Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

Pity, it is loss that tells us the worth of things. Indubitably, the loss procreated by death reveals, though dreadfully, unto us the truest worth of things. His eminence as a poet rested not just on a single ghazal — the matla [opening verse] of which reads Wo hamsafar tha, magar uss se hamnawaayi na thi [he was a fellow traveller, yet lacked amity] and used as the soundtrack for the television drama serial Hamsafar — but on practising consistently a sort of neo-classicism all along his literary career in his own way.

This is something that might be taken as part of a serious effort to pin down the real worth of Naseer Turabi’s works of poetry, on poetics and lexicography in the moment we mourn him.

Tradition seems to have played a decisive role throughout Turabi’s literary dispensations since 1962, the year he began composing poetry. In one of his ghazals, written around 1969, he uses “Mir bhi hum bhi” (Mir Taqi Mir and me too) as the radeef [refrain] in a bid to identify his poetic self — and also the cultural contours of his age — with one of the archetypal representatives of the classical tradition of Urdu poetry. Turabi continued drawing on selective — yet apposite to his poetic intention — nuances of Mir’s poetics.

In his father, Allama Rasheed Turabi (1908-1973), there was a confluence of Islamic theology, khitaabat or rhetoric, and poetry — a classical tradition followed by an entire lot of leaders that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in colonial India. Born on June 15, 1945 in Hyderabad Deccan, Naseer Turabi imbibed the major ingredients of the classical tradition he inherited from, and through, his father. However, in him there was an element of divergence. He didn’t become a khateeb and religious public speaker like his father (a part of the family tradition followed by his two brothers). He earned a masters degree in journalism from the University of Karachi and served as a public relations officer at Eastern Federal Union Insurance Company.

In postcolonial Pakistan, the word ‘tradition’ came to acquire a special meaning. For a great number of the literati, it designated not just a set of cultural practices, literary forms and values of the classical period — chiefly 17th to 19th centuries of precolonial India — but was taken as a bulwark against the modernity conceived essentially as a Western phenomenon, which shared least with ‘our’ tradition.

For more than six decades, Turabi kept writing poetry only in the classical form of ghazal. In Aks Faryadi [Reflection of the Plaintiff] and Laraib [Indubitable] — just two slim volumes of his poetry — we see his unflinching vivacity for the genre and form of ghazal. In the decade of 1960 when he started writing verses, Urdu poetry was dominated by a movement of lisaani taskheelaat [linguistic constructs] which characterised all sorts of experimentalism in diction, style, technique and forms of poetry.

Naseer Turabi, who passed away on January 10, had only two slim volumes of poetry to his name, but his neo-classical attention to craft and to the usage of words indicate his real worth

Turabi was among that lot of Urdu writers who showed least interest in, and no sympathy for, contemporary literary movements. Tradition had lent him a kind of self-sufficiency. In his book Sheriat [Poetics], he delineates his ideas about poetry, language and the proper, yet ‘traditionally authentic’, use of words. By holding the view that “meanings are not invented, rather they are discovered”, he asserts his unwavering belief in tradition.

However, he doesn’t rebut the possibility of ‘inventing’ meaning. In Sheriat, he offers four categories of Urdu poets: major, important, reliable and (just) poet. The ‘major’ poets are the ones who inform mainstream or the central tradition of poetry, by inventing new poetic language. As per his cleavage, Mir Taqi Mir, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Mir Anis, Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Josh Malihabadi are the major poets of Urdu. All these five poets (though the list is contestable) have, on the one hand, ingeniously created a diction endemic to their poetic genius; on the other, they profiled a very classical tradition that was to be followed by the coming generation of poets.

Another ingredient of Turabi’s notion of mainstream poetry (or tradition) is khayal bandi, a style of classical Persian and Urdu poetry which ruled out mimetic representations in poetry embracing eidetic metaphors. Interestingly, khayal bandi provided the poets room to express their individual quirks in the face of the obdurate conventions of tradition.

As khayal remains in a state of fluidity, the poet would feel free to play with khayal, ideas and meanings, without breaking away from the core of tradition. This way, we can understand and evaluate the salient features of Turabi’s poetry which are paradoxically idiosyncratic and traditional alike. He can be termed a neo-classical poet.

It is true that his neo-classism kept him away — both emotionally and ideologically — from modern and postmodern theories of literature, but he was not unmindful of what was happening in his city Karachi, in Pakistan and around the globe. He seems to believe that the classical form of ghazal is aesthetically dynamic enough to encompass all layers of what can be termed as a ‘new sensibility’.

It is very interesting to note that, though his most popular ghazal (mentioned at the beginning) was written against the backdrop of the fall of Dhaka, the pathos oozing out of its every couplet is not confined to just a single, or in exact words its original, event. Poetry surpasses all boundaries, even those erected by the intention of the poet.

Brevity is integral to the ghazal. In a small bowl, you have to contain an ocean; in two poetic lines a big theme has to be compressed. Perhaps it was this brevity of ghazal that might have persuaded him not to be prolific. He published only one book of ghazals — Aks Faryadi — in 2000, almost 40 years after he composed his first verses. It contains only 54 ghazals and few fardiaat [single couplets]. When a genuine writer writes little, he accords more importance and attention to the craft.

Even a cursory look at Turabi’s ghazals lets one discern how careful and meticulous he was while composing ashaar [verses]. For him, words had many an inherent aesthetic contour which can be explored and exploited by using a word in repetitive yet diverse contexts. In many of his couplets, a word and its derivatives are used in multiple contexts, adding up the rhythmic beauty and multiple nuances of meanings at a time.

Milnay ki tarha mujh se wo pal bhar nahin milta
Dil uss se mila jis se muqaddar nahin milta

[He doesn’t meet me as he should have to My heart chose a person whom my kismet evaded]

Shehr [city] appears as a central motif in Turabi’s poetry. A great number of his ashaar are written about the experience of living in a (metropolitan) city which causes wehshat [wilderness and/or anxiety]. Wehshat — a recurring theme in his poetry, too — not only resonates with his love for the classical tradition, but alludes to the displacement every modern writer had to suffer in one way or the other.

A deep-seated melancholy seems to infiltrate across his poetry. Neither in the city at home nor in the sehra [desert] — another symbol of classical Urdu poetry — does the narrator of his poetry finds solace. Everywhere he comes across wilderness and, eventually, melancholy:

Wehshat dar-o-deewar se maanoos hai itni
Sehra koi ab shehr se baahir nahin milta

[The wilderness is so intimate to home
That no desert can be found now out of the city — home itself has turned into a desert]

Every writer develops an intimate relation with words, but few writers take upon themselves to map out the ‘life’ of words, how they change their form and meaning with the passage of time and in varying contexts. Turabi’s interest in the life of the word made him compile Lughat al Awaam [Exoteric Words of Urdu], his last book, which appeared in 2019.

The idea of this dictionary seems to have sprung from a dichotomous view of language: the language of the ashraaf [elite] and the language of the awaam [commoners]. Apparently, this is a dictionary of slang, yet it includes words which not only account for a large part of the ordinary language being used by all and sundry in their daily lives and in all sorts of dispensations, but they are frequently used by the literati, too.

Slang terms, such as Abay o [Oh, listen], were used by Mir Taqi Mir in one of his couplets: “Yun pukarein hain mujhay koocha-i-janaan walay/ Idhar aa bay abay o chaak girebaan walay [The dwellers of the beloved’s alley halloo me like this/ Hey, oh you with the torn collar, come here]. So, the dichotomous view of language is highly problematic. This doesn’t lessen the value of his dictionary, but contextualises it into comprehending its actual worth.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 17th, 2021

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