“Who, in your opinion, are the three most popular living Pakistani poets,” Jaun Elia asked me, somewhere in the mid-1990s. On different occasions, he would alter the question to ask the three best ghazal poets, nazm poets or all-time greats. These conversations were a regular feature with him in order for him to gauge public opinion and to keep the conversation going.
“You are the most popular living poet, Jaun bhai,” I said, hoping he would like my answer. He did not, and asked me to be serious.
After a little discussion, Jaun said, “Certainly, Faraz is the most popular living Urdu poet”. Jaun cited Faraz’s health, height, and looks, of course along with his poetry, as the reasons for his popularity, particularly among the youth. We agreed that Munir Niazi was the second most popular poet in that list. I suggested Zafar Iqbal’s name for the third place and Jaun got a little upset at being left out. “Will you include me in the first five,” he asked after a while. “Yes, along with Shahzad Ahmad,” I said unapologetically, enjoying his almost-camouflaged discomfort. As he settled down, he added, “This list becomes more understandable once we consider that it is being prepared in Lahore.”
I remembered this discussion on Jaun Elia’s 15th death anniversary, upon seeing a Facebook post claiming that ‘Jaun Elia was the most popular Urdu poet on social media today’. The claim was built upon search engine data, YouTube video viewings, the rise in quantity of Jaun Elia blogs and his multiplying Facebooks pages among other things. My own observations in recent years further confirm this claim.
Jaun’s universe is certainly expanding, and the pace of this expansion is accelerating with every passing day. Interestingly, Jaun is not only winning readers, in fact, he is winning the hearts of the youth. He is developing a fan base. It will be correct to call them Jaun’s lovers. It’s not only his style of poetry that is being emulated; but even his accent, hairstyle and looks are being copied.
A poet from Faisalabad has changed his name to Ali Zaryoon (Zaryoon is the name of Jaun’s son). A group of music producers, Mastam, is composing Jaun’s poetry. Jaun, in a word, is developing into an iconic figure. A popular poet in his lifetime, it is this last decade that has catapulted Jaun to his present status.
Veteran Urdu writer Anwar Maqsood recently wrote a piece of prose: Jaun Elia’s letter from Heaven. Why did he choose Jaun? “He was a friend, alright. But, in the recent years I have seen a serious upsurge in his popularity. The new generation on the Urdu globe is curious about him, from the US to India. Wherever I go, they ask for Jaun’s poetry books, or books about him,” says Anwar Maqsood. I asked him for his analysis on Jaun’s ascent. Maqsood thinks that “His Che Guevara looks, certainly played a role”.
A more in-depth comment came from Farhat Abdullah, a stage actor and, in his own words, a Shaheed-e-Jaun. “Jaun seems to have truly experienced the existential dilemma of a modern man, and I feel connected to him. He has lived through relationships at a level that I can relate to. I feel, like many of my generation, that this is Jaun’s age. The greats of yesteryears deserve our respect but Jaun is the poet of today. Language is fast becoming a barrier in the case of classic Urdu poets. For us, Ghalib is tough to read, Jaun is not,” says Abdullah. The conversation was concluded with a Jaun’s couplet: “Ab nahin koi baat khatray ki, Ab sabhi ko sabhi sey khatra hai”
There are recent YouTube videos featuring a few dozen youngsters in Delhi passionately talking about Jaun. To understand why they set up that circle, I managed to talk to some of the group members. One of the members, Parag Agarwal, has published Jaun in India. “I have published Jaun Elia’s Gumaan and Lekin in Devanagari script last year. Looking at the response those books received, I will soon publish his remaining books as well,” says Agarwal.
The aforementioned event was organised by poet Shashank Shukla. “I loved Jaun’s poetry. Then I watched his videos on YouTube and fell in love with him in every sense of the word. I read the preface of Shayad and understood why it was described the best piece of Urdu prose. Jaun, actually, is the name of a worldview which I call Jaunism and I am a proud Jaunist,” says Shukla.
From Jaun’s nihilism to narcissism, Shukla enthusiastically discusses various aspects of his poetry. “Jaun’s poetry seems to be my story. Teray baghair mujhay chayn kaisay parrta hai, Meray baghair tujhay neend kaisay aati hai; I can fully relate to the notion. Chand nay taan li hai chadar-e-abr, Abb woh kapray badal rahi ho gi; These are my feelings,” Shukla goes on.
Today, on November 12, Shukla is organising an event in Delhi to commemorate Jaun’s 15th death anniversary.
Khalid Ahmed Ansari, Jaun’s compiler, thinks that one of the major reasons for Jaun’s growing popularity is that Jaun’s six books have been published posthumously: five of poetry (Yani, Lekin, Gumaan, Goya, Rumooz) and one of prose (Farnood). This regular supply of Jaun’s fresh poetry keeps stoking the fire, Khalid thinks.
Safdar Hussain of Alhamd, Jaun’s publisher, says poetry is dead from a publisher’s point of view. “Since around year 2000, I stopped publishing poetry as there were no buyers. Jaun, however, is the only exception. I still publish him, and he sells. Even Ahmad Faraz and Parveen Shakir are dormant as products. I think the web has changed our reading habits, particularly that of poetry,” says Hussain.
Jaun’s recent surge may be understood better if we analyse the change that our society has undergone during the last 50 years or so. Till about the late 1960s, we were living in a society that offered us the option to have idols who weren’t necessarily moneyed. There are numerous examples of people who were considered successful without being rich, from Professor Nazir Ahmad to legendary singer Ustad Salamat Ali Khan. That has changed.
Today, every ‘successful’ individual is rich. Successful poets are rich, successful singers are rich, successful journalists are rich. Jaun perhaps is looked at by our youth as someone breaking that pattern. Surrounded by monsters of materialism gnawing at us, perhaps Jaun comes across as a symbol of our soul; a battered soul trying to resuscitate. Jaun says:
Haar aaee hai koi aas machine, Shaam sey hai bohat udass machine
Yehi rishton ka karkhaana hai, Ik machine aur uss kay paas machine
Eik purza tha woh bhi toot gaya, Ab rakha kya hai teray paas machine
Jaun is perhaps serving another purpose for our youth as well. Both his poetry and looks seem to symbolise freedom — freedom from the straightjacket that society forces you to wear. Room for personal freedom is limited in today’s world. The mainstream media has been allergic to alternative ideas. Social media, likewise, is fast becoming a dangerous place to express your opinions. From classrooms to offices, behaviours are controlled. The space for individuality of thought and action is shrinking. At every step, the coercive instruments of society force one to adopt the herd’s mindset to ensure smooth functioning of the ‘system’.
Today’s youth sees Jaun as someone free of the shackles of society: “Mujhay ab hosh aata ja raha hai, Khuda teri khudai ja rahi hai”. Jaun proudly declared himself a failure. Jaun was a scholar who could discuss two theories of relativity, special and general, for hours, and would not miss any opportunity to dance; literally dance: “Raat din hon kainati mas’alay paish-e-nazar, Aur jub thak jain tou uss shokh ko chayrra karain”.
He never tried to control his moods to appear normal. Combing his hair to look civilised was not his style. Once, in order to celebrate meeting a dear friend after a long time, he climbed a tree and jumped from it. Just like that! “That was an expression of my excitement,” he once told me.
Jaun was not a part of any literary gang, promoting only the gang members. He was a free spirit. Time, certainly, is the best judge: “Hum jo baatain junoon mein baktay hain, Daikhna jawidanian hon gi”.
Jaun Elia’s 15th death anniversary was on November 8.