Sunday, November 1, 2020

The multiple worlds of Ashraf Shad

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How one can excel in an explicitness-demanding field like journalism and a life-imitating (and smoke-and-mirror type) universe like fiction writing is a mystery that is not easy to solve, much less having the ability to be a journalist-fiction writer par excellence.

One can certainly name the likes of Dickens, Marquez Garcia, and Hemmingway, but the list is short. There is not much common between these authors in terms of the subject matter and technique, but one can point out one common thread: They all left their countries to experience life abroad and wrote journalism before writing fiction.

So did the Sydney-based writer, Ashraf Shad. To put it in another way: If there is someone who has written in more genres and disciplines than most of the trans-disciplinary authors, it must be, in my view, a Pakistani. Ashraf Shad is his name.

Read more: Journalism: How a noble profession is disgraced

It is hard to list his intellectual engagements, but a few should suffice; poet, short story writer, reporter, broadcaster, opinion writer, novelist, researcher, and conversationalist. The list is incomplete, I can assure you.

An outsider

Shad came to national prominence when in 1997 his very first novel BeWatan was given the highest literary award by the Pakistan government. Shad’s winning the award surprised many including himself, “At that time, I lived in Sydney. I was not part of Pakistan’s literary scene. I have never been. . .,” he said, drinking coffee with me in the Queen Victoria Building (QVB), Sydney’s famous architectural landmark in the heart of the city.

In other words, Shad has been an outsider since he began his life as a journalist in Karachi where he was a reporter, editor, publisher, and printer. “Those were younger days and I was filled with energy, willing to lock horns with anyone.”

There are at least a dozen books waiting to be published, and with age, he has not slowed down. Add to it the Urdu Society of Australia that he founded two decades ago and whose monthly meetings he organizes

Horns he did lock and paid a price. During Zia ul Haq’s martial law, life became difficult for everyone. Publishers and printers were threatened, and the recalcitrant ones were rounded off, but Shad defied and continued. He recalled how people would come from Lahore and Rawalpindi with their manuscripts because Shad had not obeyed the martial orders, “Most of the authors who visited me in Karachi with their manuscripts were unknown to me. They had heard about me from my friends or had brought messages from my friends. Those authors included my friends too. Regardless of who they were, I had only one criterion to publish them: progressive work.”

But the hand of martial reached him too. He was banned as a publisher and printer. He could not get published either, but he continued to be an anti-martial law activist. The result was his incarceration.

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After spending a few months in prison, Shad was allowed to leave to spend some time with his family. At that time, he decided to go into self-exile. He chose not to go to the UK, which was the rallying point of Pakistan’s exiled and self-exiled community. Instead, he landed in New York. Looking back, he thinks it was the best possible decision, “In the UK, the exiles more or less wasted their time. On an intuitive impulse, I decided to go to New York where I faced poverty with courage.”

Multiple worlds

His American experience was a catalyst in making him a novelist. His interaction with the Pakistanis there provided him with ideas and characters to write two novels, Mr President and Mr Prime Minister. “I had one eye on the Pakistanis and various Pakistan-related happenings in the United States while my other eye was on developments in Pakistan,” he said. The novels make predictions about Pakistan which a reader will find astounding.

After New York, Shad lived in Bahrain, the UAE, Brunei, and Australia with his neuroscientist wife Dr Kaneez Fatima. All these countries were mini universes that offered him a variety of experiences that helped him make sense of his own place there. He had different incarnations there: researcher, editor, broadcaster, consultant, and wanderer. Yes, a full-time wanderer in Brunei where I met him for the first time.

Shad is well-respected by Pakistan’s literary elite, but if he is not a household name like so many ‘pop lit’ figures, it is because he writes in the literary tradition and would not stoop down to the level where he has to be a crowd-pleaser type

These countries were not the only worlds were Shad found himself. There were other worlds he has been living in and living alone despite being surrounded by family and friends. He has inhabited the worlds of poetry, fiction, journalism, and solitariness. He is the author of 14 published books. There are at least a dozen books waiting to be published, and with age, he has not slowed down. Add to it the Urdu Society of Australia that he founded two decades ago and whose monthly meetings he organizes. One can go on and on.

Defying convention

Shad is well-respected by Pakistan’s literary elite, but if he is not a household name like so many ‘pop lit’ figures, it is because he writes in the literary tradition and would not stoop down to the level where he has to be a crowd-pleaser type. But those who have read his works know how superior a writer he is. Writers like Iftikhar Arif and Ahmad Faraz have been his admirers.

Read more: Assault on (foreign funded) Journalism in Pakistan.

Shad told me that he is writing his memoir which will be a documentation of political-literary happenings in Pakistan as he witnessed them. I was left wondering if I could think of a literary genre in which he had not written.

Abbas Zaidi is a writer. His latest book is The Infidels of Mecca. He tweets at @HussainiZaidi. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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