(written on 20th November 2015, the 30th death anniversary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a poet much loved in Pakistan and India)
(Picture by Sunil Janah)
21 November 1984. Faiz Ahmed Faiz came to me in an obituary in the newspaper, The Tribune, when I was a curious high school student preparing for a general knowledge quiz.
1987. Faiz reappeared in a communist march, with his tarana, “Hum mehnatkash jagwalon se jab apna hissa maangeygain,” the equivalent of the Internationale in Hindustani – on my lips.
Faiz came to me a year later, in a small booklet published by some radical outfit that is long gone.
Faiz came to me in his collected poems, “Saare Sukhan Hamare” (“All words are ours”). I made a long trip to old Delhi’s Daryaganj in DTC buses to Raj Kamal Prakashan to procure the newly-published book at the then royal price of Rs 100. It was that difficult and that expensive to buy it. The book still accompanies me, along with the “Diwan-e-Ghalib”, a quarter of a century later.
Faiz’s quatrain, “Raat yoon teri khoyi hui yaad aayi” (“And in such ways your lost memories came as night fell”) became my first painting that I created inspired by a poem.
“Raat yun dil mein teri khoyi hui yaad aayi,
Jaise viraane mein chupke se bahaar aa jaye,
I am in Cairo, walking with an Egyptian man (his face wasn’t revealed to me). We are walking along a bridge that connects two buildings. The two of us discuss Faiz, and suddenly, we see a misty figure in a gray suit. I point out to my friend, ‘See, there goes Faiz”. Both of us look at him, wonder-struck. We keep walking.
I mention to my friend that Naguib Mahfouz also wrote poetry. My friend looks up at dark clouds in the sky and recites a couple of lines, implying that these are by Mahfouz: The skies wear
A widow’s shroud
The dream returned to my memory today as I watched the surcharged demonstrations on the streets of Cairo. Not even in my dreams, though, could I have imagined the Egyptian people would be out on the streets, trying to rip apart the dark shrouds from the country’s skies. It seems Faiz and Mahfouz are really together on the streets today.
A treasure trove of 80 poems by Paash, rendered superbly into English by poet and translator Hari Singh Mohi is now available online. Here is one short poem from the collection.
THROUGH SELF-INSECURITY If security of the country means only this That conscientiousness should become A condition for life, The presence of any other word than ‘yes’ in the Pupil of the eye should be obscene, And mind should keep prostrate before evil moments, Then the security of the country is a danger to us.
In your whole life will not get repaid
Loan on sister’s marriage incurred,
Every drop of blood
Sprinkled in the fields
Will not provide colour
Enough to paint the face
Of a serene smiling person.
To add to it further
All the nights of life put together
Will not count down the stars of the sky;
Then, friends, let us, indeed,
In pursuit of the flying eagles proceed.
(The original word in Punjabi translated above as as eagles is “baaj”. I prefer the translation as “falcon”, for various reasons, though technically eagles is correct.)
Paash would have turned 60 later this year. When the Naxalite spring thunder roared 42 years ago, he was just 18. He went on, along with others like Lal Singh Dil, Sant Ram Udassi, Harbhajan Halvarvi, Darshan Khatkar and Amarjit Chandan to found what came to be known as the era of “jhujaru” (literally “fighting” or struggle) poetry in Punjabi. This was in sharp contrast to the romantic oeuvre of Shiv Kumar Batalvi. In Punjab, divided on language throughout the 20th century, similar poetry was evident earlier in the Urdu revolutionary poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. Paash was briefly imprisoned during the Naxalite surge, and he moved to the United States in the 1980s where his family lived and still does.
It is remarkable that Paash’s poetry caught on only after his death in 1988, when he fell victim to Khalistani terrorism. The Left-inclined activists came in for sharp attack; indeed Jarnail Singh Bhinderawale had termed the communists in the state to be even more dangerous than the Central government, headed then by what he called the “daughter of the brahamans” (“Bamana di dhee”), Mrs. Indira Gandhi. This is not the place to go in for a discussion on the politics of the1980s. However, it does form the backdrop to Paash’s untimely and brutal death as well as the resurgence for his poetry. In contrast, Lal Singh Dil (who converted to Islam and migrated to Uttar Pradesh, unlike the Jatt Sikh Paash), came into brief prominence just before his death only a couple of years ago in the backdrop of Dalit assertion in Indian politics. Continue reading “When falcons turned pigeons”
No faults in any way are found in him;
All virtues in every way dwell in him
Thus begins the Hymn to the Buddha (Satapancasataka), a poem by the 1st century poet Matrceta. It is considered to have played some part in the popularization of Buddhism at that time, and even now is a good introduction to the atheistic religion. At first it looks like an eulogy for the Buddha, but as one reads the full text it becomes apparent that it is not just a blind eulogy to a person but encapsulates the message of the Buddha in verse. It speaks about the Buddha’s concerns (the noble eight fold path)- Compassion, Speech, Teaching, Guidance and Deeds, among others. An extract from ‘In Praise of Speech’:
Your speech is excellent in three ways,
based on fact it is truthful
because its motive is pure it causes no confusion
and being relevant it is easily understood. Continue reading “Hymn to the Buddha”
You ride on a horse, while I ride on a donkey. Looks like you are better off than me! Turning around, I see a man pushing his cart. Some are better off than me, But there are others less fortunate than myself!
A poem from the collection “Cloud and Water” (pdf) by the Chinese Buddhist writer Hsing Yun. The blurb explains the title of the book:
What do we mean by cloud and water? Clouds float by water flows on. In movement there is no grasping, in Ch’an there is no settling. The cloud and water life is a life of living in the moment, always fresh and ready to experience.
Santokh Singh Dheer, whose courageous poems in the 1980s made him known as the “peoples’ poet”, has been a life long left- wing writer whose writings have been marked by an empathy for the downtrodden. As a student during the late 1980s I had the good chance of translating some of his poems which are now available in the form of a book. Dheer, who is now close to 90 years, handed over the manuscript to me few years back, dejectedly remarking that the collection would not be published during his life time. Fortunately, and thanks to publish on demand technology, I have been able to publish his collection. It is available from Amazon.com (or CreateSpace) for US $7 and as a free e- book .
Terrorism under the garb of religion, which is how we know of it today, started in India in the 1980s in the Punjab. It was a by- product of the developments during the emergency in the backdrop of the green revolution that had created it’s own contradictions. Though it is true that much of the violence took place after Operation Bluestar followed by the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi, a very strange kind of extremism had arisen before that. Young men, flaunting AK-47s and riding motor cycles would waylay chosen targets as well as unsuspecting ordinary individuals and murder them. Just like that. The Nirankaris were the first to incur their wrath, then came the Arya Samajis like Lala Jagat Narain, followed by ordinary Hindus and then by those Sikhs considered to be renegades to the ‘panth’. Thousands of killings later and with a combination of state terror as well as a fig leaf of “democratic” elections (when less than 10% of the people voted), peace returned to the state after nearly a decade. Continue reading “To the Punjab of Farid and other Poems”
I was there a month ago
I was there a year ago
I was there always, as if I had never been anywhere else
In the year ’82 of the last century something happened to us, somewhat like
what is happening to us now. We were besieged, we were killed Continue reading “‘Each Martyr has a Name’”
Watching this interview with the Punjabi poet, the late Shiv Kumar Batalvi, I could not but reflect that poetry, and art in general, is far greater than its creator. Once the poet’s idea finds a language, the language works on its own- the shared repository of mankind’s long history and engagement with ideas and emotions, it cannot but dwarf its lonesome creator.
Batalvi’s talk is almost child like in the interview, and his answer to questions about “getting away from myself” and the death of an intellectual are as naive as they are innocent. Same for his answer to the question of the inspiration of his poetry. Batalvi was not a great Punjabi poet, at the same time, his poetry is marked by a melancholy lyricism that brought a freshness to the language. As in a previous post on Batalvi, I wonder if its melancholy has something to do with the partition and confusion of ideas and identities, rather than a purely personal sadness. Batalvi’s answer seems to confirm that it was more than something purely personal- he seems to have had a happy life as he states in the interview.
Here is the rare footage from the BBC’s television with Batalvi in 1970, when he was 32. He died three years later at the age of 35. The interview is in Hindi/Urdu.
(I must say that the person who has uploaded this rare footage deserves kudos for this rare treat.)
While on Batalvi, here is a rendition by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: mae ni mae mere gitaan vich. I like this better than other renditions because of its monotone and the relative lack of emotion in the voice, thus letting the words speak for themselves.
rahiye ab aisi jagah chal kar jahan koi na ho
humsukahn koi na ho aur humzubaan koi na ho (Mirza Ghalib)
(Let us go to a place now, where no one lives
There is no one to talk to, and no one who understands my words.)
In life, one has to take a decision and choose one’s path at some point. One can take either the road or the rainbow bridge.
I took the dusty road, my friend RK took the bridge and wandered over the heaven on earth- in Ladakh and Kashmir. I do not know, as yet, where the road leads to, but where the bridge leads to is a wonderful place, as the amazing pictures show.
The ferocity of hatred post Babri Masjid demolition lead one to Mir and Kabir. Nida Fazli started writing dohas at that time. Poetry sought to become a balm on the times, and we turned to Mir and Kabir.
Thanks to the indefatigable Raza Rumi, one of my old posts on the poet Mir Taqi Mir appears at the Pak Tea House.
Sunflowers truly are The self- expression of your Experience But, brother You’ve forgotten to paint One of the colours of the sun!
– Namdeo Dhasal from The Soul Doesn’t Find Peace in This Regime (1995)
Translated by Dilip Chitre in Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underworld published last year. A great book with some fine translations and an introduction to Dhasal and his works. The stunning pictures by Henning Stegmuller provide a visual introduction to Dhasal’s world. My only disconcert with the book is that Chitre entirely washes out Dhasal’s later shift to Hindutva politics. This poem can also be read as an expression of that disconcert.
Roberto Bolano in his recently translated novel Nazi Literature in the Americas weaves an entire literary universe filled with imaginary writers and their writings.Not all writers were,however, fans of Hitler or other Nazi leaders or even their ideology. Bolano’s biographies of these imaginary writers, inspired in a way by Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, are short- the longest runs into a few pages, the shortest about a page in length. Marked by sharply etched portraits of the writers and of their equally imaginary writings, the novel reads like a racy potboiler, except that there is no evident plot in the novel. Only the last story (which readers of Bolano’s novel Distant Star will be familiar with because it is a summary of the same novel) is somewhat longer and has Bolano himself speaking in the first person and somewhat gives the clues to the underlying impulses behind the novel.
In this he recounts the story of Ramirez Hoffman, a Chilean air plane pilot who seemingly heralded a ‘new era’ in Chilean arts after the coup against Salvador Allende’s socialist government and the establishment of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Hoffman’s poetry is written in the sky using smokes from his air plane thus announcing the new blend of technology and arts as Chile was ‘recovering its manhood’ under a military dispensation.Some of Hoffman’s poems, all one liners written on the skies, read as follows:
“YOUTH…YOUTH” “GOOD LUCK TO EVERYONE IN DEATH” “LEARN FROM FIRE” “Death is friendship” “Death is Chile” “Death is responsibility” “Death is growth” “Death is communion” “Death is cleansing” and so on till “Death is resurrection” and the generals themselves realize that something is amiss. It is, however, something far more macabre that leads to his downfall.
Bolano’s prose is marked by the alacrity of flash fiction (which to me is one of the most important developments in literature in the internet age), but nevertheless carries forward the tradition of the serious novel. The absence of an explicit plot in the story does not mean that there is no plot- as a post- modern reading would suggest. Instead, the plot is hidden below the surface, like an underground river.
The point that he makes is that Nazi- like brutality has a long lineage, and it resides perceptibly and imperceptibly in literature as well. Literature is, therefore, a battlefield in the recovery of humanity and is not outside the realm of politics, and neither is politics outside the realm of poetry and literature.
Reading the novel, I could not but relate very much to India where, interestingly, it is rather normal to have politicians, in the tradition of rulers of the past like Bahadur Shah Zafar and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, to double up as poets and writers. It is therefore not unusual that two major contemporary politicians- Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, former Prime Minister and a present Chief Minister of Gujarat respectively, belonging to what is easily the closest we have to a fascist political movement, the Bharatiya Janata Party, have some claim to being poets.
To look for Nazi literature in India, one does not need biographies of imaginary writers. In India, they live among us, in our times. The question of literature and politics being separate also does not arise. They are so intricately tied up that both are the same. The nightmare and the muse.
Sudarshan Faakir, poet and lyricist whose ghazals and some nazms were sung by Begum Akhtar in her last phase and Jagjit Singh in his early phase in the 1970s and 1980s died on 19 Feb in Jalandhar. He will be remembered as one of the significant though minor poets of the language. In context of the language issue, it needs to be remarked that he belonged to the small and diminishing tribe of non- Muslim Urdu poets from East Punjab. Krishna Adeeb, who passed away couple of years back and Joginder Lal (known by his nome de plume Naqsh Lyallpuri) are others that come to mind. His compositions may not have been prolific, but each is remarkable for its profundity and perfection.
Death, even of dreaded criminals like Suharto who died today, comes as a shock. It is also a reminder of events- in this case, the slaughter of at least a million Indonesians in the 1960s- mostly communists in a predominantly Muslim country. Outside the officially communist countries, Indonesia had the largest communist party in the world before Suharto brutally decimated it. (news report at npr)
Closer home, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr Modi- he brought ‘economic development’ and ‘stability’ to the country.
Here is a poem by the great Indonesian poet, WS Rendra written during the 1998 student demonstrations that brought down Suharto.
Because we have to eat roots while grain piles up in your storeroom… Because we live crowded together and you have more space than you need… Therefore we are not on the same side.Because we’re all creased and crumpled and you’re immaculate… Because we’re crowded and stifled and you lock the door… Therefore we are suspicious of you.
Because we’re abandoned in the street and you own all the shelter… Because we’re caught in floods while you have parties on pleasure craft… Therefore we do not like you. Because we are silenced and you never shut up… Because we are threatened and you impose your will by force… therefore we say NO to you.
Because we are not allowed to choose and you can do what you like… Because we wear only sandals and you use your rifles freely… Because we have to be polite and you have the prisons… therefore NO and NO to you.
Because we are like a flowing river and you are a stone without a heart the water will wear away the stone.
As to the barbaric political repression under the former general, Tariq Ali quotes the Indonesian writer Pripit Rochijat:
Usually the corpses were no longer recognisable as human. Headless. Stomachs torn open. The smell was unimaginable. To make sure they didn’t sink, the carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled upon, bamboo stakes. And the departure of the corpses from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were stacked together on rafts over which the PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] banner grandly flew . . . Once the purge of Communist elements got under way, clients stopped coming for sexual satisfaction. The reason: most clients–and prostitutes–were too frightened, for, hanging up in front of the whorehouses, there were a lot of male Communist genitals–like bananas hung out for sale.’
Thanks to Raza for having me there- the tea house is a home of sorts having spent some of my best days during college in similar abodes. The Pak Tea House, of course, is in a different league altogether!
Dreaming That the saucer and I had finished our ridiculous dance, Our humble critique of Reality, in a painless, anonymous Crash in one of the planet’s deserts. Death That brought me no peace, so after my flesh had rotted I still went on dreaming.read the full poem
It has all the elements of a Roberto Bolano story- fast paced sequences written in exquisite prose and an ending with a dramatic twist. A short extract from the story:
But the action of that sinister and eminently sardonic character Time has prompted a reconsideration of Rousselot’s apparent simplicity. Perhaps he was complicated. By which I mean more complicated than we had imagined. Or, there is an alternative explanation: perhaps he was simply another victim of chance.