The Sahitya Akadami Award has been given to a book which is no more than a compilation of prosaic details
Let’s start with the basic question: what is the function of criticism in literature? Is it a registration of literary works produced over the years in chronological order? No. Although it isn’t easy to compartmentalise the functions of literary criticism, we can say its basic function is to interpret literary work in a way that increases our appreciation of a work of art by examining and evaluating it, so that we are able to get meaningful insights and conclusions based on a justified rationale.
The supposedly critical work ‘Tawazun’, awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award 2021 in Kashmiri Language for Criticism, consists of fifty chapters. Each chapter is dedicated to a writer (apart from three chapters which are devoted to cultural background of Kistawar, Kashmiri literature of Chenab valley, and the contribution of Kashmiri Pandits). Is there any systematic approach followed throughout the book? Any attempt to develop a relationship of content to cultural politics, religion, society, and even politics? Is the form and content of the work influenced by the writer’s gender? Put as many questions as you want based on the wide spectrum of critical approaches, be it formalistic, historical, psychological, sociological, biographical, and archetypal. There isn’t a single evidence where the writer is per se engaged in literary criticism.
“The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used,” C.S. Lewis, a literary critic, argues in his preface to Paradise Lost (p.1). I would like to ask where we may place the present book in the spectrum of criticism. Does it touch the chords of criticism anywhere or is it just an amateurishly titled book ‘Criticism and Creation’?
One may humbly ask and desire to know what is written after all in such a fat book.
Pick up any chapter and you find that there are two types of introductions: one starting from the date and place of birth and then a complete record of an author’s educational qualifications followed by a job profile – from which post he started and at what position he got superannuation. One beholds a complete list of books published by authors without discussing their literary value. One may argue that someone’s biography is important for a critical evaluation of their work but one wonders that after spending so much energy on the biographical aspect, there is no attempt to make the biographical details a base for arguments regarding the body of work of the particular writer. I wonder why the author has spent so much energy on it when he hasn’t used it at all for his main concern – literary criticism. Instead, the biographical details are followed by a montage of passing references quoted previously by some writer in his/her article or newspaper, reviewer or historian. And then we reach the happy endings where our respected critic showers heaps of praise on the writer he is supposedly evaluating.
Let’s take some examples randomly.
Chapter 50, titled ‘Farooq Shaheen as a Critic’, starts with how his book, which was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar (2012), introduced him in literary circles and his other works including translation. Then a complete biographical sketch of him is given followed by some random passages from his award-winning book without drawing any conclusion from them. Whatever has been said about Farooq Shaheen by some writers in their works is recorded again, and lastly, Dr Iqbal’s couplet about Shaheen is quoted with a comment that the author feels as if it was said for Farooq Shaheen.
Chapter 27 is titled ‘Eminent Kashmiri Essayist Prof Mohd Zaman Azurdah’. As usual, the chapter is introduced detailing Azurdah’s books followed by references about him from Kashmiri literary history by Naji Munawar and Shafi Shauq. It is pertinent to mention here that the reference from this history is quoted about almost each person and in every chapter. It is followed by a complete biography and job profile as we see in service records, highlighting in bold letters how many research scholars worked under his supervision. Don’t forget to note his house number, too, is mentioned. At last he says, “Prof Muhammad Azurdah, an eminent essayist, wonderful orator, deserves honour and respect for writing thirty essay collections in Urdu and Kashmiri.”
Chapter 47 is titled ‘Dr Gulzar Ahmad Rather and his Compilations’. It consists of a total 9 pages which give us the names of books he has compiled, and the titles of the book chapters he has written. Dr Gulzar’s complete biography is followed by his educational qualification which reads like a resume. The author believes that despite having high qualification it was destined that Dr Gulzar should work in Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art Culture and Languages. The author has quoted the poem ‘Gulzar’ written by Ayub Sabr, the opening verse of which is “Rut anhaar chum gulzar, Dilbaryaar chum gulzar”. The author quotes unnecessarily so many references from his compilations and other literary figures of Kashmir without making any point. Finally, the author has only one complaint from Dr Gulzar: that he uses English numerals instead of Urdu in his body of work.
Noman Holland writes that “literary criticism … takes as its subject matter not a text but the transaction between a reader and a text” (Five Readers Reading, New Haven, 1975, p.248). However, one fails to find any such transaction in the whole book. Say, if one were to ask literary critics who have immensely contributed to the field whether this is criticism, they would say a big no because literary criticism, as New Critics us, must deal with “words on the page.”
Like all other places, we aren’t indifferent. We too love to adorn our book with a foreword, afterword, blurbs, prefaces, etc. It is a token of love and a way of appreciation for one’s creativity but shouldn’t we play the role of responsible citizens? Why should there be unnecessary praises for something which deserves humble suggestions? Doesn’t the onus lie on all of us who write such introductory words for the books? And same is true for Muhammad Yusuf Tiang, Prof Margoob Banhali and Prof Shad Ramzan, who have written in praise of this book.
Summing up, should we consider such books as criticism or as literary biography? Should such books be long-listed for national awards? Should such books bag a national award in the criticism genre? Does this suggest to us something mischievous from regional coordinators? How is the mechanism of jury constitution taking place? What impact does it have on our future generation? Do we rob the scholarship ethics from our creative writers through such decisions? Are we producing a generation bereft of confidence? These are some of the uncomfortable questions that we need to ask ourselves while deciding the merit of a critical work and forwarding it for a national award.