The Orwellian state is upon us. And this is not true only for Pakistan. The world at large has become a victim of absolute control and intervention from the state and supranational powers. In these trying and testing times, art and culture, music and poetry are sacrificed at the altar of chauvinism, jingoism and violence. There are not many who have the capacity and will to challenge the dominant narrative, but Harris Khalique is an exception.

His oeuvre is diverse and wide, his focus is multifaceted and his expression is appealing and impressive. Khalique belongs to a generation that grew up in the dark years of Gen Ziaul Haq. As a teenager, he witnessed the toppling of the democratic set-up in Pakistan and the hanging of an elected prime minister. In his 20s, Khalique felt the hot winds of ethnic and sectarian strife in the country. His father, Khalique Ibrahim — a progressive intellectual and filmmaker — inculcated in him a desire to learn and a passion to express.

In his new collection of poetry, No Fortunes to Tell, in the section ‘Poems for My Father’, Khalique describes his father on the set of a film he is making:

Harris Khalique’s new collection of English poems establishes him as a much-needed strong voice among this generation of Pakistani poets

“I bring food
Others hog
You peck
A quiet, unagitated being
A horrid man
On the film set”

Khalique’s mother, Hamra Khalique, is a distinguished writer in her own right. From both his parents, Khalique imbibed a natural curiosity to observe the world around him, tracking events and ideas not normally noticed by people of his age. All this made him a budding poet of the 1990s. With his two poetry collections in Urdu, Aaj Jab Hui Baarish (1991) and Saray Kaam Zaroori Thay (1997), he drew the attention of critics and readers alike. But perhaps his most impressive work of the 1990s appeared in English, tilted If Wishes Were Horses (1996).

In the past 25 years or so, Khalique has emerged as a strong voice not only in English and Urdu poetry, but also in prose. His articles, columns and essays have established him as a leading and well-respected commentator on current affairs and events, with an insight into their historical and political significance. In a way, No Fortunes to Tell is essentially a work of poetry that reflects his keen observations of events around him. But the poems contained in the book are not a narration of happenings; rather, they are an emotional take on the sentiments of the people who are affected by those happenings.

But his poems are not all about unfolding events and their aftermaths either. Khalique pens love poems with an ease and finesse that touch your heart. For example, his poem ‘Making Love’ is the description of intimate moments imbued with sensations. Some of his poems have titles that reflect a modern-day communication tool, such as an email. The poem titled ‘Email’ is short, but sharp:

“You arrive in my inbox
I click
Open to read
Curve, slant, indent
Empty spaces
I learn you by heart
Memorise the text
Imbibe the meaning”

Khalique is most impressive when he reflects on the pains of life with the subversive strokes of his pen. That means he is not only concerned with the socio-political threads in our lives, but also with some inherent dissent and critical insights. Look at this from his poem ‘But Pain... Clings Cruelly to Us’:

“The quiet
Is due to a clog
Caused by clutter
The clutter of life
Clutter of life…
Is clutter of pain
Spread all over
Skulking inside plugging crevices, holes
Cramming spaces
Seen and unseen...”

A very unusual poem in this collection is titled ‘The Six Emirs’. Though the idea is inspired by the Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke, the poem is a fine description of the six phases in the history of Pakistan. ‘The Six Emirs’ chronicles the main currents under play from the inception of Pakistan to the early 21st century. This long poem contains six sections, each having an interesting subtitle: ‘Founder’, ‘Usurper’, ‘Lecher’, ‘Maverick’, ‘Bigot’ and ‘Smug’. In a few pages, Khalique summarises the features and idiosyncrasies of the rulers of Pakistan. For example, in ‘Usurper’, he writes:

“Eagles hover above
Beaks like swords
Talons of steel
Scorpions, snakes
Swerve, hiss on the ground
Dragons exhale fire
Clutch everything
Guard all wealth
Power and pelf”

It is not difficult to imagine who Khalique is talking about when he writes in ‘Lecher’:

“The sharp scent of treachery
Emits out
Of every palace wall
Pace up and down
The corridors
Silver platters
Offering guile and sham
The earls, the nobles
Kiss the platters in awe
The emir
Of the land of the pure
Relishes slyness”

It will not be an overstatement to say that after the so-called ‘first-generation’ of English-language poets of Pakistan such as Daud Kamal, Maki Kureishi and Taufiq Rafat, the new generation lacked a strong voice, and that strong voice has emerged in the poetry of Khalique. As a champion of human rights, he is unnerved at the treatment meted out to the followers of religious and denominational creeds other than the majority one. Khalique is vocal in protesting against the injustice to Aasiya Bibi, a Christian peasant woman from Sheikhupura who spent nine years in solitary confinement. The poem, titled ‘Condemned’, is a heart-rending account of this episode.

The terrorism inflicted on the people of this land is portrayed in the poem ‘Gulsher’. You can’t stop your tears when you read about 13-year-old Gulsher killed in the terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar in December 2014.

“Now he will not
Wake his sister up
Now he will not
Hide his grandma’s pen
Now he will not
Pester his mom again
Now he will not
Eye his daddy’s purse
From school today
He came back in a hearse”

Khalique refuses to mould his craft to the needs of state ideology, but neither is he silent at the atrocities committed in the name of religion across the globe. His other poems, such as ‘The Palm Reader: Aleppo’ and ‘The Magician and the Boy’, have been critically acclaimed and analysed widely so I am not discussing them here. Khalique, for sure, has all the ingredients of a great poet in the making. No Fortunes to Tell is definitely a groundbreaking work in Pakistani English poetry and one hopes that soon his work will be recognised internationally and win many accolades.

The reviewer is an educationist

No Fortunes to Tell
By Harris Khalique
Folio, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834044

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 28th, 2019



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