The day I’m killed

22 August 2014

Dr Azra Raza – a fearless and sensitive soul – sent me this poem via email.

Travel Tickets

The day I’m killed,
my killer, rifling through my pockets,
will find travel tickets:
One to peace,
one to the fields and the rain,
and one to the conscience of humankind.

Dear killer of mine, I beg you:
Do not stay and waste them.
Take them, use them.
I beg you to travel.

Palestinian Poet, Samih Al Qasim, Translated by A.Z. Foreman


The image is of slain Mustafa – my colleague & a member of my family- who was killed by terrorists while they attacked me in Lahore.


‘You turned out to be just like us’ –

20 August 2014

By Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz.

The inimitable Fahmida Riaz, who is a favourite of mine, was disappointed during her stay in India (during the 1980s) with the growing trends of exclusion – an anathema to the plurality of India. The poem is also included in my book.

Naya Bharat (New India)

Tum bilkul hum jaisey nikley
Voh moorkhta, voh ghaamarpan
Aakhir pahunchi dwaar tumhaarey

You turned out to be just like us;
Similarly stupid, wallowing in the past,
You’ve reached the same doorstep at last.

Preyt dharma ka naach rahaa hai
Saarey ultey karya karogay
Tum bhee baithey karogey sochaa
Kaun hai Hindu, kaun naheen hai
Ek jaap saa kartey jao
Kitna veer mahaan tha Bharat

Your demon [of] religion dances like a clown,
Whatever you do will be upside down.
You too will sit deep in thought,
Who is Hindu, who is not.
Keep repeating the mantra like a parrot,
Bharat was like the land of the brave

(translated by Khushwant Singh)

Countless walls that divide the hearts – by Majeed Amjad

6 June 2014

I had written about Majeed Amjad, a forgotten but outstanding Urdu poet of twentieth century. Today, a friend tagged me (on facebook) with another of his wistful poems. There is a translation along with the poem. I am posting both for readers here. Majeed Amjad’s style is difficult to render in any other language; however, the effort by Yasmeen Hameed (below) is quite competent. Once again this is a powerful, stark poem leaving you immensely moved. The hallmark of great poetry is that it has a unique impact on the reader/listener. Majeed Amjad leaves the reader standing in the ruins of the heart, he often writes about. I also found an audio archive of Amjad reciting his poems in a deep, soulful voice with a slight Punjabi accent.

Its a shame that Pakistan has not acknowledged this great poet. He died in oblivion and the literary establishment is divided about him. Amjad lived and died as an individual in a society that functions along groups, camps and clans. This is why he is so different from most of Urdu poets of his age.

Here is the poem:

These neighborhood dwellings, these little homes, these casements, these courtyards, even before us were as tranquil, as resplendent. 

Those who left did not deny the homes their love, were not so eager to leave. Who could have held them back, though, the stooping arches had no arms. 

Hordes, bound by the chain of fate, could have taken them along, but for the walls which had no feet. 

Their spirits now wail and sob, one with the echoing, dusty winds. To them belong these dwellings: biers burning on the debris of fallen eras. 

Moulded of a hot mixture of ashy bones and tears, only these bricks can recount the magnitude of our defeat. 

It changed us all: the distress of the fractured bricks; our own suffering we dismissed, entrapped in the mesh of stone and hay; we clashed with each other. 

These neighborhood dwellings, their edged roof-tops, the palatial houses, the tent-homes, but for the countless walls that divide the hearts. 

– Majeed Amjad (translated from Urdu by Yasmeen Hameed)


Shehr-i-Qatl ke log (People of this Murderous City) – a poem

27 December 2013

Reposting this 2007 poem:

Alam kay iss jazeeray mein
Jahan sab per ujar gaye
Aur saari musafitan be-nishaan ho gayee
Teri tasveer neechay gulab mehaktay hain
Ham, teray qaatil, teray qasoorwar
Doshee thehray

Aye Rehbar-i-ba-kamaal, tasveeer-i-bemisaal
Tu ne roshnee ko ik naya ma’ani diya tha
Apnay nangay pairon ko ghaseetee
Aur apnay nangay sar ko dhanptay
Kiya kiya dishnam na saha that u ne?
Aur is shehr-i-qatl ke neem murda log
Tujh pe hairaan thay

Yeh qatl meray saray manzaron ka hai
Yeh ant meray tamam khawabon ka hua
Tu manon gulabon talay pataal ki nazr hui
Go ik lehad se mehkay ga yeh alam
Magar ham sharminda, apnay aansoo-on se lartay
Apnay khawabon ka sauda haathon mein uthaiye
Tajrubay, tajziyae aur nohay parhtay rahian ge
Is ghao se ristaay rahain ge sab rastay (more…)

The almost forgotten radical message of Iqbal

9 November 2013

iqbalI am reposting this old blog on Iqbal Day:

God, You created the night, I made the lamp
You created the earth, I made earthen pot out of it
It is me who created the mirror out of stone
It is me who made elixir out of poison

Today Pakistan celebrates Allama Iqbal’s birth anniversary with the usual lip-service. The key messages of Iqbal seem to have been lost in the maze of officialdom. This is further exacerbated by the hijacking of Islam and politics by vested interests, not to mention the recent events that have shook us all. Iqbal opposed exploitation, Mullahism, emphasised the principle of movement in Islamic thought; and highlighted ijtehad (re-interpretation) of Islamic teachings through a modern parliamentary framework. Alas, all of that is nearly forgotten. 

For instance he was clear about the layers of exploitation:

The world does not like tricks and
Of science and wit nor, their contests
This age does not like ancient thoughts,
From core of hearts their show detests.

O wise economist, the books you write
Are quite devoid of useful aim:
They have twisted lines with orders strange
No warmth for labour, though they claim.

The idol houses of the West,
Their schools and churches wide
The ravage caused for, greed of wealth
Their wily wit attempts to hide (more…)

Book review: Poetic resistance to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s murder

24 August 2013

As a young student I obtained a tattered copy of ‘Khushboo ki Shahadat’ from an old bookstall in Lahore’s Urdu bazaar. This was the mock glasnost era of General Zia-ul-Haq when he had allowed a handpicked legislature to function under his authoritarian control as Chief of Army Staff. In those days we grew up with polarized notions such as democracy cannot function in Pakistan and thus dictatorships were essential; or that Bhutto was the greatest leader Pakistan had but he asked for his death at the hands of a tainted judiciary. Thus Bhutto was a mythical figure hated by Zia’s cronies, of which there was no shortage in that era, and loved by his “ignorant, treasonous, and misled supporters”.

So you can imagine that picking up a collection of poems regarding the death and martyrdom of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was not an easy feat for a confused middle class teenager. As I brought the book home and started to read the poems, my first impression was that of the deep commitment and bond the poets were sharing with their readers for a fallen hero who was not even accorded a decent burial in his village somewhere in the Sindh province. Of course this was also the province that resisted Zia valiantly and bitterly and continues to challenge his hypernationalism, which ironically was popularized by Mr Bhutto during his turbulent career.

My copy of the collection is still buried somewhere in the heaps of books that will not be read given how fast Pakistan is turning into an anti-knowledge and anti-culture land of zealots. But as they say, great literature rarely goes into oblivion; and so this volume of poems has been published several times under the three beleaguered PPP governments. More importantly, the celebrated academic and translator Alamgir Hashmi has edited a volume of translations and had it published as “Your Essence, Martyr; Pakistani Elegies”. The extraordinary creative outburst at the time of Bhutto’s judicial murder in April 1979 appears and reappears; it is a wandering ghost of history. Bhutto’s legacy, controversial for sowing the seeds of contemporary Islamism and jingoistic nationalism, as well as his stellar refusal to bow down before the military dictator, lives on. (more…)

Cover Story: Mahasin-i-Kalam-i-Ghalib by Abdur Rehman Bijnouri

8 June 2013

A review I did for Dawn


Such is the majesty of Urdu’s greatest poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) that his works continue to be interpreted in a discipline known as Ghalibiat. I was acquainted with Mahasin-i-Kalam-i-Ghalib by Abdur Rehman Bijnouri through my Urdu teacher at school, perhaps the only PhD degree-holder in my school at that time. His area of study was Ghalib and he would often quote verses and then, as a competent teacher, help his students understand them. Oxford University Press has reprinted the slim volume with an erudite introduction by Syed Nomanul Haq. In fact, it was Haq who re-introduced me to the text after decades in its correct and much more readable shape.

Bijnouri (1885-1918) was a leading critic of his times. While Shibli and Hali attempted to review and understand Urdu literature in the colonial context and made attempts to imbibe influences from the English language and also introduced a ‘modern’ sensibility in Urdu writing, Bijnouri took this forward by studying European languages and literatures and placing Urdu’s creative output in that wider cross-cultural context. Bijnouri’s paean to Ghalib therefore succeeds in showing the reader how the poet was a part of the global literary movements in terms of humanism and insights into human nature.

Mahasin-i-Kalam-i-Ghalib therefore comments on the various aspects of Ghalib’s poetry — its poetics, musicality, linguistic refinement and thematic complexities — with the help of European literary benchmarks. The commentary is not organised but for Urdu readers in the early 20th century India, this must have opened a new window to the world. For me, Mahasin remains a rather delectable collection of Ghalib’s best verses and for simply this reason it is a book which cannot be missed by anyone who has affinity for Ghalib’s poetic style.

Haq’s detailed and painstakingly well-researched introduction puts Mahasin in the larger perspective of Urdu literary traditions. On the issue of references that Bijnouri uses, Haq acknowledges the command over European languages that Bijnouri exerted and also makes us realise how this would be viewed by the readers. However, this is not a routine introduction for it also sets the record straight and is quite blunt at times.

Haq enables the Urdu reader to get the correct references used by Bijnouri while singing odes to Ghalib in the book. For instance, he corrects the name of a relatively unknown 16th century poet Ariosto who has been printed as ‘Aristo’ in almost all the editions published. But as an editor of this volume, Haq is not just looking at facts and minor details but takes the debate further and comments on how Urdu criticism and the poets and writers of the East have the tendency to use references from

western branches of knowledge in a selective manner: “Bijnauri saheb has worked here in the same manner as [Allama] Iqbal did in his Reconstruction [lectures] … wherever there was some light they used it to brighten their homes … the lesser and greater European figures who appealed were turned into allies and their ideas and quotes were copied, out of context sometimes, and without analysing the risks of contradictions or fallacies.” Haq ends his argument by quoting this timeless verse from Ghalib:


I go along a little way with every single swift-mover

I do not yet recognise the guide

(adapted from Frances Pritchett’s translation).

Haq takes an even more iconoclastic step and gets into the linguistics of Ghalib. He refrains from making definitive assertions but states that Ghalib would often innovate and use language in the flow of his ideas. Somewhere in the essay he laconically remarks that Bijnouri Saheb should not seen as a critic nor Iqbal as a philosopher. I am sure that this would engender a debate within the literary circles of Pakistan and India.

Haq has also corrected almost every reference and explained the background of all the notable European thinkers quoted in the book. As a result, this edition helps the readers understand the context as well as the significance of the references employed in the volume. This is a great move towards producing ‘critical editions’ of Urdu texts which are missing in the subcontinent where inaccuracies are the norm.

At the end of his introductory essay, Haq points out how the current edition is a critical version. The parameters set should be a useful guide for [re]publishing other literary works. He has set a good benchmark for other researchers and publishing houses to follow.

Mahasin will remain a vital reference for all students of literature. It indicates how Urdu critics were attempting to understand their own literary heritage in colonial India. As Haq rightly says, Bijnouri’s work is an ode “in the search of understanding Ghalib”. By taking a dispassionate and often clinical look at the traditions of literary criticism, Haq has also initiated a major debate on the current crisis of criticism in the Urdu language which we inherited from uncertain colonial times. It is hoped that this work is widely read and understood to overcome the rather peculiar tradition of either crafting paeans or personal attacks as ‘literary criticism’ in Urdu and by extension in other regional languages.

For its sheer beauty and choice of poetry, Mahasin is a treat. For those who wish to get a better context of Ghalib’s poetry it enables a global comparison and presents a delicate interpretation of several complex verses that the master poet is well known for.

The reviewer is a writer and columnist



By Abdur Rehman Bijnouri

Edited by Syed Nomanul Haq

OxfordUniversity Press, Karachi

ISBN 9780199062133







Next Page »