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"CREATIVE PEOPLE ARE BORN THREE TIMES IN THEIR LIFETIME"
INTERVIEW WITH NIDA FAZLI
Translated by Rafiq Sultan

 

Nida Fazli is one of the most popular writers of India. He is not only a poet but also a screenplay writer for television and films. His ghazals have been composed to music and sung by popular musicians like Jagjeet Singh. In the last few years his autobiography has created a stir in the literary circles because of its honesty and literary style. When he was invited by Writers’ Forum, a dynamic literary organization of Canada, who invite leading Urdu poets, writers and intellectuals from Asia, Europe and North America to Toronto, I had an opportunity to interview him. I was quite impressed by his philosophy and lifestyle.

 

Khalid Sohail: I feel very excited that I have this opportunity to interview you. You are one of the few writers I know, who is popular among intellectuals as well as general public. You shared with me earlier that in one of your interviews you discussed your philosophy of creativity. Can you share with me what is your understanding of the creative process?

Nida Fazli: I believe creativity is not a voluntary process. That is why I call it a miracle. If it was a voluntary process then artists could have easily created masterpieces. When we study history we discover that such miracles took place sometimes to some chosen people in some special circumstances. I think the whole process is mysterious.

Even great poets like Mirza Ghalib and Meer Taqi Meer are known because of there selected works. That is why I believe that creativity is not a voluntary process.

There was once I did experiment to write poetry voluntarily. I had not written a poem for a while so I picked up a pen and paper and decided to write a poem. Those days I was reading an article that stated that one can learn to create voluntarily. I wrote one line and erased it, I wrote another line and erased it, I wrote a third line and I erased it, as I was not satisfied with them. But then I wrote a line that had the whole poem hidden in it.

I feel every day we get distracted by so many things and people and activities that it becomes very hard for us to concentrate and create. Creative process is like hunting a wild animal in the jungle. Before hunting you have to corner the animal and to do that one needs a lot of time and patience and strategy. Usually I am struck by a line, or an idea or an image and then I pursue it to create a poem. It is the journey from the known to the unknown. It is like the travels of Columbus who did not know where his journey would end. I have to find that line or image that acts as a hook to take out the poem hidden inside me.

When I get up in the morning, I get a little distracted with the movie scripts, a little distracted by the household activities, a little distracted by my idiosyncratic habits, a little distracted by the trees, a little distracted by the beautiful women, a little distracted by the charming children. So it is hard to focus and collect oneself and then create something. Creative relationship is a relationship between a statue and worshipper. He sculpts a statue from a rock and then worships it. By worshipping, the statue gets extra-ordinary power and then becomes a source of inspiration. A few months ago I met a young woman. I was fascinated by her smile. Later on I fantasized about her, and I felt intoxicated by her smile. That intoxication gave birth to one poem, then the second, then the third. After a while the fantasy lost its spark and I stopped creating poems about her.

Once I did another creative experiment. I go for a walk every morning to the nearby ocean as I like water. One morning I saw a little five year old girl standing on a bus stop. She looked half asleep. She was carrying her school bag. I liked the girl. While I was looking at her, I felt as if the sea and the winds were also looking at her. When I passed close to her, I casually said, “Good Morning”. Hearing the greetings from a stranger she became serious. A big seriousness on a small face looked wonderful. For the next few months every morning I said “Good Morning”. I used to imagine how would she look if she smiled. And then one day while I was passing close by, she came running to me and said, “Uncle, I saw you on television last night.” And that time she was smiling and looked wonderful. When I asked her about her name, she said, “Shurdha”.

Unfortunately the next day the political situation between Pakistan and India got worse and the schools closed in Bombay. I did not see her for a few days. So I went looking for me and met her family and took some pictures of her. Her father was quite fascinated by my interest in her daughter. He asked me, “Why are you taking her pictures. What will you do with them?”

I said, “I will send them to the political leaders of Pakistan and India and tell them that life is more than religious extremism and terrorism. It is Shurda’s wonderful smile too. And then I created a poem called “Shurdha”.

I believe creative process is very complex and mysterious. You will be surprised to know that there is an old tree in front of my house. After my breakfast I go and stand under the tree for a few minutes. If I do not do that, I feel something is missing in my life. I find those moments very inspiring. That tree helps me in completing my poems and developing new ideas.

I find children very inspiring. I enjoy watching them go to school. I carry chocolates and toffees for them in my pocket. All the adults in my neighborhood do not know me but all the children know me very well.
I am also friends with crows. When I moved into my house, a crow used to come to visit me in my studio. During my breakfast I threw a piece of bread for him and he jumped to pick it up. Then he brought some of his friends. They used to come regularly. They were very punctual. If I got late, they used to remind me of my breakfast. They pick up the bread and then go to the tap and drink water that drops from the tap drop by drop. Now I leave some bread for them at night, so that if I sleep in, they get their breakfast. Those crows have helped me develop a sense of responsibility.

 

In my creative life, my prolonged isolation and loneliness have also played a major role. In 1964-65, my family decided to immigrate from Gavaliar to Karachi, from India to Pakistan. At that time I believed that we couldn’t solve our problems by leaving our homelands. So I decided not to join them and became a stranger in my own home and homeland. I felt lonely for a long time. Because of that loneliness, I developed some attitudes that other might find un-ethical or anti-social. For example I stopped believing in the institution of marriage. Now the woman I live in is a non-Muslim and because I am a Muslim, so our relationship cannot be legalized. For a while my loneliness had also given birth to fear. I used to lock all the doors and bolt things at night as I used to be scared. I was nervous that someone would come in the house in the middle of the night and kill me. The interesting thing was that during the day, I felt normal. In short all I am trying to say is that my relationship with nature, with birds and trees and animals and people are all connected with my creativity and I find the psychology of creativity quite convoluted but fascinating.

Sohail: Can you share with me some things about your family and your relationship with your parents?

Nida: My father had a colorful personality. He was very popular among women. Before marriage he had a number of liaisons with prostitutes. Even after he was married to my mother, he still used to visit the prostitutes. In my auto-biography, I have written about that topic in detail. I have discussed the middle-class values of his time, in which men used to marry one woman to have children and a family but used to be sexually involved with many other women to have fun.

I faced a lot of fear as a child. Dad used to come home late, and my mom used to get hysterical. All of us were small, so we used to get scared of the evil spirits. My older sister used to put the Holy Quran on the table to protect us from those spirits. We used to wait for our dad to come home so that we could feel safe and go to sleep. Because of such an environment, all the children reacted strongly. I cannot say about the psychological reactions of my siblings but I became rebellious. My mom did not want me to socialize with children of lower class but I did not listen to her. I knew it would bother her but I did not care. After getting disillusioned with my dad, my mom directed all her affection and love to her children. But it was too much for me. I used to feel the pressure of her love. Her mothering became smothering and I rebelled. I also felt jealous. I thought my mom preferred my older brother over me. I used to feel neglected as she would ask me to wear the left over clothes of my brother. I resented that.

When I look back at the time when my parents moved to Pakistan, I remember that my older brother had moved to Pakistan in 1952. I wonder whether I resented my family joining my brother in Pakistan. Those days Muslim families moved to Pakistan for different reasons. Many Muslims felt they were not treated fairly and justly in India. They believed Pakistan was a paradise for Muslims. Some Muslims were afraid or racial riots while others were worried about their daughters. They thought they could not get suitable Muslim boys for their girls. But I resented my family joining my brother, so I stayed behind. But then I became home-less in my own home. I felt isolated and lonely and alone. After a long time I decided to visit Pakistan to attend a poetry festival and visit my family. Unfortunately everything had changed. My parents had passed away. My relationship with my brothers and sisters had lost all spontaneity and I did not feel at home in their home. So I could stay with them for only a couple of days and then came back.

Sohail: When did you realize that nature had given you a special creative gift and you could become a successful writer and an artist?

Nida: As a child I was not aware of that natural gift but my father had a good taste of literature and he used to recite couplets of famous Urdu poets. Because of that literary atmosphere I had developed a taste in poetry. During my student life I used to write poems in the classical tradition of Dagh Dehelvi. Female students used to like my romantic poetry to such an extent that they used those lyrics in their love letters.

And then I faced a tragedy, a romantic tragedy. I started liking a girl in my class. She used to sit at 45 angles in my class and I could only see her back from her short blouse. I was so fascinated by her that even that footpath looked wonderful on which she stepped on. I enjoyed looking at her from a distance. Those days I did not have the courage to go and share with her my feelings. And then one day I read a notice on the notice board then she was killed in an accident. She was riding a bike near the temple and got crushed by a truck. After reading that news a wave went through my heart, it was a wave of sadness and depression and confusion. When I looked at the classical Urdu poetry, I could not find a couplet to express my feelings. That day I realized that I have to create my own poetry to share my own unique experiences. I used to wonder why I was so intensely affected by the news, as I hardly knew her. But I felt a special connection with her, even thought I did not talk to her.

After some time, I was walking close to the temple and I heard someone reciting a religious song in which Radha after separating from Krishna looks at the tree and complains that how could he stand still while she was devastated by the separation from her beloved. That day I realized how I felt connected with the trees. That experience was a turning point in my life. I realized that every pain and every experience had to be expressed in a unique way. At that time I rebelled from the highway of tradition and started walking on the trail of my heart. I left the classical style and started sharing my own observations and experiences and developed my own style in poetry.

Sohail: How old were you then?

Nida: I was in the college doing my B.A. I must me eighteen or nineteen.

Sohail: Alongside creating poetry you have also been writing prose and screenplays for television and film. What do you think is the difference between serious and popular literature?

Nida: We have inherited many traditions of literature. In that tradition there is a folk tradition and also a religious tradition. We have inherited Kabir’s poetry and verses of Quran and mythology of Ramayan. It is amazing to see the broad canvas of Quran. It deals from day to day problems of married life to the dilemmas of war. Great literature used to be for intellectuals as well as for common people. Kabir’s poetry is enjoyed by university professors as well as by the farmers. It is unfortunate that art and literature lost touch with the common people and  became the domain of the elite. When that happened fiction writers lost their readership. In Urdu literature writers like Baidi and Ismat Chughtai had more readers than writers like Anwar Sajjad. In Indian tradition Kabir had a great tradition. He used to say “I write what I see and experience and not what I read as I am an unlettered man”. Tagore was influenced by Kabir and because of that folk tradition, he won the Nobel Prize of literature. But it is unfortunate that critics did not appreciate Kabir in his life. He was ignored for more than two centuries. Many critics have been misleading the readers.

Urdu literature is unfortunate that it did not get the folk tradition and became urbanized too soon. Our Urdu poets are too attached to classical tradition and are nervous to use new words and idioms. Before creating a new expression they read the collections of poetry of Dagh. It is unfortunate that critics are arguing with other critics. Creative people have been ignored and overlooked in serious discussions.

Sohail: As a writer and an artist you have a relationship with both: written words and moving images. What do you see is the difference. Some poets and fiction writers do not respect screen play writers?

Nida: The world of books is very different than the world of films. Both writers move in different worlds. It is not necessary that a good novelist would also be a good screen play writer. Many successful novels did not become successful films because the story was not successfully transformed to the screen. Paraim Chand’s famous novel The Chess Players did not become a popular film. One of the issues was historical authenticity. Some characters in history become myths and if they are presented with historical authenticity they lose its appeal as common people are more interested and fascinated by myths than realities.

The other important factor is camera. When a written story is presented by the camera, a number of other factors start playing a role. The use of the camera, the distance, the close up, the background, the lighting, the editing, all become important in the film that are not important in a book. So the grammar of the film story is very different than the grammar of the written novel.

Sohail: Indian Film Director Satay ji Raey was ignored during his life. But when we received an Oscar award a few days before his death, he became an overnight celebrity. Why do you think was that?

Nida:  Asians still suffer from colonial hangover. We do not recognize our Eastern writers and artists until they are recognized by the West. The third rate writers of English are more recognized than the first rate writers of our native languages. One such example is Taslima Nasrin. She became famous all over the world by writing an ordinary journalistic novel Lajja. As compared to Lajja,  Bedi’s novel Ik Chadar Maili Si, Abdullah Hussain’s novel Udaas Naslein and Qurat-ul-Ain Haider’s novel Aag Ka Darya are of higher literary value. Taslima’s popularity is connected with marketing. The issue is more economic and political than artistic and literary. These days the artist has to fight his war at many fronts. He has to protect his work from the media as media tends to pollute the innocence of art and literature. It is hard for writers and artists to remain authentic and candid while dealing with sound bites and advertisement of the media.

Sohail: You are a popular artist and writer and you deal with media all the times. How has your popularity affected your creativity?

Nida: In one of his interviews Garcia Marquez shared that he has been feeling an inhibition in his creative flow after he received the Nobel Prize. His spontaneity has been affected. I believe an artist and a writer takes a long time to develop his image. After developing the image it is even harder to maintain that image. An artist is always growing and when you are growing, you are losing something while you are gaining something. Creative process disconnects you from others and makes you a little alone and lonely. An artist has to keep on reviewing his work and life critically.

Sohail: What do you think of the suffering that artists have to face all their lives?

Nida: I believe that creative people are born three times in their lifetime: the first time from their mother’s womb, the second time from the society’s womb and the third time from their own womb. Some people go to their graves the same way they were born from their mother’s womb. They never discover themselves. Discovering oneself and giving birth to oneself is a complex and mysterious process. That is why poets, mystics and prophets spend a lot of time by themselves to get in touch with their inner self, their creative self. That is why Mohammad used to go to the cave to spend time with himself, before Quran was revealed to him. That was part of his creative journey and in that journey normal logic does not work as creativity has its own logic. Creative people have to discover their unique lifestyle and logic.

We have no choice of the family, religion, language, community and culture we are born in. But when we study other languages, religions and cultures, they help us in delivering ourselves from our own community. To know thyself is the cornerstone of the creative journey.

An artist tries to transform an abstract into a concrete and presents it to others. To do that he has to work hard and experience life. It requires more than reading books.

Sohail: What are your views about the frustrations artists feel in their life?

Nida: I believe frustrations are of two types: a negative and a positive. The negative frustration turns into anger, resentment and bitterness, while the positive frustration acts as a source of inspiration and helps the artist to travel from the unknown to the known. An artist is like a child, full of wonder and searching. For a child’s eye all views remain fresh and new. They do not get jaded. When Tagore was asked in his old age “Do you have any more to write?” he responded, “In this universe from dust particles to stars there are far more undiscovered than discovered. So we have to keep on learning and growing and creating”.

For an artist involvement is important. You cannot be inspired if you are not involved. When I am involved in a woman’s smile, it inspires me to create poems. When we are involved with the beauty of words we play with them and create poetry. It is the involvement that creates lullabies and bedtime stories. Many times I am touched by something and I feed my mind’s computer with those feelings and thoughts and ideas and wait for the moments of inspiration. And when I am inspired even after days or weeks, I can create the whole poem in a few minutes. As I mentioned earlier I believe the creative process is quite fascinating and mysterious.

Sohail: Thank you for sharing your thoughts today.

Nida: I enjoyed talking to you. I have been reading your poems and stories in Indian magazines. You are creatively very active and that is a great thing.

Note. Special thanks to Rafiq Sultan for transcribing the interview and offering creative suggestions.

 

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