MILESTONES OF MY CREATIVE JOURNEY
I sometimes wonder whether I inherited the love of literature and philosophy from my family. I vividly remember that even when I was a little boy, I used to go to the library and borrow storybooks. I enjoyed reading about kings and queens and hunters and thieves and travelers and haunted houses. All of them fascinated me. While I read the stories, I imagined the characters and then made my own endings to the stories. Being a loner, I enjoyed living in my fantasy world.
When I became a little older, I got interested in the books my dad used to read. He was an avid reader but his interest was more in religion and philosophy. The first book that he gave me to read was Tazkiarat-ul-aulia, which was an anthology of stories of saints. I really enjoyed the book as it contained miraculous stories about saints. I read about holy people walking on water and flying in the air because of their spiritual powers. It was incredible. At that gullible age I believed in all those stories like children in the West believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.
When I was in grade seven, my dad subscribed a magazine Bachon Ki Dunya [children’s world] for me, which was full of cartoons and children’s poems and stories. After reading it for a year I sent them an essay about Rabia Basri, my favorite female Muslim saint. I was quite ecstatic when I saw my article in print. That gave me some confidence that I could be a writer. After that experience, I started creating and writing stories, but was reluctant to show them to others even my parents and teachers because I was quite shy.
When I was in high school, we were taught poems and short stories of famous Urdu writers in our textbooks. I thoroughly enjoyed them. For the next few months I borrowed books from the library to read poetry of Meer Taqi Meer, Mirza Ghalib, Mohammad Iqbal, Josh Maleehabadi, Sahir Ludhianvi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ahmad Faraz and short stories of Saadat Hasan Minto, Ismat Chughtai, Krishan Chander and Rajendar Singh Bedi. I was intrigued when I found out that Faiz was my dad’s teacher in Amritsar, India, and Minto lived in his street. Minto was quite notorious as he wrote openly about prostitutes and sexual issues of the community. Discovering the world of literature was like discovering a gold mine. By reading Faiz and Sahir, I got interested in the communist literature and started reading books of Marx, Lenin, Engels and Mao. They introduced me to socialist ideology while reading Minto introduced me to humanistic philosophy. His statement ‘ Why do we say that one hundred Muslims will go to heaven and one hundred Hindus will burn in hell? Why don’t we say ‘ We lost two hundred precious human lives?’ left a deep impression on my mind.
Those were the years I started to differentiate between two kinds of literature, the literature that was created for recreational reasons, and the literature created to develop insights into life, share wisdom and transform individuals and communities to liberate them. Those were the years I became aware of the power of words.
There was a time I used to go for long walks by the riverside or in the jungle and contemplate about the books I had read. I wanted to intellectually digest the concepts I came across. There were times I felt more connected with dead writers or authors who lived thousands of miles away than those people I interacted with, in my day to day life. I used to feel as if I am a member of the tribe that consisted of writers, artists and philosophers. I did not meet them on the street but I met them in the library and they were always willing to talk to me through their books. Library used to be the most wonderful place, paradise on earth, and I visited it quite often. I frequented the sections of literature, psychology, religion and philosophy and signed every book I read. Before I entered the university I was already introduced to the philosophies of Socrates, Freud and Jung and the texts of world religions.
During my teen-age years, I used to have passionate discussions with my dad. It was not uncommon for us to have a dialogue about serious issues about life for a couple of hours after dinner. Both of us used to bring books from the library to prove our points. My dad was a very kind, affectionate and democratic person. Although we disagreed on many subjects but he helped me articulate my point of view and encouraged me to think rationally and logically. Many times we agreed to disagree as I was quite rebellious and was trying to discover my own philosophy of life.
One day when I was exploring my dad’s small library at home, I found my uncle’s poetry books. When I read those books I realized they were different than traditional Urdu poetry collections. He had a progressive philosophy of life that I liked. His poetry reflected a struggle for peace and justice. The next time I went to Lahore to have summer vacation with my grand-mother, I went to see my uncle. He received me affectionately and had a serious dialogue with me about art and literature and philosophy. Since he was a writer, I could discuss with him the issues I could not discuss with my own dad. He encouraged me to write and express myself creatively. Those meetings with my uncle were very precious for me and lasted as long as he lived. In many ways he encouraged me more than my father to become a writer.
When I was in college, my mom became quite worried about my interest in literature and philosophy. She wanted me to study science so that I could be accepted in the medical school and become a doctor. She used to get annoyed to see me reading poems and short stories rather than reading Physics and Chemistry and Biology. Many times I used to keep quiet out of respect, but there were times I used to get angry when she would take away my storybooks. I used to say, ‘ You can take these books but you cannot stop my mind to create stories and poems.’ Those were the days I was frequently inspired to write poems, essays and stories. Finally I submitted them to the college magazine Edwardian. I was pleased to see my short story Dast Bosi [ Kissing Hands] and my essay on my favorite short story writer Saadat Hasan Minto published in the magazine. I was further shocked to find out that my mom showed the magazine to her friends and bragged about her son being a writer. That day I realized that my mom was secretly pleased that I could write like my uncle. She was just worried that I might become a financially struggling artist like my uncle and many other writers in Pakistan. She wanted me to become a doctor so that I could have a financially secure lifestyle. My mom was thrilled when I was accepted in the medical school.
When my dad found out that I had become a poet and was reading my poems to my friends, he shared a story with me as he had quite a sense of humor. He stated,
“ In a village a middle aged man, a father of three sons was sitting on the curb crying. People asked him, ‘Why are you crying?’
He said, ‘I have no son left.’
‘What happened to the oldest one?’
‘ He left the village and got settled in the city.’
‘ What about the middle son?’
‘ He got married.’
‘ But your youngest son is neither married nor moved to the city. What happened to him?’
‘ He became a poet’. He said that and started crying again.
After sharing the story my dad laughed and said, ‘ I have only one son and he became a poet.’ And I laughed too.
After I entered medical school, I met many other students who were artists and writers and musicians. We formed a group called ikhwan [brothers] who were artistic but mischievous. It consisted of myself, Noman Haider (cartoonist), Fazle Ameen (poet), Qaiser Khursheed (singer), Riffat Ali (recited scriptures), Abdul Rauf (artist) and Ikram ul Haq (sportsman). We all became quite popular with the girls. Our interaction with them started one day unexpectedly when one of our teachers Dr. Zain-ul-abedeen could not come to teach and Dr. Qazi Yousaf came to our class as a replacement. He was in no mood to teach. He just wanted to kill the hour so he asked the class what could be done. Fazle-amin suggested we should have a mushaira [poetry recital].
‘Who is the poet in this class?’ he asked.
‘ Sohail’ Noman answered.
‘ Sohail, please stand up’, and I stood up at the back of the class.
‘ Please come down and read us a few poems’.
So I came downstairs and stood in front of the girls, as girls used to sit in the front two rows.
I shared with them that I had gone for taraveeh [prayers] to the mosque the night before and since the prayers were long and boring, I composed a couple of ghazals while I was praying. The whole class laughed, listening to the introduction, not knowing whether I was joking or serious. When I read my poems, everybody enjoyed. The next morning I found a couplet on the board written in a feminine handwriting:
Jo warid hoan ghazlain taraveeh ka under
To hoti nahin wo taraveeh taraveeh
(If you compose poems in your prayers, your prayers are not accepted)
My original poem also had the same rhythm and rhyme ghulabi ghulabi,
piazi piazi. I was pleasantly surprised to read that. Later on, I found out that all the girls in our class had a meeting and decided to respond, as they liked my poem. The group flirting that started between ikhwan and the girls was through poetry. It continued for the next four years while we were in the medical school. For the first couple of years I wrote humorous poetry, but when I started attending the labor room and met female patients who were struggling with their gynecological, obstetric, social and family problems, I started writing serious poems about women’s issues. I wrote poems about menses, pregnancy, delivery, placenta, abortion and other similar issues.
Such poems received mixed reviews. Some thought they were obscene poems, others thought they were vague and obscure. I had an interesting reaction when I read my poem The Red Circle for the first time in public. It was during the annual function and there was a big mushaira arranged in which some famous poets were invited. Among the judges were Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Mohsin Ehsan, Khatir Ghaznavi and Ahmad Faraz. In the first part students came and shared their poetry. When my name was called there was a pin drop silence in the hall that contained nearly five hundred people.
Everybody was quiet when I came on the stage.
Everybody was quiet when I read my poem.
Everybody was quiet when I finished the poem and went back to my seat.
But everybody clapped for the longest time when I was awarded the first prize, a statue of Venus, for my poem. The translation of the poem is as follows.
THE RED CIRCLE
It’s the seventeenth of the month
I feel confused
My mind…a can of worms
My body…a fish out of water
I ask myself
Should I believe it or not?
Is it true or is it not?
I had been pacing back and forth in the corridors since morning
My mind was full of crazy thoughts
Finally in the afternoon,
I returned to my room, exhausted,
laid down on my bed,
picked up the calendar, turned a page,
and saw a red circle
around the thirteenth of the last month.
But this month…?
Even thinking about it
makes me shudder
I’m scared, I’m shaking
I’m lost, I’m confused
And I keep on thinking
It’s the seventeenth of the month.
The next week when I went to Pakistani Arts Council to meet Ahmad Faraz, he was very complimentary about my poem and stated that it was so original he had not read such a poem in the whole Urdu literature. When my uncle read the poem he also encouraged me to keep on writing about women’s issues based on my professional experiences while working in women’s hospital. He admired my unique style and asked me not to worry about people’s reactions.
The Red Circle established me as a serious poet in the medical school. People recognized me when my poems, stories and essays were published in the college annual magazine Seena ( in memory of famous Muslim physician Aviceena). When my story KISS was published, there was such a strong reaction that nurses in the hospital did not talk to me for a few months. I was upset because the story was mis-understood by them. That was the moment I realized that creative communication was as important as creative expression. Misunderstanding of my story bothered me. I also realized that I liked to write about controversial subjects that upset other people. I became aware that genuine writers wrote about issues that common people did not want to think about and intellectuals challenged and confronted the public and forced them to do some soul-searching about their hypocritical lifestyles. I had learnt that lesson from Saadat Hasan Minto.
When I was in my fourth year, I was asked to edit the Urdu section of the magazine that was a great honour for me. When I presented a secular perspective rather than a religious perspective, that the magazine was used to in the past, the religious students got so offended by the magazine that they burnt a few copies. That experience made me ponder over the issue of freedom of expression and the right to write. In the magazine I had chosen to put quotations of Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud and Socrates, rather than verses from Quran and sayings of religious leaders. The most controversial was the article in which the writer had suggested that the Holy War in Islam should be fought with the pen and not with the sword and we should end bloodbaths on the name of religion and not kill people in the name of God. Some extremist Muslims were offended by that perspective. I believed that we needed a democratic environment in universities where people could express their opinion without worrying about the consequences and we should respect other people’s opinion even if we did not agree with them. That was the lesson I had learnt from my dad and uncle. Gradually I realized that being an honest writer could be a dangerous business. I became aware that in that religious and traditional environment if I kept on writing openly and honestly, I could land up in jail or a mental asylum. There was a strong negative reaction when people read my poem Lesbian. During my studies in the medical school, I met a number of other medical students who were good writers. Some of them who impressed me were Dennis Isaac, Perveen Azeem, Manzar Hussain Manzar and Qazi Faseeh.
After finishing medical school in 1975, I was not involved in literary activities for almost a decade. In 1976, I went to Iran, in 1977 came to Newfoundland to Memorial University to do my Fellowship in psychiatry and then in 1981 moved to New Brunswick to work as a psychiatrist so that I could be eligible for Canadian Immigration. During all those years I kept on writing poems and stories privately but I was cut off from the mainstreams of Pakistani as well as Canadian literature. I had focused on my professional studies and doing a lot of soul-searching. In Newfoundland I had two friends, Dr. Mohammad Nazir and Dr. Ashok Malla with whom I could discuss literature and philosophy. Dr. Malla also helped me in my studies to become a psychotherapist. In Newbrunswick, I used to share my poems with Mansoor who also wrote some prose poetry and had a keen interest in Urdu literature.
After getting my Fellowship in Psychiatry and getting a well paying job, I was ready to pursue my literary career. I was quietly writing for more than a decade and I was ready to publish my poems and stories, but I knew that the centers of literature were Montreal, Toronto and New York. I could not practice in Montreal as I did not know French and I did not want to go to New York as I preferred Canada, with her socialist and humanist philosophy. I did not want to live in a capitalist America that had thirty million people with no health insurance. I also had great difficulties becoming a citizen of a country that had an oppressive and unjust foreign policy. I liked Canada, which like Scandinavian countries believed in world peace.
The new chapter of my literary career started unexpectedly in the fall of 1983, when Mansoor returned from his trip to Pakistan. I went to see him in his hostel in Fredericton. While he was busy making tea, I saw Urdu International, a literary magazine on his desk.
“ Where did you get this magazine from?”
“ From Toronto.”
“ Do you know the editor Ashfaq Hussain?”
“ No, I don’t.”
“ Then how did you get the magazine?” I was curious.
“ By fluke. When I was leaving Karachi someone gave me a gift and requested me to deliver it to their friend Bazmi Sahib in Missisauga. When I went to see him, he told me that his son-in-law Ashfaq Hussain edited a magazine and gave me a copy of Urdu International.”
“ What do you think of the magazine?”
“ It is wonderful. High quality. High standard. Professionally done. The best part is that it focuses on Urdu literature created by writers living in the West, outside the mainstream of India and Pakistan. It is a good way of being introduced to Urdu writers living in Europe and North America. Why don’t you send your stories and poems to him to be published?”
So I took the magazine, read it, liked it and sent a story Paki and a couple of ghazals to Ashfaq. I was pleasantly surprised when I received a long letter from Ashfaq, in which he shared with me, that he was going to publish my story in his magazine. He told me that there were many Urdu poets in North America but not very many short story writers. He expressed his opinion that the problems of immigrant families were so complex that fiction might be a better way to creatively express their dilemmas and dreams rather than poetry. He asked me that if I ever visited Toronto, I should call him. He wanted to meet with me. I was quite thrilled to get this encouraging letter.
Interestingly enough, after a couple of months, I happened to fly to Toronto, to attend a conference. When I called Ashfaq from my hotel, he was quite excited to talk to me and asked me to come to his Big Ben Travel Agency in downtown to have lunch with him. When I entered his office, I was surprised to meet a young, tall and handsome man who was quite sophisticated in his mannerisms.
“ I was expecting a grey-haired, middle-aged man” I told him.
“ Let’s get out of this business atmosphere and have a leisurely lunch”, and we stepped out of his office.
When we sat down in a restaurant in the nearby shopping mall, he asked me, “ What would you like to drink?”
“ What are you going to have?”
“ A cold beer”
“ I usually don’t drink alcohol. Since it is a special occasion, I will order a glass of white wine.”
I was pleasantly surprised that we got connected at some deeper level in a short time. Ashfaq told me that he had a number of acquaintances but no close friends. He shared that his closest friend, who was a short story writer in Pakistan died at a young age. Ashfaq seemed to be grieving about him. He was also sad about the death of his American friend Zafar Zaidi, who died after he donated his kidney to his sister. The sister had recovered but he died of complications. In the end of the conversation, I felt as if Ashfaq was asking, “ I am looking for close friends. Would you be my best friend?”
I listened to him quietly and attentively and smiled. I did not know what to say, as I did not know him very well.
During lunch I shared with him that I had already compiled one collection of poems and another collection of short stories. Both were ready to be published. Ashfaq encouraged me to move to Toronto and reassured me that he would help me edit, publish and distribute my books with his magazine all over the world. He also told me that that there was a Writers’ Forum in Toronto and the members met regularly every month. He thought I would be a great addition to the writers group in Toronto especially being a fiction writer. I felt so excited in that meeting that I decided to leave Saint John and move to Toronto.
Later on, in the evening, the more I thought about Toronto, the more I had a strong desire to leave New Brunswick. I had lived there for two years but never felt connected to the city or the province. I felt existentially alone and creatively lonely. There was no university, no cultural get togethers, and no literary activities. But to move to Toronto I needed a job. I never liked big cities so I did not want to live in downtown Toronto. The next day I asked my psychiatric colleagues which was the closest psychiatric hospital to Toronto. I found out that there was one in Whitby. So I decided to go to Whitby and explore. I called the hospital and Mary Katinski, the secretary of Psychiatrist in Chief, Dr. Peter Chang, gave me directions.
When I arrived at the hospital, I wandered around. I was pleasantly surprised to see the hospital built on Lake Ontario. I could see the beautiful
trees, sea gulls and Canada geese all around. It looked more like a summer resort than a mental asylum. There were cottages all over. The hospital seemed to have spread for than 100 acres area. When I met Dr. Chang, I introduced myself and shared with him that I was a psychiatrist who had fallen in love with the hospital environment and wanted to work there. He smiled and said, “ You can start tomorrow, Dr. Sohail. We are looking for a psychiatrist.” I was pleasantly shocked with his invitation. I told him that I would like to go back to Saint John, New Brunswick, resign from my previous job and then join Whitby Hospital”.
“ So when would you be able to join our hospital?” he was curious.
“ Maybe January 15th, 1984” I suggested.
“ That is fine with me.” Then he asked his secretary to do all the formalities. I was quite pleased with the warm welcome I received. I never thought I would get the job so easily. I remember someone had told me, when we are ready, things appear. While I was flying back to New Brunswick, I was fantasizing about my books being published in Toronto and distributed all over the world. It seemed a new milestone in my creative journey.
After I went back to Saint John, I wrote my resignation and presented it to the personnel department of the hospital. The next day, I was invited for an interview with our psychiatrist-in-chief Dr. John Theriault. He was quite surprised to receive my unexpected resignation.
“ Why are you resigning?’ he was curious.
“ I want to move to Toronto to start my literary career as a poet and a short story writer. I met a poet, publisher and editor Ashfaq Hussain, who is going to help me publish my books”.
“ Dr. Sohail!” Dr. Theriault laughed loud with a touch of cynicism. “ You are a well qualified psychiatrist, a professional. Why do you want to waste time with poetry”.
“ Waste time. That is my passion, my dream” I felt offended.
“ Psychiatrists help people. They heal the suffering souls. Poets live in the fantasy world. Poetry is for recreation, escaping from reality, for entertainment.”
“ Dr. Theriault! You never read my poetry. How can you say all that?”
“ All poets are alike. Day-dreamers. I used to read them when I was a teenager. Nobody reads poetry anymore. It has gone out of fashion. It is teen age stuff.”
“ I rather not discuss poetry with you. The bottom line is that I would like to leave this hospital and go to Ontario to start a new phase of my life.”
Suddenly I saw Dr. Theriault getting upset. He was not getting his way. He thought he would intimidate me to take my resignation back. When I did not yield, he got aggressive. He said, “ Dr. Sohail! When you started the job, the Government of New Brunswick gave you a $25,000 bonus for serving the province for two years.”
“ Yes, that is right. I joined the hospital in October 1981, and now it is October 1983. I have already served for two years. I have already fulfilled my promise.”
“ But you got your Fellowship in Psychiatry in May 1982. So you have five more months to serve.’
“ That is not fair. I had promised only two years of service. It had nothing to do with my Fellowship”
“ You have two choices. Either serve till May 1984 and if you leave in December 1983, then pay us $5000 back.”
I was quite aware that I had received tax-free money and with that money bought a Transam, a red sports-car, and helped my mother buy a house in Pakistan. Since I was in 50% tax-bracket, being a single professional, five thousand meant ten thousand. There was a moment of silence, and in that moment the poet in me woke up. I got up, quietly took out the wallet from my pocket, wrote a $5000 cheque and put it in on the table in front of Dr. Theriault. He looked shocked. He could not believe his eyes. I looked at Dr. Theriault and said, “ If you had requested me respectfully, I might have stayed, but not now. I hope you never challenge a poet ever again”. And I left his office. A few days later I heard that Dr. Theriault had a heart attack and died.
In the first week of January 1984, I and my friend Raja, drove from Saint John, New Brunswick, to Whitby Ontario. We stayed in a local motel and the next day I found a three-bedroom penthouse on the twenty first floor to rent. I was pleased to find a place to live, only a few minutes from the hospital.
I was quite excited to meet the writers and intellectuals of Toronto, but I was quite disappointed when I attended the first meeting of Writers’ Forum. It started with the recitation of Quran and ended with members expressing their nationalistic feelings. After the meeting when Ashfaq and I met for a cup of coffee, I shared my surprise with him. I told him that I believed in secular and humanistic values and in my mind literature transcended religious and nationalistic boundaries. He said he agreed with me philosophically but Writers’ Forum reflected the views and attitudes of its membership. I could foresee that sooner or later, I would come in conflict with the philosophy and practice of Writers’ Forum. I did not know that the conflict would start sooner than later. In the second meeting when I was asked to present a short story and I read Roots, Branches, Fruits, some of the members walked out. When they were asked the reason they said, “ Sohail should have been careful about his language as he was reading in the mixed company. He should not have mentioned ‘menses’ and ‘ masturbation’ in his story.”
Ashfaq Hussain liked the story so much, he published it in his magazine “ Urdu International”. Publishing that story created a social conflict for Ashfaq. Some people got so angry with him that they boy-cotted him and never bought their tickets from his travel agency. It did not take me long to realize that the Muslim community in Toronto was quite conservative and traditional. They had strong religious, ethnic and religious biases even prejudices and it was very difficult to have an open and honest dialogue about God, religion, sex and other significant but controversial aspects of life.
As time passed Ashfaq and I became close friends. He was quite encouraging of other writers and artists and enjoyed inviting writers from India and Pakistan. He arranged for their North American trips. In the first trip across Canada, I joined Ashfaq and our guest poets that included Perveen Shakir, Amjad Islam Amjad, Jameel-ud-din Aali and Ali Sardar Jafri. It was quite an exciting and amusing trip. In one city Amjad Islam Amjad and I were staying in one house. The host was a young Pakistani who had offered his house for us to stay. When I introduced him to Amjad Islam Amjad, he did not know who Amjad was. Amjad Islam Amjad being one of the most popular and famous writers was shocked. Since he was most well known for his television serial Waris, he mentioned to the young man, “ You must have seen Waris on television?’
‘ Which Waris?’ He did not even know it was the name of an actor or a play. Amjad looked hurt. I tried to share with Amjad Islam Amjad that those people who had been living in Canada for more than a decade gradually had lost touch with the mainstream television plays of Pakistan.
The next day when we met for breakfast, Perveen Shakir shared what had happened in the house she was staying in. She had asked the little girl, “ How many people live here?’
“ Five” she responded.
“ Who are five?” as Perveen could only see four.
“ My mom, my dad, my sister, I and God.”
The mushaira (poetry recital) was wonderful. Hall was full. There must be nearly five hundred people in the hall and they all had bought tickets to listen to the poets. The function was video-taped. Later on, I found out, that organizers were quite upset with my poetry because it was in conflict with their religious and moral values. They unanimously decided not to ever invite me again after listening to one of my short poems. The translation is as follows.
She came for a casual chat
And created a big commotion
She came for an evening tea
And we had breakfast together.
The organizers felt my poetry was going to corrupt the minds of young people. So I was black-listed in that city.
Ashfaq and I developed a creativo-genic relationship. I helped him with his magazine urdu international and he helped me in publishing my first collection of poems talaash (searching) and collection of stories, zindagi main khala (emptiness in life). He distributed those books with the magazine to his readers all over the world and I received very complimentary letters from the four corners of world. It was my serious introduction to the Urdu world.
Living in Toronto and attending literary meetings helped me to get to know a number of Urdu writers. The first group was local writers that included, Abid Jafri, Nuzhat Siddiqi, Baidar Bakht, Josh Mandozai, Jamal Zubeiry and a few others. The second group was Urdu writers living in other cities of Canada that included, Nasim Syed, Shaheen, Abdul Qavi Zia, Farooq Hasan and many more. After the initial reaction to my secular views and humanistic lifestyle, writers started to accept me for who I was. My philosophy was no longer a secret and I did not have to hide it anymore. Gradually we developed a relationship of mutual respect. Many of them were quite intrigued with my ideas and my writings.
Getting involved with urdu international provided me with an opportunity to creatively connect with Urdu writers living in Europe and North America and inspired me to meet them personally and have some joint projects with them. The first step in that direction was my trip to New York with Ashfaq.
One evening Ashfaq shared with me a poem he had received from New York to be considered for urdu international. The poem was written by Jawaid Danish. It was a wonderful poem. I strongly recommended it for publication in the magazine. I had a desire to meet Jawaid Danish, so the next month when Ashfaq told me that Humaira Rehman, another talented poet had invited us to New York, I joined Ashfaq. It was interesting that at the gate of the hall, the hosts did not recognize me and asked me for admission ticket and I paid ten dollars without telling them that I was the guest poet from Toronto. Later on when someone who had recognized me, told Humaira, she felt embarrassed. I shared with her that the people at the door were innocent, as they did not recognize me.
It was interesting that while I was looking for Danish on one end of the hall, he was looking for me at the other end of the hall. He had read my short story Paki, while I had read his poem Main kay tera pehla lams nahin hoon (I am not your first romantic touch). Finally we were thrilled to discover each other in the middle of the hall. Danish also had a beard. I later found out that he was a playwright and an actor. He was involved with radio programs in India. He was the only one who could speak Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and English. I was quite impressed by his talent and charming personality. We became friends within no time and decided to do some projects together. He took some of my stories and with the help of another Punjabi writer and radio artist Rani Nigander prepared an audio-cassette. We both had pictures on the cover. It was amusing that since we looked alike, because of our beards, people confused us with each other. Friendship with Danish grew stronger when he moved to Toronto and he stayed with me for a while.
Over the years Toronto became an important centre for the activities of Urdu world and credit went to Ashfaq. I met many Urdu writers and critics from India that I would have never met otherwise. Some of them who were very kind and affectionate towards me included Mohammad Hassan, Qamar Raees, Sharib Rudaulvi, Jogendar Paul and Gopi Chand Narang. Mohammad Hassan had a special section about my poetry and fiction in his well-respected magazine asri adab [contemporary literature].Some of those writers were also generous enough to give me interviews. When Danish and I visited India to publish our collection of translations, we were warmly received in Calcutta and Delhi. My visit to Calcutta was especially significant because there I met Zahir Anwer, who I felt was one of the most talented and inspiring writers and intellectuals of our generation. When he visited Toronto, we became such good friends that we started calling each other our alter-egos. I always wished we lived in the same city and could have intellectually stimulating discussions every evening.
While I was broadening my literary horizons, I started translating world literature in Urdu. Danish helped me a lot in that project and we published a number of anthologies: translations of Black Literature, Arab-Israeli Literature and world folk tales. When Danish and I went to Delhi, the vice chancellor of the university came to attend the meeting and said in his speech, “ I came to see those two writers from different countries, who work and create together.” I thought that was one of the greatest compliments Danish and I could have received for our creative friendship. It was especially valuable when we saw other writers being jealous and trying to back-stab each other.
Alongside translating world literature, I was also inspired to interview writers and intellectuals from India and Pakistan when they visited Toronto. I have interviewed nearly fifty writers and published two anthologies so far, Literary Encounters and People who travel on trails. Gradually I got interested in the psychology of creative process and biographies of creative people. I have also been working on the relationship between creativity and insanity.
After traveling in North America, I traveled to Europe and attended a number of conferences and met many Urdu writers who became my dear friends. In 1989 we had a conference of 14 writers in Stockholm, Sweden. Sain Sucha was generous enough to host the conference and then publish the proceedings of the conference in the form of a book titled Search for identity. Because of those travels and conferences now I have dear and creative friends like Abrar Hasan in France, Asad Mufti in Holland, Nasar Malik in Denmark, Masood Munawar (and late Saeed Ajum) in Norway, and Sain Sucha and Ahmed Faqih in Sweden. Now I call them the family of my heart. They are a great source of consultation and inspiration for me.
After exploring the Urdu world, I wanted to get introduced to the literary scene of Canada. The first step for me was to become part of the Harbour Front series as they had weekly meetings in Toronto and once a year had an International festival of Writers. Gradually I became one of their Patron members. In those meetings I had the opportunity to listen to writers like Salamn Rushdie, Anita Desai, Bharati Mukherjee, Michael Odatjee, Rohinton Mistry, Wole Soyenki, Albert Manuel and many more. It is always exciting to listen to them read their master-pieces.
After my short stories and poems were translated in English and I also started creating in English, I received two unexpected invitations. The first one was from Nelson Canada. They wanted to include my short story Island in their anthology for Canadian high school students. When I received the anthology Global Safari…Reading In World Fiction, I could not believe my eyes that my name was included among Anton Chekov, Heinrich Boll and Nadine Gordimer. That was one of the high points of my literary journey.
The second surprise invitation was from Chicago. The Generic Institute had asked seven writers from diverse cultural backgrounds to share their writings. They included five of my poems in their anthology Seven Angels under my pseudonym Darvesh (a mystic traveler). Each writer had a special symbol. Mine was a lighthouse. It was humorous that an atheist was included in the list of angels.
In the last decade I was also inspired to make a few documentaries based on my books. That inspiration came when I met Fuad Chaudhry, a documentary director from Bangladesh, Moeen Jamal from Pakistan and Taey Abdur Rahem from Egypt on different mental health issues. Those documentaries were presented in many professional conferences in Canada.
In the last few years there are a number of writers that moved to Toronto from other countries. Some of them are Munir Pervaiz, Ikram Brelvi, Shakila Rafiq and Dennis Isaac. I have been discussing writing screen plays and producing television films with Dennis Isaac, Rimmel Khan and Moeen Jamal and looking forward to producing tele-plays.
After writing poetry, fiction and essays for nearly three decades I became aware that those creations had been a bridge between my biography and philosophy. So I started writing essays that combined my philosophy and biography. The first effort was by book From Islam To Secular Humanism. While I was looking for an editor, I met Bill Belfontaine and he agreed not only to edit it, but also publish it. I was quite impressed by his professional attitude and a sincere personality. Bill introduced me to his team, which included the artist Karen Pathevick, distributor Bill Hushion and publicist Darlene Montgomery. Publishing From Islam To Secular Humanism…a philosophical journey was a major milestone in my creative journey. Having a number of television, radio and newspaper interviews with mainstream journalists was an exciting experience for me.
A couple of years ago when I flew to Pakistan to interview Javed Iqbal Moghul, convicted of killing one hundred children, I never thought I would write a book about the psychology of psychopaths. In that book my creative and professional writings embraced each other. In my Secular Humanism book I had highlighted the profile of saints and mystic while in my book The Myth Of the Chosen One I discussed the profile of serial killers and mass murderers. Those two books portrayed two extremes of human condition.
Gradually I am realizing that my writing style and discipline have evolved. I feel as if finally I have discovered my voice. It seems at the age of fifty I have reached a stage in my life where my personal, social, professional and creative lives are getting integrated. When I shared with Bill Belfontaine that I have developed a Green Zone Model and Philosophy based on my clinical practice he was very excited to publish a series of books for improving mental health and relationships. Now he is in the midst of publishing The Art of Living/Loving/Working In Your Green Zone series. I feel as if I have met a publisher who believes in my writings and we have mutual respect and admiration. Like two friends we are bringing out the best in each other. I have been waiting for such a relationship for a long time. Now I am thrilled to share my philosophy of life and therapy and he is excited to publish them. We have developed a creative-o-genic relationship that inspires both of us.
Dear Abbas ! I feel quite fortunate that I am still traveling on my creative journey. The spark of creativity in my heart rather than turning into ashes is transforming into flames.