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The poet who outgrew rhetoric: Mustafa Zaidi remembered

By Zoya Anwer
February 20, 2018

Usually decorated with colourful paintings or portraits, the walls of The Second Floor (T2F) were adorned with art of another kind, poetry of the late Mustafa Zaidi, an unsung Urdu poet who passed away in 1970.

Honouring the life and work of Zaidi and his family, friends and followers gathered at T2F on Saturday evening to remember his larger than life personality, which was smeared following his death in October more than four decades ago in Karachi.

Moderated by writer and critic Asif Farrukhi, the discussion was taken further by his daughter, Ismat Zaidi, his cousin, Nusrat Zaidi, actor Khaled Ahmad, family friend Nargis Saleem and poet Iftikhar Arif.

Starting the dialogue, Zaidi’s niece, Saba Zaidi, read out an excerpt from a text written by M Tufail following the untimely demise of the poet.

The excerpt narrated an incident during a severe winter when Zaidi stepped out of a cinema hall and was leaving in his car when a man appeared in front of the vehicle. “He realised that the man wasn’t properly covered. Zaidi drove back and searched for the same man in the crowd, and gave him the coat he was wearing, after finally finding him.”

‘A loving father, a dear friend’

Shedding light upon Zaidi’s personal life, Ismat, who was still a child when Zaidi passed away, said people pitied her but she felt she was very lucky to have shared timeless moments with her father.

“Even though it was a very short time of my life, I was amongst the very few people who have had the opportunity to live such a life, to share and learn my life with someone so loving, so generous and his own way a genius,” she shared.

She narrated that her parents met in London and Zaidi proposed to her mother, with the latter taking a break for a year and spending time in Germany with her family.

“My grandmother wanted them to take a year and see if they still wanted to go ahead with marriage. My father kept writing to her and those letters are full of affection and details of his routine and ended on the note regarding her decision. My mother agreed eventually and she remembers those 12 years as the happiest years of her life,” Ismat recounted.

She said that if someone harmed Zaidi’s friends or family members, he would instantly take action: “So much to the point that he harmed himself but he just didn’t care.”

Referring to the last years of his life, which were turbulent due to his removal from his post as a civil servant during the period of dictator Yahya Khan, Ismat said she was nine when she went to Germany with her mother and brother. “He wasn’t allowed to leave the country and was very lonely. He just wanted to be reunited with his family,” she said.

Reading a letter written to her brother, she said that he felt that the country was increasingly interfering with the freedom to even think, and he felt hopeless in living in a place which had very little common with them: “It is better to be poor and respectable than live dishonourably in comfort.”

Nargis Saleem, whose father, Dr Muhammad Umer, was a dear friend of Zaidi during their posting in Jhelum and Sahiwal, said that the poet’s wife, Vera, had become so proficient in Urdu that she didn’t use a single word of English despite her European descent.

“He used to have a cricket pitch in his back lawn, and he along with my three brothers and his son would play matches there. My brother recounted that even though he was playing with children, he would take the game as seriously as being played with adults,” she reminisced.

She added that he introduced them to poetry, and posted letters and postcards to her father when Zaidi went to London on a visit while Umer remained in Sahiwal. Sharing a letter from July 1970, just a few months before Zaidi’s death, she read that he was living in extreme conditions and couldn’t even afford a single phone call.

“He wrote that he was deeply aggrieved about his family in Germany and couldn’t afford the fee of the application form and passport. ‘My children have been orphaned during the life of their father, he wrote. The state wasn’t ready to give him a passport and despite sheer isolation he wanted to struggle,” she said.

Literary greatness

Shedding light upon Zaidi’s poetry, Arif said that it was true that he wasn’t given the due acknowledgement but this tradition wasn’t a novel one and many great poets ceased to exist because they weren’t owned by both literati and society alike.

He recounted that he once recited Zaidi’s marsiya, adding some lines of his own not knowing that the poet was ‘matoob’ or banned. Referring to the allegations against Zaidi regarding his services to the state as well as to his private life, Arif quoted Ezra Pound that “instead of discussing about painters, paintings should be a topic of discussion”.

He said that names like Makhdoom Moinuddin, Firaaq Gorukhpuri and many others were now forgotten and this was often done with poets who stayed in India after Partition, like Majaaz. “Sardar Jaffri did attempt to remember but poets like Akhtar-ul-Iman and Majeed Amjad weren’t honoured either,” he pointed out.

Speaking about his writing style, Arif said that Zaidi employed the usage of physicality in his poetry which was often used against him owing to the scandals about him. “He was greatly inspired by Josh Malihabadi but Mustafa Zaidi outgrew rhetoric. Rehtoric near to poetry is not poetry; rather, it’s a part of it, and Zaidi managed to do just that with his proficiency of language,” he said.

Arif felt that revision of movements was perhaps strongly needed, and recounted that the draft of the Progressive Writers’ mandate was never revised. “I am not talking about the death of Marxism but its establishment and institution. An idea doesn’t die but revisiting is always needed,” he said.

He felt that during those times all poets agreed on the literariness of the pieces produced. “They used to agree on the literariness of the literature and it was later that it was reduced to food, clothing and shelter. No one is questioning the importance of latter in poetry as long as it fulfils the literariness. Shairi ko behr-e-adab pe hona chahye,” he stressed.

Speaking about Zaidi’s approach to values, Arif said that the poet witnessed the martial laws of Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan, but he never compromised on his ideology. “It was a blessing in disguise that he couldn’t witness the next two, which were far worse than the rest.

“The honesty in his poetry is remarkable; his poem ‘Akhri Baar Milo’ fits this aspect. He had many personas as a lover but he mustn’t be dubbed as a womanizer. He treasured life and the powerful amalgamation of modernism and the classical idiom in his poetry proves his brilliance,” Arif explained.

He also recited Zaidi’s poetry, and perhaps this couplet was a premonition for the world which moved away from his work and latched onto the allegations about his death:

Meri nigaah main arzi adalatain kya hain!

Ye shairi meri sab se bari adalat hai.