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Majaaz on Wall Street

May 23, 2012

GHALIB was possibly the greatest Urdu poet India ever produced. He died in penury though not before being thrown into prison for six months.

The humiliation involved the charge that he hosted gambling sessions in his house for a fee. Despite the severe financial problems, Ghalib didn’t let his pride get crushed. He refused to accept a job as a teacher all because the British college principal would not come out to his palanquin to receive the literary magician.

Kabir the legend of pre-Mughal Avadhi poetry (now spuriously described as a dialect of Hindi) was a poor weaver of Benares advocating the joys of simple living. Guru Nanak, who founded the Sikh religion, borrowed generously from Kabir.

Goswami Tulsidas, whose 16th century epic on the life and exploits of Lord Rama unwittingly helped the launch of a pro-business political party in modern India slept in a mosque.

Urdu and Hindi poets have come from different layers of society. From the last Mughal emperor Zafar to the railway gang man Shailendra, whose poetry adorned several major musical hits in the Hindi/Urdu cinema, their contributions have rarely been influenced by their class origins.

But it is difficult to describe a starry night in June in St Petersburg where the sun doesn’t set in summer. Similarly, it is impossible to conjure the romance of the monsoon while living in England. Poets and writers who lived in penury wrote beautiful verse or prose. Would they be able to keep the beauty if they were to become rich?

The question was prompted by Javed Akhtar, a fabulous raconteur and wit. Everyone believes he inherited his ready repartee or haazir jawabi from his maternal uncle Majaaz Lucknavi who was a darling of his contemporary Urdu poets in the 1940s and 1950s. But this is where the similarities appear to wane.

Majaaz was an unsuccessful lover who lived in penury and died while in his 40s on a freezing morning at a country liquor shop in Lucknow. Javed Akhtar married two well-known film actors.

Unlike his uncle, or even his father, the much-admired poet Jan Nisar Akhtar, Javed Akhtar was fortunate to make lots of money writing scripts and screenplays for Amitabh Bachchan movies.

He then reincarnated himself as a successful songwriter, a public speaker and a vociferous campaigner for the restoration of secular ideals in politics. Recently, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha for all his impressive skills.

He gave his maiden speech in parliament last week, which was about how film songwriters and musicians are deprived of their legitimate earnings through royalties. I think he announced himself as a creature of the market. It’s not his fault. There is no revolution on the horizon for him to emulate his peers, many of them Marxists, or in any case wholeheartedly with the poor.

As a critique of Javed Akhtar’s support for ‘cash nexus’ in creative art, I have attempted a quick translation of Majaaz’s poem on capitalism called Sarmayadari, which he wrote in 1938. Here are excerpts from the poem. I believe it would be of interest to many protesters on Wall Street.

Kaleja phunk raha hai aur zabaan kehne se aari hai Bataoo’n kya tumhe kya cheez ye sarmayadari hai (My heart is singed by its flame Capitalism is its name)

Ye wo aandhi hai jiski rau mein muflis ka nasheman hai Ye wo bijli hai jiski zad mein har dehqaan ka khirman hai (When it turns into a storm it uproots many a cobbled tent As lightening it destroys the harvest of the peasant)

Ye apne haath mein tehzeeb ka fanoos leti hai Magar mazdoor ke tan se lahoo tak choos leti hai (It dazzles the world with its cultural pedigree But thrives on the workers’ blood, it’s free)

Ye insaani bala khud khoon e insaani ki gaahak hai Waba se badhke mohlak maut se badh kar bhayanak hai (Created by man, capitalism trades in man’s sweat Is there an antidote to the epidemic? Not yet?)

Bala e be aman hai taur hi iske hi niraley hain Ke isne ghaiz mein ujdey huey ghar phoonk daley hain (Ever so often it takes the form of an ominous curse It rides through burning homes on a macabre hearse)

Ye aksar loot kar masoom insanon ko raahon mein Khuda ke zamzame gaati hai chhup kar khan qahon mein (It lurks and loots the innocent wayfarer And sings paeans at any religious altar)

Garajti goonjti ye aaj bhi maida’n mein aati hai Magar badmast hai har har qadam par ladkhadati hai (We stop to watch as it roars past on its daily round But watch out, it looks drunk. About to fall to the ground?)

Mubarak doston labrez hai ab isk paimana Uthao andhiyan kamzor hai buniyad a kashana (Let’s celebrate O friends, let’s raise a toast A new storm is brewing to end capitalism’s boast).

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.