Amjad Islam Amjad is currently Pakistan’s best-known Urdu poet. Born on Aug. 4, 1944, he enjoys immense popularity among Urdu lovers in both India and Pakistan because of his brilliant poetry and excellent screenplays. Winner of many awards, including the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, and an author of many books of poetry, he has been a regular feature at poetry readings all over the world for the last four decades.
Some of his plays, dramatized by Pakistan Television (PTV) and other private television channels, have won international acclaim. “Waaris,” “Samandar,” “Waqt,” “Dehleez,” “Raat” and “Apne Log” are among his most popular screenplays. He wrote his first drama, “PehlaKhel,” in 1973.
First and foremost, however, he is a poet whose lines tug at the hearts of those who have either fallen in or out of love. Few modern-day poets have captured the feelings of lovelorn souls the way Amjad Islam Amjad has. His work is brilliant and towers well above his fellow poets.
In this wide-ranging interview, Amjad Islam Amjad spoke about a number of issues related to Urdu poetry, literature and its unique script. The conversation was repeatedly interrupted by his admirers who wanted to compliment him on the quality of his work.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: How does it feel to be the object of such adulation around the world?
A: One feels happy. The late Ahmad NadeemQasimi, a towering figure of Urdu literature, would have said, “Kisi bhishehr me jaaun, ghareeb-e-shehrnahi.” The love and adulation of friends and admirers and this acknowledgement is always welcome. People come and recite my couplets, recall meetings and poetry reading sessions — all these make one feel better. We get strength. It makes us realize that we have not led an empty, meaningless life. The greatest gift for a writer and a poet is for people to recall their work. I am always thankful to Allah for this bounty, this adulation, this respect.
Q: You have been all over the world. What is the status of Urdu?
A: There are two sides to it. One bright and one dark. Urdu as a spoken language is prospering in the world. There is no doubt that in the next 10 years, it might become the topmost spoken language in the world. Even now, it is among the Top 3 spoken languages — Chinese, English and Urdu. Spanish is No. 4. The fastest-growing language is Urdu. Having said that, I must say, rather ruefully, that its script is in danger of being forgotten. Urdu has become the language of the ear. It is no longer the language of the eye. There was a time, when it was the language of the eye. We used to read the written word. Now in SMS and smartphones, and on the Internet, you see the language in electronic format. Thus our attachment to the book, and especially to the script, is slowly losing its appeal. The new generation in Pakistan and India mostly write Urdu in Roman or Latin script. That is bad.
Q: The umpteen high-profile Urdu events organized in Saudi Arabia, in the UAE, in Canada and in the United States surely indicate that the language is thriving, doesn’t it?
A: In the last 10 years I have been invited to these Urdu-ki-nayee-bastiyan-type programs in Australia, in Europe, the United States and different places. (The term “Urdu kinayeebastiyan” loosely translates as the new Urdu territories). These events are organized with passion and effort and I congratulate them, but I also tell them that these “Urdu kinayeebastiyan” will become “nayeebastiyan” only when your children listen to and attend these programs. At these events, older people make up the audience rather than younger ones. The older generation comes to these events because of their sense of nostalgia in a foreign land. The older generation is well off, well settled; it has the money. They say let us invite some celebrity — some writer, some poet. Let us celebrate an evening with them. You cannot create new territories of Urdu like this.
Q: Then how can you create new territories of Urdu?
A: You have to teach your children Urdu in whatever way possible. At least make them aware of the Urdu words. This is because language is the door to culture and the key to it as well. Our children are being provided with all amenities and education in the West. When they are asked who they are, sadly they are lost. The noted Urdu poet FiraqGorakhpuri, has an interesting couplet: “Main bas ekbaarlaajawabhuwa/Jab kisi ne kahakekaunho tum.” This amounts to an identity crisis, especially for those who are growing up in the West or in the Gulf. These children are unaware of our folklore, unaware of our traditions. Their parents teach them something about religion and that is it. Where do they belong? What is their history? What is their culture? The answers to these questions can only be provided by the language.
Q: Going back to the question about the script, is it possible for a language to survive without a script?
A: As I said the world is changing. Forty or fifty years ago, we could not have imagined the world we have today. The world has truly become a global village and it is connected. The question in this global village for you and me is dignity; if we are not equal to the rest of the world, what is the point? To hell with the global village, it means nothing to us. We have to look at it from this point of view. In the global village unless, and until, they have your own identity, these children will not be able to tell which country they belong to or which culture they belong to. Look at Danish children or Norwegian children. If you talk to them, they will tell you about their history and their culture. On the other hand, we have not taught our children our history and our culture because they cannot read the books that are in a language that is now foreign to them.
Q: Any particular examples that would explain this point?
A: Take the case of the popular and provocative Urdu fiction writer, the late IsmatChughtai. I met her 30 years ago. What she told me was shocking, not least because I was a great fan of hers. She told me that her daughters couldn’t read her books. I couldn’t believe it. None of the children of many of the best Urdu writers could read or write Urdu. Take the case of the late AkhtarulIman. In his family, nobody could read Urdu. KaifiAzmi’s daughter, ShabanaAzmi, can neither read Urdu script, nor can she write it.
Q: ShabanaAzmi, the actress?
A: Yes, ShabanaAzmi, the famous actress. She writes Urdu in Roman script. This is alarming. I am always concerned about how to connect the younger generation with Urdu script. Once they know the script, then their world will be open to them.
Q: You wrote some of the best Urdu plays. Are you still writing plays or are good plays still being written?
A: No, I have not written for television for the last 10 years; this was my personal decision. You can call it an emotional one. I am known to the people of my generation because of my dramas. I have a wider audience because of my plays. Poetry is limited. Everyone watches television. However, the proliferation of TV channels has brought the standard of screenplays down. I am not comfortable with what is happening.
Q; What about the state of fiction?
A: Literature moves in circles. The wave that came with the Progressive Writers’ Movement was so massive and high that a new wave that equals it might take some time. But still there are good writers. They may not be as good as the old-timers, but you never know if in the next 10 or 12 years, there may emerge writers who will take things to a different level.
Q: What about poetry?
A: The same is true of poetry. I am very optimistic. I am a little worried about poetry in India. Shahryar (Akhlaq Mohammed Khan) died three years ago and now there is nobody of his caliber. Irfan Siddiqui who is also no more was a remarkable poet. They were great poets, but not mushaira poets.
Q: Poetry seems to have degenerated. It is all about marketing these days, right?
A: I like one particular couplet from AltafHussain Hali. I have applied this couplet to my life as a writer. “Ahl-e-maanikohailaazimsukhanaaraayibhi/Bazm me ahl-e-nazrbhihaintamashaayibhi.” You have to cater to both. If you only cater to the “tamashaayi” (spectators), then you will turn into a “nautanki” (theatrical) poet. If you only run after the “ahl-e-sukhan” (the literati), then you will be confined to books and libraries. The writer as a poet has to take the middle way. Stoop to the level of the audience sometimes, but then try to bring them to a higher level. Poets should do both. After Shahryar, there was a younger generation of poets in India. But since they were not mushaira poets, they did not get enough recognition.
Q: What makes poetry in Pakistan of superior quality?
A: In Pakistan, poetry is of good quality because Urdu is the country’s national language. It means a great deal. Plus, Urdu has economic utility in Pakistan because it can get you employment, unlike in India. That also matters a great deal. In Pakistan the consistency of tradition has not broken while in India it has.
Q: Consistency of tradition? Can you please elaborate?
A: Let me explain. When India and Pakistan separated, the dominant thinking in India was that India’s national language should be Hindi and Hindi’s origin was Sanskrit. Because of that, they deliberately rooted out Persian and with that, the Arabic influence was also erased. Thus, Indian Urdu got closer to Hindi and at the same time got away from the main traditions. It got separated from the fountain where its source was. The mixture of Persian, Arabic and Hindi led to the creation of Urdu. When you remove two of those languages, you become dependent on only one. I asked many Indian friends as to why were they writing such poetry? Why do you seek and beg for appreciation in a mushaira? They said something very interesting that I had not realized. They said, “Amjad Sahib, among these 4,000 people who have come to listen to us, not more than 500 can read Urdu.” I am talking about 30 years ago. For me this was a revelation. I did not know things had reached such a point. Many of them could not read Urdu; that is what the writers said. In other words, they could only understand spoken Urdu. If you say to them, for example, “gham-e-jaana,” they will not be able to understand, but if you tell them “jaankagham,” then they may be able to understand. So they had to come down to their level to write poetry which they liked, and then they started clapping. If Urdu has survived in India somehow, it is because of Indian film music. Otherwise it has almost vanished. The tradition, however, continued in Pakistan because there was no distraction.
Q: What is your view about the Indo-Pak relations? What is your take on increasing people-to-people contacts?
A: This is the biggest tragedy, and however much we express our anguish, it does not diminish. If you want to know about the state of the Pakistan-India relationship, you must find out how long it takes for you to get an Indian or a Pakistani visa. If the relationship is good, visas are immediately issued; if not, then it takes days or months. This is the litmus test that people have devised. The visa office is the best barometer. This is absolutely wrong. I think people should meet each other. We have to accept the reality, whether we like it or not. The truth is that there are two separate nations. Personal likes and dislikes are a different thing. If we accept this, then we will be able to proceed. I am an eternal optimist. I feel — and it is my conviction — that because of people-to-people contacts and because of international pressure we will be forced to draw closer.
(Courtesy: Arab News)
INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI
By Shabbir Aariz
This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,
“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..
OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….
ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY
(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..
burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.
His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….
YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.
His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.
John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.
As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,
“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..
HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.
Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.
John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.
(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])
Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer
By Naveed Hussain
I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.
I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.
“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.
Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.
Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.
But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.
Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.
For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.
I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.
Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”
Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.
Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.
Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”
Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.
Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest
By Asheesh Mamgain
If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.
“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”
“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.
Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.
Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.
“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”
So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.
The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.
“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.
“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”
There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.
“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”
Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.
Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”
More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”
A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.
Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.
Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.
But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”