I have also started writing a novel, which I had abandoned earlier.

Rehman. Should your readers expect to get your new works in a couple of years?

Baig I do not know if I can promise anything at this moment. Maybe I should concentrate on only one book and complete it first. But something should be published soon. I am juggling too many projects at this moment. I am in a very strange situation. There was a moment when I thought I could handle all of those projects.

Rehman. By virtue of being in the middle of so much fiction writing, do you think you spend more time in the fictional world of your own creation than in the everyday world around you?

Baig. Yes. When I finish a novel and leave its fictional world behind, there is a very strong emotional shock that I feel. Sometimes, I emotionally collapse after finishing a work of fiction. That is why I now live in two or three different fictional worlds at the same time. I cannot leave these worlds. But that [also] means I cannot fully inhabit one fictional world and complete its story with devotion. Let us see what happens to me as I travel between this [world] and the worlds of my imagination.


This was originally published in the Herald's December 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer has a PhD in postcolonial theory from Australian National University and has been a postcolonial fellow at the Centre of Modern Oriental Studies, Berlin.