By Irfan Aslam

October 28, 2022  Updated about 12 hours ago


LAHORE: “When I write short stories, I keep all the elements of fiction in mind. Reality has no organisation or a proper pattern. However, my stories are based on real life and first-hand experiences,” says Punjabi short story writer and poet Zubair Ahmad when asked about strong autobiographical elements in his works. He quotes Albert Camus as having said: “fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth”.

An English translation of his short stories has been published under the title of Grieving for Pigeons.

According to Zubair, the stories in the book are original translations by Anne Murphy, a professor at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, whom he met for the first time in 2014 regarding Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature.

“I have strong nostalgia for the Lahore of the 1970s where youth was politically vibrant because afterwards there was nothing like that. The phenomenon went on during the 1980s or maximum the 1990s. Later, it went missing. The Lahore of the last 30 years is totally different from the earlier Lahore. There is so much noise and population now.”

Talking more about the element of memories in his short stories collection, Zubair says all his stories start from the present. He explains that in his story, Dead Man’s Float, the main character goes to his old Mohallah (Krishan Nagar) but finds everything changed and he does not come across even a single old acquaintance.

“Suddenly, he notices a familiar face (of a woman) passing by him in a car, who also notices him. He regrets not talking to her, ruing the fact that she did not stop the car just to say hello. The same character goes to Rome (just like Zubair himself) and then returns. So my stories are more than mere nostalgia; they have both the present and the past.”

Divulging more details, he says there was a political awakening in the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and everybody got affected by it, especially the students, as Bhutto gave them a voice. He reduced the bus fare for the students and would mention them in every address to the farmers and workers.

“The intellectuals were also affected by Bhutto’s movement. Faiz Sahib was very active. The Alhamra Art Centre was being built,” he recalled.

Zubair went on to say that the Lahore city of the 1970s was vibrant due to the presence of the Pak Tea House, YMCA, Peju Café, Cheney’s Lunch Home, Capri and Cabana restaurants along Anarkali.

“You could find any writer of fame at night there. There were certain tables occupied by Intizar Hussain, Kishwar Naheed, Faiz Sahib. There was a separate company of Punjabi writers, including Shafqat Tanvir Mirza, Asif Khan, Raja Rasalu and others of the ilk.”

Zubair was a student of FA in the Islamia College Civil Lines (DAV College before the Partition) in 1973-74. He remembers that he was fond of reading since childhood and had used Anna Library (small libraries that were tucked in every street and corner of the city), consuming all available Urdu literature.

“Somehow I reached Halqa Arbab-i-Zauq where I met Irfan Malik (Punjabi poet) and started frequenting the places.”

The Pak Tea House was near Krishan Nagar where he lived and it would take 20 to 25 minutes to reach there on foot. “Everybody used to walk then. People did not take buses for distances they could cover on foot. There was no pollution or noise. The city used to be serene, calm and quiet by 8pm.”

Krishan Nagar has a strong presence in Zubair’s fiction. Describing the vibrant locality, he goes on to say that many people from the world of art and literature, actors, singers and announcers of the PTV used to live in Krishan Nagar while Basant used to be a big festival there.

The era of vibrancy of Lahore was followed by political disillusionment that’s evident in the stories in the Grieving for Pigeons.

“Political disillusionment is not only of Lahore but of the whole Pakistan because those who took part in the movement for Pakistan could not achieve their objectives. We could not get even a crippled democracy or the democracy in just the name in this country. In the title story, Grieving for Pigeons, when a student was arrested for political reasons, his mother decided to send him abroad until the country got free. At this, the narrator poses a question, asking how many times we would have to struggle for freedom.”

Talking about the start of his writing career, Zubair says he started writing short stories in 1990 and his three books contained about 40 short stories, 12 of which have been translated by Anne Murphy. Zubair is all praise for his other translators, including Moazzam Sheikh and Nirupma Dutt, who had translated his stories earlier for anthologies.

Regarding his writing technique and concept of short story, Zubair says, “A short story is a history of time. There is a theme and subject of time in all my stories, which keeps running and changing and haunts you always. The short story, Bajwa Has Nothing to Say Now, is about changing Lahore, friendships and relationships.”

Zubair grew up in a house in Krishan Nagar and spent about 25 years of his life there. The family had to suddenly leave the place as they came to know that the house was not their own as it had three or four partners.

“I got so much disturbed psychologically that I did not go back to that house, street, and even Krishan Nagar for the next 10 years. Then I wrote all these stories. Whenever I go there even now, I feel like a stranger as people got scattered while old houses were sold. Only a couple of people I know live there now.”

Zubair stresses that works of Punjabi or any other regional languages of the country should be translated into English to reach a wider audience, saying that Naguib Mahfouz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez would have been unknown if they were not translated into English. “Intizar Hussain’s one book was translated and it reached the Booker Prize. We are living in a global village, whether real or fake.”

He says English is a prestigious language and the language of power, followed by Urdu which has been made the national language of the country while Punjabi comes after it.

“Anthologies of short stories and poetry written in Punjabi should be translated into English. In East Punjab, Punjabi writers are being translated by English Literature departments of the universities; however, the departments here are doing nothing in this regard.”

To the question of the English language becoming a tool for colonial and post-colonial rulers in Pakistani context, Zubair argues that there is a difference between education policy and language policy and we never made a language policy. He suggests that there should be a language policy in Punjab, with the mother tongue as the medium of instruction at primary level, followed by Urdu and English and no language should be snubbed.

The Grieving for Pigeons took about a decade to translate as Anne Murphy and Zubair Ahmad collaborated to make the translation perfect.

Besides short stories collections, Zubair is the author of two Punjabi poetry collections, a translation and a collection of essays. Two of his books were finalists in the Dhahan Prize.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2022