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"When I Changed My Nationality, I Changed My Identify Too"
Ikram Brelvi
Interview by Dr. Khalid Sohail
ENCOUNTERS WITH IKRAM BRELVIENCOUNTERS WITH IKRAM BRELVI

 

Sohail:   Ikram Sahib!  Maybe we can begin the interview with your latest novel `Pul Siraat'. When I read the novel I realized that it took you almost seven years to finish it. I was wondering what gave you the inspiration to take on such a big project? 

Ikram:   The novel came to me. I did not search it out. I was planning another novel when it occurred to me that I should write a novel about the Indo-Pak Subcontinent in the context of political history. To some extent the Far East was also involved. To write such a novel I had to work very hard. I had to study many books, twenty-four of which you will find listed at the end of the novel. I had to study those books in depth to create characters like Islam Sikander Khan Raula and Mabel Khan for my novel. I had to weave the history in the fabric of the novel. While writing it I was very conscious of keeping a balance between history and fiction. I think I was successful in keeping that balance. 

Sohail:    Did you study the history first and then write the novel or did you start the novel and study as you went along? 

Ikram:   I knew about the Indo-Pak Subcontinent because I had passed through the mill. I had seen Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Jinnah as I was involved in the movement. I was a nationalist myself. I had to read a lot to write about the part of the novel, which deals with Burma, Singapore and Japan. I had to study their lifestyles, their dress, and their food, even the kinds of snakes in Burma. There are huge skyscrapers now where the Japanese landed in Singapore but at that time it was muddy and marshy. They had to pass through that labyrinth. 

Sohail:    When you write a novel, do you already have the end in mind or does the story evolve as you go along? 

Ikram:    No, it is not preconceived. As I proceed, the story and the theme reshape themselves. As I am writing, the characters compel me to change them. It is very seldom that I compel them to move according to my wishes. I don't want to be very subjective. 

Sohail:  For those six or seven years that you were writing the story, how much time were you spending daily or weekly on your novel? 

Ikram:   When I started the novel, I was sixty. I was aware that I could not put as much time into it as I could have if I were younger. When I was younger I could work all night. When I was writing `Pul Siraat' I used to sit in the basement of my daughter's house and write for six to eight hours daily. I had to revise the novel again and again. I rewrote the novel six times - I can show you six manuscripts. I changed the end even as the calligraphist was working on my novel. 

Sohail:   It seems that you have a special interest in history. For how long have you had that interest?

Ikram:  I have always had an interest in history and politics. My first novel was `Nia Ofaq' in 1946-47. It was based on the Bengal Famine and focused on the impact of the famine on an artist. It was rather a progressive novel, red in colour, although I was working in the Ministry of Defence. 

               The second novel `Gardish' that I wrote in Rawalpindi in 1956 also has some history in it. 

              The third novel `Lava' was on the partition of India. It was a pragmatic novel based on the inward journey of man from soul's dark night to a final ecstatic state of the knowledge of immediate reality, attained through purgation and illumination of the inner self.

               The last novel is written entirely in a political and historical background.

              The novel I am working on now is also historical in nature and content. It deals with culture, rites and rituals of the Indo-Pak society and aims to provide an exotic veneer to the mosaic of multi-culturalism in Canada.

Sohail:   If you were writing the same novel `Pul Siraat' while living in Pakistan instead of North America would it have been different in any way?

Ikram:        That is a very good question. While I was writing the novel I was very conscious of touching a very sensitive area. I didn't want to be labelled. That is not good for a writer. I should be detached as much as possible. Because of that sensitive issue I rewrote the novel six times. Even then it has a slight Pakistani bias. If a staunch Hindu reads it he might object to certain parts of the novel especially the question of United Nations. But that is a truth. I have mentioned other truths too. I talked about how people in India and Pakistan manipulate and attack each other and then deny it. I have tried to keep the balance as much as possible. I think even if I were living in Pakistan I would have written the same way.  

Sohail:    Living in North America have you had more opportunities to do your research and read books from different parts of the world? 

Ikram:    Of course. The people in the Public Library in Edmonton were also very nice to me. They had given me the Edmonton Room. The ladies also served me coffee thinking I was a novelist from Pakistan. They took an interest in me as a fiction writer. 

Sohail:   What are your views about the evolution of the novel in Urdu literature?

Ikram:        `Umrao Jan Ada' marks the beginning of the modern novel in Urdu literature. Then came `Gowdan' which gave a good depiction of rural life. `Gowdan' was acclaimed for its values as simple as life. One could hear the echo of that novel even after novels like `Tehri Lakeer' (Asmat), `Shakist' (Krishman Chander) and `Guraiz' (Aziz Ahmed) were published. Finally the spell was broken when `Aag ka Darya' appeared on the literary scene.   

               After that a number of excellent novels were written by Mumtaz Mufti, Bano Qudsia, Shaukat Siddiqi, Abdullah Hussain, Nisar Aziz Butt, Razia Fasih Ahmed, Khadija Mastoor, Syed Anwar Sajjad, Intizar Hussain, Anis Nagi, Fahim Aazmi and myself but unfortunately all those novels could not get the recognition and the acclaim they deserved because the critics kept on using `Aag ka Darya' as a yardstick. I personally feel that a work of art should be examined and evaluated on its own merit and not in comparison with any other novel. I think that many novels like Khuda Ki Basti (Shaukat Siddiqi), Udas Nasleen (Abdullah Hussain), Nai Chiragay Nai Gullay (Nisar Aziz Butt), Aangan (Khadija Mastoor), Basti (Intizar Hassain) and my own novel `Pul Siraat' call for special study. 

               I also want to point out that Western critics did not have a similar attitude when Toybee wrote `From Oxsus to Jamna', Rahulki wrote `From Volga to Ganga', Virginia Woolf wrote `Orlando' or James Joyce wrote `Ulysses'. Our critics regarded `Aag ka Darya' as the end all and be all of Urdu fiction. So much so that even `Gardesh-i-Rang-i-Chaman' written by the same author was not received by the critics with the same warmth. 

Sohail:        You have been leading a retired life in Canada. How has that affected your creative writing? 

Ikram:        Now that I have a lot of time to write I have been writing essays, columns and short stories too. 

                   My creative writing started with plays. My first play was `Khuafnak Mohabbat' which was published in Akhter Shirani's `Romaan'. I was in Lahore at that time. My first short story was `Kutta'. It was a symbolic story on British Imperialism. It was published in `Saqi' which used to be edited by Shahid Ahmed Dehalvi. He gave me ten rupees saying that my story was priceless but the money was to buy books. I was in college at that time. 

                   Since I came to Canada I have had more time to read and write. For a fiction writer reading is very important. You cannot write a political novel without doing a lot of reading.  

Sohail:        You also have a family life. How does your family life affect your writing? 

Ikram:        When I used to write for T.V. and radio in Pakistan my children used to say, "Papa is writing. Don't go to his room". Their mother trained them that way. I am a very finicky writer. When I am writing I can hear the drop of a pin and I get annoyed. No one used to come into the room when I was writing. If my wife came to offer me a cup of coffee or tea she used to knock first. 

                   William Saroyan, an American writer, once said that fiction writers cannot afford to be social. They are even labelled antisocial because they don't have enough time to write. Later on, he received a Nobel Prize which he declined to accept saying that he did not write in order to procure a certificate. He wrote only for his own personal satisfaction. 

Sohail:        Let's talk about your family of origin for a while. What kind of family did you have when you were growing up? 

Ikram:        My family was a conventional family from Bareilly. My grandfather was a lawyer. He used to write poetry for pleasure. My father was a poet too. They were both good poets. My grandfather's mentor was `Daagh Dehalvi'. My mother was very imaginative. I inherited a rich imagination from her. She was a good storyteller. I used to listen to her stories about fairies and princesses. She used to improvise the stories as she went along. I learnt more from my grandfather than my father. My father was a police officer and he kept a distance. He was a rough, tough man with a moustache. He used to resemble Allama Iqbal in his physique, stature and looks. 

Sohail:        How many brothers and sisters did you have? 

Ikram:        We were five. My elder brother was a lawyer. He died recently. My three sisters are still alive. So we are four now. My older sister raised me so I call her `mama'. When I used to go to school she used to give me four annas for bus fare and lunch. 

Sohail:        Did you go to school in Bareilly? 

Ikram:        Yes. But I started late. I started school in grade three when I was nine. My mother was very keen to send me but my father wasn't. He was a loving but rough man; rough superficially, loving inside. 

Sohail:        How old were you when you finished your matriculation? 

Ikram:        I was eighteen. 

Sohail:        What was school life like for you? 

Ikram:        I used to play cricket all the time and read stories. I enjoyed Urdu literature. 

Sohail:        Were you a shy or a outgoing boy in school? 

Ikram:        I was very outgoing in school but I was very shy at home. I was seclusive. When my sisters and brother played, I used to sit in a corner and brood. I used to brood for hours. I think it was the writer inside me. 

Sohail:        What were you studying in college? 

Ikram:        I took Urdu, Economics, History and English Literature in College. When I was in school my father wanted me to be an architect so he forced me to take drawing instead of Persian. 

Sohail:        When did you start writing? 

Ikram:        I started writing in my college days. I will tell you a funny story. I had an uncle Mehboob Hussain who was a classfellow of my older brother. My elder brother was married and had a beautiful wife. Mehbood Hussain wrote an article about the bride called `Meri Bhabi' (my sister-in-law) and he gave the article to me. I was in the first year of college at that time. He asked me to get it published in my college magazine. After the story was published, my Urdu professor called me and said, "I can't believe that you write so well". I felt embarrassed. I came back and said to myself, "What if one day he asked me to write something else?" So I worked hard to write something myself. That was the motivation,  which I then continued. My stories used to be published in `Khayam', `Hamayun', `Adbelateef', `Asia' and many other magazines. My uncle never thought that I would one day become a writer. 

Sohail:        Did you share your writings with your family members? 

Ikram:        No, not at all. In the beginning I used to write under the pseudonym A. H. Parvana because of the fear of my father. 

Sohail:        What was your fear? 

Ikram:        He didn't like it. He wanted me to finish my studies first but I was a rebellious man. I listened to him quietly but I did what I wanted to do. 

                   I used to write poetry as well but I realized that I was a prose writer. Even now when I have to carve out a figure in my stories, I write poetry. It is like writing poetry in prose. In my novel `Lava' I have created portraits in poetry. 

Sohail:        How old were you when you got married? 

Ikram:        I was twenty-three. By traditional standards it was considered a late marriage. 

Sohail:        Is your wife a member of your family? 

Ikram:        Yes, she is my cousin. She is my poophi's (father's sister's) daughter. We have a good relationship. 

Sohail:        Whose selection was it? 

Ikram:        She was my own selection. 

Sohail:        Good for you. 

Ikram:        I was the first man in my family who brought my wife home without a veil. I burnt the burqa (veil) because I didn't like it. She came from Bareilly to Delhi without a veil. 

Sohail:        Does that mean you had moved to Delhi by that time? 

Ikram:        Yes, when I started working I moved to Delhi. In 1941 I was in the General Head Quarters of the Defense Services. Later on I was working in the Public Relations Department in Pakistan. 

Sohail:        What year did you go to Pakistan? 

Ikram:        In 1947 I moved to Rawalpindi. 

Sohail:        With you wife? 

Ikram:        No, I went alone at first. My wife was in Bareilly. She came later on. I lived in Pindi till July 1971. Then I came to Karachi and retired in 1976 at the age of 58. 

Sohail:        When did you change your name from A. H. Parvana to Ikram Brelvi. 

Ikram:        That was in 1947 when I moved to Pakistan. I must tell you an interesting story. There is a friend of mine by the name of Muzaffar Hussain Berni. He used to read my writings in magazines and listened to my programmes on radio under the name of Parvana. When he did not see my writings for a while he thought I was dead. One day he listened to my voice on the radio. He wrote a letter to Radio Pakistan Rawalpindi inquiring about me. He mentioned the time and date of the broadcast and asked if Ikram Brelvi was the same person as A. H. Pervana. Mukhtar Siddiqi a friend of mine used to know my pseudonym. He confirmed my identity, so I got a letter from Berni. I wrote him back and told him that Parvana and Brelvi both were alive. Then he sent me his books. He had written a book about Iqbal proving Iqbal to be a nationalistic poet. 

Sohail:        What made you change your identity from Parvana to Brelvi? 

Ikram:        When I changed my nationality, I changed my identity too. 

Sohail:        What happened to all those writings that you had produced as Parvana? 

Ikram:        All those writings have perished. I suffered a lot during partition. I had written some articles about Indian languages. They were published in `Ajkal'. I lost them too, along with many plays. When I came to Pakistan I was so upset, I stopped writing for a while. Then Intizar Hussain motivated me to write again. He was the editor of `Nazam' in Lahore at that time. He inspired me to write about partition and communal riots. So I wrote a play, `Aur Shaitan Nachta Raha' (The Devil Kept On Dancing). I had seen in Delhi that one chapatti was sold for one rupee and even water cost money. They were all Muslims selling to Muslims. Those were hard times. But when I came to Pakistan I got "Pulao". I was on a train for three whole days travelling from Delhi to Lahore. I stayed in Lahore for a couple of days and then went to Rawalpindi. Let me tell you another interesting story. There was a tailor by the name of Abdur Rehman in Rawalpindi. There was also a Kashmiri cloth merchant there. I went in my underclothes to the market. I told Abdur Rehman that I didn't have any clothes. He took my measurements, bought cloth from that cloth merchant, worked the whole night and gave me two shirts and two trousers the next morning. He was not willing to accept any money from me. I told him that I could pay him and I had money but he would not accept anything. I will never forget Abdur Rehman. I don't know where those days have gone. It was the beginning of Pakistan. 

Sohail:        So you started a new life in Pakistan? 

Ikram:        Yes, all over again. 

Sohail:        Did you meet new writers in Punjab? 

Ikram:        Some of them like Aijaz Batalvi, Zia Jalandhari and Mukhtar Siddiqi were my old friends. I was very well known in Punjab even when I was living in India because most of the magazines I wrote for came out of Punjab. 

Sohail:        When did your wife join you in Pakistan? 

Ikram:        After nearly three months. 

Sohail:        Were your children born in Pakistan? 

Ikram:        Yes. All my children were born in Pakistan. When my wife came to Pakistan she was pregnant. My daughter refused to be born in India so she is Pakistan born. My son was born in 1951. I am quite proud of both of them. My son has done his Masters from U.C.L.A. and my daughter did her Masters from Punjab University. 

Sohail:        Once you had children, did that change your lifestyle? 

Ikram:        No, it didn't. My wife was very helpful. She looked after the children. I was free to write and reflect. She took all the responsibility and the burden. Maybe that's why she looks so old. 

Sohail:        What made you decide to leave Pakistan and come to Canada? 

Ikram:        My daughter was married to a gentleman who lived in Calgary. His older brother was in the Naval Headquarters in Karachi. When he met my daughter who came to see me in my office he asked me if I would consider marrying her to his brother who lived in Calgary, Canada. So she got married and came to Calgary in 1974. I was very attached to my daughter and she was to me. Even now that close relationship continues; I don't go anywhere without her. So my daughter invited me to Canada. I refused. Then she wrote to her mother asking her to convince me to come to Canada. My wife refused too. The third time she initiated the case in Canada and the immigration papers were sent to Canadian Embassy in Pakistan. The Embassy wrote to me and invited me for an interview. So I came as an immigrant in 1976. I stayed here till I got my citizenship. Then I decided to go back to Pakistan but I couldn't live there. 

Sohail:        Why couldn't you live there? 

Ikram:        You know the state of affairs there. Sometimes there is no water, sometimes there is no electricity. Sometimes the air-conditioner doesn't work. It got to the point that I decided to come back. 

Sohail:        For how long did you stay in Karachi? 

Ikram:        For one year and seven months. I got a house there where my son lives now. 

Sohail:        When you were in Punjab a number of literary movements were quite active. Were you a member of the Progressive or Modernist or any other literary movement? 

Ikram:        I was involved with `Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq' but I had my own views. At that time I was with `Halqa' because I was a civil servant. However I think I was more progressive than `Halqa'. Halqa brought changes in the forms of literature but not in the content. Most of the changes came in poetry. It was the other way round with the Progressive Movement. I think the Progressive Movement damaged poetry but the prose gained a lot of momentum. Poetry became more and more direct. But that is not poetry, it is a sermon. It becomes reporting. But in prose and fiction and drama and even in criticism we gained a lot through the Progressive Movement. 

                   Halqa made a lot of changes in poetry. Meeraji made a lot of contribution. I was very impressed by Meeraji. He was a learned man. He had special interest in French literature. I met Meeraji in Lahore in 1940 when I was living with Akhter Shirani for a year. His house behind the Lahore Hotel is taken over by the Archives now. I remember the day when I went to `Adabi Dunya's' office to submit my play. Mansoor Ahmed the editor, directed me to go to Meeraji. Meeraji was the co-editor. He looked very shabby with `golas' in his hands. He was very hospitable. He welcomed me warmly. He had special brilliance in his eyes. He was very eloquent. 

                   The next time I met him was in Delhi. It was an interesting story. I had gone to meet Shahid Ahmed Dehalvi in his publishing house called `Qutab Khana-e-Ilmo-adab'. Meeraji came over and he recognized me. We shook hands. He looked at Shahid Ahmed Dehalvi and asked for the royalty fees of his books. He received one thousand rupees, which was a handsome royalty at that time. 

                   Meeraji took those thousand rupees, took a tanga and roamed around the whole night. The next morning he came to my office, which was next to All India Radio. I asked, "What are you doing here so early?" 

                   "I was with this tongawala the whole night" he said, "I am a pauper again. I sent some money to my sister in Lahore, drank some and gave the rest to the tongawala". He must have given more than a hundred rupees to the tongawala. Since then all the tongawalas in Delhi used to recognize him. They never asked him for money. He could travel anywhere in the city free. Tongawalas knew that whenever Meeraji would have money he would give it to them. Meeraji had become their friend. 

Sohail:        Was your family religious? 

Ikram:        My family was conventional. We were not religious but we were ritualistic. Religion, as it has come down to me has become a ritual. We live in dogmas now. In some ways my family was quite liberal. My mother was very fond of music. She had hired a "doomni" (singer) by the name of Ghafooran. She had a melodious voice. I have used those memories in my novel `Lava'. What is fiction? I think it is memories. They change and take new shapes when they appear on paper. 

Sohail:        Are you a religious person yourself? 

Ikram:        I went through different phases. In the beginning I used to be non-religious and had Hindu friends. Then I used to pray but left that after a while and became an agnostic. Then I was atheist for a while. When I met Mukhtar Siddiqi he wanted me to meet his Peer Hashim Shah. I told him I was an atheist. He said, "Come and have some pulao." When I met Peer Hushim he gave me a sermon and asked me to pray. I ignored him for a while but after three or four months I had a desire to pray. I took a bath and prayed. After three or four days of my praying I went to see Peer Sahib. Mukhtar did not know that I had prayed. When Hashim Sahib met me he said, "Ikram Sahib!  I have seen you praying." To this day it is a mystery for me how he knew about my praying. Such mystical things bothered me a lot. I am not a religious person but I believe in a force, which is controlling this universe. You can call it God or Matter or anything else. There is a Mastermind. My main religion is Humanity. I cannot tolerate social injustice. I cannot tolerate human beings exploiting other human beings.

 

Sohail:        After working for so many years and publishing so many books, when you look back at your long literary journey, what kind of feeling do you get? 

Ikram:        Don't ask me. It is very painful. In literature we do not get anything. We give our lives to literature and don't expect anything back. The type of recognition you want you don't get in this materialistic society. Nobody bothers about literature these days. Once I borrowed Camus's book from the library and was surprised to see that it was borrowed only once in five years before me. That shows the apathy towards literature. Only those people read literature who are not aspiring very high in this materialistic world. My own daughter is a good example. She has done her Masters in English literature. She prefers to work for the government rather than become an English professor. 

Sohail:        Do you consider yourself a successful person? 

Ikram:        Yes, I am quite successful. At least I feel sublimated. I have written enough that I will be remembered. 

Sohail:        What are your plans for the next few years? Ikram:        Doctor Sohail!  I have two or three big works in mind. One is to write a cosmic novel. I have been nurturing the novel for the last 30-40 years but I don't yet have a firm grip on it. It goes out of my hands. But I pray that I should live long enough to write that cosmic novel. I want to start it when there was nothing and come to today and then go towards the future. 

                   I also wanted to write a novel about `Dee-war-e-Girya' but someone has already written a story by that title. 

                   I also want to write about my reminiscences, and complete an autobiographical novel. I will start from Mohammed Bin Qasim and focus on the process of emigration. I think emigration is a mystical term. I think we should feel proud to have travelled through many lands. Our journey is from eternity to eternity.

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