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Voices of Urdu poets on war and peace

By RakhshandaJ alil

“… as a writer or an artist, even though I run no state and command no power, I am entitled to feel that I am my brother’s keeper, and my brother is the whole of mankind. And this is the relevance to me of peace, of freedom, of detente and the elimination of the nuclear menace. But out of this vast brotherhood, the nearest to me and dearest are the insulted and the humiliated, the homeless and the disinherited, the poor, the hungry and the sick at heart.”


Faiz Ahmad Faiz spoke for an entire generation of Urdu poets when he wrote this.

It is against this background of making common cause, of speaking up, that these poems on war and peace culled from a broad swathe of poetry – from the First World War to the War of Independence and then the wars India fought with Pakistan – must be read. From Jang-e Europe to Jang-e Hind-o Pak, it has been a long journey.

After the two Great Wars, there seemed little doubt in the mind of most Urdu poets, especially the progressives, that war was justified as it would bring freedom. And, so, there was MakhdoomMohiuddin, the poet from Hyderabad writing in Jang-e Azaadi (War of Independence):

Look, the red dawn is coming, the red dawn of independence
Singing the red anthem of independence, freedom and independence

Look, the flag is waving of liberty, freedom and independence
And there was KaifiAzmi writing an ode to the new woman who must walk hand in hand with her mate, in Aurat (Woman):

Arise, my love, for now you must march with me
Flames of war are ablaze in our world today…
You must burn in the fire of freedom with me

But by far the most famous comment on the blood-soaked end to a prolonged war for freedom is contained in the immortal lines from Subah-e Azaadi by Faiz Ahmad Faiz:
This patchy light, this night-bitten dawn

This is not the dawn we had been waiting for

In a poem titled Maatam-e Azadi (The Lament for Freedom) written in 1948, Josh Malihabadi strikes a sombre note when he takes stock of the peace that comes at the end of a long and bloody struggle:

O friend, don’t ask me for the tale of Hindustan
Our throats were torn by the scratching of our songs
When we escaped the sword, we were beheaded by the veins of the rose
Majaz too had lost some of his youthful ebullience by 1948 when he wrote:

Hindu Muslim Sikh and Christian will shed tears of peace
Having played Holi with blood, they will now wash off these stains

By the time India celebrates its first Republic Day, SahirLudhianvi’s disenchantment with the new republic is already palpable. In a poem titled ChhabeesJanwary (26 January), Sahir invokes the beautiful dreams the nation had seen, dreams of a better tomorrow and asks some important questions.

Twenty-sixth January

Come, and let us ponder over this question
What happened to those beautiful dreams we had dreamt
When wealth increased why did poverty also increase in the country
What happened to the means of increasing the prosperity of the people
Those who walked beside us on the street of the gallows
What happened to those friends and comrades and fellow travellers
What is the price being set for the blood of martyrs
What happened to the punishable ones for whom we were ready to lay down our lives
Helpless nakedness does not even merit a shroud
What happened to those promises of silk and satin
If I am the culprit, you are no less a sinner
O leaders of the nation you are guilty too

Ali Sardar Jafri in Subh-e Farda (The Morning of Tomorrow) speaks of standing on the border (obviously between India and Pakistan) waiting for a new morning, the morning of tomorrow:

On this border of blood, tears, sighs and sparks
The sun, broken in pieces, had set on this border
On this very border the dawn of freedom was wounded yesterday
Where you had sown hatred and grown swords
This border that drinks blood and spits sparks
It slithers on the bosom of our soil like a serpent
It enters the battleground bedecked with the armaments of war

The wounds of partition were revived after every war with Pakistan. Each time, the poet cautioned against war. Sahir, the most vocal pacifist said in a nazm titled Ai Sharif Insanon:

War itself is the problem
How can it then provide the solution?
Today it will give fire and blood
Tomorrow it will bring hunger and beggary
To end with Faiz, let us remember his epochal poem on the 1965 war India fought with Pakistan entitled SipahikaMarsiya (Ode to the Soldier):

Rise from the earth, wake up, my son

This beautiful elegy (hauntingly sung by Nayyara) is a tribute to the soldier who lays down his life fighting for the country. It is, to my mind, a fine example of the essence of the progressive spirit in Urdu poetry, of the poet’s humanity and concern for individual life that is precious. Faiz’s elegy is for all the soldiers who die in war – any war.