By Bilal Tanweer
Harris Khalique’s new collection of poems, Melay Mein, is marked by a certain weariness. These poems lack the defiant verve of his earlier poems. The poet who wrote about boldly coveting other people’s wives, about kissing a new friend at Jehangir Kothari parade on 14th of August, who celebrated sex and drunkenness and adultery, whose pitch and tone was revolutionary, who resolved life’s gravest dilemmas in a delightfully off-handed manner (kaun jaanay kia hai wafa/ kis ne dhoonde se paya khuda/ in jhamelo’n mein parne se kia/ aa’o jeenay ki baatein karein) and wrangled with the world about love being greater than the individual, greater than society, of love being its own time and space (Musheer Uncle, zamana ishq se barh kar nahin hai/…/ ishq to khud ik zamana hai/ yeh poora ‘ahad hai) — that poet, that voice is gone now.
This is Harris Khalique’s eighth book, and the occasion has led to a republication of new editions of his previous selected works: Ishq ki Taqveem Mein (Urdu) and Between You and Your Love (English; revised and expanded edition). Quite fittingly, it is a moment for deeper examination and evaluation of his work to allow it the place it deserves in the corpus of Pakistani literature. I hope this essay is a beginning of that conversation.
Compared to his earlier work, the voice in Melay Mein appears worn out, more aware of life’s fragilities and body’s weaknesses, and more cynical, far more cynical about what can be achieved in a lifetime. This is a voice that is seeking refuge; it is in conversation with Husain, pleading in Hazrat Mueenuddin Chishty’s darbar, presenting verses to Shah Habib. It’s begging for favors and mercies, seeking solace. The tone of defiance, wherever it may be found, is one of martyrdom.
Clearly, things have changed.
The weariness in Harris Khalique’s new poems stem from the dissipated promise of life — a recurring theme in these poems — and the defeated ideals one has built a life on. The two couplets from the opening poem, “khwab-e khush-numa”,set the mood:
shayad woh khwab-e khush numa
hum ne kabhi dekha na tha
khud pe kia taari use
woh khwab jo apna na tha
However, the fatigue also seems to have extended into his language, which becomes by turn hackneyed, by turn clichéd, and — even more shockingly — vague and indulgent. I am pointing to the earlier poems in the collection, like “Gha’o”and “Safar”. The first one is worth reproducing at length:
mere gha’o bohat gehray hain
unn ka bharna sehal nahin
aik ik gha’o kee gehra’ee mein
basee hu’ee hain
khauf aur dehshat ki duniya’ein
aur inn duniya’o’n mein naach rahee hai’n
lambay kaalay choghay pehnay
pichal peri ka’ee bala’ein
saari bala’ein baari baari
mera kaleja noch rahee hain
kafee deyr ke baad balaa jab thak jaati hai
phir se kaleja bhar jaata hai…
This poem is so spectacularly indulgent, so extravagant in its vagueness and so dull in its language that the kindest thing to say about it would be that this is perhaps a poem’s way of doing an Indian soap opera. It lacks both the rigors of imagination and language that one would expect from a poet of Harris Khalique’s caliber and experience.
Other poems in this opening section of Melay Mein fare no better. Consider the ending of the title poem, “Melay Mein”— a poem written from the perspective of a mother ‘jiss ka bacha/ jahan-e baazi giraa’n ke melay mein/ kho gaya hai’:
woh mera masoom dil ka tukra
woh mera gul-goothna sa bacha
mein uss ke sadqay mein uss pe vaari
mein apna sukh, apna chen haari
khuda hee ab mujh pe rehm kha’ye
khuda hee hai jo hamein milaa’ye
While the poem aspires to universality with ‘jahan-e baazi giraa’n’, it fails to exert itself either imaginatively or emotionally to live up to that aspiration. The world of this poem remains vague, and no image, no line comes alive on the page (except maybe for a phrase: ‘woh be-niyazi ke khauf aaye’. Maybe).
In the covenant between a reader and a writer, there is no greater transgression than for a writer to do less than he is capable of and to not make his writing as good as he can. The fact that most of these poems were not shot to death by either the editor(s) or the poet himself is greatly dismaying. And look, the matter is even graver. We believe in poets because they look at the world harder, with more care and attention, with greater sensitivity and insight than the rest of us. I recall a moment in Jack Gilbert’s poem, “I Imagine the Gods”, where the gods offer to grant the poet everything: wisdom, fame, three wishes. The poet rebuffs it all:
…Let me fall in love one last time, I beg them. Teach me mortality, frighten me into the present. Help me to find the heft of these days. That the nights will be full enough and my heart feral.