‘Chinese literature is one of the oldest literatures’

Q: What are you currently reading?


A: I am reading Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday. He is an anthropologist. I also liked his Guns, Germs and Steel, which is also a classic. In fact, I once told former president Gen Musharraf that that book should be compulsory reading in all military institutions.

It is an anthropological study and looks into how the development and ascendance of societies and their dominance is linked to the trajectory of technological developments.

He starts with the question of why the Europeans conquered the Americas and not the other way around. He explains that science and technology underpin the power and primacy of nations.

And I agree, because since the Industrial Revolution, I would say we are living in the age of the West.

The World Until Yesterday is about ancient societies and talks about the development of human societies and the differences and similarities between older and modern societies with regards to their institutions and behaviours.

I was just reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford which is a work of fiction based on when, during the Second World War, the Japanese were sent to internment camps after the Pearl Harbour incident. It is a beautifully written fictional account of the suffering of the people in the camps. The other book I am reading is a fictionalised account of the Comanches of the Great Plains. The book is called Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne, and is about the struggle of the Comanche Indians and how they finally gave up.

It is not that the Indians were in any way short of bravery and valour and attachment to their land, but what they lacked was organisation of strengths. They did not have the technology that the settlers or the Europeans had.

Q: What is the last book you particularly enjoyed?

A: When I started with my career in foreign services, I opted to specialist in China in 1969. The next eight years, I tried to read all that I could lay my hands on relating to China, including classics, short stories, poetry, history, culture, politics and of course the history of revolution.

Chinese literature, I think, is one of the oldest literatures. I have read many of the classics translated in the 19th century by people who were bilingual in Mandarin and English, so the meaning of the books was not lost in translation. My favourites include Soul Mountain by Cao Xingjian, who is one of the Chinese Nobel Laureates in literature. The novel is a series of short stories by a traveller that weaves Chinese myths with contemporary issues and anxieties.

[Another favourite is] Golden Lotus or Jin Ping Mei, which is about the rise and fall of a family and how it is linked to the fall and rise of a dynasty and the strengths and fallacies of human nature.

Q: Is there a great Pakistani novel or writer?

A: Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya. Her strength is the portrayal of the environment and she depicts transitions from one state of culture to another with great ease. She has marvellous mastery over describing the transition from the cultures at the turn of the century to post-partition.

Aag Ka Darya is a much larger canvas in which she also offers a critique of the change in society in Karachi. It is a very powerful novel.

Saadat Hassan Manto’s works are undoubtedly the greatest in the world. His greatest works relate to the partition. His portrayal of his days in Bombay and then the partition, very controversial at the time they were written, have enriched the Urdu language.

One of his works, Toba Tek Singh, is based on the time of partition, the story of which he tells through people in a mental hospital.

Patients at the mental hospital are told about the partition and how it will work. The patients try to come to terms with what Pakistan is and one of the Sikhs asks where Toba Tek Singh is, [whether it is] in Pakistan or India. The story is one of the most powerful critiques of the partition.

Q: Who do you think is an underrated writer?

A: Aziz Ahmed has written short stories and one or two novels, including Aisi Bulandi Aisi Pasti, which is about social circumstances in the subcontinent. He talks about Muslim society and their attitudes while grappling with new values which more educated people were assimilating from the West. He was a modernist.

Q: Is there a book you started but could not finish?

A: One of my friends insisted I read Ulysses by James Joyce and I tried to read it a few times but could not finish it. It is one of the classics and is written in the early 1900s. It was the one of the first in the tradition of modern thinking. It is a dense book which you have to excavate yourself.

Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, in which a man dreams of creating a city according to his fantasies and the contradictions and problems he faces, exaggerates human conditions to make a bigger impact. It is magical realism.

Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2017

You can find a link to the story here

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