Professor Sahar Ansari tells us that Karachi in days gone by enjoyed a cafe culture, which imparted to it a distinctive character. As depicted by him, the cafes flourishing in the city were the favorite haunts of the intellectuals who, with cups of tea before them, discussed for hours problems of all sorts, local and international, ideological and non-ideological.
Sahar Ansari is right. But I may add that such scenes of heated discussions over a cup of tea could also be seen in the early years of Pakistan in the restaurants flourishing on the Mall of Lahore.
In fact, that was the distinctive feature of those times. It may well be traced to the pre-Partition chain of coffee houses which had cropped up in the leading cities of the subcontinent. Thanks to the heated political times and to the newly-emerged literary groups under the names of progressives and modernists, they had readily turned into discussion centres. The post-Partition years gave a fillip to this phenomenon in the leading cities of Pakistan, such as Karachi and Lahore.
Sahar Ansari writes this in the introduction to Ahfazur Rahman’s collection of poems (published by Scheherzade, Karachi), Zinda Hai Zindagi. Seeing that the poet has the ability to respond quickly to what he sees happening before his eyes, Ansari feels that he should have some explanation for this attitude. And so we know how this poet developed an acute consciousness of the troubled times we are living in.
Living in a violence-ridden city, Rahman seems to take to heart all that is happening around him. Each and every adversity befalling the city touches him deeply and compels him to react to it in his own poetic way. At the same time, he is keen to share his distress with his fellow beings. So he takes care that his expression does not suffer from ambiguity and is not overburdened with poetic embellishments. As a result, we have here a lucid portrayal of a city in trouble.
Initially, it may appear to be the particular city the poet lives in. But the trouble experienced here seems to be expanding, taking in its fold other cities as well, in fact, the whole land. All kinds of misfortunes, ranging from terrorism to poverty, are rampant in this unfortunate land. At the moment it is terrorism to which the poet reverts time and again:
But he feels that there is no escape from it because
A large number of poems are topical. They had to be, as the poet cannot help reacting to violent events taking place daily. Each violent occurrence comes to him like a bolt of lightening, compelling him to raise a painful cry. That is what his poems are. They carry in them a deep sense of anguish. Taken together, they create before us a picture of a deeply distressed people: all their dreams have come to naught; a disillusionment has overtaken them:
Of course, there are moments of hope as well in which despair appears to be receding in the background. There are signs of incoming good times, a revival of hope. But this feeling is short-lived. Despondency hits back. When revived hopes find no response, one feels dejected and relapses into the state of despair.
With this collection of poems, Rahman stands as the representative of the unfortunate times we are fated to live in. The troubled age steeped deep in human agony seems captured in these poems. This kind of poetry tends in general to come down to an overplay of emotions. But here a restrained expression saves it from this fate and imparts a brilliance to the poetic expression.