POETRY: UNDERCUTTING THE MONARCHS

Published January 16, 2022
In Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar, the word ‘bazaar’ metaphorically stands for a world inundated with hustle bustle, diversity and ephemerality
In Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar, the word ‘bazaar’ metaphorically stands for a world inundated with hustle bustle, diversity and ephemerality

Metaphors are invented to negotiate the odd, estranged and uncanny emotional situations each of us has to confront, repeatedly or sporadically, in our personal and socio-political lives. The title of Harris Khalique’s latest anthology of Urdu poetry, Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar [Amazed/Confounded in the Marketplace] is one such complex metaphor.

It seems logical to think that complex situations breed complex metaphors, but it is a complex metaphor that can make us realise any situation’s convolutedness. More fitting and canonical is to look at the world through the words of poetry, not the other way round.

In Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar, the word ‘bazaar’ metaphorically stands for a world inundated with hustle bustle, diversity and ephemerality, and ‘hairaan’ connotes the gamut of complex emotions experienced by a person sitting in the bazaar of the world.

The sher of Khalique’s ghazal in which this metaphor occurs reveals that the narrator is not just amazed, but confounded and distracted too. Amazed and amused because of seeing the bazaar from an artist’s perspective; confounded because of what he sees there. Majun, mad in Layla’s love, tore his collar while wandering in the desert; Khalique’s narrator tears his collar while sitting in the bazaar. Khalique’s narrator has turned mad not for love, but because of what he observes in the world that appears to him like a bazaar. Thus, the act of keen observation gets a central place in his poetry.

Most metaphors, symbols and other figurative tools of Khalique’s poetry are derived from an observation of the contemporary world and of the play of history, which exposes how a self-assertive power occupies the centre and starts pushing certain groups of people and ideas to the margin, to extinction. Khalique’s poems brush aside subjective, introspective and navel-gazing approaches.

Harris Khalique’s latest book of poetry celebrates the lives and audaciousness of the marginalised as a way of speaking truth to power. It is a rare and must-read book

Though the book carries a handful of ghazals — a genre traditionally associated with poetic introspection and subjectivity and the poet admits to owing to Mir Taqi Mir for his own love of the genre — most are awash with khayaal bandi, a technique employed by the bigwigs of classical Urdu ghazal in which some idea, or khayaal, is extracted from a mazmoon, or common poetic subject, and then extended, refuted or stretched to its ultimate limits. Khalique’s ghazal is embedded in the classical tradition, though at places he comments on the contemporary world in his own progressive way.

Khalique’s poems afford a central place to those things, people and occurrences whose existence is either erased, or pushed to the margins, or put in constant danger by the forces of the bazaar. His progressive leanings keep reminding him that the whole structure of the social world has been historically constructed and the barrage of agonies humans have to undergo is caused by those in power.

In narrating the stories of Rasheeda Domni, Niamatullah Saeed Bangash, Salamat Maashki, Sabra Noreen, Usman Maseeh and Ishwar Kumar — all culturally, economically and politically marginalised people — Khalique unravels the fabric of class-based society while zeroing in on their existential struggle. The poet’s sole intent seems not to emphasise how miserable a life they are destined to lead, or how they must put up with stigmatised identities, but to underscore how audaciously these ostracised folks find ways to assert their best.

The poems adopt multiple strategies to portray details and convey meanings. Sometimes, they speak in unequivocal yet emphatic idiom, at other places they draw on the between-the-lines scheme and, at times, they call on gaps and silence as a more resounding, more effective means of communicating the delicate things.

The climax of the story of how marginalised people have to endlessly struggle to assert their best can be gleaned only by reading the nuances peddled between the lines. For instance, on the surface, the poem ‘Rasheeda Domni’ narrates the story of a low-caste woman. Born in Bhopal, India, she migrated to Lahore and mastered poetry, coquetry and blandishment — all paraphernalia to please the aesthetes of art.

But beneath the poem’s surface lies the portrait of an exceptional artist who, besides possessing a magic to mesmerise the people of Lahore and the birds of Neeli and Sandal Bars equally, epitomises the confluence of diverse traditions and a permanent source of inspiration for novices. The poem seems to subscribe to the fact that self-conscious, self-assertive marginalised beings can subvert all the constructs engulfing their existence.

The poem on Niamatullah Saeed Bangash, a young recruit in the West Pakistan army, also attests to the subversive power the margin gets hold of by diving into his authentic being. Following the revelation that he killed an old Bengali woman — though in self-defence — Bangash finds himself entangled in a moral crisis. Guilt-ridden, he can no more live a normal life. His endless remorse designated by reciting Surah Muzammil not only points to his true humanity, but also incarnates the pain the whole nation suffers for its rulers’ wrongdoings.

The verses on the Jallianwala Baagh tragedy unveil how, in an unending battle between life and death, between the exploiter and the exploited, life or the exploited ultimately win. Life continues its efforts to renew itself and the exploited carry on the struggle for freedom, from both oppressors and the oppressive past. In the same vein, Khalique frequently references Karbala, the great symbol of resistance. Hence, a ray of optimism runs through the book.

In ‘Jaafar Zatalli’ we see the embodiment of the horrors of ostracisation, as the powerful elite dreads the naked truth told by a defiant artist. Zatalli pioneered satirical Urdu poetry lampooning the customs, socio-economic conditions, manners and deeds of religious people and even the language of the centre. He was avant-garde, daringly experimental in his literary approach and staunchly progressive in his themes.

In Khalique’s words, Zatalli had stumbled on the reality that one cannot avoid death by staying silent. This revelation qualifies to be termed ‘prophetically poetic’ and a pragmatic strategy to deal with the dread of death. Zatalli dauntlessly refused to endorse — in current terminology — ‘post-truths’ that courtiers propagated about the early 18th century Mughal state and society. Although he was sentenced, by kingly verdict, to be strangled to death with a shoelace, Zatalli’s courage to resist keeps inspiring forthcoming generations.

‘Salaateen’ [Monarchs], undoubtedly one of the best poems in the book, seems to carry on the theme of ‘Jaafar Zatalli’. In six parts — each arguably autonomous — it chronicles major upheavals that decisively changed our land’s cultural and political landscape. Its thematic development hinges on a structure following the linearity of time and it is peppered with an assortment of images, metaphors and symbols.

Poetry and history go hand-in-hand. Their boundaries blur. Hence, it becomes difficult to discern where history is poeticised and where poetry is historicised. You enjoy and are enlightened simultaneously. The poetry enlightens us that the power art is supposed to speak to, appears in the garb of Salaateen throughout history, at least in our South Asian context. The era of Salaateen has not ended.

As the era of Salaateen is, in reality, an era of darkness, so Raat [Night] emerges as a powerful symbol in Khalique’s poetry, as another six-part poem on the horrors, atrocities and nightmares brought about by raat sprawling on our history and land.

Khalique’s poetry affirms that art not only speaks to power, but sides with the victims of power. In ‘Muqaddar’ [Fate], the poet doesn’t shy away from asserting that it is we who will cancel out the monarch’s verdict. This somewhat conceited assertion comes from a belief in the subversive power of art.

Siding with victims of power doesn’t involve only voicing their miseries and agonies, but sharing their values and cultures as well. Power creates economic and political divides, instituting a gulf between the social and cultural realms of the haves and have-nots. Power advocates monolithic views on language and culture and abhors diversity.

In this context, Khalique’s poetry recognises, backs and celebrates the cultural diversity of the land. He includes Punjabi poems in the anthology and liberally references the literary and cultural symbols, figures and traditions of Pakistani languages.

In a poem dedicated to Sufi poet Shah Hussain, Khalique gives the lie to the notion of the markazi dhaara — mainstream Urdu literature that allegedly keeps indigenous languages and their tradition at bay. He does this by upholding, rather rejoicing in, a stream of influences, from Mir, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Shah Hussain, Amrita Pritam, Jorge Luis Borges and Federico Garcia Lorca. In ‘Zubaan’ [Tongue], he also stresses on diversity, as each language and its literary tradition leads to a new world and fresh worldviews. In the Pakistani context, this means a lot.

A sort of diversity can also be traced in Khalique’s own poetic style and selection of genres and themes. He writes ghazals and fardiyaat [stray couplets] in a classical manner, composes paaband [bound] and azad [free] nazms following modern-progressive aesthetic conventions. His diction is sometimes Persianised, particularly in ghazals and long poems, but is mostly made up of ‘chaste’ Pakistani Urdu, taking words and idioms from other Pakistani languages.

Khalique seems to believe that the power of art goes to waste without the power of aesthetics. A final word: in the age of fiction, it is rare to come across a good book of poetry. Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar is one such rare and must-read book.

The reviewer is a critic, short story writer and professor of Urdu at the University of Punjab, Lahore. He tweets @NasirAbbas65

Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar
By Harris Khalique
Maktaba-e-Danyal, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9694191065
216pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 16th, 2022

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