Reviewed by Imam Shamil
Farnood is a collection of essays and articles which Jaun Elia — arguably the finest Urdu poet of the second half of the 20th century — wrote between 1958, when he migrated to Pakistan and 2002, the year he passed away. In these essays, Jaun comments on politics, culture, history, linguistics — a myriad of issues. They all carry his inimitable prose style.
Compiled from various sources by Khalid Ahmed Ansari, Farnood is divided into three major parts. The first part contains essays Jaun wrote for the literary-academic journal Insha (which he edited himself) after his migration from Amroha, India, to Karachi; the second part contains articles published in Aalami Digest; and the third part contains articles written in the last phase of his life when he wrote for Mairaj Rasool’s popular Suspense Digest.
Personally, I like Jaun’s writings for Suspense Digest best. These 1990s essays are more reflective of his larger-than-life, mysterious and enigmatic personality than the ones he wrote for Aalami Digest or Insha. Articles published in Insha and Aalami Digest articles are more overt and political in nature, and Jaun was not a political person. They are hence not the best political commentaries ever. But one thing which struck me hard is Jaun’s ability to predict the future. When he talks about culture, politics and religion, it seems as if he is talking about the Pakistan of 2012. Jaun could see where Pakistan was heading, and he wrote about it honestly. And as far as his essays on religion, culture, history, and civilisation are concerned, they are some of the finest writings on these subjects recently coming out of the subcontinent.
But it is Jaun’s narrative technique which distinguishes him from his contemporaries. There is no precedence of this kind of prose in the whole of Urdu literature. At times, the content becomes secondary and one gets so absorbed in his trademark dialogical narrative that it is easy to forget about the content. Jaun never fails to mesmerise with his craft.
But we must not forget that Jaun Elia is quintessentially a poet. Farnood contains prose written by a poet, a great work of prose penned by one of the greatest Urdu poets ever. But the kind of emotional detachment, which is a pre-requisite for essay writing, lacks in Farnood. And Jaun doesn’t even try to make the writings less emotional or dramatic. To understand and appreciate his writings, one needs to know about the special kind of opinionated prose called insha pardazi in Urdu. An insha pardaz is a master writer who occasionally sermonises. And who can claim to be a bigger master of Urdu language and literature than Jaun Elia?
Jaun had command over many languages, including Arabic and Persian, and he could read Sanskrit and Hebrew. He also had encyclopedic knowledge of Western and Eastern philosophies, religions, and cultures. In Farnood, whether Jaun is writing about contemporary political issues or topics as abstract as loneliness and ignorance, his arguments are rooted in his deep understanding of the Old and New Testament, the Quran, as well as philosophical discourses of the Mu’tazili theologians, pre-Islamic Arabian poets and philosophers Kant, Nietzsche and Sartre. There is hardly any modern Urdu writer who can claim to have combined such diversified knowledge systems with blood expectorating Romanticism and passion in his works.
Given Jaun’s outstanding merit, it is sad that he has not yet received the literary recognition which he so richly deserves. In most parts of the world, to a certain extent at least, literary recognition depends on literary lobbies. Pakistan is no different and Jaun had no lobby. He never wanted one. He despised all groups and offended indiscriminately. But that should not be an excuse to ignore a poet and scholar of his caliber.
I have yet to read a proper critique of Jaun’s works by a serious literary critic. Most people only comment on his personality, his behaviour, his bohemian life style, and his sense of humour. He deserves a more serious analysis of his work and craft. And let me tell you, it is not an easy task to make an educated comment on Jaun’s poetry and prose. You need to be well-versed in various sociological disciplines to pen a good critique of his works. Urdu critics who can do this job are surely not paying attention to him, which is unfortunate both for Jaun and for Urdu literature.
But we have to be thankful to Ansari for giving us Farnood. Ansari had spent more than a decade in Jaun’s company. After the master’s demise in 2002, he selected and published three of his poetry collections — Gumaan, Lekin, and Goya — in the span of eight years. But compiling Farnood was an even more challenging job. Jaun’s writings were scattered in various magazines and journals and it must be an unimaginably hard task to gather and compile them. Kudos to Ansari and his team for that.
Jaun wrote voraciously. He was writing almost an article a week, which was his bread and butter. Therefore, you cannot expect every article in Farnood to be a literary masterpiece. For that reason, some essays could have easily been excluded from the book, but then it was Ansari’s prerogative to decide what he thought was the best compilation.
Farnood: Jaun Elia ke Inshaiye aur Mazameen (1958-2002)
Compiled by Khalid Ahmed Ansari
Al Hamd Publications, Lahore