COLUMN: A TIME FOR DEATH

May 10, 2020

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With no drug available yet, a specific vaccine a distant possibility, and the globally recommended lockdown to halt the dreaded Covid-19 fast turning into a meltdown as infection rates remain high, these are anxious days. Any news in the media strikes harder than before, as there is ample spare time to read in detail and probe further. News of death, especially if unrelated to the dreaded coronavirus, seems all the more dismal. Where newspaper accounts are lean on details, I follow up with a Google search.

All deaths diminish and deprive me one way or the other. There was the superb actor rather than star, Irrfan Khan. Unforgettable in Haider and Maqbool — brilliant adaptations of William Shakespeare into a local context — and more nuanced than the histrionics of Agha Hashar Kashmiri who was sometimes dubbed the “Indian Shakespeare.” Then, there was Rishi Kapoor, who I had seen from my adolescent days, singing and dancing the stuff Bollywood dreams are made of. I think of him lip-synching to ‘Main Shaair Tau Nahin’ [I am not a poet!] and I wonder, can such heroes ever be laid to rest?

But it was the death of Irish poet Eavan Boland which grieved me the most. To my mind, she was one of the finest English language poets of the day and age, peerless among her contemporaries. I wonder why her death was hardly taken notice of; the news was not carried by the television channels in Pakistan. Probably because her associations were more with Ireland than England and, to top it all, she was fiercely independent, loud in her proclamations that women’s lives needed to be part of the mainstream, not marginalised as they generally are in many countries, including Pakistan.

Boland was rooted firmly in the history and deprivations of Ireland and wove some of her finest poems around this without a trace of cloying sentimentality or over-simplified nationalism. It is telling that, in college, she established a lifelong friendship with Mary Robinson who quoted from Boland’s poem ‘The Singers’ in her inaugural address as Ireland’s first female president in December 1990: “As a woman I want the women who have felt themselves outside history to be written back into history, in the words of Eavan Boland, ‘finding a voice where they found a vision’.” What a unique honour! I’m trying to imagine any high executive in Pakistan giving an inaugural speech with a reference to Azra Abbas’s poem ‘Agar Meray Haath Khol Diay Jaaein’ [If My Hands Are Untied]. Not even after a pandemic!

One of Boland’s finest poems, simply called ‘Quarantine’, was quoted in many of the obituaries. However, this title is not about the present predicament, but a more chronic ailment:

News of death, especially if unrelated to the dreaded coronavirus, seems all the more dismal.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.

There is no place here for the inexact Praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.

There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.

Also what they suffered. How they lived.

And what there is between a man and woman.

And in which darkness it can best be proved.

Boland was a fine essayist and prose writer, too. I have great respect for her 1995 memoir, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Times — one of the finest modern books in prose about the craft of a poet, second only to the work of Seamus Heaney, Boland’s great compatriot. She often said that she was a feminist but not a feminist poet. But then she was way above categories, a poet in her own right, unlike any other. The recipient of many prizes and honours, including a professorship at Stanford University, Boland published many books.

Another gifted writer who followed her was at the beginning of his career: 24-year-old Yahya Hassan, a Danish poet of Palestinian origin. I feel sorry to have found out about him from the news of his death rather than his poetry: “Danish-Palestinian bad-boy poet Yahya Hassan, who stormed on to Denmark’s literary scene in 2013 and quickly became a household name, died aged just 24 on Wednesday [Apr 29, 2020].”

The news went on to say that the exact cause of his death was not made public, but police did not believe it was a criminal act. The New York Times identified Hassan as a poet who criticised Muslims and gave more details of his off-beat, almost deviant and intense life. Barely out of his teens, he burst on the Danish literary scene with a first collection which became a runaway bestseller. His second book was written entirely in capital letters without punctuation. His poem ‘Satellite Dish’, quoted in the obituary, says: “WE HAD NO DANISH CHANNELS/ WE HAD AL JAZEERA ... WE HAD NO PLANS/BECAUSE ALLAH HAD PLANS FOR US.” A short poem translated in the international journal of translations, Words Without Borders, is entitled ‘Father My Unborn Son’ and has a forceful conclusion: “Maybe I could have loved you/ if I was your father and not your son.”

When Hassan was nominated some years ago for the European Poet of Freedom Award in Gdansk, he described himself as a stateless Palestinian with a Danish passport. He was known, as well as bitterly attacked, for his criticism of “the culture of hypocrisy” in first-generation immigrants. He spoke of his parents’ generation practicing domestic violence, obtaining social benefits through petty frauds and clinging to religion and tradition instead of integrating into Danish society and cited this as his reasons for quitting school and committing petty crimes. He was physically assaulted, but also served a sentence for shooting a young boy. Disturbed and disturbing, he brings home the predicament of immigration continued from fathers to children.

The columnist is a critic and fiction writer. He teaches literature at Habib University and is currently videoblogging on life and books in pandemic’s lockdown days

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 10th, 2020