“I will do such things…
What they are yet I know not — but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.”
Like the lonely king in Shakespeare’s memorable play, Muneer Niazi was sometimes seized, when at cross purposes with things around him, by a terrible rage.
Often it was directed at nothing particular but suggested that he was merely upset by the thought that nobody, including himself, knew how to set things right. The rage bespoke an uncontrollable longing to cleanse the world and make it a better place to live in.
Who, except the incorrigible, would disagree with the sentiment?
Much as he may have raged or blustered at times, the affair was only a passing fit. He was oftener amiable rather than choleric. In fact, there was no gentler and sadder poet around and perhaps no one else so unswervingly committed to poetry. His best work, a crystallisation of sadness, revitalises the language (he wrote in Urdu as well as in Punjabi) and the tradition he writes in revitalises his readers. Only those who are aware of what we have already lost, are losing instant by instant, can share his sadness.
It was fascinating to hear him peel off layer after layer of his memories. The earliest consisted of a storied childhood in Khanpur near Hoshiarpur among the Sivalik hills. A land of lost content, receding constantly, and indeed Muneer had a faraway look in his eyes as he remembered the good old days. What a place it must have been: a lush-green undulating landscape, dotted with dense mango groves and here and these vast stretches of somnolent countryside, the hushed noontide faint with gloomy cooing of doves and pigeons, the regular thump of busy little mills in the distance, the brisk winters, the deep summers and the heavy monsoon rains which led to flash floods.
In short, a pollution free, noise free backwoods peacefulness we can only dream of now. It is possible to read much of Muneer’s poetry as an act of recall of old childhood haunts which tend to become more mysterious and indefinable with the passage of time.
Muneer once told me a touching story about his family. During the rainy season, Khanpur was vulnerable to sudden floods and its inhabitants shifted briefly to nearby Kamalpur which stood on higher ground. Back they went to Khanpur as soon as the flood subsided. Then came the partition of Punjab and the family had no choice but to come over to Pakistan. His maternal grandmother, being very old, had no clear idea of what has happened and believed that the family had moved away to escape the annual flooding. She thought that Montgomery, to which the family had migrated, was in fact Kamalpur, wondered why on earth were they not going back to Khanpur and would constantly disconcert other female inmates by saying “Now this won’t do, girls. You seem to have grown excessively fond of Kamalpur. Don’t’ you think it is high time we went back to Khanpur?”
The itinerant nature of his schooling suggests that he was an indifferent student. A restless young man he never stayed in one place for long. After some early schooling at Khanpur, he went to Montgomery, moved on to Bahawalpur, from where he shifted to Lahore. We next see him in Srinagar and finally in Jullundhar. One reason why he could move so easily from one educational institution to another was that he happened to be a very promising player of hockey. He was a forward and impressed the connoisseurs of the game with his dashing approach. He thought that had he persisted with hockey he may well have been picked eventually for Pakistan.
However, those bitten by the bug of poetry are not allowed to serve two masters simultaneously. The Muses who preside over poetry are a jealous lot. As a rule, they don’t let their votaries get away. Muneer made up his mind very early to be a poet. A brave choice but fouled up by a snag. There was very little money in the vocation and none whatsoever for a beginner.
To try to live as a poet was bound to be very trying but Muneer displayed remarkable tenacity. Of course, he could not help being an old-job-man. He had a go at several occupations, such as publishing a weekly, writing literary columns for magazines and newspapers, songs for the movies and editing a film magazine. He was even asked to act in films. He was a handsome man and some of his admirers thought that he looked a little like Clark Gable. He also dabbled in politics, becoming an executive member of Azad Pakistan Party. But nothing substantial resulted from any of these ventures which had one purpose only, that is, to tide him over for the time being.
“Why did you not continue to write songs for the movies,” I once asked him, “or become an actor or a journalist or a politician? There were so many options and yet you decided to ignore them.” He had a very straightforward answer ready. He said. “I disregarded them because I wished to be independent. When you write songs or become a journalist or an actor you are forced to play second fiddle to someone not your equal. As a poet I write what I will, as I will. I am on my own, free, playing according to my own rules.” Obstinacy, you might say and would be in the right really. Muneer was a very headstrong person and no respecter of reputation except when his own was at stake.
Even those who, for one reason or other, couldn’t come to terms with his poetry were tickled by his witticism. There ought to be a collection of his off-the-cuff remarks. It would make for most enjoyable reading. Here are some I can offhand recall. This one is about someone who had grown too big for his boots. “A scooter fitted out with a lorry’s horn.” And this about someone who always tried to corner the conversation, “A gramophone — all voice, no mind”. And finally a general observation. “A tiger is only a cat. It is the fear of the jungle that has turned it into a tiger.”