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February 11, 2018


I like the musical, poetic quality of the name ‘Saqi Farooqi’. Who would choose such an outlandish name for himself? A trailblazing, capricious and hot-tempered poet who stormed and blazed in the 1980s and ’90s and then burned out.

Qazi Muhammad Shamshad Nabi Farooqi was born in 1936 in Gorakhpur in the Himalayan foothills. His parents migrated to East Pakistan in 1947, then to Karachi in 1950 where Nabi got his bachelor’s degree. A rebellious soul, he wrote poetry expressing his anger and impatience with the restricted terrain of Urdu as well as the social milieu. He took himself to London where he trained as a computer programmer.

Ailing for some years with long stints of hospitalisation, Saqi’s last few years were constricted in a home for the elderly because his wife, not being too well herself, couldn’t take care of his complicated medical and emotional needs. The end was near, but who knew when it would come.

When I heard of his passing on January 19, I was filled with an inexplicable sadness and unease. He was a friend, and later antagonist, of my father’s. I can’t claim to have known or admired him, but the two occasions I spent time with him left a deep impression. His death reminded me of his feisty personality and also the gentler, kinder side; his ability to connect and talk with people, animals, insects, plants, the denizens of this planet at an equal level. It made me want to rake up memories.

A cherished memory is his visit to Allahabad in 1994. My mother had warned us about his loud voice, irascible temper and high-spirited personality. She worried that Saqi would upset my father who was recovering from open-heart surgery. But there was also excited anticipation for the arrival of this “poet from London.” I must have been part of the welcoming group waiting out front because I distinctly recall Saqi emerge from the car looking larger than I had imagined. He was dressed in an impeccable white shirt, and trousers held up with conspicuous wine-red braces.

He boomed a greeting to the group and, making it clear that he didn’t want to waste time on formalities, walked straight through to my father’s bedroom. The next few hours resounded with his loud voice and my father’s equally strong baritone as they discussed the state of modern Urdu literature and compared notes on recovery from open-heart surgery. I remember Saqi gleefully displaying his faint scar, minimised with plastic surgery, down the length of his sternum. My father’s prominent scar looked like a massive centipede inscribed on his chest.

In the evening, there was a poetry-reading session in Saqi’s honour. He recited poems on rabbits, injured tomcats, frogs, dogs, swans, pigs and spiders with dramatic ardour. For two hours he revelled in his way with words, drawing strength from the wah-wahs flowing from the enraptured audience. Saqi’s poems were prominently featured in Shabkhoon, so much so that even a neophyte such as me knew that he was an outstanding poet who engaged with original themes. Hearing him recite made a greater impact because his body language made his poetry’s saucy words, crisp rhythms and innovative use of language come alive.

When I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in 1995-96, Saqi occasionally called to see how I was doing. On my way back to India, I stopped in London. Saqi had insisted I spend a day with his family and he showed me the sights: the tree where John Keats heard the nightingale that prompted ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the pub where William Wordsworth’s corner seat is marked by a plaque, the graveyard where Karl Marx is buried.

Saqi’s home was both chaotic and serene. The pale blue drawing room was crowded with pictures and figurines. The dining space, long and green, opened into a garden. I can’t remember if I had lunch or supper, but Saqi cooked the meal himself. His wife Gundi and his daughter were there. He was subdued. I couldn’t tell whether it was because of their constant criticism of his remarks or whether he was tired.

Qazi Muhammad Shamshad Nabi Farooqi became Saqi, but carried the weight of his names inside himself. The Indian Muslim boy who moved to the new haven for Indian Muslim culture was restless in Pakistan where free will was not permitted. His search for a free voice took him to London. He imbibed Western ways, but continued to draw on Urdu culture for his creative outpour. Saqi’s identities subsumed in his given name continued to follow him. Two of his obliquely autobiographical poems are the most well-known: Khaali Boray Mein Zakhmi Billa [Injured Tomcat in an Empty Sack] and Sher Imdad Ali Ka Medak [Sher Imdad Ali’s Frog]. In both poems the protagonist is haunted by memories and suffering the consequences of past actions. ‘Sher Imdad Ali’s Frog’ is an extremely unsettling (possibly allegorical) poem about a man who reaches for a beautiful lotus bud in a pond, falls into the water and swallows a tadpole along with the muddy water. The tadpole grows inside him and clamours to be let out. Besieged by muddy water and angry yellow frogs that he sees all around him, the man cannot get the tadpole-frog out of his system.

“Days passed/ Seasons changed/ Ages ended/ A voice kept following him/ Let me out/ Let me out of this prison.../ He tried changing his city/ Changing his country/ But the same voice rippled in his blood/ Let me out/ Let me out of this prison.”

In his prolific career, Saqi produced at least half a dozen collections of poetry. But the most original phase of his career was in the ’80s and ’90s. His poems from that period are anthologised and remembered. An anthology, Raat Ke Musaafir, edited by Enver Sajjad, has selections from seven poets with brief introductions — Saqi’s poems are preceded by a poignant and reflective note: “Honourable ladies and gentlemen! I am alone and speaking to you from my solitude. This means that my shortcomings are twofold: How to voice myself and make my voice reach you. Suffering, pain and chaining of words is the fate that all writers endure. But the awareness that the metaphors I am trying to create in my poetry will ignite a spark in someone, somewhere, is strangely exhilarating. This pleasant assumption saves me from falling silent, or else the situation is that one loses confidence in words.”

Saqi, wherever you are, we are listening to what you have to say.

The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 11th, 2018