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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Harris Khalique - by imam shamil

AUTHOR: Harris Khalique - Interpreting love and self

By Imam Shamil

Those who know Harris Khalique are of the opinion that Harris' upbringing and his parents' influence in his life have made him what he is today. He is a recognized writer and a poet, and a well-known activist and development worker, who is heading a community development organization called Strengthening Participatory Organization (SPO).

Harris says that he owes a great deal to the literary and intellectual milieu of his home, which was conducive to reading. He memorized Iqbal's works when a teenager. "I started writing in my adolescence," Harris says. "I would write poems and short stories in Urdu and also translate poems and stories from English. For essays I preferred the medium of English," he adds.

Harris was encouraged to read avidly but his early writings were not eulogized by his family. Initially, it was his mother, aunts and his mother's friends who whetted his appetite for good literature. When he was older his father, Ibrahim Khalique, a great writer, began to take interest in what his son was reading.

"My father's friends were a bunch of highly motivated and committed people, and I must say that I learnt a lot from them," says Harris. "As far as my father is concerned, he is a very self-effacing and quiet person. Though he has always had a very strong political and ideological bent, he never enjoyed large gatherings and processions despite being part of an ideological movement. I was part of all literary and political activities happening inside and outside the household to which every family member contributed," recalls Harris. And yet, he had the worst kind of political disagreements with his family.

"What inspired me a great deal in my university days was not only English poetry but also poetry of different languages translated into English," Harris says. But he was a student of engineering. Why did he not opt for a degree in social sciences if he had a penchant for literature? "Studying literature does not make you a writer. I am a student of literature though I do not have a degree in it. It enriches one's writings if one studies other subjects too," he retorts.

Talking about his political and social activism, Harris says that it started in his college days, when Pakistan was going through Zia's martial law. Those were not the best of times and political activities were banned in the country at that time. "I was not a member of any political group, but I used to support the left-wing nationalists by writing political literature, poems and pamphlets for them," Harris says.

Harris describes himself as a Marxist. "One may disagree with Marxism in detail, but as a tool of understanding society, it has helped me in analyzing and evaluating the social conditions of my country," says Harris.

Not inclined towards rhetorics, he admits that literature does bring social change. He, however, doesn't believe that one has to be a Marxist to be progressive.

The word 'progressive', according to Harris, is not restricted to those who want to bring about a socialist revolution, which he believes is quintessentially an economic revolution. He says that there are many other aspects of life that are beyond economics and the economic well-being of people. "There has to be a balance between the rights of the individual and the collective rights of people. Many humanist writers face this dilemma. They want collective freedom as well as the individual's freedom from collective control," observes Harris.

But he firmly believes that the writings of those he doesn't agree with ideologically should not be judged against their political views. "I may not want to dine with them, but if they are producing fine literature, we must appreciate their work," he says.

Discussing the subject of the relationship between fictional writing and social development, Harris comments that fiction and poetry are a chronicle of history as well. "You would understand England better through Charles Dickens than any other historian of that time. The same is true about our literature as well. The way the struggle of a common man has been depicted by Premchand and other Progressive writers will not be described in history books. Therefore, it is not just social development but also a lot more that fiction has to offer. Literature cannot be detached from social life," claims Harris. But he also emphasizes that writers with dogmatic political views cannot be the sole representatives of people.

Harris likes some of Ashfaq Ahmed's and Bano Qudsia's stories a lot, though they are opposed to modernity and have different aesthetic values. "I would respect them if I see that they contribute something to existing literature," insists Harris.

Harris strongly reacts when someone terms some of his Urdu poems as prose poems. He says they are free verse and follow a certain meter. "I have not written a single Urdu prose poem. All my poems are metrical. As far as the difference in style is concerned, some of my poems have a narrative, and that is influenced by my contemporary living and modern world literature," says Harris.

"You see, society evolves from itself different kinds of expressions to suit the time, and language must correspond to the society and the time we live in. Language has to be contemporary. Today's thought has to be rendered in today's language and expression. How can one use the expression 'chilman' today when chilman does not exist anymore? Modern words and changes that have been introduced in our languages should be appreciated and recognized by literary writers. I use some English words in my Urdu poems such as 'rearview mirror' and 'rush' because we use these words in our daily conversation and they have now become Urdu words. They should be reflected in our poetry too. I don't edit these words; they come to me naturally," remarks Harris.

Harris is a nazm poet. He thinks the ghazal does not suit his style. However, he likes to read ghazal. To Harris, ghazal is limiting, therefore, in his opinion, the biggest poet of the 20th century, Iqbal, preferred the medium of nazm over ghazal. Still Harris thinks that his metrical poems are heavily influenced by the expression of ghazals.

Has his work with non-government organizations affected his literary productivity? "It has. Any senior management work is tedious and time-consuming. But the work I do is quite gratifying. My work with NGOs is a unique experience as it enables me to interact with all kinds and classes of people. You don't find such experience in every field. On the one hand, one interacts and learns from the poorest rural communities, from their pain and their wisdom, and on the other hand, one also deals with people who are in the corridors of power. It does enrich one's experience and expression."

Does development work, or rather interacting with the underprivileged and downtrodden, make him sad or pessimistic? "It does make me sad; but it does not make me disillusioned."

Harris is of the view that his writings contribute towards the humanitarian cause and social changes but he is not sure how potent they are in order to challenge the system. He also considers his writings political. "All writing is political and all poetry is love poetry," he says. So all love poetry is also political, I ask. "Love is political; there is nothing which is not political. When you start engaging with someone who is outside you, it becomes political," replies Harris.

How does he feel in a sector where all issues are considered and dealt in an apolitical manner? "It is happening in all sectors and arenas of life. People do not read and do not think. So whether people in the development sector subscribe to a particular idea or oppose it, it is not necessarily based on thinking and reading," says Harris.

Does he feel alienated in the development sector? Harris believes that there are all types of people in every sector. Though most people in the development sector don't have the political understanding of issues, the work they undertake is very much political. "The development sector reflects what is happening in society. The NGO sector is not a monolith. There are so many organizations, including women's rights and children's rights organizations, which are making political statements through their work," observes Harris. He believes that any political work devoid of social work remains lopsided, and any social work that depoliticizes people also has no real meaning.

Finally, talking about his recent collection of English poems, Between You and Your Love, a title taken from a line in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Harris tells me that it comprises selections from his two previous books If Wishes Were Horses (1996) and Divan (1998) and his new poems. Harris Khalique keeps swaying between his love and the beloved, as he thinks the choice between the two is not given to him. But as a person who does not believe in the puppeteer, he bears the responsibility of his actions wholeheartedly and without any complaint. One might not agree with his principles, his standings, and his approach; one is bound to respect him for his humanistic beliefs. There is a very thin line between progressive humanism and regressive humanism; Harris knows the distinction too well. These humanistic beliefs also reflect in his literary work as well as in his activism.

Fearless, tamed, lustful, platonic, saddened, glad I didn't let the passion die Though it hurts when love strikes. Anna, hold me tight again tonight!

[Lines from 'For Anna Akhmatova (1889-1996); Between You and Your Love by Harris Khalique]


Harris Khalique: Profile

Born in 1967

Studied at the NED Engineering University and the London School of Economics

Heads a community development organization, Strengthening Participatory Organization (SPO)

His books are Aaj Jab Huee Baarish (Urdu, 1991); If Wishes Were Horses (English, 1996); Saray Kaam Zaroori Thay (Urdu, 1997); Divan (English, 1998); Purani Numaish (Urdu, 2001); Unfinished Histories (2002), a book of essays on issues of identity, separation and belonging, co-written with an Indian author; a monograph titled Pakistan: The Question of Identity (2003) and Between You and Your Love (English, 2004)


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