Mehmil-o-Jaras: The Last Collection of Josh Maleehabadi
Compiled and edited by Adeel Zaidi
Maktaba-e-Danyal
ISBN: 978-969-419-116-7
520pp.

Josh Maleehabadi (December 5, 1898 - February 22, 1982) is admired, no doubt, but not uncritically. A perception that one gets after reading some critics is that Josh could have secured even more prominent a pedestal to stand on in Urdu literature’s hall of fame had he been more conscientious while airing his views on some of our political and religious ideals.

But that was not to be. As was Josh’s disposition, he was always fearless and blunt. So he had to suffer on many accounts. During the Ayub Khan era, for example, Josh once passed some comments that were reported in the Indian press and were deemed inappropriate from our country’s point of view. As a result, Josh had to lose his coveted position at the Urdu Development Board (now Urdu Dictionary Board).

Another interview of Josh surfaced in the Zia era. Though a precondition for conducting that interview was that the contents would not be released during his lifetime, the trust was breached and Josh, already accused of heresy and a rebellious attitude, became more controversial and was banned from being broadcast and telecast in Pakistan.

Consequently, most of his contemporaries and friends shunned him. This was an injustice to a major poet, whose poetry was ranked among such greats as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and who befriended such luminaries as Jawaharlal Nehru.

Josh Maleehabadi’s last poetic collection has been published 41 years after the poet’s death and contains verses not part of Josh’s collected poetic works

In the pre-Independence era, Josh’s poem ‘Shikast-i-Zindaan Ka Khwaab’ [The Dream of Breaking the Prison] and ‘East India Company Ke Farzandon Se Khitaab’ [Address to the Sons of East India Company] had taken the Indo-Pak Subcontinent by storm and earned him much fame. Even after Independence, while he was still in India, Josh had recited a poem named ‘Maatam-i-Azadi’ [Mourning the Independence], criticising the government. It earned him Indian Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel’s ire, but Nehru came to Josh’s rescue.

Despite his popularity, some of Josh’s works remained unpublished long after his death in 1982. It was in 1991 that Maulana Kausar Niazi, an admirer, poet, former journalist and minister in Z.A. Bhutto’s cabinet in the 1970s, made an arrangement with a publisher to bring out Josh’s unpublished work Mehraab-o-Mizraab, which was published in 1993. There were a few other pieces, too, in prose and verse, that Josh had penned, but they remained unpublished for various reasons, one being his heirs’ distrust of publishers.

Josh’s granddaughter, Tabassum Akhlaq, was in possession of the manuscript of Josh’s last poetic collection, which she handed over to Adeel Zaidi for publishing. Titled Mehmil-o-Jaras and compiled by Josh himself in 1972, it has now been published, 41 years after the poet’s death. This collection of Josh’s verses could not be made part of Josh’s collected poetic works compiled by Hilal Naqvi in three volumes. But it is in printed form now.

The work has a brief preface penned by Josh. It is written in Josh’s signature style and reminds one of his peculiar prose that he used in much of his autobiography Yaadon Ki Baraat — grandiose, ornate, dreamlike and often rhymed. Packed with alliterating words and rare collocations, the preface sounds rather melancholy, as Josh decries and bemoans his being born in Asia, a place that is a “graveyard of knowledge and enlightenment” and, as Josh puts it, is a “muqaddas pagal khana” [sacred lunatic asylum], where “thoughts are hanged” and “life’s precious moments are slaughtered.”

Josh Maleehabadi at work | INN
Josh Maleehabadi at work | INN

At the end, Josh says living among intellectual pygmies who do not acknowledge the greatness of their contemporaries has been like jumping into an inferno, which outstrips even the hellfire. And then he expresses a great sense of relief that he is nearing the end of his life and “the darkness is dissipating, the morning is approaching and I can see in the mist a caravan of masked souls that is coming my way and my heart says, some 200 years after my death, they will come to my grave, will light candles and raise flames to the skies, singing an eternal song that I have always been longing to hear. Here I jump into the sea of death with the hope that my poetry would be celebrated after me.”

It reflects the anguish and torment that Josh had been through. Josh felt that both society and his contemporaries denied him the status that he rightfully deserved.

Another piece in prose by Josh included is a dialogue between Shabbir Hasan Khan Afridi, his real name, and Josh Maleehabadi, his other self. Reproduced from a previous work by Josh, it makes for quite an interesting read, as it discusses the two personalities of Josh, one a mature sage who wants to rein in emotions with reasoning, and the other a poet with a carefree attitude and zest for enjoying the beauties of life.

Yearning for freedom and a deep fellow-feeling for all of humanity is a recurrent motif in Josh’s poetry. Another hallmark of his works are his non-conformist and liberal views, bordering on Epicureanism and hedonism.

What sets Josh apart from his contemporaries are not only his revolutionary, anti-imperialist thoughts and grandeur of style, but also his diction that is so diverse and rich that hardly any other poet of Urdu comes even a close second.

When it comes to immensity of vocabulary and mastery over the Urdu language, Josh is simply unparallelled, and Josh’s works are virtual treasure-troves for lexicographers. As we know that Josh opposed ghazal and preferred nazm (modern poem), this collection does not have a single ghazal, a reaffirmation of his views.

But many questions remain unanswered. Adeel Zaidi has kept mum in his intro as to what caused this unpublished, last work of Josh to remain concealed for so long, though Tabassum Akhlaq has given a few clues in her preface, such as, “unavoidable circumstances.”

Two of Josh’s other works, too, still remain unpublished: Harf-i-Aakhir and Zikr-o-Fikr, as mentioned by Zaidi. But no further discussion is deemed necessary and there is no hint about what fate has in store for those two unpublished collections by a great poet admired by all.

The reviewer is an Urdu lexicographer, linguistic humorist and a newspaper columnist. He can be reached at drraufparekh@yahoo.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 18th, 2024

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