The bel-giri tree of Urdu literature

April 14, 2024

A tribute to M Salim-ur Rahman on his 90th birthday

The bel-giri tree of Urdu literature


riting on social media about two weeks ago, one of Urdu’s foremost writers described Savera, the literary journal, as a cowshed and one of its co-editors as an ‘aged man.’ The co-editor is none other than Muhammad Salim-ur Rahman, who turned 90 on April 12.

Salim-ur Rahman has been recognised as a discerning scholar of Urdu literature in both Pakistan and India since the 1960. He has been sensitive to the new realities and challenges as they have emerged and adept at describing and analyzing those. As a conscientious person, he has believed in change. His writing has never been marred by sentimentality or a disproportionate reaction to modernism, existentialism or progressivism. The deliberate poise of his writing style belies the speed with which he reads all kinds of literature.

The literary world around him has been marked by much noise about linguistic forms and existential problems. However, he has chosen to be aloof from it: he has been with everybody so to say and yet all alone. His name was once mentioned in the same breath as his contemporaries Balraj Menra and Shamim Hanafi; today it appear to be in a league all his own. I reflect on how this has happened and am forced to conclude that the answer lies in the scholarly discipline and the stature that has built for him.

Salim-ur Rahman has a contented life, at the level of thought and feeling. But how does contentment drive one to read up more and more? It seems that one of the secrets of his greatness is that he reads so many journals and that he reads each of those so thoroughly. There is no better resource for comprehending the literary and cultural landscape of one’s time than the journals.

The first thing authored by him I remember reading was the poem Zaalim Badshahon Kay Liye Nazm (A Poem for Oppressive Kings). It was published in 1979 (a crucial year for the Pahlavi monarch of Iran who was overthrown by a popular revolution that year). There was a time many contemporaries could recite this poem by heart. Here is an excerpt from the second part:

Chaaquon ki jis shafaq mein

Tum kisi chaqmaaq kay manind chatkhay

Voh tumhari aasteenon aur tumhari khetiyon mein

Aag ban kar lahlahai

(The twilight of the knives

In which you crackled like flint,

Wound through your sleeves and

Through your cropped fields)

The twilight of knives is an unfamiliar expression and particularly savage. Here the twilight has not changed its colour and yet alongwith the knives and the flint it has changed its role. The thing that wound through the sleeves and fields as flames is not a tale unique to a single era. The mood of the poem is close to ambiguity but the ambiguity seems to be putting a thick curtain on the oppression. Suddenly, a gust dislodges the curtain and the thickness assumes new meaning.

Now read this stanza:

Aaye din tum ko salaami dainay vaali

Kharishi shah-surkhiyon mein nishtaron ki naik-naami

Siren aur seetiyan, nas-bandiyan

Darsi kutub kay har safhay par

(Every day you received a the guard of honour

Of itchy headlines praising the

Sirens and whistles, sterilisations;

Upon every page of the textbooks)

Can one identify the oppressive kings in this tale? It is instructive to note that the itchy headlines mentioned here have such a long life. The technique has not been used by anyone else. The pages of textbooks too say a lot. This fact has become more relevant today than ever before.

Salim-ur Rahman has been recognised as a discerning scholar of Urdu literature in both Pakistan and India since the 1960.

Then there is a short story by Salim-ur Rahman titled Siberia, that I must mention. Here is an excerpt from it:

“Thinking that after work he will have to pass many such roads, he became dispirited. He looked at his pants where there were already many stains from the bottom to the knees. He remembered a story in which a man turned to stone first upto his toes, then to the knees, then the waist and then the neck. He tried to see himself in the story by making himself stand in that person’s shoes but could not feel anything.”

This is a story from a period when criticism of short story was getting very complicated and it was given various names.

When Balraj Menra later published Siberia in his journal, Shu’ur in July 1979, he argued that the spilling of water from an aluminium glass upon the table by Din Muhammad was not some extraordinary event. Instead it was a declaration that the water being spilt upon the table was a natural occurrence. But then Usman was told to drink the water. In the meantime Shams-ud Din’s thought of the cold. Natural science describes the relationship between snow and the Ice Age and how weathers change periodically.

There is no noise in this short story nor an attempt to make anything unnecessarily sensational. Life walks close to the ground, and the language that gives this life a voice begins to walk close to the ground.

Readers will be delighted to learn that Salim-ur Rahman’s short stories have been put together and published recently. The publication was necessary to preserve and document Salim-ur Rahman’s short-story writing technique.

An important work among Salim-ur Rahman’s writings is the prose translation of Sarmad’s rubaiyaat (quatrains). It has also been translated into Devanagari script. The translation provide a clue to how his gaze has gone past Dara Shikoh and fixed upon Sarmad.

Salim-ur Rahman once made a selection of Pakistani poems for the Me’yaar journal. Menra and Shahid Mahli used to compile this journal. In his introduction, he wrote:

“Talking to oneself is the greatest part of new poems, irrespective of whether the melody is loud or low. This dialogue with oneself is not merely a sign of being preoccupied with oneself. It is a stylistic essential in an era in which the noise is increasing. The air has become polluted with the agitation and abstinence of innumerable voices and pictures. The search for better than the best is inoperative at the bottom of the modern poet’s anxiety, curiosity and love of experimentation. Instead, they want to draw a protective circle of verse around the loneliness within them so that some part of their ego should survive and the attest to the unending purity of the heavens and the earths.”

I leave an account of my time spent with the translations of Salim-ur Rahman’s Gumshuda Cheezon Kay Darmiyan (Amid Lost Things) for another occasion. For now, I wish to take the reader’s leave with a few verses from another luminous poem. This one is on Salim-ur Rahman sahib by his longtime friend and collaborator Riaz Ahmad. It is called Bel-giri Kay Darakht Kay Liye!


Aapka phal

Arsaa-i-daraz say kha raha hoon


Iss inayat ka behad shukriya!

(I Have been eating your fruit

Since a long time


Thanks for this kindness!)

The writer is an award-winning researcher and translator based in Lahore and president of the Progressive Writers’ Association. He may be reached at He tweets at @raza_naeem1979

The bel-giri tree of Urdu literature