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    'Punjabi is a rare language oppressed by its own elite'

    Harris Khalique tells Adnan Sattar how he came to write in Urdu, Punjabi and English all at the same time

    Harris Khalique is one of the most distinctive and promising voices to have emerged on the Pakistani literary scene in recent years. What distinguishes Harris from his contemporaries is his breadth of vision that transcends traditional poetic concerns to encompass life in its totality. Another remarkable thing about him is that he is bilingual, writing in both English and Urdu with equal command and natural ease.

    Honesty of expression, richness of imagery and precision of language make his poetry immensely beautiful. In an interview with The News on Sunday, Harris speaks about his work and his interests in particular and contemporary literary issues in general.

    The News on Sunday: You hail from a literary family; your father Khalique Ibrahim Khalique is a writer, poet and filmmaker in his own right. Did that tradition contribute to your literary inclinations and creative development?

    Harris Khalique: I owe a lot to my father, my mother, my aunt and my mother's friends and also my schoolteachers, Mr Maya Das and Ms Naheed Sultana Akhtar. At the DJ College, it was Professor Mehboob Ali Khan. There I also wrote my first poem and translated one of Wordsworth's poems into Urdu. Later on, those who effected my creative development include Professor Muhammad Amin Mughal, Michael Etherton and Dr Arif Azad who live in the UK.

    TNS: Which poets provided you with your earliest inspiration?

    HK: I loved nursery rhymes and still do. I had scores of books of nursery rhymes and children's poetry, mostly in English though. When I grew up a little, Iqbal, Nazeer Akbarabadi and Ismail Meeruti became my favourite poets. Ghalib was quoted the most by my father but I discovered him much later. I knew half of Iqbal's Bang-e-Dara -- including all poems for children -- by heart, some of his Persian poems without knowing what they mean and many poems by Nazeer and Meeruti. Shelley was my first love among the English poets. Now I associate more with Ghalib, John Donne, Anna Akhmatova, Czeslaw Milosz, Akhtar-ul-Iman, Faiz, Ibn-e-Insha and Noon Meem Rashid. Iqbal -- with his contradictions and innocence in Baal-e-Jibreel and Javed Nama -- continues to haunt me impress even now.

    TNS: You have written in Urdu, English and Punjabi. Why did you opt to write in languages other than Urdu? Do you feel equally at home in all of them?

    HK: Essentially, one has to feel at home with the idea, thought or feeling one is writing upon. The ideas and feelings are then unconsciously conceived in a particular form, language and idiom, given the linguistic limitations, skills and the cultural milieu of the writer. Urdu remains the dearest and my first language but I can express a lot of things only in English. My forefathers spoke Kashmiri and their future generations settled for Urdu. Why is it an issue now? Many of our classical, sufi or folk poets have been multilingual or bilingual. Besides, English is to me what Persian was to my grandfather: Not only a court language but a language of knowledge and enlightenment. My linguistic habitat is made up of both Urdu and English. I have written a few poems in Punjabi. My current ustaad in languages, Arif Waqar, is neither satisfied by my Urdu nor by my Punjabi. I feel an affinity with the Punjabi language partly because of my mother and her father's family. It is a rare example for a language oppressed by its own elite under historic compulsions who now tend to blame others for that. I was introduced to Bulleh Shah and Mian Muhammad Bukhsh by my maternal grandfather, Sufi Mohammed Saghir Hasan, the only grandparent alive when I was growing up. He was an Amritsar-born, Aligarh-trained, educationist who lived and taught all across northern India, from Sialkot to Allahabad. He was an ardent admirer of Punjab's sufi poetry. Courtesy Sufi Sahib, Bullha remains one of my most favourite poets. Therefore, besides Karachi and Sindh, I contain Oudh, a bit of Kashmir and some Punjab in my psyche.

    TNS: Your worldview as it is reflected in your poetry and otherwise is truly humanistic and cosmopolitan. Do you owe this vision to the Sufi tradition or to the western liberalism or both?

    HK: I think it is both the sufi tradition and my subscription to the political ideas of Marxism.

    TNS: Taufiq Rafat is credited with introducing Pakistani idiom into English verse for the first time. You dedicated your last collection to his memory. Do you see yourself as following in his footsteps?

    HK: I consider him the foremost English language poet Pakistan has produced but I am not really sure how much he has influenced my work. I am equally impressed with Daud Kamal and Maki Kureshi. My natural idiom will be local of course. But thoughts and locations bring their own idiom sometimes.

    TNS: Unlike the general trend, your poetry doesn't betray introversion; you seem to be externalising personal emotions by stating them in the context of the world around you. More often than not, you write of common experiences and places in poetic but down-to-earth terms. Is it something you consciously aim at or is it just a reflection of your extrovert nature?

    HK: I don't aim at anything consciously. Some who are or have been very, very close to me will bet on my introversion. Most see me as open, frank and extrovert. I think the categories are too black and white. The openness hides a lot of intricacies. I am absolutely free-spirited. I think we relate to other human beings in three ways -- physically, emotionally and intellectually -- and should ideally be free in all our relationships and interactions. I seek freedom.

    TNS: Reading other contemporary Pakistani-English poets, one gets the feeling that most of them deliberately try to be abstruse and inaccessible; they produce poetry that may be technically adroit but emotionally dead. Do you agree?

    HK: There's a difference between being abstruse and being inaccessible. Imaginative prose or poetry when complex is not necessarily inaccessible. A serious reader has to make a little effort sometimes. Some poets and writers concentrate more on technique compromising freshness and freedom. But this happens because their mentors lay more emphasis on craft and language, which are acquired, rather than thoughts and feelings, which are evolved. All are important to create poetry though.

    TNS: How do you view the recent upsurge in English literature being produced by writers of South Asian origin? Who are the ones you like among the lot?

    HK: Nissim Ezekiel, Ahmed Ali and Mulk Raj Anand have been around since my parents' childhood and were followed by Dom Moraes, Anita Desai, Rushdie, Seth and Hanif Kureishi. The ones I like include Sara Suleri, Amitav Ghosh and Maniza Naqvi. Among the most recent, both Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie have impressed me with their potential and flare for writing lucid prose. Faisal Butt is a good poet who hasn't published for long.

    TNS: There is an argument that the very categorisation of literature as pertaining to various nationalities and ideologies is fallacious. True literature, the argument goes, transcends all boundaries. Is it erroneous to speak of South Asian literature and Post-Colonial literature?

    HK: Any literature is rooted in a linguistic or cultural tradition. When we say it transcends a particular tradition, we accept that it did emanate from one. However, some literature coming from any category or any tradition is 'universal' whereas the most of it remains 'local' and 'time-bound'. But it is all 'real', all 'true'. As far as these categories are concerned, they are devised to define what may seldom be precisely understood. But this effort is crucial. Though academic it has to be respected.

    TNS: You have travelled a lot over the past few years. Did that exposure to new lands and cultures feed into your poetry?

    HK: I think it did. Travel enriches you. As yet, no virtual reality of a distant land can be created.

    Mir Sahib said khaam rehta haiy aadmi ghar mein/pukhta kaari taeen safar hai shart. While enjoying the differences in communities and social orders I have also discovered the amazing similarities in human societies, the complexity of emotions and the simplicity of needs.

    TNS: Is the practice of poetry central to your life or are there more important things?

    HK: It is central. But the diversity of experience and knowledge gained through various means enriches any creative expression.

    TNS: Tell us something about your recently published book of Urdu poems.

    HK: It is titled Purani Numaish and contains about forty poems. Irfan Ahmad Khan and Asif Farrukhi have published it from Scheherzade and Tarique Rehman Fazlee has designed it. Themes are diverse and the book is divided into five sections. Nevertheless, I believe in the fact that all poetry is love poetry.

    How can a man die better than facing fearful odds for the ashes of his fathers and the Temple of his Gods?