Of Heaven and Earth: A Short Interview with Omer Tarin
By Dr. Ilyas Khan
On October 10th 2011, renowned Pakistani poet, scholar and mystic, Omer Tarin, was Special Guest Speaker at a literary seminar arranged by the Abbottabad chapter of the English Literary Forum (ELF), under the auspices of the TSI forum. This short interview took place after a reading of his poetry at this venue. Dr. Ilyas Khan, a research scholar in literary studies and a member of ELF, conducted it. The abbreviation IK is used throughout the text for Ilyas Khan/the Interviewer and OT for Omer Tarin/interviewee, All the questions are italicized.
Omer Tarin (pen-name) was born inPeshawar,Pakistan, in 1967. Since 1994 he has been well-known as an increasingly important voice in Pakistani and South Asian literature, especially poetry, writing mostly in English and also occasionally in Urdu (official/national language) and Hindko/Northern Punjabi (native/regional dialects) and has written around 9-10 books, including five volumes of published poetry as well as hundreds of articles and essays over a very wide range of subjects. He is a member of several learned bodies inPakistan and abroad. He is also the founding director of a small non-profit research institute inAbbottabad,Pakistan, and a teacher, social and environmental activist and a recognized Sufi mystic.
IK: Could you please tell us a little more about yourself, please, as I believe you are from a traditional ‘feudal’ background, with a typically ‘English’ colonial education?
OT: Thank you. Well, to quite an extent, that’s true. My paternal family are Tarin Afghans or ‘Pakhtuns’ settled and assimilated into the cultural setting of the Hazara region of the North-West Frontier of (now) Pakistansince the 17th-18th centuries. They have in the past been important clan and tribal chiefs, who resisted the British/colonial rule well into the 1860s. Later on, they became colonial soldiers, administrators, legislators and jurists. Perhaps, the best known amongst them was my great-grandfather, Khan Sahib Abdul Majid Khan Tarin, OBE, Barrister (1877-1939), who remained a magistrate, judge and Deputy Commissioner and later one of the first MPs from his native region and an early supporter of the All-India Muslim League here in the struggle for Independence.
From my maternal side, my family are from the Northern Punjab elite, the Hyats of Wah, proper ‘feudals’ with a long tradition of service to the ‘British Raj’ from the 1840s onwards. They were not only amongst undividedIndia’s biggest landowners but also distinguished soldiers and administrators in their own right. My maternal great-grandfather, Sardar Sir Sikandar Hyat Khan, KCSI, KB (1892-1942) scarcely needs an introduction, he is a notable figure in South Asian/Indian history.
Interestingly, my mother’s mother was from yet another historical background—a daughter of Hakim Ahmad Shuja (1893-1969), the famous poet, playwright, scholar and mystic of Lahore, an important figure in Urdu literature, a contemporary and friend of Iqbal, and writers and theatrical associates such as Imtiaz Ali Taj, Rafi Peer and Agha Hashr. I’ve always had a special affinity for this side of the family and spent a lot of time with them.
I suppose all these ‘influences’ in my family background went into the making of me! In terms of formal education, you might say that I had a ‘colonial style’ public school education at Burn Hall (now Army Burn Hall) school, Abbottabad, then the Aitchison College, Lahore, moving on to the Government College, Lahore (then part of the Punjab University), later again to Britain/the United Kingdom. Thus, my special passion for English literature, for English as the chief linguistic vehicle for most of my work. But it would be too simple to just label me as an Anglophile, or from an elite, feudal, colonial background. My family roots go back a long, long way. They are deeply rooted in several cultural/historical traditions that are combined here—Afghan/Central Asian, Hazarewal and North Punjabi, Lahori and Central Punjabi and so on. So I have also imbibed a great deal of ‘culture’ at the interfaces of the South Asian subcontinent and Central Asia, even the Near and Middle East. This constitutes my ‘informal education’ at home, my earliest education in childhood. Apart from a liberal, mystic Islamic influence there are several cultural and linguistic forces and traditions involved. You see? It’s not easy to ‘define’ me, nor any other writer or artist, really, in generalized black and white terms.
IK: Indeed. With this balance, or interfacing of East and West in your background and art, with all this cultural diversity, you especially insist on your recognition as a ‘South Asian’ writer. Why? What does this signify?
OT: Yes. As you say, there is a lot of ‘diversity’ in my cultural background. I’d say, many layers and levels of my personality and art and I do believe, honestly, that you cannot ultimately separate these into neat compartments. But if you must ‘label’ me, if this sort of categorization is necessary, then I insist on a South Asian identity.Pakistanis a country withinSouth Asia, what was once termed as the ‘Indo-Pakistan subcontinent’, right? And the historical, cultural, ethnic terrain orterritoryofSouthAsiais in itself of a vast, complex magnitude, full of richness and depth and variety. Just think for a minute. You can move from the East (Burma,Bangladesh) to the West (the Punjab, North-West Frontier andAfghanistan); and from North (the Himalayas and Karakorams, Kashmir, Ladakh andTibet) to South (the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, from Sindh to Bombay/Mumbai toTrivandrum)—South Asian magnitude is overwhelming, isn’t it? Can you make simple racial, cultural, linguistic judgments about it? So many people, so many cultures and languages. We have evolved over thousands of years from out of so many threads into a vast, loosely-knit tapestry, or carpet, of such intricate beauty. We are all enriched. I am personally and deeply enriched, my very being, my mind and soul and senses are all enriched every day, every minute, by the overwhelming experience(s) of my ‘South Asianness’. All the ‘threads’ of my ‘self’ are inextricably enmeshed and intermingled within this vastness, over hundreds of years.
IK: So, you don’t feel alienated, choosing to write mostly in elitist English, a colonial imported language in South Asia?
OT: Not at all! I am what I am, a South Asian writer. My themes, topics and archetypes and symbols are mostly South Asian, aboutSouth Asia. A simple delving, a reading of my work amply ratifies this. And many people here read my work for this reason. Yes, I write mostly in English by choice and inclination.
‘English’ might have been initially a colonial language, an importation, but as I see it, it has long been ‘naturalized’ as yet another of the many languages ofSouth Asia, absorbed and adapted within the diversity of this subcontinent. We ‘own’ our special sort of English, with its own idiom and vocabulary and contextual relevance, we possess it and use it and create some of the world’s best literature in it.
In many respects, if you think about it, the process is very similar to that by which Turki, Persian and Arabic came into (earlier) contact with Hindi and other local languages and dialects and developed into a camp argot and then, into a language called ‘Urdu’. If you have any objections to the term ‘English’ as the language of Anglo-Saxon colonizers in the 18th-19th centuries, then by all means don’t call it ‘English’ here! The language that we possess here, in its own uniquely adaptable, flexible form, can be re-named anything you please—‘Inglish’ or ‘Pakish’ or ‘XYZ’ or whatever. But more and more people here will continue to use it, I know, and more and more people here shall come to write literature in it, or translate other South Asian literature(s) in it and it will be increasingly useful as our chief means of communication with the rest of the world. It is rather a narrow view to (still) consider it as an ‘elitist’ language used by only a few, that might have been right 60, 50 or even 40 years ago but anyone who still believes this in AD 2011 is hopelessly out of touch with social reality here.
IK: So, you don’t subscribe to ideological beliefs, of strengthening and moulding a post-colonial national identity on the basis of a national language like Urdu, in Pakistan?
OT: Look. In theoretical, academic terms we can say that we live in a ‘postcolonial’ Pakistan. In physical, historical terms I know, perhaps better than most people in Pakistan today, the hardships and suffering that were faced in making this nation-state, many of my elders were very much part of the freedom struggle and lived through the traumas of Partition in 1947; and I also accept that Pakistan was created on a definite ideological basis. I also accept that there was, and is, a need for a common national language such as Urdu, to bind together the ethnic and socio-linguistic diversity of Pakistan. But all this doesn’t imply that English as a language and as a means of creating literature, can’t exist, doesn’t have the right to exist in present-dayPakistan, too. Why not? Why can’t we have Urdu literature here, as well as Punjabi and Pushto and Baluchi and Sindhi and Brahvi and a dozen other literatures in as many languages? Why link literature(s) to political/ideological contexts only? Isn’t that a very narrow way of thinking? How can anyone’s patriotism or ‘loyalty’ to country and society be construed in terms of whether he/she writes in English, Punjabi, Pushto, or for that matter, in Swahili, or French or Ancient Greek—instead of Urdu? This sort of thinking with regard to creativity, art and literature, smacks of fascism. As I have already written somewhere, in a similar vein, it was the very ‘Orwellian’ psyche of some of our past rulers in Pakistan that in a twisted way linked the exclusive use of Urdu, the national/official language, to the creation of literature by ‘good Pakistanis’. The creative arts are not bound thus. It’s like forcing a painter or artist who prefers to use oil paints as a medium, to make sculptures in stone! Rather ridiculous, actually.
IK: I see. You are right. But what about our Pakistani (or South Asian) ‘diaspora’, Sir? What are your views on their writings in English or other languages abroad? Some of their writings are controversial, even anti-Pakistani/South Asian, written away from our culture and land?
OT: I think that some good writings have been coming from the Pakistani/South Asian ‘diaspora’ as you say, for quite some time. Indeed, in the case of Pakistan, except for our poetry in English, which has been recognized for some time, it’s been expatriate Pakistani writers in genres such as fiction and drama, who have been representing us so well in different parts of the world for so long. To the best of my knowledge, most of them write in English. They certainly have more exposure, more access to the best means of literary production in places like theUK andUSA. They also get a fair amount of media coverage and critical notice out there, which is good. It’s only very recently now, since the late-1990s in fact, that there’s been a proper recognition abroad of some good new writers, especially fiction writers, living in Pakistan—like Muhammad Hanif or Mohsin Hamid for example. Before that, for 2-3 decades, we had expatriate writers like Bapsi Sidhwa, Zulfikar Ghose, Hanif Koreshi, Waqas Khawaja, Moneeza Alvi, and some others, who were really ‘representing’ Pakistan/Pakistani literature there.
As to controversial views and such. Again, how can we simplify and label and condemn art and literature in narrow terms? The societies these writers live in are much more open regarding what people can say and do. Also, distance i.e. being ‘away’ from a ‘homeland’ or ‘culture’ or ‘community’ or ‘society’ isn’t any sort of real gauge or measure, of the merits or demerits of a writer and his/her works. Literature is imaginative, creative, who can say what it ends up creating and imagining? It’s useless trying to politicize such things.
IK: Do you believe in a moral basis for literature and art?
OT: Yes and no. Some writings have such a basis, others don’t. It’s the same old argument about ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ or art/literature for didactic purposes.
IK: Coming to a somewhat different topic—you have certain mystic/spiritual inclinations? How and when did you develop this interest? How far is it relevant to your writing?
OT: Yes (smiles), inclinations and practice. I don’t usually talk very much about these matters, if it’s ok. I’ve always been interested in ‘matters of the spirit’. Early childhood and familial influences, in addition to a personal quest, had a definite role in leading me towards Tassawuf (Sufic practice/path) and of course! These dimensions inform all facets of my life/existence. Especially my writing, my poetry. Anyone reading my work can immediately sense or notice this.
IK: Here in Pakistan, many people have an idea about some of the native literary influences on your work, from local cultural traditions. Would you please like some other influences from world literature?
OT: These would be too many to list here. I like a great deal of literature and read a lot, works by writers from many places. It’s difficult to say what ‘influences’ one, directly or indirectly. But some of the world’s great writers whose work I really admire include Hazrat-i-Mevlana Rumi, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—others, too. At certain times in my intellectual development, PG Wodehouse, Sheikh Saadi, JRR Tolkien, Rudyard Kipling, Rabindranath Tagore, Dickens, Gorky, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Sartre, Hemingway, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, Robert Frost, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Naguib Mahfouz had quite an impact on me. Among later English poets, I like the poetry of Philip Larkin, WH Auden, Stephen Spender, Edward Thomas and Ted Hughes a lot. I also enjoy much of what has been written by Lorca, Pablo Neruda, WB Yeats, Derek Walcott, Sorley MacLean and Maya Angelou.
In addition, there are some excellent works by people who generally wouldn’t be classified as ‘professional writers’, people who write have written wonderfully well and given me a lot of pleasure and thought—like Winston Churchill or TE Lawrence or Eric Newby. And some of the Chinese and Japanese masters of Tao and Zen, whose writings are in a way ‘incidental’ to their other practices. The list is endless.
IK: What is great literature? What makes it truly immortal or special?
OT: Well, that’s a very difficult one to answer! I suppose there’s a certain indefinable ‘universality’ to such great works of literature. Something you sense, that reaches out to you. This is indeed a timeless quality.
All the same, it’s not easy to express this ‘greatness’. How can we set up a set standard? Ultimately, I think time is the real judge, it sorts out the gold from the dross. What is ‘famous’ or ‘fashionable’ or ‘trendy’ at any given time, in a certain era or epoch, too can fade away; so can all the judgments of critics, scholars, the media. Sometimes, works—and writers—who have been long unnoticed, or neglected, emerge as potent and universal and ‘great’, and make a lasting mark in the long run. Look at William Blake, for example, considered a crank in his own time but recognized by later ages for his genius and now a permanent part of the world’s canon; or Emily Dickinson, who whiled away her life in comparative obscurity and only later generations ‘discovered’ her. I always say to my students, if you are really keen to write, then write as well as you can, read a lot, and don’t have one eye on fame and public acclaim. If you really deserve it, if you have it in you, then no matter how long it takes, centuries even, you will surely emerge and be amongst the great ones.
Literature, finally, is a limitless, unfathomable ocean. It is all Heaven and Earth. And writers and poets, are poor, inadequate creatures, seeking to express it all. The journey goes on.