This year marks the 200th birth anniversary of Charles Baudelaire, creator of Les Fleurs du mal [The Flowers of Evil] — a collection of lyrical poems that still shock and thrill — and the avant-garde prose poems that are strikingly modern in content and style.

Born in Paris in the spring of 1821, Baudelaire lived for only 46 years, and that too in deep anguish and constant pain. Perhaps not ignored but less appreciated during his lifetime — when Victor Hugo overshadowed the literary landscape in both prose and verse — Baudelaire’s pre-eminence among the French poets was incrementally established as time passed.

Eighty years after his death, Joseph M. Bernstein wrote in his editorial introduction of Baudelaire’s translations in English, published from the United States: “... an inexorable self-analyst and explorer of subconscious in poetry, a creator of images that fire the senses, quicken the heart and illumine the mind, Baudelaire has few if any peers in the roll-call of modern poets.”

When young, sifting through my father’s collection, I did find a few books of creative writing and literary criticism from the categories of French modernism and symbolism. My father had also spent his life dangling between rhetoric and rhapsody. But those books inspired little interest in me for simple reasons: primarily, my incompetence in understanding complex literary language shielded by the ideology I espoused, which constrained me from looking beyond those who were considered progressive writers.

My friends and I were interested only in the kind of poetry that spoke directly for the well-being of the working class and oppressed nations. Those were the times when college students invariably carried a copy of Sahir Ludhianvi’s collection of poetry, Parchhaiyaan [Shadows], in their bags. Imagining about, and struggling for, a collective liberation remains a desire even now among many of us. But at that time, us being young students, this desire had taken away our ability to understand the difference between individualism and individuality, when it comes to both life and art.

It was sheer luck that, when I entered as an undergraduate at NED University in Karachi, my seniors Idrees Ghazi and Amir Bashir — who has turned out to be a distinguished humour writer since — took me along to participate in Bazm-i-Talaba [Student Assembly], a long-running programme at Radio Pakistan that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

Courtesy Ghazi, I had earlier participated in a couple of programmes under eminent producer Yawar Mehdi. But, from 1985 to 1990, I was a regular participant in talk shows and mushairas. That is where I was introduced to many other students, who later became important broadcasters, journalists, producers and writers.

Uzair Ahmed Madni and Yaqoob Ghaznavi, who were both students at the University of Karachi then, were always there to efficiently assist the producers in recording programmes or in doing live broadcasts. Those six years were helpful in terms of learning how to speak correctly, how to modulate one’s voice, how to remain composed and how to retain confidence in front of the microphone.

However, most rewarding was the company of the outstanding men and women of letters who worked for radio as producers, programme managers and presentation controllers. Poet and critic Zamir Ali Badayuni, poet Razi Akhtar Shauq, and poet, critic and editor Qamar Jameel were always a treat to listen to.

At times, they would gather in one of the offices and discuss and debate on politics, culture, history and literature. Initially, I would sneak into a room full of these and other stalwarts and patiently listen to their conversations. Soon, they invited me to ask questions and share my views. What views could I have offered without any significant knowledge or understanding? But these people wanted their juniors to read, think and participate in any such discussions.

Social realism, modernism, symbolism, surrealism, structuralism, postmodernism — every literary theory and idea would come under scrutiny during those hot and humid afternoons in that old radio station on M.A. Jinnah Road. Students such as us would occasionally get a free cup of tea and a samosa brought from the station’s canteen to go with the conversation — another incentive for us to stick around. From classical Urdu and Persian texts to contemporary world writing, these people not only had remarkable knowledge, but considered views of their own on each piece of writing being discussed or theory being dissected.

Between 1985 and 1990, I remember working under the guidance of able producers such as Sibtain Jafri and Ismat Zehra — niece of the iconic Intizar Husain — but it was Qamar Jameel, fondly called Qamar Bhai by all his juniors, and who was the producer of Bazm-i-Talaba when I joined, who really left an impact on me. He was known to my family, but I had never met him before. It was my years at Bazm-i-Talaba that nurtured my association with Qamar Bhai.

He is a poet of definite merit in both ghazal and nazm, and his prose is evocative and insightful. His books of poetry — Khwaab Numa [Like a Dream] and Chahar Khwaab [Four Dreams] — and a two-volume collection of literary essays titled Jadeed Adab Ki Sarhadein [Frontiers of Modern Literature] are considered important works in Urdu literature. Qamar Bhai was also a committed proponent of prose poetry and wrote regularly in support of this genre in Urdu, influencing a number of his contemporary poets and those who came after him. In the later years of his life, he edited and published the literary magazine Daryaaft [Discovery].

During my time as a student contributor at Radio Pakistan, it was the conversations held outside the studios, while walking with people in the corridors or sitting with them in offices and the canteen, which mattered most to me.

Qamar Bhai introduced me to Arthur Rimbaud, Stephane Mallarme, Paul Valery and to the oeuvre of Charles Baudelaire. He would hand me down Baudelaire’s poems to read and explain the inner conflicts and the poetic synthesis in his work. Qamar Bhai was certainly among those who had forgotten more than I would ever learn.

The columnist 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, May 9th, 2021

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