January proves to be the cruellest month for Urdu literature. First, maestro Rasa Chughtai breathed his last in Karachi, then poet, columnist, playwright and philanthropist Munoo Bhai in Lahore. And on the evening of January 19, the day Munoo Bhai was laid to rest, the sad news of the demise of Saqi Farooqi came from London. He was suffering from physical ailments, depression and loneliness for the last two years after the death of his wife.
Farooqi was born on December 21, 1936 in Gorakhpur, UP, India. His real name was Qazi Shamshad Nabi Farooqi. He was 11 when partition happened. Understandably, his opinion was not sought when his Muslim parents decided to leave the secular India to settle in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). After seven years his family moved to Karachi, then the capital of Pakistan. Here he stayed for the next 11 years which was a crucial period of his life. He completed his intermediate in science from the Urdu College and graduation from the Karachi University.
It was then that he started writing poetry and developed cordial relations with the literati — the likes of Salim Ahmad, Shamim Ahmad, Athar Nafees, Zehra Nigah et al. It seems Farooqi was not discontented with his literary pursuits but was in a lot of discomfort as far as livelihood issues were concerned. So he decided to leave a city full of friends for a city full of opportunities — London. There, he was able to earn money, enjoy leisure, liberty, and pursue an unorthodox way of life that kept annoying many Urduwallas.
In London, he was fortunate enough to have long friendly sittings with Noon Meem Rashid, Faiz, Zehra Nigah, Iftikhar Arif and others. He started writing poetry in English too. Nailing Dark Storm is the title of his collection of English poems. His Urdu poems have also been translated into English, titled A Listening Game by Frances Pritchett. Piyas Ka Sehra, Raadaar, Behram ki Wapsi, Haji Bhai Pani Wala, Aur Dusri Nazmain aur Ghazlain are his collections of poetry. While Surkh Gulab Aur Badr-e-Munir contains his collected works of nazms and ghazals published in 2005. He produced two collections of critical essays titled Bazgahst o Bazyaft and Hidat Nama-e-Shair. He also wrote his confessions, naming the book Paap Beeti.
By writing in English and having his works translated into English, he wished to reach a wider audience. It could also be understood as him being in the grip of a colonial myth: that only the appropriation of the coloniser’s language can make you express your true and authentic self. But soon he realised it essential to bust the myth by declaring in Bazgasht o Bazyaft (collection of his critical essays) that “the sphere of influence of any writer remains confined to the sphere of his or her language”.
Although we find some great writers — from Homer to Firdousi and Dante to Kalidasa — whose influence surpassed the boundaries of their language and culture and even times, Farooqi’s opinion needs to be read in comparison with another assertion made in the same article. He declares categorically: “no writer becomes able to create a masterpiece until his feet are not set strongly on his land”. In the same vein Farooqi asserts that “Ghazal is our own [genre] like Eid, Chughtai and Lassi”. All migrants or self-exiled writers are, more or less, bound to embrace an ambivalent position towards the indigenous and foreign cultures alike.
He was of the opinion that Rashid, Faiz and Meeraji form a ‘holy trinity of modern Urdu poetry’ in line with three big modern poets of English: Yeats, Pound and Eliot. In the beginning he was great admirer of Faiz. Farooqi narrates how anxiously he used to await Imroz, an Urdu daily from Lahore, which carried Faiz’s poetry. He also appreciated Meeraji for the sensual and sexual elements of his poetry.
But later he criticised both Faiz and Meeraji. He adopted the view that only Rashid deserves to be called a true modernist poet, though he never felt comfortable with Rashid’s Persianised idiom. Reading Farooqi’s criticism and poetry, one soon comes to recognise that the ‘holy trinity of Urdu poetry’ was referred by him only to be deviated from and in a bid to find, assert and realise his own authentic voice in Urdu poetry.
To Farooqi, modernism was inundated with three elements: perception of times, expression of self, and discovery of one’s own language. So every modern poet should aim to avoid the footsteps of their predecessors, and this can only be achieved by critically understanding the themes, styles and ways of perception the precursors adopted.
A new poet’s world emerges out of the ashes of older ones. Modern poets can modify, reinterpret, amend or even mutate tradition but can’t afford to ignore absolutely. Although Farooqi adopted a ruthless style in the criticism of his seniors’ or contemporaries’ poetry, he was honest in his opinions. His love and hate were unambiguous. He never pretended to be what others would expect him to be. He lived a bold, honest and unorthodox life. His critical opinions were embedded in his vast study of classical and modern Urdu poetry.
He hated all kinds of clichés: in life, in poetry, in selection of themes, in craft and in style. We find a kind of diversity in his nazm and ghazal. On one side, there are poems giving room to pangs of estrangement caused by separation from his land, and on the other we come across poems on animals and the down-trodden.
He dedicated Surkh Gulab Aur Badr-e-Munir to his three comrades: Kutta, Billa and Kachwa. His poems ‘Sher Imdad Ali Ka Mendak’, ‘Aik Suar Se’, ‘Khali Boray Mainn Billa’, ‘Makra’ and ‘Mastana Hijra’ offer vivid examples of empathy for creatures that are usually overlooked due to our anthropocentric view of the world. And here he draws close to Majeed Amjad who composed some of the best poems on trees and animals but who couldn’t get a mention in Farooqi’s accounts of modern Urdu poetry.
[I am separated from my land because it was my destiny; and now suffering the agony of my journey]
[The night I don’t return home, some other than me is at my home and sleeps on my bed]
He also composed some unforgettable couplets of ghazals that depict the sensibility of a modern man which is engulfed by displacement, contradictions, paradoxes and all kinds of scepticism.
[Long ago I longed for home, but now there is neither home nor yearning for home]
[My face was shimmering by the hell my heart endured]
[There were dozens of ghosts in my eyes that eclipsed the face of God]