Ali Akbar Natiq is one of Urdu writing’s hottest literary stars at the moment. Compared to greats like Saadat Hasan Manto and Premchand, Natiq’s stories revolve around the everyday, yet are replete with what it means to live life on the edges of modernity, to be distant and yet close to urbanity. We asked Zafar Syed, his English translator, to tell us what makes Natiq’s stories outstanding:
It’s a common lament in Pakistan that literature is on its last legs; Urdu, the national language, is nose-diving; and people have stopped reading books.
In this apocalyptic scenario, Ali Akbar Natiq has risen to literary stardom with such breathtaking rapidity that it has left many people scratching their heads, and they are hard pressed to find a slot in which to fit him in. This has won him a huge following, but a large numbers of detractors as well.
Meanwhile, he keeps on churning hit after hit. Shamsur Rahman Farooqi, the foremost Urdu litterateur, compared him to Mira Ji, one of the greatest Urdu poets of the last century and a forebear of modernism. Natiq’s collection of short fiction, Qaim Din and Other Stories, was published by Oxford University Press here, probably the first time they published a living Urdu fiction writer. Its English translation, What Will You Give For This Beauty, was compared to Manto.
But Natiq didn’t stop there. His novel Naulakhi Kothi came out in 2014, whereas another short story collection is being launched in India.
What drives Natiq, then? Where does he find the passion and excitement which suffuses his writing? Answering this question, he says, “Nature attracts me towards itself like death. Wherever I see God’s creativity around me, I grab my pen and start writing.” He further elaborates his writing process, “I never write a line when I don’t face a problem, and I never describe a problem when I can’t make it sing.”
Most of what Natiq writes feels hyper-realistic. One reason could be that he has lived those stories. Before embarking on his literary career, Natiq was first a mason’s assistant and a labourer, working mostly on constructions of mosques in his native Okara district in central Punjab. When he moved to Lahore, he didn’t have the money to stay in a hotel and spent several months sleeping on streets. Keeping this in mind, we can understand when he says, “I can’t comprehend those writers who write about a day-labourer or a street child sitting on plush sofas in their cozy, air-conditioned living rooms, lined to the ceiling with bookshelves. No wonder their writing lacks authenticity. You simply cannot cut your nails and call yourself a martyr.”
Natiq is also disdainful of any literary and linguistic pyrotechnics or abstruse philosophies in his fiction. He says, “I want my stories to be read by the people who I write about, and for whom I write: the hardworking farmer, the village policeman, the rambunctious dog-fighter. I don’t write for PhD types in academia, and don’t care what they write about me, either.”