English-language poets are not a rarity in Pakistan. There are a few whose poetic flights have even crossed the country’s boundaries and have attracted the attention of connoisseurs of the genre abroad as well as at home.
Among them are the late Daud Kamal, Zulfikar Ghose, Alamgir Hashmi, Ehsan Sehgal, Harris Khalique, Saleem Akhtar Dhera, Shahid Suhrawardy, Maki Kureishi, Adrian Husain, Bilal Hamid, Sadaf Halai, Farida Faizullah, Moeen Faruqi, Shirin Haroun, Salman Tarik Kureshi, Omer Tarin and in olden times Ghulam Ali Allana, whose poem ‘I Had Reached Your Doorsteps’ has been part of college curricula.
With five books of poetry already to his name, where does Muzaffar A. Ghaffar sit in that list? Long ago Wazir Agha had remarked that Ghaffar’s “poems show artistic excellence of a very high order.” Moondark, Ghaffar’s sixth book, is a collection of his recent poems and reaffirms Agha’s assessment. Having had one of his books — Another Voice — go into a second printing is proof enough of the popularity of his verse, so it is pretty clear that Ghaffar is a worthy name, whether acknowledged as such or not, among the English-language poets of Pakistan or of Pakistani origin.
A slim volume that takes up a wide array of topics, from folklore to nature
Ghaffar, well-known for his efforts to promote the arts in his capacity as president of the Lahore Arts Forum, has also done a great job in the field of translation. A line-by-line translation of Sufi poetry is a challenging prospect, and Ghaffar has translated the poetry of Pakistan’s popular Sufis into English in a way that could only be accomplished with ingenuity, consummate skill and painstaking dedication. Additionally, he has to his credit some informative non-fiction: How Governments Work, Unity in Diversity — A Vision for Pakistan and The Brain, The Body, The Soul, The Mind.
In contrast to his thick, multiple-volume books on Sufi poets, Moondark is a slender book. There are a total of 42 poems of varying lengths, the shortest — titled ‘The Runaway’ — being just four lines’ reading: “God/ Find me another orbit/ Or ferry me/ Where they have taken my moon.”
The book includes a poem on Heer and Ranjha, one of the most famous doomed couples of the subcontinent, who have been the subject of numerous films, plays and books. Ghaffar begins the poem with what has already been shared in most variations of the versified legend, particularly in Heer by Waris Shah and Heer by Damodar Das Arora. However, subsequently the poet moves away from the traditional ending which entails Heer and Ranjha either dying or disappearing together. Ghaffar chooses to give it a more realistic touch; he lets the pair marry. Heer conceives a child, but later decides to have an abortion believing that if she continues with her pregnancy, she will give birth to another Heer who will suffer the same travails as she has. Titled ‘Heer Ranjha: Tale and Aftermath’ the poem concludes: “Ranjha ran off, became a vagabond/ This was his lot/ Heer with no one to blame/ Smouldered in her own flame/ She thought about the baby/ Another Heer! she ruminated/ And walked about in a daze/ As ever an impetuous character/ Heer aborted the foetus.”
“The book includes a poem on Heer and Ranjha. However, instead of the traditional ending which entails Heer and Ranjha either dying or disappearing, the poet gives it a realistic touch; he lets the pair marry.
In other poems Ghaffar displays flashes of ecstasy reminiscent of the Sufi poets belonging to the areas now included in Pakistan. For instance, the longish poem titled ‘Light’ plunges the reader headlong into a pool of joy: “But I’m in a dance/ Rotating like the earth/ Revolving like the sun/ Like a baby’s first eye-opening/ And bewilderment/ At what is luminous/ On the threshold/ In an encounter with light.”
A revelation that he himself might have gone through an unhappy romantic phase in life may be taken from the verses in which he describes the pangs of love: “We were lovers once/ Then you moved away/ I trudged on/ Carrying echoes in my hollows/ Of your radiant laughter […] I convinced myself I was jilted/ Under that burden I wilted.”
Nature is also a topic that seems to mesmerise the poet, when he writes: “The air is stuffed with water-carrying cargo/ That cannot become cloud/ No mammoth fan churns out breeze/ To give a tinkle to leaves/ Or smoothes out crevices in the heart.”
Ghaffar is not too rattled by the chaos prevalent in the political arena. He does not comment on who is sitting in or who is sitting out or who is sitting on what. But he cannot ignore the people’s suffering. In the poem titled ‘Earthquake 2005', he sheds tears for the quake victims while narrating their story: “Brave children went back to school/ To learn from now ardent teachers/ All preferring the freezing outdoors/ To walls that could no longer be trusted/ And roofs that fell/ So many people patched their lives/ With trauma, salve and prayer/ A few dared to articulate/ ‘God/ Why us?’”
Although he has used rather simple language, a single reading may not unveil the depth of his poetic acumen, which is probably true for every piece of poetry.
And what is “moondark,” by the way? Well, it seems to be an antonym of moonlight coined by the poet himself. He mentions the word in the poem ‘Light’ where he says “reared in the same moondark.”
The reviewer is a member of staff
By Muzaffar A. Ghaffar
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 9th, 2017