The plight of writers and Pakistan
After intense negotiations, a friend of mine was offered Rs 2,000 for his column each week if the organisation determined the quality of his material as being exceptional, its message clear, its facts verifiable, its style unique, its language outstanding. Yes, in a country where the minimum wage is Rs 7,000 for a minimally trained worker, he was offered Rs 8,000 ($ 80) every month for being extraordinary.
Before we move forward, let us, for a brief moment, travel back in time and look at the success of the Islamic empire in the ninth century, a period of our history that still makes us proud for the contribution of Muslims in science and philosophy. The Abbassids, after gaining control of the Caliphate, in that era had laid down the foundations of a new city called Baghdad. And, at the same time, in order to improve literacy and to compete with the Byzantine Empire, it also encouraged and funded various projects for the expansion of research and knowledge, which included the translation movement.
Without any exaggeration, the translation movement played a critical role in obtaining that objective and can be regarded as one of the most important reasons that Muslims ascended in science, technology and philosophy. Scholars from all over the Caliphate, regardless of their faith and ethnicity, were motivated to translate the Greek work of Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy and many others into the Arabic language. Once incorporated in Arabic literature, there was enough room for newer schools of thought to emerge and that is exactly what happened. A few decades down the road, Muslims produced a long list of polymaths starting from Al Kindi in the ninth century to Aver-roes (Ibn-e-Rushd) in the twelfth. Do you want to guess how much they got paid for their work? According to some estimates, those involved in the translation movement made about $ 24,000 or roughly 2.4 million rupees every month, an income that no Pakistani writer can even dream of earning.
Today, the culture is just the opposite. The system somehow ensures that writers, opinion makers, educationists and scholars stay behind in the financial race from the rest of their peers in other fields. Unable to make two ends meet, one day they are compelled to give up their passion for research and education, and spend all their energies in generating income for a comfortable life. Even after making that sacrifice, their lifestyle by no means can be considered lavish or ostentatious but is enough to put food on the table. To me, this tragedy alone, in itself, can be counted as the single most important reason for our downfall as a nation.
Another friend of mine, a journalist, who returned from the US last year, after earning a Masters degree from one of the renowned universities in North America, has been writing for various English newspapers and magazines on a regular basis. Like many others in the field, he also has never gotten paid for his work. On top of that, for more than a year, he has not been offered a single job that can pay for his house rent and groceries at the same time let alone the utility bills, which, just by themselves, run as high as Rs 30,000 a month. Sure, he has been offered jobs, jobs that require more than 12 hours of work every day without extra compensation and demand exceptional quality, with salary less than that of a qualified electrician.
In every society, I understand that there will always be exceptions of those who continue to do a great job, regardless of circumstances, like Leo Tolstoy, who enriched literature in Russia during the 19th century and, to some extent, Bano Qudsiya who, during the Zia regime in Pakistan, wrote some exceptional television plays. However, for most people, incentives, encouragement, multiple avenues for learning, a conducive environment to polish and improve their talent and hope for a secure future are necessary. In the absence of these prerequisites, notwithstanding all the strategies in place to disenchant and discourage a young writer, the consequences are not far fetched.
First, only low quality work will be produced since there is minimum or low competition. Groups of people with marginal qualifications, who have been unable to excel in other departments, are left to expand the intellectual horizon of any society. Narrow mindedness will thus triumph and be able to prevail as it has happened with Urdu literature. Fewer readers, fewer writers and even fewer financiers have together resulted in its widespread decline with books published in just a few hundreds and limited in discussion on two major areas: religion and romance. Do you recall any crime novel in Urdu, a book that has been discussed on television or in the media in the last 20 years?
Secondly, the group that is talented and contributes on a regular basis most of the time carries an ulterior motive. They use newspapers, magazines, books and opinion pages as mediums to advertise themselves and to seize public office or political appointment. Sometimes, they go after a seat in the Senate, the National Assembly or even in a provincial Assembly. In other instances, they want to serve as a state minister, an advisor to the prime minister or the head of a national institution. Few of them will be just as content if they are promoted as office holders within the party as ‘think tanks’. Obviously, service to the nation remains the only declared reason to assume these tasks for both the benefactor and the beneficiary.
Honest professionals, dedicated to writing, either are pushed aside since they do not possess the ‘appropriate talent’ or they emigrate from Pakistan because they cannot afford to write. Or, they lose hope in their skill and settle for another less challenging, yet more rewarding profession to make a living.