Sohail: Our first meeting
was in relation to Urdu International. What gave you the idea of bringing
out the magazine?
Ashfaq: Let me give you
some background information before I answer your question. First of all, all my
life I could not decide whether I was a part-time or a full-time writer. I had
no doubt that literature was my best medium of expression and I entered that
field in a dedicated way. But after a while I got disheartened about literary
activities and isolated myself from any literary atmosphere. I was hoping that
my social circle might change and I might develop some other interests but I
kept on reading books and meeting writer friends and discussing literary issues.
So I stayed in touch with the literary scene one way or another. I am giving you
this background because when I went back to Pakistan after a year of living in
Canada, I suddenly realized that a significant gap had developed between me and
my friends. When they discussed new books I realized that I was not up to date
on those books and the relevant issues. I thought that if I was no longer in
touch after a year, how would I feel after five or seven years? So I decided
that I should bring out a magazine which would satisfy my literary needs and
also keep me in touch with the literary world.
Sohail: How did you put that
plan into action?
Ashfaq: It was a coincidence
that Faiz Sahib was visiting Toronto at that time. When I mentioned the idea of
a magazine to him he encouraged me. When I was getting in touch with other
writers regarding my magazine I realized that I knew the writers in Pakistan but
not those in India, so Faiz Sahib wrote letters to Ali Sardar Jafri and Mohammad
Hasan on the letterhead of Urdu International asking them to support me.
Faiz Sahib had predicted and rightfully so that the support would increase once
the writers saw a couple of issues of the magazine. I had to decide about the
name of the magazine, Board of Directors, distributors and printers before I
could start. All of these arrangements took nearly a year and a half.
Sohail: How was your project
affected by the literary atmosphere already existing in Canada?
Ashfaq: There were a lot of
literary seeds in the soil of Canada. Urdu International helped them to
become sturdy trees. Faiz Sahib had visited Canada in 1978. In 1980 when he came
back, he was also accompanied by Ali Sardar Jarfi, Kaifi Azmi, Akhter-ul-Iman
and many other renowned poets. That laid the foundation of the first
international mushaira in Canada. That get-together was quite intellectually
stimulating, as local people got an opportunity to meet with established poets,
discuss issues and exchange ideas. Such an atmosphere helped in starting a
Sohail: Who were the people
who helped you bring out the magazine?
Ashfaq: The picture of
Urdu International had many colours and shades. There were two people in
Toronto who helped me a lot. The first one was Dr. Qayyum Lodhi who taught
sociology at the University of Toronto at that time and had a progressive mode
of thinking and the second one was Abid Jafri who edited a newspaper `Imroze'. I
was also supported by Qamar Raees from India and Hasan Abid from Pakistan. There
were a number of other people who encouraged me as the project grew, including
Mohammed Ali Siddiqi, Agha Sohail, Dr. Sharib Rudoulvi and Iftikhar Arif among
others. The first issue of Urdu International was prepared in Karachi. We
worked in Zahida Hina's office and Sahba Hukhnavi gave some suggestions.
Although I don't' talk about those people very often, I am indebted to all who
supported me wholeheartedly and selflessly.
Sohail: You brought out
quite a few special issues of your magazine. What was the impetus for that?
Ashfaq: When I was in Karachi
I was a member of a literary circle which included Hasan Abid, Mohammed Ali
Siddiqi, Rahat Saeed, Jon Alia, Razi Mujtaba, Ali Haidar Malik, Shahzad Manzar,
Ikram Brelvi and many others. One of them, Dr. Qamar Abbas Nadeem, played a
significant role in my development of a serious attitude towards literature. My
personality was much influenced by him. When he died at a young age, I felt a
loss. I feel that his early death deprived the Urdu short story of a significant
chapter. So when Urdu International was published, I dedicated a section
to Qamar Abbas Nadeem acknowledging his literary contributions. It was called `Suhbat-e-Gul',
my humble attempt to pay tribute to that young writer who died before he fully
blossomed. People liked and admired that section. After that I included sections
on `Beirut', `Pakistani Culture', `Zafar Zaidi', `Sibt-e-Hasan', `Josh, Faraq,
and Ghulam Abbas' and `South Africa'. All those issues became quite popular.
Sohail: How many issues of
Urdu International have been published?
Ashfaq: I wanted to produce
three issues a year. In the last five years, thirteen issues have been
Sohail: You had announced
that you would publish `Faiz Number'. What happened to that?
Ashfaq: While I was still
working on that number, another magazine by the same name started coming out
from Karachi so I discontinued my magazine. I had promised to do the issue on Faiz and I am committed to it. Now it will be published as a book.
Sohail: I have noticed in
the last few years that whenever there is a conference or seminar held on Faiz
you are invited. How did you develop such a special relationship with Faiz?
Ashfaq: Faiz has hundreds of
admirers. It is my honour that I am considered one of them. There are a number
of reasons why I admire him and those reasons are both personal and
environmental. I grew up in dirty streets and houses of clay. I was always
unhappy in that setting. Even at an early age I was aware that there was
something wrong with that set-up. I wished it were different. During my teenage
years I developed an interest in poetry and politics. I was involved in the
students' movement that was protesting against the regimen. But my involvement
was like an ordinary worker not as a leader.
That was the time when the Ayubi dictatorship in Pakistan was
coming to an end. All over the whole world students' movements were quite
active. We used to read Tariq Ali's statements from England in Pakistani
newspapers and also the political statements of Degal and philosophical ideas of
Sartre in different magazines. That was the phase of political oppression in
Pakistan. Those were the years of my student life when I was thinking about new
ideas and philosophies. I was coming close to anti-establishment people and
groups. I might have been actively involved in politics but I became more
attracted by the progressive point of view in literature.
That was the time I was impressed and inspired by Faiz. He
had a balanced attitude between politics and literature. Like many other
students I was also attracted to his philosophy of life.
Those were the issues in the background. One of the things
that brought me closer to Faiz was my decision to write a critical thesis on him
for my Masters degree. When I was learning about Faiz I also read about his
contemporaries and the Progressive Movement. After I presented the thesis
Professor Mumtaz Hassain suggested that I should change a few things and get it
published as a book. I was uncomfortable about that. I felt that I had collected
things from other sources but Mumtaz Hussain said, "You are a student and people
will appreciate your attempt. When one reaches the level of teacher or professor
then people criticize every word one writes or publishes. If you publish it now,
it will have a historical position. You will have the honour of publishing the
first book on Faiz." When Mirza Zafar-ul-Hasan found out about my book he
encouraged me too. After about three years I got the book published by the name
`Faiz-Eik Jaiza'. The following year it was also published in India. Now that a
number of years have passed, I realize the significance of that first attempt.
In one way it does not matter whether a book is published sooner or later but it
feels good to know that one is the first person in that field.
When I was in Pakistan, it was only twice that I had an
opportunity to talk to or meet Faiz but I had more opportunities for closer
contact when he visited Canada.
Faiz was also on the Board of Directors of Urdu
International. After Faiz died I was also involved in arranging a Faiz
International Conference and I also read a few papers on Faiz in other seminars
held in North America.
Maybe these are some of the reasons people remember me when
they talk about Faiz.
Sohail: Alongside editing
the magazine Urdu International you were also actively involved in
arranging many mushairas and literary conferences. Was this a gradual evolution
of your interest or was it a planned thing?
Ashfaq: No, there was no
plan. All those activities were because of my passion for literature but I am
glad that the outcome was a bridge between literary personalities and
institutions in India and Pakistan and the people living in North America.
Inviting poets and writers, sharing their poetry and writings and ideas and
having discussions on different issues created a literary atmosphere here.
Alongside these activities "Writers Forum" came into existence. I was the
founding president of that organization. Before that there was "Anjamun-e-Urdu"
which was quite active. In the last few years literary organizations and
activities have mushroomed in every big city in North America.
Sohail: How do you think
your involvement with Urdu International, mushairas and conferences has
affected your creative journey?
Ashfaq: I have a feeling that
these activities had a negative effect on my creative output. I think I have
produced less. Sometimes I think I might have produced more of my own work if I
were not so involved in literary activities; on the other hand, I might not have
produced at all. It is hard to say. But I am happy that because of these
activities I remained in touch with other writers and had an opportunity to
learn from them and absorb those experiences into my own personality.
Sohail: Every poet and
writer has a unique style to his creativity. Some write regularly while others
write infrequently. What is your style?
Ashfaq: I don't write
regularly. Sometimes I write three or four poems in one week while at other
times I don't write anything for months. I think many feelings, incidents and
experiences keep on collecting inside me and then at a certain time they all
come out in the form of a poem.
Sohail: What kind of things
inspire you? You have written a beautiful poem about your son. Do you remember
what the circumstances were when you wrote that poem?
Ashfaq: My poem about my son
is a very personal one. My son was two or three years old at the time. One day
my wife and son had gone out; I was missing him which inspired me to write that
poem. I don't remember the exact details of the event. I don't think I even knew
what I was going to write when I picked up my pen and paper. I must have thought
of my son, the temporariness of life and the meaning of our existence. All those
things which are not obvious in my poem must have been floating in the back of
my mind. I am not saying that I consciously wrote that poem about those issues.
All I am saying is that I must have contemplated them at one time or another. I
must have thought that children grow up, they become teenagers, then young
adults, then grow old and die while life goes on. Many people like myself think
about those issues, but at that moment when I was missing my son all those
feelings and ideas got transformed into a poem. Maybe I was consoling that I
myself might not be living one day but that my son might still be alive. I think
it did not take me more than twenty minutes to finish that poem. But that is an
ordinary thing. I think the angle that makes that poem special is that it also
reflects one aspect of the immigrant experience. I think I must have been
preoccupied with my cultural heritage at that time. I must have wondered whether
we should thrust our heritage onto our children, set them free in the new
society, or thirdly, should we try to strike a balance between the two cultures.
I think all immigrants share similar dilemmas and problems. Sometimes we like
our traditions although we admit that some of them are wrong. Those are the
traditions of feudal times and the era of slavery. To break the outdated
traditions is a challenge for each immigrant parent. When I was addressing my
son I was actually addressing the next generation. It was just expressed in a
personal way. Some of the earlier Urdu poets like Akbar Ala Abadi and Iqbal had
also written poems about their children but they were in a different context.
After I wrote that poem I realized that many other Urdu poets in the West have
also written poems about their children and one can find different aspects of
their experience in those creations.
My poem expressed my feelings and views on those issues.
Sohail: While we are talking
about your son, maybe I can ask you a question about your family. You lead a
family life. You have a wife, a daughter and a son. How does your family life
affect your creative life?
Ashfaq: Whether you live in
Pakistan or in North America, once you have a family, it affects your whole life
not only the creative part. Being in North America my views about my wife and
women in general have changed. I was brought up in an environment which was not
fair to women. That society did not give women the respect they deserved. After
coming to North America I became more aware of women's issues. I am also
becoming aware of my sexist attitudes and trying my best to change them.
As far as my own family life is concerned I never saw them as
a barrier to my literary pursuits. To be honest, I think my family has
encouraged me in my literary activities. In that regard I consider myself lucky.
But the reality remains that if someone has a family and is also involved in
fine arts there have to be some conflicts but that is part of life. When two or
more people decide to live together there are always some conflicts in their
attitudes, rights and responsibilities. We are living in a male dominated
society so women have to give up their rights. Maybe one day when we are living
in a fair and just society then relationships in marriage and family will be
Sohail: Maybe you can share
with me what kind of family and environment you grew up in.
Ashfaq: I grew up in a "kuchi
basti" in Karachi. That was the community in which homes were made of clay,
bamboo and straw. My mother used to have a child every year or year and a half
and during one of those pregnancies she died. In that atmosphere survival was
the biggest struggle. My parents and siblings were all struggling in that
environment. We were quite poor. We did not have warm clothes in winter, the
roof would leak when it rained and we did not have proper shoes to wear. Our
father was a hard working man. He used to leave home before we woke up and came
home late at night after we had gone to bed. Sometimes we did not see our dad
for weeks. My parents were from a traditional Muslim family of Jonpur and
Banarus. Many people of those families used to do Adeeb Alam and Munshi Fazel,
and those people who were well off or lucky used to go to college or university.
But there were very few. Many of them had better educational opportunities after
they moved to Pakistan.
Sohail: What else do you
remember about your childhood?
Ashfaq: I have very vague
memories of my childhood. When the older generation of my family used to get
together in the evening they used to talk about religion, the Muslim League and
Pakistan. They also talked about poetry and literature. They were poor but they
were contented. In spite of their struggles in life they did not seem bitter.
But in only one generation things have changed. The same
things people used to be proud of now cause them shame. Children of those
families proudly say that they don't know Urdu.
Our elders used to be very strict though. The same people who
would slap us when we misbehaved were also thrilled if we recited poetry.
Literature always bridged the gap between us and our elders.
Sohail: What was your school
Ashfaq: Those were bad times.
If my parents did not have enough money to pay for tuition fees I did not get
admitted to school. Our school was quite far away from home and I had to travel
in a bus. I used to get two annas from my parents for bus fare. I used to run
away from school so that I could buy snacks with those two annas rather than
spending it on bus fare. I did not understand why I should go to school.
When I was in the secondary school, I met a few teachers who
taught as if learning were a sacred thing. It was then that I really got
interested in studies and education.
Sohail: What did you do
after you finished school?
Ashfaq: I graduated from high
school in 1966 when I was fifteen. Then I looked for a job. I found part-time
employment in a local library. Then I worked in a factory and with the police
force for a short time. After I graduated from college my family and friends
wanted me to try the departmental examination so that I could become an
Assistant Sub Inspector of the police but I wanted to become a lecturer and
teacher. So I left my job and entered university full time. There were no
evening classes in the university at that time. I used to teach students to earn
my living. Now when I look back I feel good that I listened to my own heart and
did what I really wanted to do.
Sohail: What kind of
atmosphere did you find in the university?
Ashfaq: I enjoyed my years in
the university. On one hand we had teachers like Majnoon Gorakhpuri, Mumtaz
Hussain, Manzoor Hussain Shore, Farman Fatehpuri, Aslam Furrakhi and Hanif Fauq
and on the other hand we had quite a talented group of students who were
actively involved in literature. We had Perveen Shakir and Shahida Hasan in the
English department, Tajdar Aadil in the Economics department and Iqbal Faridi,
Ayub Khavir, Azra Abbas, Qamar Abbas Wafa and Shahida Tabassum in my own
department. In our literary get-togethers there were also other people like
Sarwat Hussain, Anwar Sun Raey, Futina Hasan and Hilal Naqvi who used to join
us. In short, between 1972 and 1975, my stay in Karachi University played an
important role in my intellectual and literary development. There were also
other writers who did not belong to our university but they visited us during my
stay there. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Faraz, Fehmida Riaz, Saroor Barabunkvi, Sahar
Ansari, Mirza Zafar-ul-Hasan and Ibne Insha were some of the reputed writers
that I met for the first time during my years at Karachi University. I listened
to Sadeqain's poetry and Fateh Mohammed Malik's, Ibadat Brelvi's and Waqar
Azeem's lectures for the first time there.
During that time I also participated in the students'
programmes in the radio station and met many literary personalities.
So I learned not only about Urdu literature from the books
but also by meeting important people in the field.
Sohail: Were you shy or
outgoing as a young man when you were in school?
Ashfaq: I was always shy. I
was never outgoing.
Sohail: But you don't appear
Ashfaq: I try not to appear
shy. I try to live with my shyness. When people see me making a speech or
conducting a `mushaira' they wonder how I could possibly by shy. But I realize
how shy I feel inside.
Sohail: If you were shy then
why did you want to become a teacher?
Ashfaq: Becoming a teacher
was my ideal. Perhaps there are degrees of shyness. Human psychology is an area
of your speciality. You will have a better idea of my situation. All I know is
that when my classfellows in the university wanted me to participate in the
elections and run for Vice President, I was very nervous. They had seen me
participate in mushairas and student programmes but they did not know how I felt
when I took part in those activities. Let me share an incident to explain this.
After the new students' union was elected, there was a formal ceremony so that
the elected officers could take the oath. When I saw the Minister of Health and
Vice Chancellor on the stage, I got so nervous that I left the function and
helped other people to arrange for cold drinks for the guests. Even the thought
of making a speech was scary. So I was the Vice President of the student union
for a whole year without taking an oath.
Every person has conflicts and I have conflicts of my own.
Sohail: Were you involved in
literary activities in your school and college years?
Ashfaq: I studied at the
Government High School Jacob Lines Karachi from 1960-1966. There used to be an
annual magazine in that school. Once I submitted a poem but that was rejected. I
did not do any creative work during my high school years but I enjoyed the
poetry of Meer, Ghalib and Iqbal included in our textbooks and gradually
developed a literary taste. My involvement with literature increased when I went
to the university.
Sohail: What kind of
ambitions did your parents have for your education?
Ashfaq: For my family having
a grade ten education was a great achievement because it ensured a white collar
job. My parents wanted me to pass my matriculation examination and then work as
a clerk in an office. My parents were among those who sometimes wished their
children to be Deputy Collectors but also realized that it was a fantasy. They
realized that such jobs went to the children of rich people.
Sohail: In what
circumstances did you decide to come to Canada?
Ashfaq: Before coming to
Canada I was working with the Arts Council which was attached to the government.
During that time my political involvement had increased. I was not involved in
active politics but I was quite involved at an intellectual and ideological
level. I felt as though my family, my friends and my countrymen were living in
hell. I was becoming aware that the whole society was moving towards
fundamentalism and there was not much room for liberal ideas. When I saw liberal
views and attitudes being suppressed and oppressed I started thinking of leaving
my country. It is now that I realize that my attitude was cowardly and
unrealistic. I admire those people who stayed in darkness and kept on fighting
for a bright future. You will find those feelings in many of my poems.
Sohail: Do you see your
immigration as political exile?
Ashfaq: No, not at all. My
life was never in danger. I was never punished for my political views. I even
had a nice job with the government. My suffering was at a personal level. I was
suffering because of my own views an attitudes. I should also acknowledge that
my decision to emigrate also had an economic dimension. I wanted to move from a
poor third world to a rich first world country for a financially better future.
That is one of the harsh realities of our time.
Sohail: You mentioned once
that your collection of poetry "Aitabaar" was published just before you left
Ashfaq: This is true. My
collection of poetry was published in November 1979. I had already published
another book, "Faiz-Eik Jaiza" in 1977.
Sohail: You shared with me
personally that you had never written down your poems anywhere.
Ashfaq: I remembered all my
poems by heart. I even remembered all of Faiz's poetry by heart too. Before I
left Pakistan, I wrote all my poems down, published the book and distributed it
among my friends.
Sohail: After you moved to
Canada, what kind of difficulties did you face professionally?
Ashfaq: You are quite
familiar with the circumstances in the West. I was involved with arts and
literature and culture in Pakistan. But when I came to Canada I asked myself
"Who cares about the languages and cultures of poor countries?" I had to survive
so I did a course in travel to ensure a job in the field. When one lives abroad,
one is preoccupied with travelling and opportunities to visit home. I worked
with a travel agency for a while and when I felt financially secure, I started
my own business.
Sohail: You used to write as
Shafaq Zaidi. Why did you change you name to Ashfaq Hussain after coming to
Ashfaq: I used to write as
Shafaq Zaidi when I was a student but when I got seriously involved in
literature I changed my name. This happened even before I came to Canada.
Sohail: When you look at the
twenty years of your literary journey what kind of feelings do you get?
Ashfaq: I feel sad that I did
not do more. One becomes mature with time and one's attitudes change with age. I
think that the last ten years in Toronto were more productive than the previous
ten years in Pakistan. I worked hard to create a literary atmosphere in Toronto.
I edited a magazine, presented Urdu programmes on T.V., organized conferences
under the banner of Writers' Forum and published a book of translations of my
poems. I met a lot of people and learnt many things from them. In spite of my
lazy personality, for me to do all those things is a great achievement. I am
working on a couple of books now.
Sohail: Do you have an
ambition for the next few years that you could not fulfil in the last few years?
Ashfaq: I feel that different
aspects of the immigrant experience can not be fully expressed in poetry. If
someone is a genius he can do miracles but ordinary poets like me feel
restricted by the limitations of Urdu poetry. I think fiction is a powerful
weapon to express myself but the hard work and dedication that prose writing
needs is beyond me at this stage of life. Maybe one of these days I might be
able to explore those avenues.
Sohail: Is there anything
significant that I missed in this interview?
Ashfaq: I think I have
already said too much considering the little that I have done for literature.