Thursday, 22 June 2017

Preface to 'Dast e Saba' by Faiz Ahmad Faiz

An era has passed since Ghalib wrote that an eye that can’t see the river Tigris in a drop of water is not an eye that has sight but rather it is a children’s play. If Ghalib was our contemporary, then probably one of the critics would have called out that Ghalib had insulted the children’s play. Or that Ghalib appears to be a proponent of propaganda in literature. To urge a poet’s eye to see Tigris in a drop is utter propaganda. His eye is only interested in beauty and if beauty is seen in a drop then it should be of no concern to the poet if the drop belongs to either Tigris or a street. To show Tigris is the job of a sage, philosopher or a politician; this not the work of a poet.

If what these individuals said was right, then regardless of the fact that the honor of the ways of the skilled artists remained intact or not, their job would have become much easier. But fortunately or unfortunately, literary art (or any other art) is not children’s play. That’s why even Ghalib’s sight of the eyes is not enough; it’s not enough because not only a poet or a writer has to see Tigris in a drop of water but they also have to show it. Furthermore, if we consider Ghalib’s Tigris to be life and the system of existing realities, then it means that the writer himself is a drop of that Tigris. It means that the responsibility of uniting with the countless other drops in order to determine the river’s direction, flow, shape and it’s destination also falls squarely on the shoulders of the writer.

You can say that the job of the poet isn’t mere observation, rather struggle is also mandatory for him. Observing the perturbed drops in the Tigris of life depends on his sight. Showing it to others depends upon his literary prowess, but to intervene in its flow shows the strength of his passion and the heat of his blood.

All these three endeavors require unceasing effort and struggle.

The system of life is not a stagnant, stone-kissing, imprisoned water of a pond which can be comprehended by the faulty view of the observer. Between the treacherous ways of the distant mountains, snow melts, streams emerge and they tear apart the stones to meet each other. Then this cutting and growing water expands and contracts itself in the valleys, forests and plains. The perceiving sight that has not seen the stages and features of life’s ocean in human history won’t be able to see Tigris in a drop. Then, let’s say that the glimpse of the poet reached these distant and current places but if in their depiction, his speaking prowess didn’t support him, or that to reach the next destination, his life and body didn’t agree to do all the struggle then the poet is not vindicated by his art.

Probably it is not essential to explain this long and expanded metaphor in the language of daily day life. I just want to say that to be aware of the collective struggle of human life, to participate in that struggle to the extent that one can, is not only a requirement of life but also the demand of art.

Art is a part of life and artistic struggle is an aspect of that struggle. This demand always stays, therefore the struggle of a seeker of art has no nirvana. His art is an eternal struggle and an unceasing effort.

In this effort, success or failure depends upon one’s capacity and ability. But to be busy in that effort is nevertheless both possible and essential.

These few pages are also an effort of this kind. In showing the aspects of the effort of fulfilling the great responsibilities of art, it’s possible that the elements of showing off, bragging or narcissism might be observable. But no matter how minor the effort is, it’s better than one’s shame and escape from either life or art.


Central Jail Hyderabad
16th September 1956

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Mental Illness And An Ableist Society

In his last conversation, after telling the reporter that he has Bipolar Disorder and Depression, Amir Zaki forbids him to make this information public. This is because ‘admitting you have problems is problematic for this society. All I have to do is appear ‘alright’ and hide the darkness in my soul, and the sponsors will love me! It’s pro-business you know.’ This ‘pro-business’ notion of favoring an individual who is more 'able', one that does not have ‘problems’ that might get in the way of business, is the essence of Ableism.

The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines Ableism as ‘discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities’. Before explaining the discrimination, it’s important to further expand the definition of disability because normally people have a very narrow conception of it. Normally when you mention disability, the images that will come to most people’s minds are related to a physical disability such as loss of a limb or vision. However, disability can be cognitive or mental as well, and this includes a whole range of impairments such as Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Depression, and Borderline Personality Disorder. In response to these impairments, the response of a typical Ableist society is that these problems can be ‘fixed’. The advice around that fixing would sound like this: ‘Stop over-thinking’ ‘Everyone goes through this and comes out, so pull yourself together’ or ‘why do you take things so seriously, just chill with us’. If you are unable to ‘fix’, then it means that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. That is where the linguistic aspect of ableism comes into play, in which they would label the person in words ranging from ‘crazy’, ‘retard’ to ‘eccentric’ ‘Pagal’ ‘Zehni Mareez’ and ‘Abnormal’. This is where people, both at the corporate place and in your personal life would start denouncing and marginalizing you since your difference in perceiving and reacting to the world makes you neither a good corporate employee nor a good friend that you can hang out with. Notice that always, a negative connotation is attached with this sort of disability.

It’s no secret that mental illness is excessively stigmatized in our society. Seeking help for this condition is something that most of the patients have to do with utmost secrecy and anonymity. This is a problem in itself. In order to survive and thrive with this condition, one needs to have a certain support group apart from undergoing therapy and medication. That person would also need certain concessions in his or her workplace. The condition has to be made public if one is to find the social support that this condition demands. Yet the very act of making this public can be an economic suicide, as Amir Zaki’s last conversation clearly shows. The corporate world makes no modifications or exceptions for individuals suffering from a mental illness, even if they are as talented as Amir Zaki. As Mark Fischer wrote in his book ‘Capitalist Realism’, ‘It does not seem fanciful to see parallels between the rising incidence of mental distress and new patterns of assessing workers' performance.’ The eventual consequence of this attitude results in a very real constraint in one’s financial resources, the one in which you struggle even to pay your apartment’s rent or take your mother to the hospital. In an Ableist society, depression can lead you to poverty. But the fall does not stop here. Numerous studies have shown that people living in poverty are twice as likely to suffer from depression. Depression breeds poverty and poverty then becomes the fertile ground for the seeds of Depression. The cycle becomes vicious, and there is little that one can do to ‘fix’ it.
Mental illness only becomes a disability because of the society that fails to take into account the special needs of those individuals within its social and economic fabric. It becomes a disability when corporations fire you or refuse to sponsor your ventures once they learn about your condition. It becomes a disability when in places like Pakistan, mental health facilities are a joke. I was talking to a psychologist recently and she told me that most psychologists make a diagnosis within the ten minutes of the first session without probing further. A common enough attitude is found among psychiatrists who heavily medicate their patients, trying to ‘fix’ them. Both these attitudes reflect an approach in which the social reasons behind mental illness are sidelined in favor of dealing only with the symptoms. Medically assuming that mental illness is caused by a ‘chemical imbalance’ has some clear benefits for pharmaceutical companies since it drives the multi-billion dollar anti-depressants industry. This is not to deny that mental illness does not have chemical roots. However, to excessively focus on that is adhering to the model that proclaims that mental illness, that ‘neurological imbalance’ is to be ‘fixed’.

Ableism has to be fought on all grounds. It has to be fought in relationships between individuals in which those deemed as ‘normal’ by the society ought to check their privilege and should refrain from isolating and demonizing the mentally ill. It has to be checked within corporations who should structure their workplace in a way that supports those employees that might have this condition. But more importantly, we need educational institutes to make policies that facilitate students diagnosed with this condition. Only then can we create a society that is fair to everyone and not only to those which it deems to be able. Only then can the Amir Zakis of the future be able to produce great music endlessly without caring much about what people label them or from where the next month’s rent would come.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Torn Pocket

The shirt pocket
That carries all the currency
And identity cards of the old man,
Is half torn, and hangs in mid air
As he cleans the dust
Around the fuel dispenser
At the petrol pump.