The American poet Robert Frost had so much New England — especially Boston — in his poems that he was dubbed the ‘Yankee farmer poet’. W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney were known for their Irishness. They found their inspiration in their land, hence making the land, or region, their muse. Regionalism in art and literature may have negative connotations sometimes but, in fact, it also alludes to the rootedness of the artists, writers or poets and their identity. They make their land or city the subject of their work because it moves them psychologically and emotionally, evoking responses in their art.
Lahore has a long history. Its first known reference in history books dates to the middle of the 9th century when Arab chronicler Al-Baladhuri referred to it as ‘al-Ahvar’. But some people trace its origins farther, back to the Indus Valley civilisation. Lahore remained a centre of art and culture since the attack of Mahmud of Ghazni; John Milton referred to it in his magnum opus, ‘Paradise Lost’; Thomas Moore described its beauty in his long poem, ‘Lalla Rookh’. Allama Muhammad Iqbal and many other Urdu and Punjabi poets wrote poems on Lahore, but it would be hard to find anyone who has made the city the subject of more of his verses than Rizwan Akhtar.
Akhtar’s first collection, Lahore, I Am Coming, was recently published by the University of Punjab, where he teaches in the Department of English. Out of 280 poems, 15 feature Lahore in their very titles, while in 20 more the city appears as either the subject or leitmotif. Clearly, the poet is besotted with his city. But why? Perhaps because he never really leaves the city; the vendors of Lahore remind him of his father, and during his stay in England, no English delicacy could replace Lahore’s betel leaf. In the title poem he writes: “My voice in the dusty evening of Lahore/ Echoes from the chipped roof/ Of grandfather’s grave/ The map of my life is all wrinkled/ The dust cloaks my stubbled face/ Sleeves upturned into a muddy pouch, my alphabets are singlehandedly sown in this city.”
A debut collection of poems is a paean to the poet’s nostalgia about his city, but offers much, much more
Nostalgia is a hell of a word with the potential to pigeonhole a poem, but then no other word is beautiful enough to replace it, and many of the poems in the book showcase the poet’s nostalgia — Lahore haunts him wherever he goes. Nostalgia is voiced in poems that talk of his childhood: “I have come to recollect you/ From the trunk of neglect/ That corrodes furtively/ Like a loveless bride/ So is the Mall Road sprawled/ In silent dissent, tempered with compromises/ Spooled in barbed wires.”
Some poems explore social life and history. Akhtar dwells on the courtesans of Shahi Mohallah and then moves to Lahore Fort, taking his readers to Mall Road and Canal Road. It’s not a nonchalant, objective description of life and what meets the eye, as might be penned by a travel writer. Rather, Akhtar sweeps through the underbelly of the city and explores its socio-political history through his own life. See how he describes the state of affairs after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged, in ‘Under House Arrest in 1979’: “In Lahore dust-brown evenings/ Guttural slogans died/ Over broken rows of houses/ A coal-black sky contrasted/ With sepia-toned walls/ Night was an ember-eye of the scarecrow.”
Then there is the transformation of Lahore, for better or for worse, especially after a spate of terrorist attacks from enemies within the country and outside it. ‘Burnt Brides of Lahore’ depicts the poet’s anguish after the suicide attack in Moon Market of Allama Iqbal Town, as do ‘Children Bombed in a Park in Lahore’ and ‘VIP Movement in Lahore’.
Despite his immense love for the city, the poet cannot ignore its constantly changing nature. He is a witness to the “copulating lusty cars on creaking roads” as well the new landscape where the city’s “trees are scared children and subways are sacred temples.” However, the best description of the ‘new city’ appears in ‘Lahore 2009’ where a courtesan serves as the metaphor: “Rough but innocuous, it’s ultimately a decent courtesan/ Well-versed in the art of betel-leaf chewing/ And garlands of night blooming jasmine/ She danced with and without anklets/ Her spidery luxury was uncased/ Sometimes, the dust hurt the eyes/ And history is censored, behind the dying fort.”
Akhtar’s sensitivity to the effects of his milieu can be glimpsed from the poems on his personal life as well the places he has lived in or travelled to. He seems to form relationships with cities, as evoked in ‘Belfast Vignettes’: “Cities are like beloveds/ You try to catch them, they elude/ The privilege of losing destination is romantic.”
But it is people who make the cities what they are, and they do not escape the poet’s attention. The book should not give the impression that Akhtar is preoccupied with cities and writes on them only — maids, vendors, prostitutes, dancing girls, blacksmiths and his own family members also make an appearance. As well as powerful political poems such as ‘Lockdown’, that describe the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf sit-in in Islamabad, and ‘Love in Times of Loadshedding’, where he compares the country with a blind bride, there are love poems too — because how can a poet be a poet without being a lover? Using language itself as a metaphor, look how he describes his beloved: “In a hazy mirror your exposed back/ Reflects ways bodies find home/ Drops quiver on fleshy protrusions/ After escaping dimpled cheeks/ Hairs snake down shoulder blades/ Like longer stanzas holding poems.”
Akhtar’s subjects vary from historical to socio-political to political and love, but everything is concrete. His imagination is based on reality. And then there is his personal touch. The poet does not appear as a mere spectator, portraying his characters from the viewpoint of an outsider; in writing an emotive response to places, situations and characters, he is deeply, personally involved.
The reviewer is a member of staff
Lahore, I Am Coming
By Rizwan Akhtar
Department of Press and Publications,
the University of Punjab
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 25th, 2018