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The Loss of Literature

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By Anjum Altaf

How much do we lose when we lose literature. We confuse ideas, reinvent things that have existed for centuries and claim credit for them, yield ownership to others for what is really ours, fail to recognize what is happening in front of our eyes, lose track of the founts of knowledge and make fools of ourselves. That, and so much more, has happened since schools dropped the teaching of literature in Pakistan.

Let me illustrate the point with two examples. What a wonderful idea it was to end poverty in Pakistan once and for all by distributing a cock and four* hens to every household. For no good reason of logic but simply political angst, the idea was ridiculed across the board and various chicken memes proliferated across the screens. Valiant attempts by the Ministry of Truth to link the idea to the great and legendary Mr. William (aka Bill) Gates floundered as the momentum was lost. Instead, the charge of kowtowing to foreign ideas instead of relying on indigenous traditions was added to the ever-expanding list of grievances.

All this misfortune could have been avoided and the country launched on the road to prosperity with just a modicum of literary awareness. Almost everyone born before the ban on literature knew that the wonderful chicken-and-egg scheme had nothing to do with the honourable Mr. William (aka Bill) Gates. It was entirely the vision of one Sufi Abd-ur-Razak (aka Sheikh Chilli) who was very much one of us (circa 1650) and, even though buried across enemy lines at Thanesar, Haryana, was at least a part of the great Islamic ummah.

Now Sheikh Chilli was considered a great Darwesh (he was the master of Dara Shikoh, son of the great Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame) and known for his wisdom and simplicity. He specialized in making castles in the air like a lot of other people. On being charged by Shah Jahan to solve the problem of poverty under the Mughal Empire (the poor having always been with us) he had dreamt up the great chicken-and-egg scheme which would certainly have changed the face of the times had he not accidentally woken up.

Consider what a great opportunity has been missed (cock-and-hens turned to cock-and-bull) by the lack of knowledge of literature and history. The scheme was very much an indigenous one (blessed with the provenance of a Sufi Darwesh) and not at all a Western conspiracy. And all it required to deliver the goods was the resolve to not wake up (quite the norm these days) till the chickens had come home to roost.

Let us move on to the short and mighty Napoleon (aka Bonaparte) who has been castigated for losing everything by not making as many U-Turns as mighty leaders ought to make. Here, the loss of literature has led us to a travesty of justice. Napoleon (aka Bonaparte) lost. The stout and mighty Napoleon (aka Comrade) who actually ended up on top by making a whole lot of strategic U-Turns was due to Mr. Eric Arthur Blair (aka George Orwell) and deserved the credit for being the rightful role model.

Let us reiterate for those who have missed them, the Seven Commandments, arrived upon by consensus after due deliberation, with which the revolution, in which Napoleon (aka Protector of the Sheep-fold) was a key player, was launched. “The Commandments were written on the tarred wall in great white letters that could be read thirty yards away”:

  1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
  2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
  3. No animal shall wear clothes.
  4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.
  5. No animal shall drink alcohol.
  6. No animal shall kill any other animal.
  7. All animals are equal.

The revolution was usurped by Napoleon (aka Father of All Animals) who emerged victorious. That was when the U-Turns began in order to keep the revolution alive. Here is what had happened:

“In January, food fell short. The corn ration was drastically reduced, and it was announced that an extra potato ration would be issued to make up for it. Then it was discovered that the greater part of the potato crop had been frosted in the clamps, which had not been covered quickly enough. The potatoes had become soft and discoloured, and only a few were edible. For days at a time the animals had nothing to eat but chaff and mangels. Starvation seemed to stare them in the face.”

Lacking the ability to parachute in a savior with the wisdom and gravitas of Sufi Abd-ur-Razak (aka Sheikh Chilli), Napoleon (aka Terror of Mankind) was reduced to working with asses who advised on nabbing all opponents, confining them to jail, and putting into practice a series of brilliant U-Turns. 

Soon, one by one, the Commandments disappeared till the revolutionaries could see only one left on the tarred wall. It read, in bold letters:

ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL

BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

How much do we lose when we lose literature.

* I am grateful to Razi Azmi for pointing out that four hens make much more sense than five.

First published in The Friday Times on September 6, 2019 and reproduced here with the author’s permission. The writer is also the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 2019.

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