Short in stature he looked ordinary but would appear quite the opposite when he talked. No verbosity, no bombast. Cutting through verbiage he would turn an erudite dialogue or discussion into a conversation giving it a human touch and aura of intimacy.
He had the art of conversation which was both inherited and cultivated. The inherited part came from the oral tradition prevalent in the Baloch dominated periphery of the Punjab where spoken word held sway. He would subtly pepper his conversation with literary and cultural allusions without making his listeners - that increased in number with the passage of time - stand in awe of him. He was an affable and peace-loving person by temperament, almost a pacifist in an area where every Joe loved to flaunt arms. But Irshad wasn’t a dry man wallowing in self-importance and self-righteousness. His voice would rarely drip sarcasm when in conversation with people who knew much less than him about the subject under discussion. If he had to say something that could bite someone, he would use his wit. Despite his persona of seriousness he was a much loved wit and raconteur. A man of wit and wisdom, he would not reduce people with his display of erudition as most of our half-baked intellectuals, ‘PaParhey’ in the words of Baba Bulleh Shah, tended to do. He would rather like to employ his witticism to make them helpless with laughter. His dialogue with whosoever talked to him had an air of bonhomie. He along with Abid Ameeq, an inimitable intellectual and sensitive poet, was staying at my place in Lahore in 1980s. Both being generous by nature and not well-organised, knew next to nothing on how to manage their money. So they would run short of money.
One morning at breakfast Irshad pointing to me said: ‘Abid, we don’t need to flatter him today. I have already borrowed Rs500 from his wife’.
But the art of conversation as we all know has its limits. And that’s reason that he turned to written word. Abid Ameeq and Irshad Taunsvi were the poets who pioneered the modern Sariaki verse in 1970s. Both took their cue from a group of the forward-looking Punjabi poets and writers in Lahore who had chosen their mother language for their creative expression against all odds. They interacted with the group and the relationship thus formed benefited all at the personal and creative level.
Irshad wasn’t prolific. He composed words when he felt absolutely compelled to do so. He spent a lot of time reflecting on what mattered to him intellectually and emotionally: literature, mythology, history, nature, mysticism, politics and culture. Reflections thus born served as a backdrop of his poetry which has a transparent quality both in terms of experience and construction of poetic language that best suited his creative expression. His poetry while being contemporary is connected with the literary tradition that encapsulates the vision of our mystics and praxis of revolutionaries in our homeland. The former stress the existential experience and subjective vision that connects us with what is ignored or unknown in the overwhelmingly phenomenal world. Connecting with such a world helps us to revisit our view of impersonal objective world. The latter highlights the human need of transforming the dehumanised concrete world through well-thought out social practice within the parameters of objective laws. Unity of objective and subjective is the ideal saints and revolutionaries hanker after. Such an ideal clearly underpins Irshad’s poetic vision born in defiance of a world that rests on the rigid bifurcation of objective and subjective.
A poet has to express this predicament in words, language, as there is no other tool available to him. And language is a social product which cannot be tempered with at will. So poet has to negotiate between how the language is being used within its fixed boundaries in a collective social practice and how it may be used in a fresh way by extending the boundaries without making it inaccessible or meaningless.
It’s noticeable that Irshad devised an idiom of Sariaki which was unburdened by colloquialism which marred the expressions of most of the poets in the peripheral area in D G Khan and Rahim Yar Khan. His language, lucid and richly nuanced, is closely connected with the heartland. That’s why his poetry can be accessible to both Sariaki speaking and Punjabi speaking readers. The world he recreates in his poetry has the power of making the readers transfixed with its sense of wonder. The concrete and prosaic in his hands becomes something that hints at a beyond we usually miss. “At times it happens: no lightening, no rain but the roof starts dripping/ at times it happens: a bit of green sprouts out of thick walls / the sun peeps through a chink in the door into the room / the warmth of unfamiliar hands seems moving all over your body /And you hear, a drum beats somewhere out there”.
He always desired to be at one with nature and what it offered to enrich human life fascinated him beyond measure. “The backyard of our home looks somewhat like our lawn / the family members stroll around the lawn and take sunbath/ no one goes to the backyard where one can see a duck’s nest, a pen and two mango trees /whenever the trees are in blossom, the children and adults all come rushing and guess: ‘more fruit this year!’ / they look like a smart peasant who surveying his fields assesses the crop yields / I have never been in the business of assessing things / I don’t like the duck either/ what I like is the bird perched on the branch of the big tree up in the air; the bird that is elusive and out of reach”. In the last years of his life the poet lived on his lands surrounded by a green wilderness. And there it was magical to see his arms literally turned into the branch of a big tree which the birds gladly perched on; no longer illusive, no longer out of reach. We would miss such a man. But the birds would miss him more.
Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2021