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Keats and Ghani Khan: two naughty boys

November 03, 2012


There was a naughty boy And a naughty boy was he, For nothing would he do But scribble poetry---- That was John Keats singing. Keats would forever be remembered as an unequalled romanticist in English poetry. He was born in 1795 and died in the prime of his youth in 1821. A little less than a century after this sad event another naughty boy was born to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his wife in a village in Charsadda in 1914. The boy was named Ghani Khan who made his intentions known from the word ‘go’ when he scribbled:

Kha da us da Ghani wawrai Pa safa sada Pukhtu ke Ma la na razi khabare Pa chal pa isharu ke (Now listen to Ghani in plain and simple Pashto; neither do I speak in double entendre nor in symbols) Ghani Khan’s poetry seems to be the most enduring of the glorious legacies of his family; non violence, which his father Ghaffar Khan practiced, preached and craved for all his life, has taken leave of the soil of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. After having catapulted singers like Sardar Ali Thakkar to phenomenal heights of fame, Ghani’s poetry, by turns romantic, humourous and satirical makes the most bandied about of the text messages. ‘Ghani’s poetry alone has kept his family’s name afloat in the choppy waters,’ so believes Khushdil Khan, a bank executive and a longtime staunch supporter of ANP. Khushdil could these days be found greatly disillusioned with the party that has been at the helm of affairs in the province for the past four and a half years.

One could hardly dare disagree with the plump bank executive who comes from the fearsome little town suitably named ‘Prang’ (tiger) in Charsadda district. There is thus all that more reason to strive for something tender and benign and where else to fend for that other than Pashto poetry. Dr Shazia Babar, professor of English in Jinnah College for Women Peshawar, has done exactly the same in her fascinating thesis titled ‘Strains of Romanticism in Abdul Ghani Khan and John Keats Poetry’ (A Comparative Study).

Although a lady of exaggeratedly quiet disposition, Dr Shazia is a forceful defender of her thesis that she appears to have assiduously prepared. ‘Pashto poetry is nothing if it is not romantic and Nature and Beauty that stimulate imagination and stir human emotions form the crux of romanticism, she takes pains to emphasise. ‘Romanticism defies a standard definition, and F. L. Lucas in the ‘Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal’ has counted as many as 11, 396 definitions,’ argues Ms. Babar. She undertakes a job not quite dissimilar to Lucas as she succeeds in bringing out numerous points of confluence between Keats and Ghani Khan in her beautiful work. She ends up calling Ghani Khan the Pakhtun John Keats.

The message of the romantic poets is one of love and beauty, a message that all human beings can identify with irrespective of age, culture, time and language. ‘It is, therefore, least surprising to find romanticism to be such an important feature of not only English poetry but also Pashto,’ Dr. Shazia concludes.

Keats whose guiding star was beauty in Nature, in Mankind, and in Art, and who to the world was a lover of sensuousness, coined timeless phrases such as: ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever,’ and ‘O for a life of sensations rather than of thought.’ The poet who in ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn,’ showed us that to love beauty was to love truth was not a dreamer but a proponent of sound moral values,’ so opines Ms Babar. Ghani, like Keats, was a lover of beauty who believed that beauty was the essence of civilisation and culture that encompassed all human activities. Ghani too would be struck by the intrinsic beauty in nature. At one point he versed: Khaist da gulistan vi, Ghani warta hamesh, heraan shan walar vi (The beauty of the rose garden is such that Ghani is always found in a state of stupor).

Other than his age -- he lived to be eighty-two -- Ghani had much in common with Keats in their respective lives. The works of the two poets were little admired during their lifetimes. Keats on account of his youthfulness was severely censured after he wrote Endymion; Ghani was branded an infidel and a traitor and had to suffer the pangs of incarceration for six long years forcing him to write: da yawa garai zhwandun za; pa jhagaru na sham therawaley, ma la rakra su guluna, yo niazbeen shane janan (This transient life I cannot waste in strife. Grant me a few flowers and a pampered darling).

Both Ghani and Keats were loving and affectionate to their families and friends. Keats was studying to be a doctor whereas Ghani Khan passed out as a chemical engineer and a consummate painter and sculptor. Neither of them compartmentalised knowledge into tiny pigeonholes of science and humanities as for them all knowledge was universal. Of death, Keats wrote:

Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream, And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?

The transient pleasures as a vision seem, And yet we think the greatest pain is to die.

Ghani’s challenge to death was brusque: margay de rashi; che kala e was vi Gul ba me las ke wai; O ya ba us vi (Death is welcome to knock when it has the power to do so; I will welcome it with flowers or a horse to mount).

Although the two poets living a century apart had vast repertoire, Keats genius, considering his brief lifespan and the share length and depth of his work, was most admirable. They both played around with animals and insects in their unbridled imagination. Keats wrote about Mrs Reynolds’s cat:

Cat! Who hast pass’d thy grand climacteric How many mice and rats hast in thy days Destroy’d –how many tits bits stolen? Gaze Ghani Khan spared neither frog nor a mouse and a housefly he addressed thus: da har cha kara melma e; na balaley be izata, na Keats and Ghani Khan: two naughty boys pa shrap bande jaru ze; na pa sook o na pa lata (You are to be found in every household, uninvited and dishonoured. Neither a slap nor a kick can force you disappear).

Both Keats and Ghani fancied women and wine and wrote passionately and indeed longingly about the two. Wine for them had magical powers as it stimulated thought beyond thought as Keats said:

Give me women, wine and snuff Until I cry out ‘hold, enough’ An unrestrained Ghani lamented thus: zahar, zahar, zahar di; sharab che khumar na lari (wine without intoxication is poison), and to the mullah whom he spanked left, right and centre, he wrote: rasha rasha saqi rasha; dare dare mullah dare, pa ma bande bade lagi; sta pakhe pakhe khabare (Come hither O wine-bearer, vanish thou from my sight O mullah for I cannot stand your stale rhetoric).

Ghani Khan is at the height of his witticism in his poem ‘Kharay,’ in which he has made light pun at the casual hospitality of the native Hindko speaking Peshawarites: starey mashe, starey mashe; kher sara raghley’ dor do paise de kulchey la the do paise di cha (May you not get tired Khan sahib, go, young boy! Bring tea and cookies for two paisa each).

Dr Shazia’s labour of love dates back to 2005. It is so sad that this greatly enthralling thesis available in book form could not find the needed mention which is owing to her diffidence reinforced by dwindling respect for the written word in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. One would hope readers would read this great work to explore more of one of the liveliest and naughtiest poets of their land.