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COLUMN: THE ASH OF GRACE

December 16, 2018

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A short, fidgety old man sporting a neatly trimmed grey beard and usually wearing a lounge suit with a cheerful tie, he was always generous and warm. Chronic arthritis had weakened the joints and slightly contorted his hands, but it had done little to his agility of mind and sharpness of wit. He would speak uninterrupted for an hour on literature, religion, colonialism, the peculiarities of the European mind he had observed and the demise of the Indo-Muslim civilisation he had witnessed before taking me out for lunch. Each time he would present me with a book that he had recently finished. For many years he had lived in a small, but cosy one-room flat in one of the purpose-built blocks maintained by the local councils in the United Kingdom for senior citizens. His flat was at walking distance from the Paddington train station in west-central London with bustling markets and eateries in the vicinity. His favourite haunts were two Iranian restaurants which we would visit in turns. He would show off his grasp of Persian by mildly flirting with the waitresses, cracking jokes with the waiters, or paying unwarranted attention to the details of the recipes.

Notwithstanding the issues that surround social media, it does offer a certain kind of wonderment. My memories of Husain Mushir Alvi from some 20 years ago came back to me with a flash when a friend sent a music video which is being shared widely among the connoisseurs of ghazal singing, although what is being sung is not a ghazal, but a metrical and rhymed nazm by Alvi. Dr Sadiq Fitrat Nashenas, the celebrated Afghan musician, sings the haunting lyrics about love lost and yearning, the complaint, the betrayal and the heaviness imposed on the heart of the poet by the hollowness of contemporary times. The poem is titled ‘Zakhm-i-Gul’ [The Wound of the Flower] and happens to be the first to appear in Alvi’s only collection Koh-i-Nida [The Mount of Calling], published from Delhi in 1966.

Alvi did not publish another collection afterwards, but his only collection is enough to remind us of the considerable poetic talent he possessed. Besides the poem sung by Nashenas, there are many other poems that leave an impact. In terms of imagery and technique, diction and style, one may find the shared influences of Majaz Lukhnavi, Jan Nisar Akhtar and Tassadduq Hussain Khalid. But Alvi has different concerns and a distinctive voice.

The 32 poems contained in Koh-i-Nida have a single mood. They reflect the deep sense of loss Alvi had felt by the extinction of a way of life, the breakdown of a social structure, the mutation of the ambience of the city, Lucknow, where he grew up and the marginalisation of a certain cultural milieu. Alvi personalised the experience of an India that had changed and the withering away of the Indo-Muslim civilisation to which he belonged. He writes a requiem of the native who is alienated from his own land by the forces of time. It was not only an emotional upheaval that he experienced, but material constraints that increasingly troubled him. In a few poems he laments that there was no place left for creativity, pluralism and independent intellectual pursuits. As a consequence, Alvi left Lucknow and after spending some time in the European continent, settled in London. There he had a younger brother, Kaiser Tamkeen, a journalist and fiction writer of merit, already living with his family. Alvi had some moral and familial support, but he preferred to live on his own. He carried on writing and contributing to newspapers and magazines in the UK, Pakistan and India for a number of years. He remained an avid reader of both European and South Asian literature, besides taking interest in politics and religion until the very end. He wrote less poetry in the later years, but I wish there were a possibility of his unpublished verse to be collected. Even when the world claims to have become a village, being away for long from one’s own cultural and linguistic habitat takes its toll.

A poet is conceited and reflective at the same time. He is like an innocent child in one moment and a woman scorned in another.

What best defines Alvi’s character are the lines from his preface to his collection which I translate from Urdu: “A poet is conceited and reflective at the same time. He is like an innocent child in one moment and a woman scorned in another. At times he finds his own thoughts heavy and unbearable and at other times he is embarrassed by the slightness of his person. He is always mercurial. He enters the forbidden and secret places by casting a magic spell or breaks the walls that surround him to come out in the open. He creates beliefs and traditions on his own or ridicules the beliefs and traditions with a vengeance. He is Prometheus and Sisyphus at the same time.”

In 1998, Amaresh Misra’s Lucknow: Fire of Grace: The Story of its Renaissance, Revolution and the Aftermath was published. The book records 250 years of the city that harboured a unique artistic and cultural heritage and remained at the centre of a civilisation. Misra establishes that Awadh — of which Lucknow was the capital — was more modern than other kingdoms in India, besides being secular and plural in essence. The writer argues that, although it has lost its splendour, there are elements left which remind us of its glory. Alvi thought otherwise and saw a long time ago what was coming in the aftermath of induced religious hatred and the Partition of British India.

Today, when we see Lucknow being the seat of government of Yogi Adityanath — the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh appointed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — whatever elements may have remained of any inclusive civilisation of Awadh will disappear forever. Adityanath is, of course, a Hindutva firebrand who also founded a violent youth organisation. It seems all that we will soon be left with is the ash of grace, of which Alvi himself was a speck.

The columnist is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His new collection of verse, No Fortunes to Tell, is forthcoming

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 16th, 2018