Saturday, 7 May 2011

Prof. Siddiqui with Nibir K. Ghosh at his residence in Agra

Give to the World the Best You Have:
Conversation with
Pirzada Qasim Raza Siddiqui
Sunita Rani & Nibir K. Ghosh
When Chitranshi, the famed literary and cultural organization of Agra, decided to confer the prestigious "Chitranshi Firaq International Award" for the year 2009 on Dr. Pirzada Qasim Raza Siddiqui in view of his exemplary contribution to Urdu shayari and international understanding, it was bound to be a welcome decision. The literary sphere in this historic city was excited at the idea of getting to see an international celebrity from an ‘enemy’ region, the Vice Chancellor of Karachi University, a widely acclaimed shayar and an eminent neuroscientist. The big event was marked for March 13, 2010 at Sursadan in Agra. At the behest of the organizers, Professor Pirzada Qasim graciously accepted the invitation to visit our home and join us for dinner on March 12, 2010. In a pre-dinner conversation, Professor Pirzada gave free vent to his heart and mind and shared with us his thoughts and ideas that have gone into the making of a scientist, an administrator and a shayar.
Interviewers: First of all we deem it a pleasure to welcome you profusely to our humble abode in the city of the Taj. We are honoured by your gracious presence here in Agra.
Pirzada: Thank you very much for welcoming me so warmly to Agra. I am delighted to be here this evening. Agra is a very unique city not only because there is Taj Mahal but because this part of the subcontinent has given the world one of the greatest poets of all times, Nazir Akbarabadi. He was a giant and still I do not see any Urdu poet in history who could take the place of Nazir Akbarabadi.
Interviewers: Why is Nazir so very important in your estimate?
Pirzada: The importance of Nazir Akbarabadi was that he brought the thoughts and interaction of the individual, of the common people, to poetry.
Interviewers: Something, I guess, great poets have always aspired for?
Pirzada: Yes. The contribution of Nazir Akbarabadi needs to be highlighted because you have in him a shayar who had the intrinsic ability to give expression to the voice of common people: their sorrow, their happiness, their day-to-day experiences. I am very much impressed by his poetry and I am very happy to be here in Agra to pay homage to this immortal poet.
Interviewers: Delhi, I believe, is your birthplace. How does it feel to come back home?
Pirzada: Well, I was born in Delhi, in the old town, way back in 1943. When I left Delhi for Pakistan in 1947, I was a little child. But there was always constant discussion in my house about Delhi and about our close association with the people we left behind. So Delhi remained fresh in my mind.
Interviewers: Did you get to visit Delhi prior to this trip?
Pirzada: Yes, I was in Delhi in February 1989 for a day or two. After so many years it was a very unique opportunity to visit the city of my birth. I participated in a Mushaira at Pragati Maidan where nearly twenty seven thousand people had gathered to enjoy the event. On the day after the Mushaira, I took out some time and I asked somebody to take me to the place where I was born, in Old Delhi. The location was an apartment that was a part of a big building with many houses. There were steps and there was a corridor that took you to the first floor house where I had lived. I just wanted to stand in the passage and have a look at the place and spend a few minutes gazing into the past.
Interviewers: It must have been a unique wish! What happened next?
Pirzada: When I was going up, a girl who was descending the stairs, stopped me and asked me if I was looking for someone. I told her I wasn’t looking for any one. I said, “I just came and I am going back.” Then she said, “Are you Pirzada Qasim”?
Interviewers: Oh, it must have been amazing to know that someone recognized you there!
Pirzada: Yes, it came as a pleasant surprise since I didn’t have any relatives there and I wasn’t expecting anyone to recognize me. I said, “Yes, but how did you know?” She said her whole family was there at Pragati Maidan the day before and they had seen and heard me in the Mushaira and seen me in the media too. Then she asked me if I could visit her house for a few minutes. I readily agreed. I followed her upstairs and the next moment I stood at the place where I was born, in the very same house. I met the family members and spent some time recalling the memories of my childhood days there. It was a wonderful moment.
Interviewers: It reads like a beautiful story. Don’t you think it was something providential?
Pirzada: Oh, yes. I was thinking what happened was sheer chance. Just a few minutes before and after would have deprived me of the opportunity of meeting this girl and I may have had to return without having a glimpse of the house of my birth. I will share with you another incident. During the 1989 Delhi visit, when I checked into the Kanishka Hotel in Delhi, I was greeted by the Manager who said, “Sir, a very happy birthday to you!” I was pleasantly surprised because I realized it was the 8th of February, the date of my birth. It was so wonderful to be in Delhi on that date. It seemed like a rebirth for me, as if I was born again. I may have come back to India now after 21 years but I am in constant touch with friends from all over India, whether they be in Delhi, Lucknow, Aligarh or elsewhere.
Interviewers: How do you relate your visits to India in terms of your love for Urdu shayari?
Pirzada: It is unique indeed that some of the greatest poets of all times who lived and wrote here were contemporaries. They contributed in creating a rich reservoir of Urdu Literature. If you combine India and Pakistan, you have great poets like Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Nazir Kazmi and others who have jointly enriched the realm of poetry and passed on a legacy for us poets to create memorable lyrics. I have had the good fortune of knowing many of these stalwarts on a very personal level and of being inspired by their works.
Interviewers: How do you reconcile yourself to your multifarious roles as administrator, neuroscientist and shayar?
Pirzada: I am basically a neuroscientist and I have been taught that there is no sentiment in science. I personally feel that there is no clash between science and poetry. Science may really be about precision and facts, but it does not inhibit creativity. It does make us aware of new dimensions that come to the fore with each new discovery. I rather feel that a harmonious blend of science and art gives a wideness to the horizon and we learn many new things about life and its realities.
Interviewers: What are your other interests in addition to writing poetry?
Pirzada: Besides poetry, I love painting. I love music. I love reading. My varied interests came from my household where the conversation often revolved around a variety of subjects: poetry, philosophy, music, even politics.
Interviewers: You have been an avid reader right from your childhood? What role do you think reading has in the shaping of one’s personality?
Pirzada: As a child I often received gifts of books rather than toys from my parents and other family members. I enjoyed reading short stories quite a bit. Books go a long way in shaping the person we become. Libraries contribute enormously in shaping intellectual awareness and promoting cultural consciousness. The priority of my parents was to provide their children with education and intellectualization to make them good human beings. It is unfortunate when we fail to show respect for books. I strongly believe that books are your best companion. I have maintained quite a rich library in my house. I have also tried to encourage my children to read books and have a close bond with their books. Books help a lot in building one’s personality.
Interviewers: You often mention your visit to the library set up by one Hakim Said. Could you kindly shed some light on that episode?
Pirzada: I was impressed to see the vast and varied collection in his library. Hakim sahib said “Pirzada, do you know who has helped make this collection of books so vast? The unworthy offsprings of renowned scholars and writers. When they pass away, their children first dump the books in a garage. Then seeing that the rooms filled with books have unnecessarily occupied the space, they dispose them off to junk dealers. And I have my men who go to these junk dealers to buy those books at nominal prices.”
Interviewers: This must have surprised you?
Pirzada: I became so depressed to learn this that I remained sick for two days.
Interviewers: Did this experience motivate you to enrich the Karachi University library?
Pirzada: Yes, quite significantly.
Interviewers: How do you respond to your responsibilities as the Vice Chancellor of Karachi University?
Pirzada: I have been one of the most active Vice Chancellors at Karachi University. We have been holding different seminars, workshops, national/international conferences, video conferences and lectures etc. I have insisted on a fairly high standard of student discipline through a minimum of 75 per cent attendance in classrooms. As of today, Karachi University is better in generating resources as compared to most of other universities in Pakistan. We have plans to create more resources in the near future.
Interviewers: What is your view of student unions in universities and colleges?
Pirzada: Since 1984 students unions have not been allowed in campuses in Pakistan.
Interviewers: Do you think it is the right approach?
Pirzada: No, I do not subscribe to this view. To close down a system because it does not work is not the right approach. What I am basically against is the deliberate interference of political and religious parties in the affairs of these unions. Each political or religious party in Pakistan – this may be true of India too – has its corresponding students’ wing. Since the level of tolerance between these parties is not very high, problems are bound to crop up. Unfortunately, some political parties try to involve students in their politics. As a result, students focus more on political activities instead of their studies. The need of the hour is to create student unions with the academic and cultural activities rather than political agendas as nerve centres.
Interviewers: How do you see Mushairas and Kavi Sammellans in relation to serious literature?
Pirzada: Mushairas and Kavi Sammellans promote the instant stuff. They thrive on popular taste and need not have a literary frame of reference. One who is very successful at these events may not necessarily be a great shayar. Participating frequently in Mushairas and Kavi Sammellans hardly leave any time for serious reflection. That is understandable, because if you open a shop, it is quite natural for you to keep products that sell instantly. Who would like to incur a loss in business?
Interviewers: You don’t seem to be too happy with the kind of neglect Education receives in Pakistan. Education is one of the most important areas but it receives the least importance. Only two percent of the nation’s GDP is spent on the education sector.
Pirzada: Education and healthcare are on the lowest rung of the priority ladder for the government of Pakistan.
Interviewers: You often state, “most of the teachers working at the moment are the one who never wanted to be a teacher. They started teaching just because they couldn’t find any other job for themselves.” 
Pirzada: I am deeply pained by such total lack of commitment in majority of teachers today. I distinctly recall how, way back in 1965, I had forsaken my job in a renowned pharmaceutical company to join the teaching profession although at that moment of time the salary I got as a teacher was nearly a third of what I was getting in the pharmaceutical company. Even today, after forty two years of teaching, I have never regretted the decision. Teaching is a very noble profession and every teacher must have commitment toward this profession.
Interviewers: How, as a Vice Chancellor, do you cope with a situation like this? How can you motivate and inspire teachers with total lack of commitment?
Pirzada: I think a teacher, like any one else in other professions, should be made accountable to his responsibilities. It is unfortunate that in the teaching profession the system of reward/punishment is virtually non existent. In my agenda for capacity building, the role of teachers comes high on the list of priorities. At the intake stage we must devise means of testing one’s interest and commitment to the profession. This must be followed by proper training and orientation.
Interviewers: Do you see a vast decline in the standard of education today in comparison to what you yourself experienced as a student/teacher? What is the main cause for such decline?
Pirzada: Yes, certainly. In the past the quality of our education was very high. I also studied in a government school. One reason can be that the children of our state heads also used to study in these public schools. Now, you can see the children of our leaders study abroad; in fact they live outside the country. That’s why the quality of education in our country has gone so down. I remember on my school bench, I was flanked on one side by the son of a big industrialist and on the other by a boy whose father ran a barber shop on Katrak Road. Parents of that period were very considerate. I wish to cite as an example the attitude of Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar, who was then the governor of West Pakistan. The governor house driver had been told to drop the children at the Empress Market, well away from the school so that other students did not get a sense of inferiority.
Interviewers: Do you visualize any need for change in the academic structure and content in the light of globalization?
Pirzada: I strongly feel Pakistan has to come out of isolation in the fields of education and Science and Technology in particular due to the globalization process. Cooperation and coordination among nations in these fields is the need of the present era.
Interviewers: What are the coordinates of this partnership?
Pirzada: Since universities have to constantly contend with the problem of diminishing resources, private enterprises must come forward to share the social obligation of the nation to provide meaningful and quality education that is also productive at the same time.
Interviewers: Are you in favour of the idea of multiculturalism as it is shaping up in the present time?
Pirzada: Yes and no.
Interviewers: How?
Pirzada: I think the concept of universal culture is largely the result of sinister designs of advanced nations who have at their command the communication resources that remotely control the cultures of other nations. They have the satellites and we buy prime time from them to display our programmes. If we had the satellites, they would have bought the time from us and we could have projected our culture in an effective manner rather than allowing them to infiltrate and impose their culture on us, as is being done at the moment.
Interviewers: What is the way out?
Pirzada: I often talk to youngsters and point out the inherent need to recover the spirit of festivities grounded in our own cultural mores that are gradually disappearing from the scene. We have to rejuvenate in the youngsters the love for tradition tempered with the modern stance rather than allow them to be swayed by alien cultures. It is only when we have respect for something indigenous that we can properly assimilate what is positive in other cultures.
Interviewers: You consider that a sensitive poet must address three basic dilemmas of society: illiteracy, poverty and indifference. What do you think should be uppermost for a shayar?
Pirzada: I think indifference is the most dangerous one; we have stopped feeling for others. We are only concerned with ourselves. We feel that if someone is suffering, let him suffer; at least we are safe. It’s a very dangerous approach. It’s one of the main causes that bring about the collapse of a nation. We must think about this. We should stop thinking about ourselves only.
Interviewers: Your poems very often reflect a soul in agony and torment. Any comments?
Pirzada: I agree you may rarely see the romantic note in my poetry. I am quite often stirred and provoked by the indifference of people that I have been talking about. I am disturbed by their complacence to support the status quo. My poetry is an attempt to motivate people to come out of their shell of indifference. I am reminded of a shayar who said: “Haadse se bada saanya wo hai ki log ruke nahin haadsa dekh kar” (It is a greater tragedy to move away unconcerned from the tragic scene than to stop and witness it).
Interviewers: As an inspiring poet, what is your estimate of Urdu poetry today?
Pirzada: In the past, the various schools of thought usually discussed two aspects of poetry; the form of poetry and word-selection. They didn’t believe that good poetry should be contemporary in content. They believed that good poetry should be timeless. The other school of thought was of the opinion that if poetry does not reflect the era in which it is said, then what is its use. I personally believe that our issues and era should be reflected in the poetry.

Interviewers:  What is your stance on Urdu as a language of communication?
Pirzada: Urdu has an extremely significant role to play in the unity of Pakistan. It acts as a bridge that joins the people of all the areas of Pakistan. If you go to the remote areas of Sindh, Punjab, or other provinces, the only language that can enable you to communicate with the people of these areas is Urdu. So, Urdu is a mark of our unity. We must recognize the importance of our national language and we should give this language the respect that it deserves.
Interviewers: What has Karachi University, under your leadership, done to promote Urdu?
Pirzada: Karachi  University has always played an effective role in this regard. For example, we have allowed all the students who appear in any examination that they can answer the questions in Urdu. Even if they attempt the entire paper in English, where they feel they can give answer better in Urdu, they can use Urdu. We hold different events to promote the Urdu language among our students. The Urdu department of Karachi University is also playing a very active role in this regard.
Interviewers: How does it feel to be nominated for the prestigious "Chitranshi Firaq International Award"?
Pirzada: I must confess that of all the accolades and awards I have received in my life, the “Chitranshi Firaq International Award” occupies a very special place for me.
Interviewers: Why so?
Pirzada: Mainly because the award is associated with the name of a poet whose poetry exemplifies how great creativity can evolve from roots entrenched in one’s own soil. There are very few shayars whose shayari springs from the soil of Hindustan. Firaq was one such visionary who was not enamoured by Western ideas that considered India and other third world countries as a land of mystics and snake charmers. His was not an apologistic stance. He created great lyrics that celebrated the great culture and civilization of this land.
Interviewers: What message would you like to convey to the students and youth of India?
Pirzada: In this age of high professionalism where everyone is involved in the rat race for financial success, we need to ask ourselves whether we are to become robots or human beings in a civilized world. If you want human beings with attributes of versatility, you need to inculcate the love for literature, religion and culture to some extent in addition to your aspiration for highest professionalism. That is bound to make you a better asset to society.
I would also like to tell them what I tell the youth of Pakistan that we should try to give our best within the limited resources that we have. It’s a great feeling when you achieve something for which you didn’t have enough resources.
Interviewers: Your inspiring presence in Agra is bound to leave decisive imprints on the efforts of Chitranshi to promote literary, social and cultural values. Thank you very much for sharing your views and concerns with us so intimately and for making this such a delightful and memorable evening.
Pirzada: Thank you! I have enjoyed every moment.
Courtesy: Re-Markings ( Vol. 9 No.2 September 2010, pp.11-19
Copyright (C) Sunita Rani & Nibir K. Ghosh

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