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February 24, 2019


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Almost five decades, if not more, separate Gul Chandni, the poem and Gul Chandni, the book. Is there something one can pick in Zehra Nigah’s choice in terms of the title of her latest offering? Seen in isolation, it may perhaps not indicate anything beyond a matter of personal fascination with either Gul Chandni [Gardenia] the plant, or with a particular piece of her creative enterprise. But in the context of her entire volume of work, spread over four collections, Nigah seems to be stressing a point. All these years have apparently done nothing to change her perception of life at large. If anything, what she felt back then has come back to haunt her with greater intensity.

It is downright impossible for anyone to slap a tag on Nigah. She has always been beyond compartmentalisation. She was, for instance, never labelled — or owned or disowned — as a Progressive even though her poetry has had colours, shades and hues that fall in that very pigeonhole. Her poems on Vietnam, for instance — the first one appearing in Shaam Ka Pehla Taara [Evening’s First Star] and the second one in Gul Chandni — represent a case in point and so do similar thought patterns that can be found in the pages of Warq [Page] and Firaaq [Separation], the two intervening volumes.

The same is the case with contemporary happenings at any given point in her literary journey. She wrote ‘Night Shift’ about the tough, almost sub-human life of immigrant labourers in the Gulf countries back in the 1970s. Also found in her works is ‘Qissa Gul Badshah Ka’ [The Story of Gul Badshah], about life in the times of and, more critically, the environs of the Mujahideen. And then there is that masterpiece ‘Suna Hai’ [It Is Said], written against the backdrop of the lawlessness that ruled Karachi in the 1990s and beyond. In many ways, the poem has become Nigah’s representative nazm, beseeching Divinity to implement the “law of the jungle in my city.” In Gul Chandni, she takes this streak forward with, among others, ‘Bachcha Aur Mor’ [The Child and the Peacock], discussing the famine-hit life — death, basically — in the desert of Thar, and ‘Saadullah Karimi Ki Diary Ka Aik Warq’ [A Page from the Diary of Saadullah Karimi], which explores the currents and cross-currents influencing the mindset of a prospective suicide-bomber.

Undeniably one of the most powerful voices to have graced the world of Urdu, Zehra Nigah’s latest offering reinforces her stature as a thinking poet with classical expression

Another thread running through Nigah’s creativity is that of feminism. But it is not of the conventional variety. It is not about one being better, or worse, than the other; just that the baseline approach and diction is different. Years ago she penned ‘Ma’ay Nee’ [O Mother!], a dialogue between a daughter and a mother. In Gul Chandni, one finds ‘Mein Bach Gayee Maa!’ [I Survived, Mother] and ‘Kahani Gul Paree Ki’ [The Story of Gul Paree]. Nigah’s feminism is not a feminism led simply by a woman; it is the feminism of a thinking, rational human being above the gender divide. In a manner of speaking, Nigah is not a feminist poet, but rather practises poetic feminism. With the noun and the adjective so interposed, the effect only stands heightened.

Her life experiences, however, are gender-specific and the woman in her clearly — and understandably — reflects in Nigah’s poetry where she talks of human interaction. While she remains beyond any label, it is not too far off to say that capturing multi-layered human relationships — and the even more multi-layered sensibilities associated with them — is Nigah’s strongest suit. She does it with absolute aplomb and serenity, with grace and dignity thrown in for good measure.

It is downright impossible for anyone to slap a tag on Nigah. She was, for instance, never labelled — or owned or disowned — as a Progressive even though her poetry has had colours, shades and hues that fall in that very pigeonhole.

It is one thing to feel it with the emotional intensity that is the hallmark of a sensitive existence, but to express it with the finesse that underpins Nigah’s poetry at large is remarkable. It is this subtlety, poise and elegance that provide the larger canvas of collective human experience to such creativity, which could have so easily fallen by the wayside as autobiographical vignettes.

Take, for instance, ‘Samjhauta’ [Compromise], ‘Aik Sachchee Amma Ki Kahani’ [The Story of a Truthful Mother], ‘Hamaray Aur Tumharay Raastay Mein’ [Between Your and Our Paths], ‘Jis Raah Per Gaamzan Ho’ [The Path You Tread], or ‘Zehra Ne Bohat Din Se Kuch Bhi Nahin Likha Hai’ [Zehra Hasn’t Penned Anything In A While]. These are all about parents, siblings, spouses, children and peers, but none of these is a woman’s wail. While going through them, Nigah is the last person that comes to mind. They strike a universal chord with the audience and therein lies their literary worth. In Gul Chandni, there is ‘Guldaan Ki Maut’ [Death of a Vase] in the same vein.

Though nazm has been Nigah’s preferred medium of expression for long, it is not that she has done away with ghazals altogether. The current volume has 12 of them in addition to about 30 standalone couplets compared to 40 nazms. Regardless of the subjects she chooses to touch and regardless of the medium of expression she chooses to touch it with, Nigah never stutters below the benchmark she has set for herself. And that benchmark entails, in equal measure, a forward-looking approach and phraseology soaked in the classical tradition. It has enriched her craft and is a source of literary and intellectual enrichment for the audience. If this is not win-win, nothing really is.

There is one time-honoured tradition in Urdu literature, though, from which Nigah has always kept a discreet distance: narcissistic self-praise. It is considered part of poetic license and is found in the works of all and sundry, from the masters to those languishing on the periphery. Not Nigah, though.

In ‘Alehdgee’ [Away from the Rut], she has sat in judgement over her own craft and sounds dismissive of it, stressing that — after an initial phase of mis-assessment — she found herself to be nothing but one of many. It is only because she views it against the entire canvas of Urdu poetry. Even then, this haunting feeling of a life wasted — or at least, not optimised — is part of those who are creative, intelligent and realistic at the same time. More than the readers, who may have their own biases to deal with, Time will determine the worth of Zehra Nigah and her creative harvest. As things stand today, she is undeniably one of the most powerful voices to have graced the world of Urdu. Apparently, there is nothing that might prevent even Time to acknowledge that much. And when that happens, Gul Chandni will add to her stature.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Gul Chandni
By Zehra Nigah
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN 969-3531647

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 24th, 2019