Many years ago, when I was a student in London and had found the BBC as the chamber in which my repressed creative energies were set free, I met this tall old man carrying a large salt crystal in his palm. He was sitting in the historic BBC Bush House canteen where I had shook hands for the first time with the likes of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ibn-e Insha.

This tall, very loud but intriguingly articulate old man had such an endearing personality that despite my undergraduate delinquencies and unripe frivolities I became very close to him in a very short time. So a young man, a broadcaster bubbling with the freshness of youth, started sitting in the glow of seasoned wisdom: the two would engage in animated conversations before and after the novice’s nerve-wracking live transmissions in the Eastern Service of the BBC — conversations about Iqbal and the Quaid-i-Azam, about Shibli Nu‘mani and Dagh Dehlavi, about Mu’min Khan Mu’min and Qadir Girami, about Mirza Bedil and Maulana Suha and Patras Bukhari …

This was the redoubtable Ashiq Husain Batalvi whom I miss today, almost exactly 25 years after his practically nameless death in July, 1989, in London. One of the precious trio of the Batalvi Brethren — Ashiq Husain Batalvi, Ejaz Husain Batalvi and Agha Babar — Ashiq Sahib was the scholar and researcher among these rather famous and highly accomplished siblings. And he wrote quite a lot: his massive Iqbal ke Aakhri Do Saal (The Last Two Years of Iqbal), first published by the Iqbal Academy in 1961, remains a classic that illuminates a great poet’s vicissitudes as a statesman — a work written by someone who was his agile secretary during the time when the poet-statesman was reorganising the Punjab wing of the Muslim League. But more, Ashiq Sahib’s book also illuminates, and in a deeply reflective mode that is its mark of distinction, the latter-day history of the Muslim struggles of colonial India.

Then, in a large corpus of Ashiq Husain oeuvres, we have the multivolume Hamari Qaumi Jidd-o-Jahd (Our Struggle as a People) whose first volume Ashiq Sahib published through al-Bayan in Lahore in 1966. Eventually, in 1995, Sang-e-Meel republished under a single cover all the individual volumes of this indispensible work on South Asian Muslim society’s political and cultural history during a specific slice of time — from May 1938 to December 1942. Indeed, Ashiq Sahib’s historical methodology and his psychological insights must be recognised as being outstanding in the entire historiography of the convoluted career of Indo-Muslim life. As a matter of fact, contemporary leading historians of the period certainly do bestow upon him this recognition, sometimes lavishly — K. K. Aziz among them, and Ayesha Jalal too is reported to be among Ashiq Sahib’s avid readers.

Ashiq Sahib wrote biographies, sketches, recollections, impressionistic essays, newspaper reports, radio talks, and much else. But here I intend to take a literary mileage out of one aphorism of his which once fell like a pearl in my lap. On a rare sunny day in London, I stumbled upon him while he was walking into the refectory of the well-known School of Oriental and African Studies, known generally by its acronym SOAS. He held me by my arm, with a tight grip — a very tight grip typically, for this tall veteran was full-bodied even in his golden years with little dissipation of his physical strength. “Young man,” he exclaimed very loudly, “poetry has saved us!” I didn’t think much of this pronouncement at that time; it was just one of those things that Ashiq Sahib would utter here and there with his dramatic tenor.

But today, many years hence, I think a world of this aphorism. A whole lifetime of thought and reflection had yielded an affluence of wisdom in Ashiq Sahib’s being, and this means that there was hardly any small talk on his part. Such a long time after it came to pass, this aphorism has finally borne fruit in my own intellectual ground. Yes, poetry, and here we mean Urdu poetry, has indeed saved us — saved us from losing human culture’s unique symbolism that Urdu poetry continues to embody; saved us from the extinction of a mythical, historical, and magical legacy; saved us from surrendering totally to the commercial terror of linguistic frivolities; saved us from racial and ethnic prejudices; saved us from the degeneration of our taste for high poetry to the lowlands of topical versifications of the mechanical kind; and saved us from compromising pure creativity.

Very early, critics of Urdu literature had made a distinction between the theme / content (mazmun) and meaning (ma‘ni) of a she‘r, so we learn from Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. This means that, for example, the lover in a ghazal, or the beloved, though they might constitute the content of a verse, is not the real / historical lover or beloved. What the poet says is not experiential nor is it biographical — this is not the meaning of the verse. So the two are pure creations of the poet. It is for this reason that we find most pathos-laden ghazals in Ghalib written in his most happy days, way before the afflictions of the 1857 turmoil; and it is for this reason that an almost 90-year-old Mir Taqi Mir talks erotically of the feminine body; and it is for this reason that a very pious Amir Mina’i indulges in such graphic erotic verse. Classically, poetry is written in the thrust of a tradition, not owing to specific experiences. And this is a purely creative process.

From Mir and pre-Mir times to Parveen Shakir and post-Parveen Shakir times, Urdu poetry is largely riding on the crest of a practically standardised treasury of the very same symbols. Longing for the beloved, the inability to grasp the beloved visually or conceptually; the symbol of Masiha (Messiah), the fear of notoriety in the alleys, the infidelity of the beloved, the physicality of the body and appearance of the beloved — all of these metaphorically treated symbols are strewn all over the landscape of Urdu poetry until now. And more, even Bollywood rides on the same crest — the same intizar (longing), the same ‘ishq (love) and the same talk of ‘ashiq (lover) and ma‘shuq (beloved), of dil (heart) and qibla (direction of Muslim ritual prayer) and Ka‘aba. This symbolism lives, and with it endures its mythical and cultural anchorage. When Ghalib says “Jaam-e Jam” (the cup of Jamshed), the audience knows what the allusion means. And when a female ghazal singer sings in the masculine gender, nobody is surprised since the mazmun is not the ma‘ni. This is unique about Urdu poetry; such continuity of symbolism is not to be found in English poetry, for example.

Urdu poetry, then, is the repository of a human legacy and speaks to everyone on account of its ontological independence. The best of poets can emerge from any corner of the region and are recognised without regard to their ethnicities or race or ideological orientations — what a unifying phenomenon this literary art happens to be! Siraj from Aurangabad, Ghalib from Delhi, Iqbal and Faiz from Sialkot, Nasir Kazmi eventually from Lahore, Firaq from Gorakhpur, Majeed Amjad from Jhang, Munir Niazi flourishing in Sahiwal, Ahmad Faraz from Peshawar, Parveen Shakir from Karachi …. Generally, the reader does not know, and is utterly unencumbered by, the ethnic or ideological or even religious identification of the poet.

One of the most ironic characteristics of Urdu poetry until now has to do with language. Thus until now, poets do not write non-standard Urdu, despite much deterioration that this language has otherwise suffered. So, nearly universally, we hear vowels being uttered where there are no vowels — for example, ‘umar (age) rather than ‘umr; ‘azam (determination) rather than ‘azm; aman (peace) rather than amn; ‘aqal (intellect) rather than ‘aql. But we also see the elision of vowels where there certainly are vowels — for example, marz (illness) rather than maraz; jasd / jisd (body) rather than jasad; ghalti (mistake) rather than ghalati. But no poet worth his or her salt would bring “vulgar” vowel additions or vowel suppressions into the metrical structure of the poem — not until this day. I was so impressed when Ahmad Faraz wrote Qutb in his ghazal, despite the word’s protracted mutilations into Qutab / Qutub / even Kuttab.

As we know, Urdu poetry, and particularly the ghazal, follows strict metrical patterns. Ironically, this restriction yields many gains. First, it forces the poet to express his or her virtuosity by innovations of unexpected kinds within the vicious vocalisation rules. Noon Meem Rashid is a master of such metrical innovations and sound-creations; his creative energies were unleashed in their fullness in circumventing the hurdles of prosody while desisting from running afoul of established rules. Secondly, Urdu poetry is a teaching tool for the “correct” reading of Urdu. If you introduce a vowel when there is supposed be none, or eliminate a vowel when it is supposed to be there, you destroy the meter. The poem itself forces you to read it correctly — this is the metrical uniqueness of Urdu poetry. How interesting: Urdu poetry is its own regulatory authority.

Why did Ashiq Sahib have the habit of speaking loudly? Because he was hard of hearing. And why did he carry a salt crystal in one of his palms? Because an accident had pulled his skin and he could not make a fist.

Syed Nomanul Haq is professor and advisor of the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Programme at IBA Karachi and is a member of the editorial board of Postclassical Studies based at University of California, Berkeley

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