We settled ourselves on a kerb. He chatted to me while he twisted, tossed, caught and rubbed a few cobbles he had picked from a traffic island nearby, and wrote imaginary words on the roadside with one black stone. I watched him intently and followed his eyes, which loosely fastened on the roadside, having strayed absently to the contours of the surroundings of the University of Sindh, Jamshoro. At one time, during the early tete-a-tete, while commenting on some of Sindh’s birds and insects, he threw himself into the synonyms of ‘firefly’ in Sindhi, not without references to the Sindhi poems in which each synonym had been used, especially verses from Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s Shah Jo Risalo.

Then aged around 60, the gentleman named Imdad Hussaini wore his long hair in a ponytail and sported dark stubble, a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. He had a warm and friendly voice and eyes dry like desert soil.

My memory spans over two decades. Several confabs. A number of interactions. Multiple exchanges of literary commentary with particular focus on classical and contemporary Sindhi, Urdu as well as English poetry. Many a good gossip over a cup of coffee about old bards and present-day literary trends as followed and/or bucked by several poets.

An educationist by profession, Hussaini has worked in various literary organisations. He served as secretary of the Sindhi Adabi Board during 1992-93 and remained editor of the Board’s quarterly literary journal, Mehran, from 1977-79 and its managing editor from 2004-06. He also served with the Sindh Textbook Board and the Institute of Sindhology, and was a member of the Board of Governors of the Sindhi Language Authority. He has written poetry in Sindhi and Urdu and translated a number of books into Urdu from Sindhi.

Along the way he collected numerous accolades: the Best Poetry Award from the magazine Naeen Zindagi in 1999; the Narain Shyam Award by the Sahyog Foundation, India, in 2004; the Josh Malihabadi Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007; the Qaumi Adabi Award by the Academy of Letters, Islamabad, in 2014; the UBL Literary Excellence Award for his book of poetry Dhoop Kiran [A Ray of Sunshine] in 2016 and the Literary Contribution Award by the Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association in 2018. He was awarded the Pride of Performance for his literary contributions in 2003.

A tribute to one of the most prominent poets of the Sindhi language

The circles that do not approve of Hussaini’s poetry title him a “bazmi shaair” — a poet suited to stage performances only, like most Urdu poets — while those who adore him as a serious poet, regard him as a versatile poet who has been writing consistently for decades.

When I examined his initial poetry, I found in him a poet with an individualistic voice, which — intentionally or unintentionally — called into question the bandwagon of ‘revolutionary’ poets who presented themselves as the guardians, prophets and/or intellectual leaders of the masses. But, to these same bards, the masses lacked intelligence, sanity, wisdom and prudence, and were destined only to follow the footprints of such flag-bearing poets. Unlike them, Hussaini planted his foot firmly in the avant-garde as an experimentalist in versification, and managed to keep himself safe from the fallacies of meta-narratives.

It was the period of his emotive outburst, profundity in thoughts, poetic sensitivities and unbounded passion. Let’s take a glance at a few lines from his 1964 poem ‘Hamlo’ [The Attack]:

Time ... plunged the dagger of dark nights up to the hilt into the breast of the world ...
An image of Buddha lay prostrate in the museum,
A flute lay smashed to pieces, all elegies, songs mute,
A sage from Greece swallowed hemlock,
A Virgin Mary dropped a fatherless baby
At a church doorstep on to a heap of rubbish,
The dead body of the city was shrouded in a black sheet…

‘The Attack’ brims with the emotional intensity of a youthful poet at play. It shows a sensitive ear, a penetrating eye, responding to the world of tyranny, injustice and exploitation. Not the subject matter, but the intensity in this particular poem, takes me to one of the earliest of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poems, ‘The Destruction of the Bastile’:

In sighs their sickly breath was spent; each gleam
Of Hope had ceas’d the long long day to cheer;
Or if delusive, in some flitting dream,
It gave them to their friends and children dear —
Awaked by lordly Insult’s sound
To all the doubled horrors round…

Coleridge’s poem delineates his hopes that he had pinned for the French Revolution as a catalyst for political change. Hussaini’s poem is thematically different and is definitely the product of modernism in the 20th century. His poetry in general, especially during his initial years, reflected a vast panorama of socio-cultural issues encircling Sindh, Pakistan and the globe, be it the struggles by the locals against the cold-blooded murders of the truth-seekers as we can read in ‘The Attack’, or the struggles in the colonies for freedom and other rights, or the civil rights’ movement of African-Americans, etc.

Let’s look at the poem ‘Hik Veeran Ghar Khay Disi’ [Having Seen a Forlorn House]:

I’m such a house/ Whose doors and windows,
Trees, bulbs/ Curtains, cupboards,
Mirrors and its reflections/ Have already been auctioned at the rotary
I’m such a house/ Whose tenants
— out of worthless avarice/ For some unknown buried treasure —
Have pulled out each tile of the floor/ And even dug up the cracks in between

What’s left now?

Bats hanging from the ceiling/ Cakes of cow dung stuck to its wall

This particular poem, published in his 2012 book, KirNe Jeh Ro Pal [A Ray-like Moment] still resonates with the chimes of modernism. It highlights Samuel Beckett’s themes of meaninglessness, shallowness, absurdity and nihilism, and the concepts of urban alienation, estrangement, etc. As he moved along the curve of time and space as a poet, one could witness a marked difference between the charm of Hussaini’s youthful intensity and his better polished craft, which is natural, just the same.

For all such development, if one comes across his recent poetry, such as the one shared above, it helps you recall that it is the same romantic Hussaini. For instance, let’s take a look at some of the lines from ‘Vichhro’ [The Parting] from his latest book of poems, 2016’s Hoo’a [She] which highlights some unadulterated pleasure of wallowing in the nostalgia of a lover:

Fastened we were by some affinity or bond That ever remained unnamed, but as though all names it bore Ever without a beginning, without an end That, though it may seem strange, wasn’t a story — well, a story it was That gossip — which also bore meaning or perhaps not — and those guffaws That echoed the sobs we had remained racked with And those tears in the goblets of our eyes That on the sly we wiped with napkins clasped in our palms … If you opt to banish this all from your thoughts, pray, do ’Cos nostalgia purveys nothing save pain and woe

In a similar vein, one can enjoy some other flavour of his thoughts in the poem ‘Akhweeheen Sadi’ [21st Century]:

The day lights with a ciggy/ With a ciggy, the night dies down The flame of the lighter Like a Deepak lights/ Like a Deepak dies Someone inside of me keeps burning, keeps dying Life is nothing but smoke all around As if it’s the clouds of my ashes that billow into the sky

Even now, this 80-year old soul, with his ebullient style, displays nothing less than verve and vitality. A slender man, he is fit, flexible and bohemian, if not flamboyant. His recent collection of romantic poems, Hoo’a, is a reflection of his youthfulness that he used to have during the ’60s and ’70s. To me, he is like the Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan, attending almost all literary programmes in Pakistan — as does Bachchan in the Indian film industry. One can feel his presence almost everywhere.

One of Hussaini’s foremost qualities is his integrity with his work. If he has plumped for a book, one will find him in the front row of speakers who invest time in perusing the book’s content in a professional fashion, do a comprehensive analysis and apprise the audience of their understanding. Perhaps, this is one of the qualities that make him the most sought-after soul who never enjoys the ivory tower of the literary world.

Hussaini’s soul breathes beneath the fabric of traditions rooted in the history of Sindh and his poetry guru, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai. That said, unlike people such as me — who just read the best of the lot in any literature — he reads almost every book of Sindhi poetry that is published. Reason? As he once told me, he wants to feel the pulse of ongoing Sindhi poetry. He has been doing that for ages.

Among the most prominent poets of Sindhi language globally, Imdad Hussaini is an agile, benevolent, respectful, caring man and simultaneously a fortunate baby-soul, cherishing the bits of life offered to him by the times. I can still see him with the eyes of my mind, twisting, tossing, catching and rubbing a few cobbles and writing imaginary words with one black stone on the roadside of time, in his typical style of versification.

The writer is a published poet, short story writer, magazine editor and civil servant

**All translations by Muzamil Syre*

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 13th, 2020