The Progressive-Marxist Writers’ Movement in Urdu of the 1930s had created space for ‘revolutionary poetry’. Inspired by the exigencies of the freedom struggle, poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Makhdoom Mohiuddin and Majaz were able to reinvent the metaphors deployed to express the universal pain of loving.
The angst of love became love for the motherland. Love could also be hunger for freedom. Freedom from the shackles of colonialism. Faiz, in particular, ascended new heights in infusing the ghazal with emotions fired with yearning for emancipation.
Urdu poetry freed itself from the restraints of rhyme and refrain when feminist poets strode on to the stage in the 1980s. The ghazal — essentially a poem of pain and beauty — was especially not an easy receptacle for the angst of gender discrimination because, in the stylised classical ghazal, the speaker’s voice was not gendered. The whimsical beloved, male or female, dictated to the lover.
The nazm, a poem that is anything but a ghazal, was the preferred mode of expression for feminist poetry. Free verse, blank verse and prose poems were able to absorb the poets’ emotions.
I mention feminist poetry also because it resounded in Pakistan during the suppressive regime of Gen Ziaul Haq. There is a direct connection between the oppressive, so-called ‘Islamic’ rule of Gen Zia and the feminist protest against the cruel legislations that suppressed women’s agency in Pakistan.
Fahmida Riaz, the most articulate and strident among feminist poets, had to leave Pakistan for fear of her life. She spent seven years in India. Nonetheless, Riaz and her peers created a tradition of resistance through poetry that has continued to grow.
I met Salman Haider in Toronto, Canada, at a welcoming mehfil [gathering] pulled together on a frosty March evening in 2019. My hosts were émigré poets from Pakistan, eminent ghazal poet Irfan Sattar in particular, and Tahir Aslam Gora, the dynamic broadcaster, fiction writer and founder of Tag TV.
We sat in a cosy circle in the casual living room above the studio of Tag TV. Then, the poetry began to unfold. Poets pulled out their cell phones, they scrolled to pluck out what to read. I sat in captivated awe.
Wah wah, kya kahne, ai hai punctuated the recitations.
Eventually, the Toronto poets turned towards a tall, burly, dark-complexioned man whose turn it was to recite. Salman Haider. The next 30 minutes were mesmerising for me.
Haider’s poetry connects us to Pakistan’s political and social turmoil as swiftly as a political analyst would. How did Haider find the path, the idiom to poeticise in order to produce such startling poetry? This is a question for Haider himself, but I will answer it through my own reading of his poems.
Poetry, even of the prose poem variety, cannot be plain narrative. There has to be a current of energy running through it, such as an aching nerve, or a shared emotion, that connects it with the reader or listener. Orality is essential for Urdu poetry because the language thrives on its dramatic, musical resonance of recitation at mushairas and mehfils.
The classical requisites for Urdu poetry are balaaghat [lucidity], ravaani [flow] and iham [ambiguity or abstraction]. Above all, istearah [metaphor] gives its language the layered nuances.
Since the content of Haider’s poems are events drawn from the ‘real’, or immediate, local, circumscribed part of his world and not from a stylised, universal, hyper-emotional one — such as the one created by Faiz — he needed to find an unsentimental, stark yet stirring idiom.
He has to share the pain he bears, the horror he experiences, but not seek compassion. Instead, he wants to provoke, arouse the listener, shake the listener out of complacency to awareness.
In his recent collection, Haashiay Par Likhi Nazmein [Poems Written On the Margins], he shocks us into paying attention. I will give examples to show how Haider goes about doing this.
A poem titled ‘Somvaar Kabhi Nahin Aata’ [Monday Never Comes] is a conversation between an unspecified speaker and a clerk. It is about frustration with a system that does not allow you the ability to choose. It is about namelessness, it is about erasure.
Perhaps the undercurrent is about those who are erased. Those who disappear and are never found in the dungeons of the state. It is about repression, about laws promulgated to suppress individual will. Note that the speaker wants his name to be a symbol of freedom — sky, rain, bird or star.
I want to name myself after a tree or sky
Rain or bird;
A star would be appropriate, too.
But these names are not included in the approved list.
I have to advertise my change of name.
And, this can only be done on a Monday
When will Monday come?
Monday never comes
Haider speaks of love, too. Broken relationships, unfinished stories. In ‘Sunbath’, he paints a picture of lovers now separated, but remembered through words.
The fragrance of your hands
Is caught in my tangled hair
The taste of your touch is preserved even now…
Those moments of four seasons and the two of us
Are still there
By the shore of eternity’s ever-flowing river
This juxtaposition of emotion turned to ashes, and the cutting cynicism of resistance to a cruel system forged by the authoritarian forces of the government, forms the core of Haider’s poetry.
Let me share one more example, with ‘Tamgha’ [Medal]:
Those who craft the ribbons for medals
Take measurements of the reach of mourners’ cries
Not the courage of the ones who die.
I will close with an excerpt from ‘Ehsaas-i-Tahaffuz Ki Maut’ [Death of Feeling Secure] that addresses the subject of both Ammar Ali Jan’s book Rule by Fear: Eight Theses on Authoritarianism in Pakistan and Haider’s poetry:
You kept killing people
To the point
That the feeling of security became the target of your bullets
Without waiting for anyone
They emerged from their safe places
And found others like themselves.
They stopped vehicles
Put away relief for some other day
And raised their voices in front of your doors.
Your weapons became fearful
The fingers on triggers became stiff with shock
When you were killing the feeling of security you did not think
That when people were scared in their homes
They would become fearless on the streets.
Poems of resistance, such as the ones written by Salman Haider, go a long way to show that hope is alive, awareness exists.
The columnist is professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 29th, 2022