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Remembering Parveen Shakir (1952-1994)

My 2009 article published in The Friday Times.

parveen-shakir-the-bold-brilliant-and-the-beautifulParveen Shakir (1952-1994) has defined the sensibilities of several generations and beyond. At the relatively young age of 42 years, Parveen Shakir died on an empty Islamabad boulevard, as if this was an essential part of her romantic persona. But she had lived a full life where poetry and tragedy intersected each other and became inseparable from her being.

As a young student in high school, I was introduced to Shakir’s romantic poetry, which was best represented by her first collection of poetry ‘Khushbu’ . I had won an essay writing competition in Urdu and a delightful award came in the form of this tender volume of poetry. Since then I have always returned to bits and pieces of Khushbu . It may not be ‘great’ according to the cannons of literary theory, but it is spontaneous, fresh and almost dreamlike. Shakir was bearly 24 years old when Khushbu was published and since its first edition, this book has been a best seller wherever Urdu poetry is read or appreciated.

CXHeqSFWQAAri4VKhushbu turned Shakir into a celebrity. Aside from mushairas, newspapers and public fora, she was ever-present on the Pakistan television, perhaps as its only saving grace during the rigid years of Zia-ul-Haq’s Martial Law. Shakir had a natural talent for public speaking, reciting poetry and just being herself. I remember one monsoon evening in Murree when we were hooked to her presentation on Pakistan’s Independence Day. There was a distinct tenderness in her voice that was in sharp contrast to the platitudes being churned out. Above all she was beautiful. I remember she would read verses from her own work and from the great masters of Urdu poetry with complete ease and immense refinement. In the short period of time that she lived as a poet, Parveen did rather well and was quite prolific. Her later collections comprised Sad Barg (marsh merrygold), Khud Kalami (conversing with one’self), Inkaar (refusal), Maah-e-Tamaam (full moon) and Kaf-e-Aaina (edge of the mirror).
Her raw romanticism runs through her poetry. For instance, ye haseen shaam apni is a love poem of rare beauty; and has always been a favourite of mine. It is composite, taut and melodic; and here is my translation. […]

December 26th, 2015|Published in The Friday Times|3 Comments

Faiz Ahmed Faiz: A window to what could have been

Most of us recognize Faiz Ahmed Faiz for his immortal poetry. Few are aware that Faiz Ahmed Faiz was also a prolific prose writer and that too in English. In 1947, he was asked by the great progressive of his times, Mian Iftikharuddin, to edit The Pakistan Times. In addition, Faiz was made the head of the editorial board of the Urdu daily Imroze and was also associated with the literary weekly Lail-o-Nahar.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz Faiz Ahmed Faiz

This foray into journalism came after a five-year stint with the welfare department of the British Army that hired Faiz in 1942 for its publicity wing. This decision to join the army was made due to his clear stance against fascism.

After Independence, Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote for The Pakistan Times for four years until 1951, when he was arrested for supporting the Rawalpindi Conspiracy. Faiz wrote extensively on a variety of issues in the voice of a conscientious commentator. The writer was less of a revolutionary and more of a journalist trying to pursue a balance.

In an editorial dated September 13, 1948, Faiz Ahmed Faiz paid rich tributes to Jinnah, the founder of the nation. He also added how India and Pakistan in quick succession lost two great leaders — Jinnah and Gandhi. Faiz had termed Gandhi’s assassination in an earlier editorial as “one of the darkest crimes in history” and “comparable only to the crucifixion of Jesus.”


Blank Canvas

I am not a task
To be accomplished
In a timely fashion.
Nor a note
To be played
For the melody.
I’d rather be
A blank canvas
With no lines;
Than a tale
Of Un-lived moments

January 21st, 2015|Poetry|0 Comments

‘Hum Bhatak bhi Gaye au Kia Hoga’

After a long time, I attempted to write a poem. Here it is – pretty raw and unpolished. Will translate it later for readers who may not understand the language. It is entitled —
(so what if I went astray..)

Tum apni dunya kay baasi

Hum apni chah kay aseer
Milay jo ik din
Anjani rah per
Dekhna yeh hai keh
Who […]

November 12th, 2014|Personal, Poetry, Urdu, Urdu Literature|2 Comments

I know how men in exile feed on dreams

To the accompaniment of songs, poetry and history, Raza Rumi spent a bittersweet evening with fellow exiles exploring the state of his banishment

Raza rumi and neelam Neelam Bashir and Raza Rumi

“Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.” ? Ovid

I sat there, on a wooden deck with a motley crew under the summer sky. Deep into the suburbia of Maryland this was a spontaneous get together with a diverse group of Pakistani-Americans. The sorted, integrated types not at odds with the ‘evil West’ as we know it back home. Yet, they were exiles, dislocated in their own way. This was a strangely intimate evening with so many stories that merged into a moment of connection, a nameless bond.

Noreen and Amjad Babar – old residents here – are great hosts. Their home, an open house in all senses, hosts all the progressives across the length and breadth of the United States. That evening when we all congregated perchance, it was a melee of writers, poets, doctors and journalists of Pakistani origin. This was also the weekend when the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) was holding its annual convention.

Far from home

Pakistani American doctors hold a huge festival every year where they congregate, network, vent and even make matches for their hybridized children.

This year’s event was dedicated to hundreds of doctors who have been killed for their ‘wrong’ faith in Pakistan

I was invited to speak at a panel organized by Karachi’s Dow Medical College Alumni (formally known as the ‘Dow Graduates Association of North America’) that attempts to raise the unpopular issues of extremism and progressive change in Pakistan. This year’s event was dedicated to hundreds of doctors who have been killed for their ‘wrong’ faith in Pakistan. Most notably, Dr Mehdi whose assassination did not even invite a simple statement of condemnation from Pakistan’s so-called ruling ‘democrats’. The panel was great: Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, poet-writer-journalist Hasan Mujtaba and the bold columnist Dr Taqi. Haqqani amused the audience with his wit and exceptional command over Pakistan’s history. Only a few bilingual speakers can match his erudition. […]

September 26th, 2014|Arts & Culture, Extremism, human rights, Journalism, Pakistan, Personal, Published in The Friday Times, SouthAsia, terrorism, Urdu Literature, women|Comments Off on I know how men in exile feed on dreams

The day I’m killed

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.


Countless walls that divide the hearts – by Majeed Amjad

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)


June 6th, 2014|Poetry|1 Comment