Where do we stop?
TOO deep a probe may take you to unwanted areas and throw up 'facts' - various sets of them at times - that you may not be prepared to absorb. Too much information can 'spoil' your own views about a subject. Too much of it can ruin your writing. Everyone is talking about the literary festival held, against so many odds, in Lahore last week. Everyone took away their own bits from the venue. Some thought it was a badly curtailed or an elitist affair and then went on to find souls on whom it could be blamed. Some brought home with them greater scepticism which was not a huge surprise given that literature is meant to make people think and think a bit more.
At one of the festival's sessions, one possible approach to Mir Taqi Mir - the grand 18th-century poet, the first one in the great trio that was later completed by Ghalib and Iqbal - was suggested. It was an approach that did not encourage reading too much into the person who produced the poetry; instead, it advised concentrating on his verse. What was asked for was at least a delinking of the two to be pursued independently. Impossible, some in the audience must have muttered, but the discussion for the millionth time raised the question of how much we should know or claim to and when.
Among all those considered in need of such a defence, the poets are easily given to idiosyncrasies and flights and dips of mood. Consequently, they have frequently been subjected to these attempts aimed at separating their person from the craft that has earned them their name. Quite often, this separation is desired by protective, knowledgeable and well-placed admirers who must now act as a guide for others embarking on the same path. These guides discourage an unnecessary peep inside the person of the poet, perhaps fearing that this could lead to the unsuspecting and unripe reader nursing unwanted if not altogether false notions about the poet they want to promote - minus his person, if it comes to that, and risking protests by those who might consider it to be unnecessary censorship.
But then there are always those who want to willingly violate this curfew. At another session of the literary festival in Lahore, a speaker blessed with considerable powers to debate and argue his way through virtually everything was all prepared to break the myth about the Sufis. He adopted a line that brought out the dangers - and the sheer futility - of investing in the Sufis to combat the 'brand' of Islam being promoted by the madressahs.
It so happened that some of the most vocal proponents of the indigenous spiritual tradition had chosen to give the literary event a miss because of the alleged ill treatment of local culture and languages by the organisers. Or the gentleman who sought to so brutally snatch away from the people their Sufi security would have risked exposing himself to a serious attack then and there.
Amongst those who had chosen to join the elite gathering, the question was clear: was this some kind of a disclosure or did we - some of us - already know about this reality, about how the so-called Sufi answer to the prudes lacked in rationality to be effective? The lameness of the Sufi challenge, or at least its limitations, presumably has been known all along. For all practical reasons, Sufi softness and Sufi weaknesses, it seems, have been glossed over to compensate for the absence of any other option. The ' truth' does not unchain: as our priorities stand, one might from time to time be told to stay away from inquiring too deeply into the phenomenon for greater personal and public good.
In the more ordinary world outside the festival, the call to restrict the search for greater information is regularly sounded more prominently from the religious forums that are out to ensure the continuation of the belief establishment. The attitude is then passed on to other shapers of society's ethos.
The pir would be aghast if a follower of his as much as asked what was inside the amulet which he is to so reverently carry on his person. The doctor, who has science by his side, would tell the patient that the antidote he was being injected would lose its potency the moment the formula was made public.
The doctor down the street does occasionally qualify for the reprimand reserved for those who must conceal - apart from the little they are willing to be accountable for. The tougher part is when the people you know for their frankness deem that the 'reality', or a part of it, is too sensitive to be placed in the public domain. Not everyone can readily reconcile when we have some of the most outspoken amongst us calling for curbs on debate in the name of meaningful movement towards some grand objective - like Kashmir, which we are often quietly told these days may not be brought up in the interest of business and lasting peace in this region. It is such a grand, not-to-be-missed destination and which some of us had so far thought could only be arrived at via Kashmir.
Kashmir is an example - one out of many - of how frustration at our inability to move via talks can lead to a desire for quick and not-thought-out solutions. Some other ready examples of haste borne out of desperation can be found with not too much trouble.