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COLUMN: Whither went Sirajuddin Zafar?

June 14, 2015


An illustrated and illuminated volume of the Divan of Hafiz, produced in India, possibly Kashmir, in the 19th century. 	— Walters Art Museum
An illustrated and illuminated volume of the Divan of Hafiz, produced in India, possibly Kashmir, in the 19th century. — Walters Art Museum
Syed Nomanul Haq
Syed Nomanul Haq
Lovers’ Picnic illustration from a manuscript of the Divan of Hafiz, attributed to Sultan Muhammad, Persia, Circa 1530. 	— Harvard Art Museums
Lovers’ Picnic illustration from a manuscript of the Divan of Hafiz, attributed to Sultan Muhammad, Persia, Circa 1530. — Harvard Art Museums

WHAT do I do with Sirajuddin Zafar? Here is a poet standing alone in the vast landscape of Urdu verse, unique in his diction, his imagery, his rhythms, his metaphors. We see him in a blizzard of historical contingencies, clasping in his steel hands the flag of none other than the grand Khwaja Hafiz of Shiraz — standing all alone like a standard-bearer who embodies the whole army all unto himself! What does one do with this unique voice of Urdu poetry, this Sirajuddin Zafar, now that he seems to have been all but forgotten, a darkening obliteration of literary history that befalls us only in one single generation? He died in 1972.

Here is a poet who revels in the ambiguities and contradictions of the human condition. Like a roller coaster, in one swing his poetry reaches the heights of purity, piety, righteousness, and a submission before the divine that utterly effaces his own self. But, then, in the next swing he lands in a libertine world without any moral control, a world of unbridled sinning — the lustful world of proportioned bodies, the world of the lout, of the self-indulgent, of the debauchee. One recalls Hafiz saying in a superbly crafted verse that in one gathering he is a Quran-reciter (“I am hafiz”), but in another setting he is such a frivolous drunkard that he even drinks away the dregs that are left at the bottom of the wineglass —“See my mischief: how crafty I am with people!”

And this craft — this craft of ironies, paradoxes, ambiguities, and contradictions — is the hallmark of Sirajuddin Zafar. He sounds so spiritual, prayerful, supplicating, sober, and so mystical in one breath, and utterly free of any ethical hold in the next, wayward, daring, consumed through and through by sensuous luxuries —

Who else there is like us?

A debauchee sinner working saintly miracles!

In the daytime I am a dervish,

At night king of the worldly dominion…

Deeply embedded in Persian and Urdu classics, Sirajuddin Zafar continues his excursions up and down in an unbroken poetic continuity. And yet, here we have no blind imitation of conventions, but a free poetic spirit of innovations and improvisations, a spirit moving nonetheless within the circumscribing ocean of an expansive tradition. Thus, he opens his book Ghazaal-o-Ghazal (The Gazelle and the Ghazal) conventionally with a poem invoking the ineffable divine — ineffable and only to be denoted by the utterance “Hu” (He) as Sufis have it. But this conventional first poem crowned with the unchanging rhyme (radif) “Hu” is not called a Hamd (supplicatory poem in praise of God) as traditional collections of Urdu poetry would do.

Not only does this innovative act flag Sirajuddin Zafar’s virtuosity, it is also a manifestation of his allusive backdrop that he writes this first poem in a ghazalesque mode and gives it the resounding radif of Sultan Bahu — the 17th century Sufi who ends each and every line of his poetry with the Siharfi (triliteral) “Hu!” And so the sinusoidal wave, a wave on whose crests and troughs life becomes a dance:

Like the restive ebullience of a gazelle,

Warming up now to run:

Life is a dance

From “Hu” to “Hu”!

I spend my mornings and my evenings

Either with flower-clad beauties

Or with “Hu!”

All night long — my fairy-faced beloved

And wine!

In the morning, cries of “O, Hu!” “O, Hu!”

We see here an efficacious blend of spiritualism and corporeality. Indeed, it seems to me that nobody else in the whole history of Urdu poetry could cultivate such adventurism as to enter the forbidden, locked-up regions of sheer eroticism and sensuality. Here the spirit reigns supreme, but body reigns supreme too —

Inside that cloak, last night—

The hand went wayward so,

A thousand buds on the branch of lust

opened up!

Buds blooming on the branch of lust! See how graphic the imagery is. And how different it is from the typical Indic sensuality. The intensity of the imagery seems unparalleled. And note this:

Carpet of roses laid out, colour

and fragrance lavished:

Come, let’s play Solomon

with the Shebas of our times!

In the solitude of the night

If Zulaikha of spring persists —

I am not Yusuf to make excuses of piety!

This is so daring. Also to be noted here is the range of allusions in Sirajuddin Zafar —from mythology to Quranic references, from Sufi tales to the stock symbols of the classical ghazal. His sensibility is unmistakably Hafiz-like, highly Persian, highly ‘ajami. But a historical contribution of this all-but-forgotten poet is that he re-casts the Hafizian sensibility into the sphere of Urdu, rehabilitating it in a South Asian milieu. I often wonder if in this sense he has not surpassed the Shirazi giant…

As a child, I met Sirajuddin Zafar in a Karachi bookstore. He was a tall, handsome man, with a roaring commanding voice, exceedingly kind and humble. When later on in life I found out that he was born in Jhelum and studied throughout in Lahore, first in FC College and then in Punjab University, the revelation was mindboggling. He spoke such refined Urdu, and the language of his poetry is so very precise, eloquent, and elegant that I thought he must have opened his eyes in the alleys around the abode of Ghalib, or in the neighbourhood of Mir Anis.

But this is the magic of the resilient Urdu language and poetry. It knows no borders; it has no territorial demarcations; it is made up of the same “water and earth” everywhere. The obliteration of Sirajuddin Zafar from our literary memory is a symptom of a disease eating up a cultural world — the disease of the inability to grasp complex thought, and the disease introduced by deliberate policies of severing peoples from their legacy principally by means of killing languages.

But Sirajuddin Zafar goes on meandering from philosophical sobriety to indulgent frivolities in the glow of precious metaphors. Like great artists, he leaves us with life’s own ambiguities — ambiguities that give rise to a multiplicity of meanings, meanings sometimes contradicting one another:

Last night, when the wine-drinkers lost

their balance,

The whole cosmos kept dangling

At the edge of the wineglass

Translation of all poetry is by Syed Nomanul Haq

SYED NOMANUL HAQ is Professor and Advisor of the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Programme at the IBA, Karachi. He also holds a visiting faculty appointment in Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations at the University of Pennsylvania.