To read Sarmad Sehbai is often to eavesdrop on a particular kind of male narrative. Antic and cocksure, it privileges transgression over conformity, desire over duty, rebellion over acceptance. To speak of Sehbai’s poetry is to speak of the man himself, and for him there is really no distinction. Unlike W.B. Yeats, who famously said that a man had to choose between the perfection of the work and the perfection of the life, Sehbai wants it all, and he urges us to forge ourselves from our dreams.
Mah-e-Uriyan is an ecstatic tribute to the deep interior passion of the lover. The idea of being in love with a nameless being inside your own heart may seem odd in our culture. But at the root of the metaphor of lover and beloved are two fundamental human experiences: a yearning, like some yeast fermenting beneath the skin, for a fulfilment, a completeness; and at the same time, the prior intimation of a union that you sense is already, somehow, your natural state.
Longing and belonging: a whole lifetime can be defined by the tension between these two.
In the manner of all true lovers, Sehbai is wholly unapologetic about the fire in his chest. All he can do is to sing about it. If you have even the embers of such a fire in you, this book may be a match to kindle that interior flame. But Sehbai is willing to fall off the edge, to follow the longing down to its source. He falls deep down its subterranean origins and discovers there’s a fullness that others may find in their own way through the mirror of the world.
Jheel ke kinarey par / Shaam kaiseri choli / Khol kar nikalti hai / Sanwali si uriyani / Lehr lehr chalti hai.
Mah-e-Uriyan is a brilliantly corporeal book, focused with lapidary clarity on the transfiguration of quotidian experience, its appetites, its unassuageable longings. From the first ghazal through many free verse poems and kafis, the book’s immediacy is rooted in the day-to-day life of a man living on the edge; crossing, transforming, and transgressing boundaries; always paying extreme attention which is the apotheosis of compassion, which is an act of love.
Mah-e-Uriyan is, in the main, love poems in which the focus, charged with desire and with memory, on the lover’s body, is necessarily also a focus on mutability, on the body’s other transformations, on the minutiae of illness, on the fever and anxiety, altered consciousness, self-abandonment, which sometimes cruelly resemble the extasis of sex, sex which is present in memory and in desire, which remains a creative force.
The tutelary gods of this book appear to be Mir and Ghalib, and to complete this formula, what Sehbai contributes is an acute sense of story and social density. Magical transformations, philosophical speculations, and yearnings are also elements of this luminous collection.
Meray mah-e-sukhan ke gird Sarmad/Hai koi hala-e-ibhaam jaisey.
In spite of the pathos, Sehbai’s poetry as a whole gives the impression of strength — a strength which is often refined to delicacy. Even in the verses of desolation, the note of heroic resistance, or stoic acceptance, or willing surrender to the higher necessity, is more marked than the tone of weak self-pity. We seldom miss the roll, the rise, and the creation.
If we take plumage to mean poetic qualities symbolised by the distinctively patterned wing-feathers of some great storm-fowl in flight — remembering that wings are by function integral to the whole muscular body — the metaphor will serve to introduce a few more remarks on the particular stresses and splendours of Sehbai’s style. His reaction against the tame conventionality of most of the verse of his age is violent and indeed revolutionary. He wants a stronger rhetoric of verse, and envisions the need to get back to the naked thew and sinew of the Urdu language.
Time has removed the fallacy that his early poetry was merely ‘experimental’, brilliant in patches but marred by numerous ‘tricks’ and ‘errors of taste’ which he virtually regretted. True, there are many bold devices in the new offering, but most of them are successful; he may like to confess to the vice of ‘erring’, but largely as a concession to the more finical taste of his critics. New readers will always find Sehbai strange — at first; but the obscuring novelty of mode is no serious obstacle if we keep our mind fixed on the core of thought and emotion: we shall recognise the phonal devices and grammatical liberties as the tone colours and unifying ligaments of experience contemplated.
Sehbai’s skill in reducing a number of thoughts to what is almost one emotional point may be heard in the painful claustrophobic tension of the following:
Aik shauq-e-rayegan thehra hai dil ki aakhirat /Hum pe goya aqda-e-jurm-o-saza khulney ko hai
Secondly, there is the magic of diction, his superb refurbishing and regrouping of the diverse elements in a richly composite and flexible language so as to make all new beautiful to individuation. His power of forcibly and delicately giving the essence of things in nature owes much to his intense feeling for words. In his coining and compounding he goes back to primordial word-making process:
Thirdly, we must note the variety, originality, and organic function of his imagery. Whether he is writing with controlled intensity, or the urgency of feeling is emitting his sense-perceptions in a quick-fire of metaphor, his images may be childlike and simple (Teray gorey paon / badan ki mandairon pe urti hui fakhtaayen), or dynamic and tense (Dil ki aadat hai ke pehley raiza raiza jorna / Aur phir tarteeb main rehna, magar bikhrey huey), or a vivid inescaping of natural forces (Mausam jis ke dhani kaprey / Lazzat ki khushboo se tar hain / Jis ke khuley huey balon mein / junglee teetaron ke par hain); now delicate and fanciful (Uri woh zulf to seeney pe thehri / Hawa ne bhi kiya aaram jaisey), now cosmic and transcendental (Aaj bhi maut se wafa na hui / Aaj ka din bhi rayegan guzra), now profoundly metaphysical (Thi jan-e-girifta ko dam-e-marg rihayi / Is zindan-e-khaki mein faqat aik hi dar tha).
Lastly, Sehbai’s unique command of rhythm, at once flexible and strictly disciplined, must be acknowledged in conjunction with his original handling of the ‘bait’ form, an instrument from which he has evoked a music of constantly varying tone and harmonic range, according to the needs of mood, emotion, and theme. The intricacies and subtleties are the length and depth of the furrow made by his passion.
His pedantry and his obscenities — the rock and the loam of his Eden — make us more certain that one who is but a man like us all has felt God.