What was your relationship with your father Nasir Kazmi like?
As far as I remember I never feared him unless I thought I would do something he wouldn’t like.
During schooldays when he would come home, we would be asleep. In the morning when we would leave for school, he would be asleep. As my brother Hasan and I grew older, he started to give us more time.
Our education and daily life was managed by my mother and my uncle, my father’s younger brother. But I still feel my father gave us quality time; exactly when I needed his attention and guidance he would answer more appropriately than anybody else the questions I had in my mind. His answers were full of wisdom.
What are his words of wisdom that still resonate with you?
Have high ideals. You most probably will never achieve them but in the process you will reach a considerable height. That made sense to me. And once he said, “the place is always vacant at the top.”
That’s profound …
Very profound. Anything is for everybody. Anybody can become anybody. Eventually it is not possible for the majority. But if you think high you will achieve.
So you had a really good relationship with him…
Oh yes. He would play chess with us. He’d say: “Look at the board, if I make a mistake take advantage, don’t think I am your father or your teacher, I might make a silly mistake. Just win.” This is how he gave us time and groomed us.
Did you talk to each other in Punjabi?
No. Urdu and sometimes English. The mother tongue that was spoken was Ambala. It is closer to Punjabi.
When and how did you start writing poetry?
One Sunday I heard a nazm being recited in a children’s programme on radio. Inspired, I wrote a couple of verses. My father read them and was quite pleased. Next Sunday I was in the same programme reciting my verses. At that time I was in class six.
Did he critique your verses?
He would point out certain mistakes. I would sometimes show him my ghazals, and after his corrections nothing would remain of the original. He would often scold me over spelling mistakes or if my verses didn’t follow metrical rules. He would painstakingly go over them. He would quote examples from works of the great classical Urdu poets to emphasise a point. This discussion would often continue late into the night.
Sometimes if he came across a good line, he’d be thrilled. And a complete decent couplet … oh … that would be an event. He’d call my mother and say proudly: “After all, he is my son!”
Regardless of the fact that Basir Sultan Kazmi is the son of Nasir Kazmi, one of the most acclaimed Urdu poets of the 1950s and 1960s, Basir has carved his own niche in the world of poetry, as he expresses in his couplet,“Banani parti hai har shaks ko jagah apni, Miley agar che bazahir bani banayee jagah.” His Urdu poetry collections include Mauj-i-Khayal (1997), Chaman Koi Bhi Ho (2009), Hawa-i-Tarab (2015), and Chaunsanth Khanay Chaunsanth Nazmain (2015). English translations of Basir’s poems have appeared in several magazines and anthologies. One of his couplets with its English translation “The true-hearted can settle — no matter which land. A flower wants to bloom, wherever its garden”, was carved in stone and installed at McKenzie Square, Slough, England, in 2008. Basir was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Honours List 2013 for services to literature as a poet. Basir was in Karachi recently and spoke to Books&Authors about his relationship with his father, the importance of reading great poets and his proclivity for writing in Urdu. Excerpts from the interview follow:
But Basir sahib did you at any point in your life feel pressured by the huge weight of your father’s fame and work?
People will not believe this, but I never felt that burden, never for a moment; apart from the fact that I have always been very conscious that I have a very high standard to match, and I will never be able to match that or equal that. I always aimed for higher ideals but pressure … burden … never. And I will give the credit to him [Nasir Kazmi]. He prepared me for this otherwise I just would have been smashed.
Once we went to a mushaira in Gujranwala. It was organised in a cinema hall and the mushaira had the likes of Josh, Ehsan Danish, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and Qateel Shifai present. The local poets were reciting their verses. Somebody came up to me and said: “Nasir sahib is asking for you.” I went to him thinking he probably needed something from his pouch, which I was carrying, containing his cigarettes, medicines, paan and diary. He said: “Sit here and don’t go anywhere.” Next thing I knew, my name was being called out. It’s like when you are trying to teach someone to swim you throw him in at the deep end. This is what he did with me. And I succeeded in not drowning.
Do you think poetic talent is inherited?
I think all of us are creative. But in someone something crops up more. I think in me this potential [of poetry] was stronger than normal. Nasir Kazmi would encourage and discourage me, both at the same time. He would discourage me saying if you are thinking of taking up poetry full-time, then it is going to be tough because it involves so many sacrifices. I don’t know whether you would be willing to do that. In his case he said he could sacrifice anything for it because, “I derive such a pleasure out of it”. I felt the same.
He certainly nurtured your talent …
He would say find your own ways, be different, where I finished you start. Don’t make a conscious effort to be different from me. You will be different from me anyway because you are of a different time. Read books. Because whatever you will read will be mostly different. Experience life. There is a couplet of Mir’s, which I have penned in the preface of my first poetry collection Mauj-i-Khayal, in which he is saying that rekhta is not life, it is part of life:“Yaan faqat rekhta kehnay hi na aayay thay hum, chaar din yeh bhee tamasha sa dikhaya hum nay”.
Nasir Kazmi talked so much about poetry and great poets such as Mir, Ghalib and Iqbal. I was living with them. Do you know this too is a controversy: should you read other poets or not? Because they say that if you read others then your originality will suffer. But my father taught me that instead of suffering your originality would flourish. I think this is what T.S. Eliot also said: “Tradition is of much wider significance.”
But why shouldn’t one read the great classical poets?
Now coming back to the pressure and burdens due to my father’s fame, people who say that one shouldn’t read these asatiza don’t want to face that pressure. Some senior poets have written that they read Divan-i-Ghalib in school and then never went back to his divan. This shows lack of confidence and lack of understanding the creative process. But the great poets help you. First they are obstacles in your way and then the same greats guide you. Wali Dakkani once said: “Rah-i-mazmoon-i-taza band nahin, ta qayamat khula hai baab-e-sukhan”.
You have also written plays such as Bisat and Shareek-i-Dard … who were the playwrights who influenced you?
I like Ibsen, Shaw and Oscar Wilde. I like them for their criticism of society. Ibsen was the first person who incorporated issues and debate in his plays. Shaw was influenced by him and developed it further. In my plays you will notice that there is a debate going on. I have explored social and political issues in my plays.
Your subsequent collections Chaman Koi Bhi Ho, Hawa-i-Tarab and Chaunsanth Khanay Chaunsanth Nazmain are different from your first one, Mauj-i-Khayal, in terms of themes and expression. They are simple and more accessible yet complex …
If one reads Nasir Kazmi’s first divan Barg-i-Nai one will find a lot of imagery and metaphors. But when one looks at his journey, one finds him evolving. For instance, he wrote a long poem of 80 couplets titled Nishat-i-Khwab. Then he wrote a verse play, Sur ki Chaya, in which he used Ambala language. His ghazals started becoming more prose-like. So I had him in mind. So when I started to work on my second collection I told myself that I should try to make it different from my first one. You have used the apt word: accessible. I want my work to reach out to people.
Mir says: “Sher meray hain go khwas pasand, par mujhe guftgu awam se hai”.
You have taught English literature in Lahore and Manchester for several years, so why don’t you write in English. Why do you always write in Urdu?
I have never written in Punjabi also, even though that’s what I speak more. There is creative language and then there is spoken language. I don’t write in Punjabi because I haven’t read enough. I have always felt that there is something deficient in English. I didn’t use it as a first language.
One thing I have learnt from composing Urdu poetry is that it is important to be aware of the accent, the idiom, the annotations, the subtleties … Sometimes, I do think of verses in English which my English friends appreciate. And they have told me that I should write in English, they have expressed their appreciation of my English translations.
Were you surprised when you received the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) award for literature?
I was surprised especially because my colleague Debjani Chatterjee, who has also translated many of my ghazals into English, had also received it and she has written 60 books whereas my output has been far lower.