POETRY: POETRY AS POLITICS

Published November 13, 2022

Radd
By Atif Tauqeer
Aks, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697311446
272pp.

Atif Tauqeer is a fine Urdu poet, but he is more popular in Pakistan as a social media activist and vlogger. Many of his political poems have gone viral on social media and some are overtly critical of Pakistan’s ruling establishment. That prompted some people to dub Tauqeer a “one-dimensional” poet. I believe the criticism is a tad unjust

At a time when the Urdu literary scene is rife with ghazals and poets who are adept at qaafiya [rhyming words], radeef [refrain] and a variety of bahoor [metres], here is a poet who chooses to pen paaband [metrical] nazms. Not only that, the subjects Tauqeer usually deals with are reminiscent of the landmark poems by Noon Meem Rashid, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ahmed Faraz. This is no ordinary feat in today’s fast-paced world with a limited attention span.

This also reminds me of a now somewhat obsolete and irrelevant debate about the supremacy of the nazm over the ghazal. In the previous century, many established Urdu poets looked down upon ghazals and claimed that the traditional genre had run its course. Now is the age of the nazm, they announced.

Fast forward to 2022, nazm poets in Urdu are a rare commodity. Young poets, especially, appear to be more inclined toward ghazal writing, which does not always require a great deal of erudition and rigour. Some conveniently write prose poems without having exhausted the conventional formats.

Atif Tauqeer’s latest collection of poems is filled with a painful nostalgia for the poet’s native country and a longing to set it right

Tauqeer, who is based in Germany, began his poetic career in Karachi writing ghazals. It was his mentor, Jaun Elia, who suggested Tauqeer pursue nazms as he thought his young disciple had the potential to excel in this particular form of poetry. Thankfully, Tauqeer paid heed to Elia’s advice. His latest anthology of poems, Radd [Negation], is a testimony to both Tauqeer’s extraordinary nazm-writing skills and Elia’s mentorship.

In the nazm titled ‘Lahoo’ [Blood], for instance, Tauqeer writes:

Hum aab-i-Zamzam ya Ganga jal se bhi sadiyaan pehlay
Khayaal-i-kun ke rahien-i-minnat
Zameen pe bhaijay gaey thay aur phir
Na jaanay ye kya hua ke hum ne
Badan ke taankay udherr daalay
Wujood hisson mein baant daala
Bisaat khaanon mein torr daali
Woh tera khaana, yeh mera khaana

[We were sent to this world centuries before
Aab-i-Zamzam and Ganga jal
As a result of “Let there be!”
Who knows what happened then that we
Pulled the stitches of our bodies apart
Split our very existence into pieces
And the board into squares, which now
Are either your squares or mine]

The poems in Radd are filled with a painful nostalgia for the poet’s native country. It seems that what plagues Pakistan socially has had a deep impact on him, and he cannot turn a blind eye to it.

While some poems are explicitly political, such as ‘Ghaddaar’ [Traitor], ‘Aitraaf’ [Confession] ‘Mutaaliba’ [Demand] and ‘Shukriya’ [Gratitude], others — such as ‘La’ [Nothing], ‘Izaafiyat’ [Relativity] and ‘Sukoot’ [Silence] — have a more philosophical bent. But even these carry a sense of deprivation, of chaos, of a longing to set things right.

In the poem ‘Ghaddaar’, for example, Tauqeer writes:

Bhook ghaddaar hai
Bhook mein pait par haath rakhna gunah
Pyaas ghaddaar hai
Pyaas mein aasmaanon ko takna gunah
Lafz ghaddaar hain
Sach mein liptay huay
Justujoo ke naey raastay kholtay lafz ghaddaar hain
[Hunger is a traitor

And it is sin to suffer from hunger
Thirst is a traitor
So is staring at the sky in thirst
Words are traitors
Words enclosed in truth
Words opening new avenues of our struggle

Yes, they, too, are traitors]
Then, in ‘Izaafiyat’, he says:

Yeh waqt kya hai?
Izaafiyat hai

Ke jaisay gardish ki lamha lamha nigoon-sari ko safar samajhna
Ke jaisay maakoos zaaviyon ko safeer-i-gasht-i-sahih samajhna
Yeh daira-waar gardishon ke naqaat-i-makhfi ko dekh lenay
Ke aik daavay se barrh ke kya hai?

[What is time?

Relativity it is

As we take the circulation of bowing moments to be the journey
As we take the inverted angles to be a harbinger of the rightful path

What is it more than the claim of having seen the hidden points of the spiralling motions?]

Occasionally, the poet tends to indulge in pedantry — something I hope he will rein in as he gets more experienced. At times, Tauqeer’s craft, which is superior to many of his contemporaries, dominates poetic aesthetics — rationality supersedes emotions. But this is not the case with his ghazals. Possibly the poet believes that the nazm genre is more suited for cerebral subjects rather than emotive experiences.

The ghazals in Radd have an echo of Jaun Elia and Gulzar — two different poets — so it is quite remarkable how Tauqeer has managed to glean inspiration from both. But, as in nazms, Tauqeer’s ghazals reflect his unique sensibilities and style. The political element never takes a backseat.

Take, for instance, the below:

Main bhi khuda parast hoon, tu bhi khuda parast hai
Lekin hamaray darmiyaan phir bhi buland-o-past hai

...

Teri har aik daleel mein tera hi radd nihaan raha
Goya yeh teri zaat ki sab se barri shikast hai

[A worshipper I am, a worshipper you are, too
Yet the highs and lows keep us apart

In all your reasoning is concealed a rejection of your claims
Your biggest defeat, hence, at your own hands]

Or:

Wujood-i-ishq ka koi sira mila? Nahin mila
Khudi mili, nahin mili, khuda mila, nahin mila

[Existence of love, did you find the start of it? No
Found your ‘self’? No. Found God? No]

Or:

Raat ki chhaaoni se aya tha
Chaand teri gali se aya tha

Neend bhar cheekhna parra mujh ko
Khwaab kis khaamoshi se aya tha

[Came hither from the garrison of night
The moon came hither from your abode

Throughout my sleep I had to scream
How quietly the dream had come]

Tauqeer is a poet rooted in tradition and modernity at the same time, one who grapples with the subjects of our time. Unlike his contemporaries, he is not interested in ‘surprising’ his reader with clever wordplay or borrowing phrases from English and other languages to appear ‘modern’. He is contemporary in his themes, but traditional in the treatment of his subjects. Take, for instance, the following ghazal:

Peeraan-i-jubba-o-qaba saara fasaad aik hai
Sab ka khuda alag sahi sab ka mafaad aik hai

[All mullahs and priests are one, so is their menace
Each with their own god, their interests but all the same]

Or:

Jaanay hum kya khareed laatay hain
Jism bazaar thorri hota hai

Yeh kabhi raeygaan nahin jaata
Khoon akhbaar thorri hota hai

[What is it we buy and bring home? The body is but no market

It indeed never goes in vain
Blood, for sure, is not a chronicle]

The Urdu critics’ lack of attention to a poet who has touched the lives of many people, from Karachi to North Waziristan, is somewhat baffling, though. It shows how distant they are to the latest poetic trends, to new experiments in world literature. Urdu literati might play down the literary significance of Tauqeer’s latest book because they have a condescending approach toward poets and writers that are famous by virtue of social media. But can they deny its omnipresent and overwhelming role in our lives?

Many new poets are making a name for themselves through social media these days, not just in Pakistan, but all over the world. Not all deserve our attention. But in a world full of social media versifiers, Atif Tauqeer is a poet who stands out for his unfathomable talent and craft.

*All translations are by the reviewer

The reviewer is a Germany-based journalist and fiction writer. He tweets @ImamShamil

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 13th, 2022

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