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May 15, 2000

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AHMAD FARAZ
Romantic Realist

Fire still burns in the Pakistani poet whose metaphors evoke delicate images in the subcontinent

By Farzand Ahmed and S.Kalidas

India Today issue dated May 15, 2000"Yehi kaha tha meri aankh dekh sakti hai
To mujh pe toot pada sara shehr nabina"
From: Nabina Shehr Mein Aina
(Mirror In the City of the Blind)

In the city of blind, Ahmad Faraz, 57, is blessed with that telling gaze. And that being a sin in "Khuda ki Basti (God's own Land)", under the martial rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, he was blind-folded and thrown into solitary confinement. Later he chose to live in England in exile for six years. Well, last week, more than a decade after the despot's death, and not in Pakistan but in the capital of democratic and liberal India, his poetry reading was again disrupted this time by an Indian Army major. There must indeed be something so subversive about poetry itself that it provokes such violence against the person who gives voice to it.

So who is this person? This mad messiah whose voicing of a vision the bigots (from both sides of the border) so vehemently hate to hear or see? Actually, when you meet the man you find that he is far from the fire-breathing radical you might expect him to be. Ahmad Faraz is not a Taslima Nasreen or even a Fahmida Riyaz. Nor is he a leftwing fellow traveller like a whole generation of Indian poets writing in Urdu whose politics were more passionate than their metaphors.

He is a tall, mild-mannered Pathan from the Northwest Frontier Province with a wry sense of humour and looks that still win him a gushing female following. Born in Kohat in a Pushto-speaking family, Faraz did his masters in Persian and started his career as a scriptwriter for Radio Pakistan. He has been an academic and the director-general of the Academy of Letters.

He agrees that the stature of the poet in society has grown many fold since his youth. "My father also wrote poetry in Persian but never got any recognition or money," he recalls, "So much so that when my first poem got broadcast over radio and I was paid a princely sum of Rs 25 for it, my mother would taunt my father with it no end."

Faraz is essentially a romantic poet. Steeped in classical Persian and Urdu traditions, he combines the sensitivity and lyricism of the 18th century Mir Taqui Mir and the philosophical range and depth of Mirza Ghalib, easily the greatest of the 19th century poets. Says Mehmood Fayyaz, who teaches Persian literature in Delhi: "Though he is closer to Mir in his paikar-tarashi (detailing of imagery), he gets his inspirations from the harsh realities of life around him."

Faraz is a great admirer of Ghalib, but says, "If I were to look for influences that shaped my imagination, it would be a classical Persian poet like Bedil. There is so much of Bedil in Ghalib too." He lights a cigarette as he laments that neither in Pakistan nor in India can one find the Diwan-e-Bedil (collection of Bedil's poems) being published today. "I got it from Afghanistan," he says.

So, much to his amazement, on an impulse we bundle him into a car and drive him to the small deserted garden -- Baag-e-Bedil -- in central Delhi where lies the mazar (grave) of the Persian sufi poet who died 300 years ago.

Faraz is not a ritualistic Muslim. There is no fatiyah (prayers in Arabic for the departed soul) to be read; neither is his head covered as he steps up to the grave on which lies a slightly shabby green satin chadar. He bends to touch the grave as if he needs to physically establish a bond he had cherished for so long in his heart. The graveyard is peaceful, shady under neem and mango trees. A koel is cooing anticipating the mango blossom. Sitting on a stone bench he recites a couplet from Bedil in Persian:

"Bedil az kulfat-e-shikasht mun'aal Bazm-e-hasti dukaan-e-shishagar ast
(Bedil weep not for your losses, this party that is life, is after all held in a glassmaker's shop)."

Yet, the progressives are loath to let go of Faraz from their ranks. According to Atiqullah Tabish, head of the Department of Urdu, Delhi University, "Faraz is next only to Faiz Ahmad Faiz, tallest among all the progressive poets, who crafted a new poetic vocabulary by subtly mixing ideology with romanticism which in turn generated a new kind of realism."

Critics like Tabish point out that because of the long spells of dictatorship in Pakistan poets like Faraz resorted to symbolism to deliberately create an ambiguity so that his lines could be interpreted differently by different people. And this mirrored a new kind of "political sensibility".

True. Faraz uses a wide range of metaphors to reflect beauty, desire and passion which could invoke images of revolutionary rhetoric too. Last week, for example, he kept a galaxy of writers and poets from saarc countries spellbound when he recited a poem which had a line describing a woman thus:

"...Honton mein hararat, jism mein fasad..." (warmth on her lips, turmoil in her body...)

Hararat and fasad can evoke many connotations: from passion to plunder. As the Patna-based young Urdu writer Rizwan Ahmad admits, Faraz creates no conflict between romance and realism as many modernist writers and poets are wont to do.

Nor does Faraz, who heads the National Book Foundation in Islamabad, hesitate from using Hindi words if they serve his poetic purpose: "Hindi is close to Urdu, besides it enriches the language."

He is not one to indulge in platitudes or gloss over the hard political realities that afflict the region either. So although he was happy to participate and mingle with the numerous other writers and poets who had gathered in Delhi for the first-ever SAARC Writers' Conference organised by the Academy of Arts and Literature, he was not particularly euphoric about the outcome of the exercise. "Kuchh chizen masnui hoti hain (some things are artificial constructs)," he mutters when asked about the oft-repeated dream of a SAARC on the lines of the European Community. In reality suspicion of the other runs deep. Somewhat like what he felt when he was on the verge of exile and wrote:

"Shahr walon ki mohabbat ka main quayal hun magar/main ne jis haath ko chuma wahi khanjar nikla
(I am touched by the affection of the people of this city/ but the hands I kissed turned out to be daggers)."

Romance and reality are like the self and the other: their cohabitation may be painful but is symbiotic and essential.



 

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