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The beggar of dreams

By Rakhshanda Jalil

Poochho to paagalkasapna, samjho to sansar (If you ask it is the dream of a madman, if you understand it is the world). Writing the foreword to Shahryar’s maiden collection of poetry, Ism-e-Aazam (1965), his teacher and someone who was to exercise a great influence on him over the years, Ale Ahmad Suroor had written: The first good quality I noticed in the ghazals and nazms by Shahryar is that they are entirely free of the defect of verbosity. The other distinctive quality about these poems is that they are alive and aquiver with brevity and (their) emotions carry the impressions of those young minds that are caught in the conflict between dreams and reality.

The choice of title for his maiden collection is, in many ways, illustrative of who Shahryar was and where he was headed. It takes a certain self-confidence to call one’s very first anthology – especially when one is all of twenty-nine years of age – Ism-e Azam, literally meaning ‘highest name’ but used to refer to a legendary name that can open the doors to the far reaches of the universe and reveal the countless mysteries of the created world. The Sufi masters had understood ‘Ism-e Azam’ to be the name of Allah, whose zikr will bring untold benefits and rewards. According to the Quran, all the Most Beautiful Names belong to Allah and every person has one special ‘Ism-e- Azam’, that is, one special name for the Almighty which he or she can recite over and over again to get what he or she desires. In other words, every individual has his or her personal ‘Ism-e Azam’ – a bit like a unique code or password or a mantra to gain entry, as it were, into a world of untold munificence.
KhalilurRehmanAzmi, who knew Shahryar and his poetry rather well, found the code or password to ‘enter’ Shahryar’s world through an early poem, ‘KhwabonkaBhikari’ (‘the beggar of dreams’). The poem deserves to be quoted in its entirety to fully understand the import of Azmi’s observation:
Apnemaamuul k emutabiq hum
Aajbhirozkitarahyuun hi
Din kehamrah be-khayalimein
Wadi-e sham se guzartehuwe

Raatkisarhadonkochhulenge
Neendkedarkokhatkatainge
Laakhroengegirhgirhaainge
Kaasa-e chashmmeinmagarekkhwaab
Aajkiraatbhinapaayenge

(As is normally my routine
Once again today like always
Walking heedlessly along the day
Going through the valley of the evening
I shall touch the boundaries of the night
And knocking on the doorway of sleep
Make a thousand entreaties and pleas
But still I shall not find a single dream
In the basin of my eye tonight)
Reading ‘KhwabonkaBhikari’ and then several other of Shahryar’s poems at one go, Azmi writes, he understood that poetry was for him a means of searching for the person – the real person – who dwelt inside the persona of Shahryar the poet and the man; for Shahryar, poetry was, thus, merely a means of facilitating that search, a means to an end. And all of Shahryar’snazms, Azmi goes on to say, are merely the narration of this quest. The collision between dreams and reality, the acute sense of loneliness in the conflict-ridden world comprising a series of days and nights, deception and self-deception, mirage, dawn, sand, darkness, mist, the sense of being lost, wanting life and death and yet running away from both too – these are some of the intensely personal issues that leaven his poetry.
In the Nuqoosh article which had made quite a splash and brought international recognition to Shahryar, Gopi Chand Narang captured the essence of his summation of Ism-e Azam for me in the following words: For the first time in Urdu, Shahryar’s short poems and metaphorical ghazals depicted the angst of the weary, lonesome modern man whose dreams were shattered, ideals lost and who – in this gloomy atmosphere – was looking for a ray of hope. In the post-partition period there was an atmosphere of despondency and sadness after the euphoria of Independence. Shahryar’s voice captured the spirit of the times in simple yet unconventional idiom; it was straight, sincere and fresh. There was no burden of tradition. His language marked a complete break insofar as it was shorn of embellishment or rhetorical, deliberate design. It had only a faint touch of art which did not look like art. There was nothing contrived about it… His poems had bare, simple, sincere words coming from the heart that touched the heart. Though there was an undercurrent of polarisation and an inner scuffle of pull and push between dreams versus sleep, darkness versus light and pain versus hope, Shahryar’s keywords and expressions were altogether different (from what was in currency) and fresh… it was artful but not arty.
Showing a remarkable degree of self-awareness, Shahryar himself once wrote: In the early days I wrote and published a great deal. But when I realized that some very highly regarded and serious-minded people were reading what I was writing with careful consideration, I resolved that I would never – not by my poetry or my person – do anything to disappoint them. Even today, when I write my poetry or think of having it published, the opinion of such serious-minded and well-regarded people is before me.
The self-awareness also dictated, to a large extent, the sort of subjects Shahryar chose to write about. Shahryar has made very few direct references to immediate or topical events such as the Iran–Iraq war, the collapse of the twin towers, the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the rise of right-wing forces, and so on; nor has he written anything that is overtly personal or that can be directly linked to his personal life. Two of his contemporaries, MunawwarRana and NidaFazli, have used the mother as an oft-recurring image. There is no such image – of mother, father, brother, son, daughter, lover – that can be said to appear as a leitmotif. Instead, there is the night, sleep, dreams, sky, greenery, birds – images that are general and diffused and yet make a call to the reader’s imagination that can be felt both at the emotional and intellectual level. In many places, he seems to be making common cause with his readers, as though his sorrow or pain is not his alone but others share it too: Sabhikoghamhaisamandarkekhushk hone ka (Everyone is sad at the drying up of the sea)
Or, more specifically: Saariduniyakemasailyunmujhedarpeshhain. Teraghamkaafinahojaiseguzarauqaatke (All the problems of the world are placed before me. As though your sorrow is not enough for me to get by).