Annoyed, rebellious, melancholic Jaun Elia passed away 15 years ago on Nov 8, 2002. The surge of repugnance in him for traditional thought and orthodoxy, and quest for self-abnegation, swept his mind to an island where he lived as a recluse, gaping at human follies and denouncing them with fits of bitterness and disgust peculiar only to him. His poetry battered the modern mind with paradox, nihilism, pessimism and sarcasm, only to destroy illusions and deconstruct notions of truth. The non-conformist that he was, it took no less than his blood to live like one as he suffered from tuberculosis — a disease he termed “revolutionary.”
Where did this anarchist come from? Elia was born in Amroha, British India, in 1931, in a home that buzzed with discussions and debates on science, philosophy, art, astronomy, religion and history. His father, Shafiq Elia, was a scholar well-versed in Arabic, English, Persian, Hebrew and the Sanskritic languages. Shafiq Elia had a special interest in astronomy and corresponded with scholars and scientists including Bertrand Russell at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. His brothers Rais Amrohvi, a journalist and psychoanalyst, and Syed Mohammad Taqi, a philosopher of international recognition, made deep impressions on him. Elia, who heard the music of the spheres at an early age, wrote in the preface to his book Shayad that “Mercury, Mars, Saturn and Neptune were everyday topics. Uranus was recently discovered, and it was so incessantly discussed that my mother got irritated with it.”
At the age of eight, Elia fell in love and wrote his first couplet, but a narcissist to the core, he would turn his face to the other side when he saw his beloved coming. To him, expressing love was contemptible. His formative years in Amroha etched a lasting effect on his poetry, for he grew up in an environment where the commune was idealised and personal possessions abhorred. Expressions such as “my box”, “my cupboard”, “my pillow” were considered uncivilised. “Our earth”, “our solar system”, “our galaxy” were the norm. A cosmic Elia, whose cradle was the universe and the heavenly bodies his toys, was in the making.
In remembrance of the poet and scholar who lived and died a revolutionary anarchist
Elia’s melancholic temperament and sceptic nature reflected the imperfect world and society in which he lived. It gnawed at his soul and poured out into his poetry, bringing to his readers catharsis rather than depression, as some critics who fail to analyse him in the larger context, believe. “Just as [George] Berkeley so tactfully destroyed matter, [David] Hume wrecked the mind and spirit which left me in an eternal fire of scepticism,” Elia wrote as his reason for becoming a sceptic in the preface to Shayad. Dejected, he took refuge in the wilderness of doubt, looking for solace but only to confront absolute uncertainty. In his ruin, Elia’s creation reached its pinnacle: “Koi dekhey to mera hujra-i-zaat/ Yaan sabhi kuch wo tha, jo tha hi nahi” [See thou not inside me/ Battle between being and nothingness rages].
Longing for death in the prime of youth, Elia envied those who died before him. At poet Obaidullah Aleem’s funeral, Elia said Aleem was lucky to have left the world earlier than the rest. Although he himself didn’t die young, suffering from the “revolutionary” tuberculosis made him ecstatic. The melancholy that culminated in him coughing up blood translated into acerbity in his work, unsurpassed in the history of Urdu poetry. He found meaning in the meaninglessness of life; doubt in the existence led to a morbid fascination for death. His simple diction for such complex ideas stung his audience and shook their presumptions about life, death and existence.
The lower Elia fell into the abyss of scepticism, the higher his ego soared. This hyper-blown sense of self gave him an authoritative, thunderous and blunt tone: “Mein khud yeh chahta hoon ke haalaat hon kharab/ Mere khilaaf zeher ugalta phire koi” [I want the circumstances hostile against me/ I want somebody to keep slandering me].
The forceful tone distinguished Elia from mainstream poetry which cherished fatalism and endless encomiums of the beloved. He broke away from tradition by restoring the ego of the lover from a passive idol worshipper to an active agent who could withstand the beloved’s enchanting spells and survive her betrayals. He painted the blushes of the beloved with a different stroke — Elia’s beloved blushed not out of praise, but out of embarrassment: “Ajeeb hai meri fitrat ke aaj hi masalan/ Mujhe sukoon mila hai tere na aanay se” [So strange is my nature that today, for example/ Delighted I am for not seeing you].
So audacious was Elia that he did not stroke his beloved’s long, dark locks of hair, but pulled them, much to the surprise of the reader unaccustomed to such treatment of the mistress of the heart at the hands of the poet: “Iza dahi ki daad jo paata raha hoon mein/ Har naaz afreen ko sataata raha hoon mein” [Receiving, I have been, their constant applause/ For tormenting every proud queen of hearts].
Blowing up the established order of the common man’s mind with his biting paradox was another striking feature of Elia’s poetry that characterised his ability to shock and awe. He took pleasure in challenging the patterns of human mental behaviour by bringing up its habit of maintaining two contradictory ideas simultaneously, one of which was conveniently locked up in the subliminal mind. Elia only unlocked the subterranean subconscious to release the suppressed wounds of life: “Jo guzaari na ja saki hum se/ Hum ne wo zindagi guzaari hai” [The life I could not spend/ I had to spend it anyway].
Elia was cruel only to be kind. It is painful when illusions are destroyed and truth stares us in the face, but it eventually leads to a reawakening, renewal and rebirth of the mind. The individual lost in the mechanical practices of everyday life, and the crown of individuality buried deep inside him, was what Elia wanted to restore, not matter how ugly and bitter the truth: “Be qaraari si be qaraari hai/ Wasl hai aur firaaq taari hai” [Restlessness I feel within/ Union though be it; remorse prevails].
The melancholy bred radical nihilism in Elia, which made him weary not only of the purposelessness of the world, but also of the existence. He wanted to stop breathing in the suffocating self and turn life into ‘un-life’: “Tareekh-i-rozgar-i-fana likh raha hoon mein/ Deebaacha-i-wujood pe laa likh raha hoon mein” [And lo, here I am scribbling the annals of the passing days and nights/ And thus in the story of Being, I am writing Nothingness].
The prisoner of being was sentenced to an absurd life. He writhed to end the painful existence that took false delight in illusions and longed to abandon them. Having won this freedom from the clutches of an imposed life, he sought to discover the truth and a new course for life.
A poet by birth and a scholar by training, Elia was one of the few who achieved greatness in both poetry and prose. His preface to Shayad is a masterpiece of prose and he also wrote extensively on the history of Arabs before Islam, world religions, Islamic history and Muslim philosophy and translated several books from Persian and Arabic into Urdu. Farnood, his only published work of prose, is a collection of essays he wrote for Suspense Digest and Aalmi Digest. The topics in it range from Mutazila [a school of Islamic theology] and civilisation to time, space and the 21st century. A candid and colloquial style, simple language, expression so succinct to be almost terse, and, above all, his humour characterise his writing. In the essay ‘21st Century’, he wrote, “The 21st century hasn’t come to Pakistan, but been brought here kidnapped.”
Elia’s prose was a strong mouthpiece of rational thought, independent enquiry and scientific method sweeping aside the trash of bigotry, orthodoxy and social injustice. In Farnood, he vehemently advocated the need to resist emotionalism and promote rationalism, and raised a voice against the menace of crime, from that in Karachi to the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the hero of Congo’s struggle for independence. By employing the first-person narrative technique in many places in Farnood, Elia appeared to be in conversation with his readers, recounting incidents from his personal life. The collection is interesting, didactic and dialogical and the reader becomes the listener of Elia’s sermons, just as the reader of his poetry becomes a listener of his soliloquies.
However prominent Elia’s frustration, anger, poignancy and tendency for self-destruction appeared in his poetry, he is most relevant today as an apostle of enlightenment in the wilderness of obscurantism, hypocrisy, inhumanity, tyranny of traditional thought and scourge of illiteracy. Up against such challenges, Elia’s extreme sensitivities rebelled and created mayhem and he set out to reconstruct the world by creating an order and harmony after his own idealistic pattern. He bled in the process. In many places, he lamented that he pursued his dreams in vain, but with his popularity and readership growing with every passing day, it is difficult to agree with him. Elia’s work is yet to be explored in detail with the dedication and earnestness it deserves since it takes a multiversal flight with philosophical overtones sweeping across metaphysics to epistemology, rationalism, existentialism and nihilism. But as long as his poetry yields what Leonardo da Vinci called “the noblest pleasure, the joy of understanding”, Elia will not go in vain.
*All translations from the original Urdu are by Salman Altaf
The writer teaches English literature and linguistics at Greenwich University
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 5th, 2017