Poetic resistance to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s murder

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.

Bhutto’s memory now is a collective anguish for the Sindh province of Pakistan as it has been re-invoked by a line of “martyrs” from his family. The cult has therefore turned into a folk tale of injustice, betrayal, murder and popular redemption. 33 years later his son-in-law rules the country and re-invokes the tale of martyrdom as a political cause. ‘Your Essence, Martyr’ is also important as a work of literature, for it continues the literary tradition of Marsiya and Noha, elegies composed for the martyrdom of the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) grandson and his companions who were slaughtered at Karbala in the 8th century. The great Urdu poets Mir Anees and Dabir elevated this literary form to its heights in the 19th century. The modern Urdu poets of Pakistan took this tradition many steps further by composing elegant and politically poignant poetry for Bhutto.

These poems were read out in “small private gatherings in homes or whispered to one another in cafes”. The preface of this book also notes “martyrdom is a leitmotif in these poems”. Some of them were composed “under the poet’s full name, but many of these poets used pseudonyms or their real initials dissembling anonymity or at least an identity to possibly serve as a rouse against the torturer’s whip and the hangman’s noose”. Indeed this volume documents a “deed against tyranny”. For this reason alone, it is no ordinary collection.

Your Essence, Martyr is a slim volume. It presents 70 translated poems, competently rendered into English by Rafey Habib, Faruq Hassan and David Matthews. I only wish that the original Urdu were also included in the volume for bilingual readers.

Almost all poets of the contemporary era contributed to this volume. From Faiz Ahmed Faiz to Ahmed Faraz and from Zaheer Kashmiri to Josh Malihabadi. I had forgotten about Rasul Bakhsh Palejo who later became a PPP opponent; he also wrote a moving poem entitled My Brother.

Faiz’s famous tarana “Hum dekheinge” is included here and Faruq Hassan has done a remarkable job of capturing its innate elegance and simplicity. The translated title of this anthem, nowadays abused by rightwing movements and characters, has been translated as “God’s Name Alone Will Abide”.

“When we the righteous people,
Outcasts from Harem,
Will be seated on the throne;
And from the Ka’abah of God’s earth,
All idols be banished,
All crowns tossed out,
All thrones let fall.”

Not unlike this collection, Faiz was also reinventing and recreating Muslim traditions. The Mohammediyan revolution of the 7th century had led to the restructuring of tribal society in Makkah where a black slave was asked by the Prophet (PBUH) to mount the Ka’abah and give the call for prayer.

My personal favourite since my younger days has been Ahmed Faraz’s “Phir bhi kaisa sakta haye” and David Matthews’s translation does immense justice to the original:

“In the streets the smell of gunpowder,
Or is it blood that perfumes the air
There is one journey on which
Not the feet but the Heart tires
Everyone’s arms are frozen;
Everybody’s body is burning”

There are poems by Farigh Bokhari, Shohrat Bokhari and Javed Shahin, which are written with a tremendous sense of grief and pathos that is not always conveyed by the translations. But this one by Javed Shahin hit me as I read it again:

“April is the cruelest of all months
Flowers grow in this month
And the land takes on a new shape.

But that is a real old story, For now it is the month of the death of colour and fragrance

And the martyrdom of flower

It is a month of transforming brides into widows

And of taking the braves to the scaffold”

Shahin plays with the April metaphor, which had traveled from T S Eliot into the oeuvre of modern Urdu poets. By expanding and reimagining the metaphor, he creates exceptional verses.

Palejo’s poem is the most heartwarming. Unlike the other poets, his style is folksy and etched into the Sufi traditions of Sindhi literature and therefore it stands out. Ironic that his son recently held a rally against Bhutto’s surviving party in power, three decades after Palejo Senior wrote these lines:

“Brother, my dear brother
Till the end of time,
You will live in our hearts.
I swear by my country,
I swear by the tears
Which were shed by your father and mother,
And by the whole nation at your burial,
That we, in our thousands,
Will walk the same path you did
And not let your place be vacant
We in our thousands have given our word
To destroy your murderer and free our country”

Palejo’s reaction to Bhutto’s murder is nationalistic and vows revenge and independence. Not surprisingly, after the death of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, similar feelings erupted in Sindh and her husband the incumbent president now had to say ‘Pakistan Khappay’ and discourage the separatist path.

Bhutto therefore is both a symbol for democrats as well as the most vital source of inspiration for Sindhi nationalists. Only a man of his stature, contradictions and immensity could have gained such a place in people’s hearts and poetic metaphors.

Zahir Kashmiri, the eminent poet and political activist, takes Bhutto’s murder back to the greater anti-establishment narrative within Muslim history:

“Again the lips of Mansur opened with Ana’l Haqq!
Then he wildly departed to the rope and the gibbet
We, who are compelled to follow the path of Mansur,
Have a special tie with the daring of plain speaking.”


Your Essence, Martyr: Aurangzeb Alamgir Hashmi (Plainview Imprint ISBN: 978-969-9670-00-82011)

Published>August 03-09, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 25

Leave a Reply