Back in the 1970s and ’80s, at a fairly young age, it was in his native Lahore that he joined the political struggle for creating a just state and egalitarian society. He rose to prominence at the national level to lead student organisations, serve the causes of labour and work with the leftist movement. That was Irfan Malik’s first introduction for most people.

However, he also continued to read and write with equal fervour, besides convening a group of young literati in Lahore. Faced with difficult circumstances because of the political repression of leftist and democratic forces in Pakistan during the 1980s, he migrated to Sweden. He spent over a decade there before finally moving to the United States where he studied drama and worked as a director and playwright for several years at Harvard. Besides knowing other tongues, he spoke and wrote in at least four languages: Swedish, English, Urdu and Punjabi — the last being his mother tongue and the language he used to create some outstanding verse.

For most creative writers espousing socialist causes, the artistic being and the political being either get subsumed in or wrestle with each other. Even the best of them have oscillated between their artistic temperament and social commitment, creating either a compromise or a tension between pure aesthetics and social agendas. There are many examples of this, from Faiz Ahmed Faiz to Shaikh Ayaz, Ustad Daman to Gul Khan Naseer. In the case of someone such as Habib Jalib, it was his political being that became his artistic being. They completely overlapped. Irfan Malik is a poet whose artistic being and political being stayed completely separate. Over the years, his artistic being continued to grow and then ensconced his political being within itself. He is a sheer existential poet who has also developed that rare ability to turn political and social concerns into personal and aesthetic concerns.

Being a minor student of poetry and an even more minor student when it comes to appreciating Punjabi poetry, I cannot dare attempt at contributing to the matter of canonising modern Punjabi verse. That job can be confidently left to fellow Dawn columnist and litterateur Mushtaq Soofi. However, it is widely acknowledged that we live in the age of Najm Hosain Syed and are fortunate to have listened to or read poets such as Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Amarjit Chandan and Mazhar Tirmazi. Zahid Hasan’s selection Azadi Magron Punjabi Nazm [Punjabi Poetry After Independence] can be a good start for readers who wish to acquaint themselves with contemporary Punjabi poetry. The list is long and impressive from across South Asia and among the Punjabi diaspora in the West. But at least this much I can say: on this literary landscape, Malik’s work has found itself a firm and unique place.

Over the years, his artistic being continued to grow and then ensconced his political being within itself

The Punjabi language has one of the richest poetic and folkloric traditions spread over nearly a millennium. For a contemporary Punjabi poet, while familiarising him- or herself with this fascinating body of work becomes a precondition and enriches the creative process, it also tends to impact the expression. The splendour of traditional idiom, diction, metaphor, scenery, choice of words and articulation of feelings perfected by the masters is hard to escape from. Therefore, it becomes even more difficult in such a language to find one’s own voice. Here, we see Malik emerging as one of the few metropolitan poets in Punjabi who has consciously turned his cultural and linguistic tradition into a sharp tool rather than unconsciously carrying it as baggage. He has created a cityscape which is refreshing and modern. His is the angst of an urban poet who negotiates with the meaningfulness and meaninglessness of life around him with a mix of both concern and indifference.

Malik has published four collections over the years and has recently come out with a selection from previously published and mostly unavailable volumes and some new poems under the title Chhanday Aggay Kesar [A Saffron Flower Beyond Verse]. It is not a given that living in the West or anywhere abroad influences the poet writing in a South Asian language. Many, if not most, of our poets one is familiar with — in Urdu, Sindhi or Punjabi — continue to write in traditional forms using conventional techniques and sticking to beaten themes. But there are some, such as Malik, who have read and absorbed other literatures, from European to Latin American and Asian to African. More particularly, he has cherished contemporary Nordic and English literature. This has positively influenced his language, bringing a careful economy of words and a subtlety shrouded in directness. His lines are tight and his poems compact. He is both accessible and translatable without conceding the intensity and depth of emotion.

Malik spent a day in Islamabad recently during his trip to Pakistan. He read from his work at leisure to an involved and appreciative audience at the National Press Club Library. He read poems that featured the Lahore of his childhood — where he now plans to return. He read his work on the changing world in which we live. His delicate and touching love poems even made him blush while reading. He also read some finely nuanced poems about the origins and use of words, sounds and languages. One intense bilingual poem in Punjabi and Urdu was about the poet looking for a hakeem sahib in his old neighbourhood. He also read a series of poems about Pakistan, which were full of pathos. Malik also shared some of his poems that he wrote after being diagnosed with an illness.

Artists and poets are mostly difficult people and become even more difficult as they age. Their heightened sensitivity is one thing, but for those belonging to a country such as Pakistan, the shattering of dreams makes them increasingly bitter. And then there are a few such as Malik who remain sweet and endearing in the most challenging of circumstances, but keep showing us the bitterness and sweetness of this world through the mirror of their work.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book is a collection of verse No Fortunes to Tell

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 17th, 2019