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Our ‘Renaissance class’

You, probably, have never heard the name Qamar Yourish. When he lived amidst poverty-stricken people on the streets of old Lahore, the rich culture of which inspires you to write, you did not notice his presence. When he got arrested during Ayub Khan’s martial law, you had no idea how tough it could be to fight against military dictatorship. When he was writing books with a piece of coal, locked up in the inhuman cells of Lahore fort, you were probably chanting the slogans of democracy in the posh streets of Great Britain.

He continued to write for and about people, in the language of the people. You never read those stories, which reflected the struggle of blood-spitting tuberculous workers. And one day, he died. Silently, while living in the office of the Labour Party Pakistan, the old man breathed his last and closed his eyes; the eyes, which dreamt of an unseen dawn, reflected hope till the last moment. It didn’t make any difference to you. You were not there when he was buried, covered in a red flag. Your prestigious dailies remained silent, as if he never existed.

With neither property nor family, he left nothing behind except dozens of published books and a pile of unpublished writings. During his lifetime, Faiz and Qasmi wrote about his short stories. Saghar Siddiqui wrote a poem dedicated to Yourish.

Ustad Daman remained fond of his vibrant role in creating people’s literature. Alas, you don’t know these people either.Except, Faiz of course, thanks to his well-planned liberalisation, but that’s another story. It’s not completely your fault though. How can you know someone whose protagonists are people who work in your factories and toil on your lands; how can you know someone whose cause greatly differs from that of yours? What he contributed to literature and what his literature contributed to people is an untold story which will remain untold.

Poor man. He didn’t understand that nobody had time for such stories in this century and that his ideas were from the last century, which lost meaning with the crumbling of the very first brick in the Berlin Wall. He continued to write without realising that there were no festivals to celebrate authors like him; there was no state to acknowledge his importance.

Our state only regards those thinkers who serve it well. Our celebrity intellectuals endorse minds that hail from their own class. And, if nothing else, one at least needs to have thousands of followers online in order to be seen as an author worth reading. Poor man; he died, without even knowing the ‘revolutionary wonders’ of the social media.

Looking at the list of the participants of the recently held Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) and the upcoming Lahore Literature Festival (LLF), I wonder how many of them have anything to do with literature. With the exception of a very few people, who have sweated blood while writing, these events are overwhelmingly dominated by those who have absolutely nothing to do with literature. It seems that entrepreneurs, development professionals, environmentalists, corporate tycoons and the media elite have gathered to celebrate literature!

It’s great if you’re an entrepreneur and believe in ‘decent capitalism,’ if you’re a development professional and advocate for ‘micro-empowerment,’ if your cult song has gone ‘viral’ on the internet, if you’re a ‘postmodern artist’ or if you’re an ‘apolitical rights activist.’ However, please refrain from calling yourself a literary figure. Isn’t it a matter of shame that out of the almost 60 participants of LLF, there are only two Urdu poets and three Urdu prose writers? It won’t be an exaggeration to call it a party with the theme of intellectual elitism where all participants are supposed to praise each other.

And it’s certainly not only about KLF or LLF. Be it a human-rights seminar or a social media conference, a policymaking session or an art festival, a literary journal or an English daily, the same gratified faces are seen everywhere. They speak a similar language of ‘cooperation,’ ‘pluralism,’ ‘sustainable development’ and ‘conflict-resolution.’ While doing so, they intentionally avoid essential conflicts which exist in a society like ours.

They, collectively, love to be known as the ‘civil society’ and suffer from a delusion of being the Renaissance class of Pakistan. However, the reality contrasts with their self-image. They position themselves as the vanguard of the society, operating in the interstices of the ‘global economy,’ striving to resolve the ‘internal conflicts’ and struggling to ‘revive the culture.’

They maintain their apolitical identity, while defending the political interests of one class – their own class. They do not necessarily agree with each other on all issues, and sometimes differ radically on several matters; for instance, the war on terror. However, when it comes to their mutual interest – the benefit of their class – their comradeship is like no other. Despite their differences, they typically agree that the questions of class division and class struggle are outdated in today’s world, while class interest remains the real motive behind their ambiguous efforts for ‘saving democracy.’

In short, they’re the neoliberals, hiding behind progressive personas. It doesn’t mean that they don’t write, or express themselves through other mediums, about poverty and other social inequities; it only means that such conditions provide them with a lucrative commodity, which sells well in western markets.

Yourish is no more. But one needs to visit the working-class baithaks to meet thousands of others like him. They must be celebrated, for not only the honesty of their content but also the mastery of their form, before they too get executed on the dark highways. The rebellious caravan of these selfless authors continues to write for the greater cause of the people, no matter how obsolete you think it is. The echoes of their anthems are relevant today and they will be relevant until the complete liberation of literature itself.

The writer is a documentary filmmaker. Email: ammar.azziz@gmail.com; Twitter @ammar_aziz

Ammar Aziz, "Our ‘Renaissance class’," The News. 2013-02-21.