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The verse of freedom

In a powerful exploration of resistance poetry in indigenous languages, I discovered marginalized poets challenging mainstream Pakistani identity in moving verse.

 PoetsFaiz Ahmad Faiz

Much has been said about the literary and artistic revolution of Pakistan. Undoubtedly Pakistani writers, artists and musicians are now recognised globally for their work which engages with the world and brings forth perspectives which alter the unidimensional image of the country. At home, the new wave of literary and creative output is celebrated each year at the Karachi and Lahore literature festivals which have emerged as major venues for conversation and showcasing of what is being produced in the mainstream.

Away from the spotlight of international media and TV channels, Pakistan’s regional poets and writers are waging a far more perilous battle by engaging with their subaltern, marginalised audiences in the local idiom, thereby putting themselves at risk. The days of Faiz and Jalib are not over as we often moan. Instead they have deepened and regionalised. Our region has had a rich, ongoing folk tradition and it continues in myriad forms and expressions now. In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan poets and artists continue to challenge power and injustice. More so in Pakistan where instability, extremism and uncertainty have impacted people in a profound manner for the past few decades.


On Habib Jalib

Kazim Aizaz Alam has sent this piece on the great poet for publication at Jahane Rumi.

I was recently introduced to someone who had been a companion of Habib Jalib. Khurshid sahib now works at the Karachi-based afternoon paper, Qaumi Akhbar, and sometimes reminisces about the good times he shared with people associated with the film industry. Being a film/theatre reporter for 59 years now (yes, he started his journalistic career in 1950!) Khurshid sahib has come in touch with every notable film star, director, writer, poet, musician and singer of Pakistan.

One of his dear friends was Habib Jalib. According to Khurshid sahib, whenever Habib Jalib was in town, his Vespa (that he still drives) would serve as the poet’s conveyance. Last time when he met Jalib sahib, he was in Karachi for a book-launch ceremony. In those days there used to be a UBL hostel in Saddar. The then president of the UBL was Jalib sahib’s fan who had arranged his stay at the hostel. Khurshid sahib picked him up from there and took to the Arts Council of Pakistan where the ceremony was to take place. He clearly remembers that Jalib sahib’s health was not good and he looked too frail. The poet walked into the venue with the help of Fehmida Riaz and Khurshid sahib. Benazir Bhutto was the chief guest and was accompanied by Begum Nusrat Bhutto. He says that both the distinguished ladies rushed forward and welcomed the ageing poet with utmost respect. Such was Jalib sahib’s regard that despite his bitter criticism of Benazir Bhutto’s policies during her first government, she had come to pay homage to the great revolutionary. […]

February 8th, 2009|Poetry, Urdu, Urdu Literature|4 Comments

The words of others

Faiz Ahmed Faiz with friends: Faiz’s poetry is now being used to advertise phones

Habib Jalib: anti-establishment

Opposition to the military regime was marked by a liberal ethos, a value-system that stressed constitutionalism, rule of law, and the independence of judiciary, rather than identifying with the politics of redistribution or attacking Pakistan’s problem uno supremo: poverty

My piece published in the Friday Times last week

For decades, Pakistan’s poets and writers have defied conventions and the almighty establishment. Rooted in the progressive writers’ movement, the literature of resistance was a pro-people ideology that kept redistribution of power and resources at its core. The great poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz was often jailed and kept on the margins of the literary and cultural establishment and castigated as a “foreign agent” and “anti-Pakistan.” Scores of other writers had to suffer torture and silencing by the state when they challenged its arbitrariness. Habib Jalib faced similar treatment and died a poor man after decades of acting as the poetic conscience of a nation.

It was the lyrical, direct poetry of Habib Jalib that stirred the street for decades, echoing the vision of the world from below. Jalib’s expression was popular and immediate, and could be related to easily by the average listener. During the rule of General Ayub Khan, from 1958 until 1969, Jalib particularly represented the public conscience when he chanted his poem Dastoor (Constitution), which was about Ayub Khan’s tailor-made “constitution.” Later, this work was utilised in support of Fatima Jinnah’s (the Quaid-e-Azam’s younger sister’s) campaign against the general:

Aisay dastoor ko,

Subh-e-baynoor ko,

Mein naheen manta,

Mein naheen janta

(I do not accept/I do not recognise/A constitution that resembles/A morning with no light).

In 2008, we saw the Punjab Chief Minister chanting these lines. The poetry has come full circle. While the Chief Minister’s […]

Pakistan’s rich dissident literary tradition

Himal Magazine had published this article on the resistance poetry in Pakistan. I had uploaded it on the Pak Tea House some time back. However, I just realised that it should be published here as well..

The long spells of authoritarian rule in Pakistan have nurtured a rich dissident literary tradition. This tradition has its roots in the Progressive Writers’ Movement, which originated in colonial India with major Urdu poets and writers as its vanguards. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was, of course, the best-known torchbearer of this tradition, while other luminaries included Sajjad Zaheer, M D Taseer, Rashid Jahan, Kaifi Azmi, Ismat Chughtai, Sahir Ludhianvi and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, to name only a few.

With the post-Independence Pakistani state continuing the old-style approach to ruling over the masses, the progressive movement too carried on its dissent long after 1947. Those who had migrated to Pakistan faced a new reality, which, in the words of Faiz, was far from the dawn for which they had hoped. “This blemished light, this dawn by night half-devoured,” Faiz wrote ruefully. “surely not the dawn for which we were waiting.” […]