My son died on July 30, 2009. We had named him Zain Ahmad Awan and we used to call him Gora Chitta Pathan (Pretty White Pakhtun). He died on Thursday afternoon at 2:17pm and I with his mother was on his bedside. He opened his eyes after weeks, looked at us for a split second and bade us the final farewell. He had gone when I looked to meet his eyes. I broke down and when I recovered momentarily after few months I wrote an epitaph: Tu jamya taañ jamme’aañ maindiãñ kankaañ maindya putra (When you were born my son, we had bumper crops that year).
Next day when a friend’s wife came to console us and on inquiry from our four-year-old son, she told him that Zain has gone to the almighty God and I have just come over to tell you that I have met him and he is very happy over there. My grieving son stood up, hurriedly picked up his best toys and handed over to his aunt saying: “Please give these to him when you next visit him and tell him I am feeling so lonely.” I was drained and depleted. I wrote another epitaph, then another but words failed me and so did poetry, not once but over and over again.
Poetry had failed Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney too when he tried to remember his cousin Colum McCartney. Colum was killed in Northern Ireland by the loyalist paramilitaries in random sectarian assassinations in 1975. Heaney wrote twice about his murder. First in his poem The Strand at Lough Beg (Field Work; 1979), he started with the sequential details of the killing: “Blazing out of the ground, snapping and squealing /What blazed ahead of you? A faked road block? /The red lamp swung, the sudden brakes and stalling /Engine, voices, heads hooded and the cold-nosed gun? /Or in your driving mirror, tailing headlights /That pulled out suddenly and flagged you down.” Then Heaney himself appeared in an effort to resurrect the bloodied body of his cousin: “I turn because the sweeping of your feet /Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees /With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes, /Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass /And gather up cold handfuls of the dew /To wash you, cousin. /I dab you clean with moss /Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud. /I lift you under the arms and lay you flat /With rushes that shoot green again, I plait /Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.
Heaney later felt guilty that he had aesthetically beautified his cousin’s murder in the above elegy. He had softened cruelty and sentimentalised a brutal act. He realised that there can never be a lyrical response to violence and poetry can’t become a hiding place. Therefore, he wrote again after nineteen odd years in Station Island, VIII (Station Island; 1984) blaming himself in the voice of his murdered cousin. He wrote: “I had to head back straight away to Dublin, /guilty and empty, feeling I had said nothing /and that, as usual, I had somehow broken covenants, and failed an obligation./ [....] /Ah poet, lucky poet, tell me why /what seemed deserved and promised passed me by?’ /[....] /And then I saw a face /he had once given me, a plaster cast /of an abbess, done by the Gowran master, /mild-mouthed and cowled, a character of grace./’Your gift will be a candle in our house.’ /But he had gone when I looked to meet his eyes /and hunkering instead there in his place /was a bleeding, pale-faced boy, plastered in mud. /The red-hot pokers blazed a lovely red /in Jerpoint the Sunday I was murdered,’ /he said quietly. ‘Now do you remember? /’You saw that, and you wrote that — not the fact. /You confused evasion and artistic tact. /The Protestant who shot me through the head /I accuse directly, but indirectly, you /who now atone perhaps upon this bed /for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew /the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio /and saccharined my death with morning dew.””
Pablo Neruda failed too when he tried to detail horrors of the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) to which he was an eye witness. He was working in the Chilean Embassy in Spain when the war began. He fails to console but with his tears and intensity, he constructs a new poetic idiom against organised violence and planned betrayal. Let’s grieve our Peshawar, our sons and daughters with our Chilean mourner in his heart piercing lament “I’ll Explain Some Things”: “You’ll ask, Where are the lilacs? /And the philosophy dreamy with poppies? /And the rain which kept beating out /Your words, filling them /With water-specks and birds?? /I’m going to tell you everything that happened to me. /[……]/ Raúl, do you remember? /Frederico, do you still remember /Under the ground? /Do you remember my house with the balconies /Where the June light soaked your mouth with /The taste of flowers? /Brother! Brother! /[……] /Then one morning flames/ Came out of the ground / Devouring human beings. /From then on fire, /Gunpowder from then on, /From then on blood. /Bandits with gold rings and duchesses /Bandits with black monks giving their blessing /Came across the sky to kill children /And through the streets, /the blood of children flowed /Simply, like the blood of children.”
Neruda kept sobbing: “Generals /Traitors /Look at my dead home /Look at the broken Spain /From each dead house /Burning metal shoots out /Instead of flowers. /[……] /You ask “Why doesn’t your poetry /Speak to us of dreams and leaves /Of the great volcanoes of your native land?” /Come /See the blood along the streets /Come see /The blood along the streets /Come see the blood /Along the Streets!” (Translation: Jodey Bateman)
However, No Shah Hussain, Rahman Baba, Shah Latif, Seamus Heaney or Pablo Neruda can console a parent. No art in the world can describe the pain and sorrows of a child’s loss. The loss was immense on December 16 in Peshawar. No words can heal the bereaved families of our young kids who were failed by all of us, the state and the society. I have never felt that helpless and hurt ever. I am a father, a poet, who has been orphaned with the deaths of his sons. Even mother Akhmatova is unable to heal my bleeding homeless soul: “No, it’s not I, it’s someone else who’s suffering, /I couldn’t take that, and the thing that happened, /Cover it over with black cloth /And take away the lanterns… Night.” She kept consoling with tears flowing down her cheeks: ‘Stand, less alive than those who’d breathed their last.’