Writing in Saghar’s voice
“I think writing is born also out of a dialogue with different authors and that makes you conscious of a very important thing; that there are books that you have never read and you would love to read but nobody has written them and you are the person who is going to write them. Writing is always about writing what others haven’t written.”
By Naeem Safi
Julien Columeau is a French national residing in Pakistan for the last six years. He has also lived in India for eight years. Julien works in an international organisation and constantly moves around different continents. Two of Julien’s novels were published in France. He just completed two novels in Urdu, Saghar and Zalzilah.
Following are the excerpts from an interview TNS had with him recently.
The News on Sunday: Can you recall precisely when did you decide to become a writer?
Julien Columeau: I don’t think I ever decided to become a writer; I think I just decided to write. Becoming a writer, in my sense, sounds a bit pompous. There are very few people that I’d call writers. In French we have this concept of ‘écrivain’. Écrivain is somebody whose life depends on writing. He is the person who’d die if he didn’t write a book or a line. He lives out of writing, spiritually, gets his energy out of writing and not out of anything else. I think it is very difficult and very few people can attain that. Most of us get energy from writing, people who are like me, who are in the habit of writing, as people are in the habit of smoking. We derive our energy from writing but I don’t think we derive all our energy from writing and we are striving to get close to that stage where you are one with your writing.
TNS: Could you tell us about your writing habits? Do you follow a strict regime or wait for inspiration or the ‘right mood’?
JC: I don’t believe in inspiration and I don’t believe in getting in the mood either. I think what you have to write is within you and it has been within you for years. It’s very much connected with your own subconscious. I think writing is a form of a conscious dialogue with your own subconscious. It’s all about you letting your subconscious talk very often. You have to go and meet a psychoanalyst and you don’t decide the time when you are going to meet him and, unfortunately, it’s following a very strict routine. All the psychoanalysts stress a lot on the importance of routine.
TNS: How important is company or setting for a writer?
JC: It is important, to some extent, but it is also very good to be able to see it for your own imagination and not for your physical aids. I think in order to write fiction you need to give more importance to the unseen. I would say that without having been to Lahore I would have never written the book, Saghar, if I talk about myself. But at the same point, when I wrote Saghar I don’t think I was in Lahore.
When I had the first idea of Saghar I was quite far away from Lahore. The city was some kind of a memory or a fantasy. And this is why I didn’t feel restricted by geographical facts that at times you feel you have to respect if you are talking about a given place.
It actually got me a lot of liberty to write about Lahore in a very dreamy way. In order to translate it into words you need to feel the distance. I was not describing Lahore, I was describing the vision of Lahore, which is very imprecise and I wanted it to be so.
TNS: You have written a novel about poet Saghar, by the same name. Would you like to share the experience?
JC: I didn’t have to go through much actually; it was just a couple of book readings about him, written by those who were close to him, who had a lot of love and respect for him, which was good. And I feel that a lot of Urdu poets have earned people’s respect but I don’t think many poets have earned people’s love to the extent to which Saghar had. I have the feeling that he is very dear to the people of Lahore, especially the Walled City and some adjacent areas where he used to move around and that’s a very specific thing. So what I encountered first was people’s love for Saghar, and a lot of them could still identify themselves with Saghar and his memories, as if Saghar was embodying a period which is dead now.
And then I realised there were important things missing, unfortunately, people were talking about their perception of Saghar and their love for Saghar but not much about Saghar himself. And they were talking a lot about what they assumed Saghar was going through — mentally, spiritually, and philosophically. The thing that was missing was Saghar ‘s point of view itself. It was then I realised that I’d have to go through his diwaan as often as I could and try to interpret it in my own way into some fiction. I’ve been writing the fiction for a couple of years, which was to find a kind of fictional background for a lot of the verses by Saghar, which moved me and that was the beginning of the purpose of writing the book.
TNS: What has influenced this text more: reading Saghar or living in his city?
JC: Yes I’d say both of them but especially Saghar himself, meaning whatever I could get from his poetry, from different biographical accounts, and what also I could gather and understand, which is very important, is that people don’t know much about his life. So it’s mainly about some kind of gaps which I noticed in his biographies, huge gaps. People were not aware of very important things; they knew where he was born, where he died, but they didn’t know what happened to his mother after 1947. They didn’t know who inspired him, whom he referred to all his life in a very metaphorical way. So basically what I didn’t know about Saghar is what inspired me to write about him.
TNS: You feel that your perception is different from that of the local Urdu writer?
JC: I’m not too sure. It’s debatable. If you talk about the local writer you might be talking about the masters. Obviously I cannot write anything classical because I don’t know much about classical literature. People in the modern age feel differently. The set of experiments attempted by contemporary writers in the past thirty years have taken Urdu literature to its limits, for instance Enver Sajjad, Anis Nagi, and the stories of Hassan Askari, the first stories written in Urdu that are very fresh and willingly used the method of stream of consciousness. I was very much influenced by poetry as well, especially Majeed Amjad.
TNS: Do you use such a rich vocabulary in French as you’ve used in Urdu?
JC: The aspects of language, which I stressed on and exploited, while writing in Urdu and in French are different. In French I wrote in a very intellectual and internalised way, and in Urdu I tried to exploit the colourfulness of the language.
What you write is not what the language tells you to write but you are telling the language what it is to express. I was more conscious in the beginning when I was writing in Urdu, so that not to make it obvious for the reader that it’s a foreigner writing. And since I had to write in the voice of Saghar I was not allowed to write anything but what I imagined would be a very rich, colourful and precise language. The effort was very conscious in the beginning but soon it became Saghar ‘s voice itself and then I was possessed by it. If I think about most of the scenes I have no idea how I wrote them, or no recollection of the mood I was in. This connection of distance is what helped me feel Saghar ‘s character and hear his voice within me.
TNS: So what you are saying is that you had some sort of a spiritual experience?
JC: I would not say that at all, being very far from roohaniyat. I think it’s a very material experience. And in spirit it’s a very sexual experience.
TNS: Do you believe Pakistanis have understood and appreciated Saghar the way he deserved it?
JC: Saghar was a malamati, somebody who despised himself and made himself despicable in the eyes of the society. I don’t think there is any question of deserving. He stays in people’s memories as a malang, with all the sensitivities and sensibilities that are associated with it, and that’s what he wanted. This is something that I talk about in the novel, the malang who was so present in the public spheres and life. While malang is somebody who lives a life of retirement or that of a hermit, which was not his case. And I somehow came up with this idea that maybe Saghar could have been rejected by the other malangs that creates a different state of mind in the end where Saghar is completely satisfied with his life and he feels that he is neither a malang nor a normal person anymore. The last thing that gave meaning to his life was the company of his beloved.
He created his own mental space. I have the feeling, as far as his interaction with drugs is concerned, that it became a habit later at some point. As in the beginning it was born out of his wish to experiment with different states of consciousness. He talked about drugs, using the metaphor of wine and the name he chose for himself, Saghar. But it was more than just consuming drugs consciously and in a very organised way as far as his poetic dynamic is concerned. A point that I’m highlighting in the novel is that he became a malang out of compulsion, to some extent. But at the end it is his decision. When he walks out of the hotel room towards Data Darbar, he is someone who knows where he is going, with an aim in mind to describe and analyse the old process — when he says “mein khud ko munazzam tarikay sey taraaj karonga”, the only instance of the future tense in my novel.
TNS: Would you like to elaborate on the protagonist’s choice in Saghar to appreciate the military parade over saving his love?
JC: That’s the feature of Saghar, him being a patriot. I’m describing something that some people witnessed but the context is fictional where his girlfriend is feeling the effect of withdrawal and he is out to get some money for her heroin. She is dying while he is doing that.
I felt like it was echoing with the beginning of the second part when he writes the national anthem of Pakistan and in return loses his personality. It’s a kind of metaphor expressing the way the states crush individuals through the passion that they ignite in their hearts and minds about the nation and other confused and meaningless concepts.
Saghar is very much attached to mythology, and nation is very much part of the mythology which is beyond his own existence and that makes him jealous of these soldiers for being part of it, yet real creatures.
TNS: You feel other writers influence your writing?
JC: I think writing is born also out of a dialogue with different authors and that makes you conscious of a very important thing, which is that there are books that you have never read and you would love to read but nobody has written them and you are the person who is going to write them. Writing is always about writing what others haven’t written. You have to be faithful to the originality. You need to distance yourself from the authors who give you energy through their ideas in order not to write in the same style as them. The idea is to achieve the balance between yourself and the others, because if you’re too much of yourself then nobody will understand a single word of what you write.
TNS: Before learning Urdu, what was your perception about this culture?
JC: A person coming in contact with something that is new to him has some prejudices. And I had some kind of fixed ideas in my mind and was going pretty much by all the stereotypes which are being circulated outside Asia. Learning Urdu was a very important and central experience, the experience of changing yourself through a language that is a very fresh object to you. While doing that, you give up on your own culture and background and more of your inner self and identity and focus on something else. And if you have been able to focus on that then you will realize that it doesn’t really make any difference if you write in Hebrew or Urdu.
TNS: Your favourite Urdu authors.
JC: My favourite Urdu writers are poets. First on my list would be Majeed Amjad, then Saleem Ahmad and maybe not immediately Saghar, which may sound very paradoxical. I love what he wrote but I don’t think he reaches the heights. He was not like a literary figure who is coming up with literature consciously. His own process of creativity and writing was very different in nature from the process of Majeed Amjad and Saleem Ahmad, or N.M. Rashid.
Each poet’s poetry is, or defines a different genre. It’s not that some people write in the poetical genre but I think that Majeed Amjad writes in the Majeed Amjadian genre. It goes beyond style because style is about repeating a certain set of images or combination of words. It’s born out of the unity of the inner kaifiyyat and the way this kaifiyyat meets the author’s world through words. I feel a lot of silence, or sakoot — being stuck in time — in Majeed Amjad’s poems. Or like Joan Elea who was toying with the zero, or nihilism.
TNS: How do you see the contemporary Urdu literature?
JC: Urdu literature was in danger, some time ago, to die of suffocation. And I don’t think many literatures can survive by themselves. There have always been two currents of Urdu literature, one is the riwayat pasand, who want to go by the tradition; and there are people who want to break free from the tradition.
I have the feeling that that kind of hangover with tradition was very much present with Urdu literature when the taraqi pasand were going to take over. Then some people, among which Asad Farooqi, and Muhammad Umar Memon, and Ajmal Kamal, realised that Urdu was going to die out of suffocation and decided to open the window by translating and adapting works from other languages into their own.
TNS: Anything else you want to share or shed light on?
JC: I wrote this novel first in French, and then I realised that very often I ended up explaining some concepts indigenous to this land. Then wrote it in Saghar ‘s language and changed it to the first person that gave me the liberty to impersonate him and play his role actively in my mind. Actually Urdu freed me from all the constraints that I was feeling while writing in French. People would find it very paradoxical for me feeling much more freedom in writing in a language which is not my mother tongue. But it was as if I was equipped with a new and fresh imagination, which was a very exciting and unique experience.
The book I have written is more of a tribute than a novel. After its completion I visited Saghar’s shrine and asked for forgiveness from the baba.