No hint of morning hoarseness is found in his voice, which is as composed as his demeanor in the photograph where he stands before a house built with his own hands. Its soaring walls with hexagonal holes, bordered with stained windows are reminiscent of a grandeur Muslim fort or mosque. As he stood, draped in a Khaddar shawl, in the tall, arched doorway of his magnificent red brick Kothi, his pensive eyes smiled into the camera. At 42, his hair already has highlights of grey.
“There are three items I’ve never carried with myself in life.” Ali Akbar Natiq puts stress on the word ‘never’, in between loud slurps of his morning tea that reveal more about his habits than he utters. He is both an early bird and the worm who would have slipped from grip any time after nine in the morning. “Firstly, I’ve never felt the need to carry a diary. Then, I’ve also never gotten myself one of those silly business cards to flaunt my job position. I remember them leaving behind in a drawer after the university administration made some for me when I taught there.”
He shares insights casually and calmly receives all questions hurled at him, showing how accustomed he is to giving interviews. After the release of his first novel, Naulakhi Kothi in 2014, Urdu readers in Pakistan and India began raving about his ‘powerful’ prose while his poetry has been repeatedly called ‘enigmatic’. He was lauded by Mr. Shams-ur-Rehman Faruqi, the distinguished Urdu critic of India, who drew a parallel between Natiq’s and Meeraji’s poetry; the great Bohemian Urdu poet of the subcontinent.
He completes his sentence and the third item he despises meets our expectations. “Lastly, I never saw the purpose of wallets. I received one as a gift but couldn’t resist returning it.” He releases a soft chortle at his own quip about how wallets alone make for a senseless gift if one doesn’t gift some cash along with it. Even though this information implies his detachment to material, the truth is that he looks for antiquity and wisdom in it. This has followed after years of travels and travails, especially as a young boy towered by responsibilities.
Natiq’s father was an itinerant laborer, working as a mason abroad. Being the eldest of his siblings, the onus of running errands back at home was on Natiq. “I’d spent the cool mornings of my village near Okara- Chak # 32_2L– feeding buffaloes with my brother, attending school in between” Pushing through herds of noisy cattle and their jingling bells in the fields, racing ahead of the flock of birds, singing with koels and pigeons, Natiq wouldn’t rest until dusk. This routine changed after he learned the craft of masonry for mosques, domes and minarets at the age of 15.
Then came a glitch in his memory. He spoke with resentment about village boys who he had always kept at bay. However, it wasn’t due to his introvert nature. “They weren’t clean or as good looking as I thought of myself so it was evident I couldn’t mingle with them,” he boldly admits. An idea that still applies to him. The role of village boys he was estranged by is now being played by his literary contemporaries. Back then, it was another habit that became the basis of this distinction.
Natiq began reading ravenously, alienating his social circle in the village. “They called me ‘Mobeen’, after a famous village madman who wandered haplessly in their village. My father wrote us letters from Kuwait and Iran, and learning about his pilgrimages and ventures instigated in me a curiosity to know further. So I read invincibly.” Simple yet poignant, a flake of his story is resonant to one of his most touching afsanas, Safed Moti, a coming of age story of a child whose curiosity to find treasure introduces him to poetry and prose.
He would stop soaking and laying bricks by the evening only to travel to unknown, mysterious lands in books. Starting off with popular fiction, Natiq lapped up Ibn-e-Safi’s detective stories, Umroo Ayaar and Hatim Taayi and ultimately switched to serious fiction classics of Manto, Ismat Chugtai and Ghulam Abbas. Only a handful of them became his source of inspiration.
In the recent years, the buzz around him grew louder not only due to his craft. His back-to-back success was evident with Oxford University Press publishing his short story collection ‘What will you give for this beauty’ and Granta Magazine’s eager approach at publishing his translation ‘A Mason’s hand’. However, the strategic invites to literary events, and incessant pursuits for interviews had another purpose. His controversial remarks regarding notable names of the Urdu world fueled curiosity. Some amongst them were Saadat Hassan Manto and the distinguished poet Zafar Iqbal.
“Two hundred short stories and about what?” the temperature drops a degree in his tone as he complained about Manto. “I never saw variety in the themes he lugged. Surely, narratives of the red light area could have been encapsulated in a handful of pieces.” Natiq hasn’t spared anyone in the Urdu realm. Neither the dead nor the living. A little later in the conversation, he shakes his head and hurls another challenging statement regarding the Urdu language expert, Dr. Arfa Zehra. He calls it honesty.
“How can we even consider them big names, these critics who are only recognized through social media, haven’t written a word in Urdu themselves yet speak gibberish about Literature?” He promises the inadequacy of many people ruling the literary world currently.
“His anger has repelled many in our writing industry,”, confirms Aqeel Abbas Jaffri, author, director of Urdu dictionary board and an acquaintance of Natiq. “It wasn’t surprising when he gave us a dressing down, and attempted his best to get rid of us,” he added with a hearty laughter, “But we remained loyal to him because he stands up against this unfair system we’re enveloped in. Somebody had to challenge it. His insights are so fascinating, I would always cherish his company. No matter how much he criticizes me.”
When Natiq speaks again, his voice is as calloused as the fingers that mixed sand to produce mortar for bricks. “The authors today dramatize life unnecessarily. Life is another name for sorrows, unlike what authors portray these days.” Natiq emphasizes that their perspective of the world is rose-tinted. His short story ‘A Mason’s hand’ was dedicated to his late brother Ali Asghar who passed away at a young age. Taabut was another profound story inspired by the ‘taabut’- casket that Natiq’s friend Aftaab’s dead body was brought in from abroad after he succumbed to cancer.
“Amongst all other shortcomings of this industry, one is that of ego. It became unbearable for many when Natiq emerged successful within a span of ten years,” adds Mr. Gagan Sahhid, publisher of Jhelum book corner in Punjab. He has recently published the fourth edition of Natiq’s latest novel ‘Kamari Wala’ that came out in 2020. “His prose has only grown more powerful as they look down on him, called him an outcast.”
His enthusiasm for masonry is renewed now that he gets the opportunity to mentor. His practical alter-ego immediately took over. “I would still say I work because people here are Jalsaaz. These iron- filled structures are swallowing us in whereas the buildings we construct are resistant and will stand tall for years. They will be timeless. We use old, traditional methods.” Now the scale of work has become larger. “I have moved on to constructing a college now with 200 rooms. I’m constructing my own house, made up of only brick and without any iron bars. It brings you closer to older, simpler and safer times.”
Upon asking if his job meddled with his poetry writing, he confesses he cannot really tell them apart. “Have you ever questioned yourself why you’re mesmerized by Shahi Masjid or Laal Qila. There lies a Jamaliyaati in it. The details and intricacy make sense to me now more than ever.” Romanticizing nature is not new but his Takhleeqi skill certainly does not end with writing poetry or prose.
Then is it the same circumstances his life introduced him to that turned him dauntlessly direct? Would it be though-provoking that this poet’s situation reflects precisely in Allama Iqbal’s poetic exploration of self ‘Khudi’ where he is in conversation with Almighty God, saying
“Tu qaadir-o-aadil hai magar tere jahan mein/ hain talkh bohot banda-e-mazdoor ke auqaat”
This is translated to ‘You’re powerful and just but in your world/the lot of the laborers remain utterly bitter.’ Natiq’s vast and vivid representation of the rural classes is one witnessed rarely in contemporary writers. He explored country life in pre-partition times in most of his short stories and even his debut novel Naulakhi Kothi.
“I started to understand Arabic and hence read their books as well. Their language is adorned. They, almost always, talk in metaphors (istaara) and symbols and allegory (tamseel), like one does in poetry. I believe prose and poetry must have differences. Hence I don’t use a lot of metaphorical or symbolic language.”
After returning from Saudi Arabia he enrolled himself in a University in order to stay at the hostel in Islamabad and that’s when his work got published. About Natiq, one can say he always opened doors for himself. Apart from his dedication towards his job, his boldness in attitude directed his life. “I was casually walking when I saw the building of Pakistan Academy of letters. I was curious to meet authors and poets so I kept going inside until I reached Iftikhaar Arif’s office and sent him a chit to call me in and listening to me talk profoundly about literature, he offered me a job as in charge of publication.” He dutifully fulfilled his role as Publishing in charge until his life was made miserable by other colleagues.
Without hesitating he remarks, “A bunch of illiterates, that’s what they all were.” However, books once again became his saving grace and his labour of love finally rewarded. “I stayed there for three years. There was an abundance of books to read. That’s when I wrote Taabut and sent it to ‘Ajmal Kamal’ literary magazine AAJ and Asif Farrukhi’s literary magazine Dunyazaad. Ten of my poems and five of my short stories were published. Keep in mind that these magazines hardly published anything local, their standards were such”, he adds proudly.
The conversation regarding the staggering production of Urdu prose in Pakistan was never palpably discussed in this conversation. It was present all along. That was exactly the sole purpose of discussing Natiq’s life struggles. How lifestyles, experiences and effort sinews craft. “You’ll find an Urdu writer at every corner of every street of Pakistan. It’s really about what and how they’re writing.” He discusses how blaming the state of publishing will hardly fix the state of Urdu. “Publishers are not sinning as much as writers. When you’re giving publishers money to get fame, you’ll get published just once. Nobody is interested in your work then. The same publishers pursued me for months to sign agreements, before my first prose was even published.”
When one of the reasons for his singularity was speculated, he gave an assertive chuckle. He talks in the language of bricks and stones. “Yes, the protagonists and other characters in my stories are made up of many other characters. You gather, you filter out all the irrelevant, collect the residue and craft a brand-new character.” This must be what lies behind his unforgettable characters. What lies behind Shah Muhammad. The perky, whimsical tong-cart owner from his short story, The tong of Shah Muhammad who holds the rein in evolving times by relying on his story-telling.
Hurriya Mansoor is a freelance writer. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writer.