Desire and rebellion in poetry

September 20, 2020

Anand Alam’s bilingual dialogue with Madho Lal Hussain

Anand Alam’s debut collection of Punjabi poetry presents a playful dialogue with poetic tradition. The hundred or so poems in The Others/Nimaanay, Mastaanay, Te Kujh Pardesi Sawaniaan are the product of what the poet has described as a trans-creative process of engaging with the kafis of sixteenth-century rebel-sufi, Madho Lal Hussain.

Beginning as a project of translating Hussain’s kafis into English, Alam’s readings of Hussain gave way to a queer interpretation of the kafi oeuvre, in particular, drawing thematically on Hussain’s articulation of dissidence and desire. The result is an experimental, multilingual form that speaks to a range of post-colonial concerns, with poems addressing the themes of immigration, belonging, gendered identity, dominant religion and language politics. In particular, Alam’s poetic contribution lies in his sensitivity to sensuous detail in the everyday, composing English and Punjabi poems that explore sexuality and cultural roots together, subjects that have rarely been put into conversation within contemporary Punjabi literary culture.

While many of Alam’s poems echo forms that define the Hussaini kafi, a majority of the poems do not derive their content from Hussain in a direct sense. Rather, a single line or image from each kafi becomes the organising principle for Alam’s trans-creation, a window of the poetic past that frames the reader’s view of the poet’s experiences and musings. For instance, the twin poems, Aapay Ranjha Hoi and The Manner of Calling pay tribute to Hir’s powerful and complete identification with her beloved, Ranjha, a motif that is found in the kafis of both Hussain and Bulleh Shah.

The title of Alam’s Punjabi poem references this entrenched idiom, as does his invocation of the Master in Nestlings and Foreword/Forewarning. However, in Alam’s Buriyan and Unruly Apprentices, the poet deploys a tone of tongue-in-cheek banter to personify Hir’s friends, the satth sahelian (sixty girlfriends) who remain somewhat peripheral and anonymous as characters in the Hir-Ranjha qissa. The poet takes his cue from Hussain’s line in Burian, burian, burian, ve assi burian ve loka (We are bad, bad, bad, folks) to centre secondary characters from the qissa. His subversion of the hero and heroine’s primacy creates a new form of gendered expression that complicates rather than glorifies the protagonists. Thus, Alam’s work presents a fascinating engagement with poetic tradition, embodying an intimate knowledge of Hussain’s verses which is in equal parts a union and a tussle with the structures of feeling in the regional literary formation

This critical thrust in The Others is rooted in Alam’s conscious spotlighting of a counter-institutional reading of Madho Lal Hussain that centres a transgressing sexuality. Hussain the poet and Hussain the historical figure have had a fraught relationship in both mainstream and scholarly discourse. While it is commonly accepted that his lover, Madho, lies buried in the same grave that grants blessings to the masses that throng to his Lahore shrine every year for the Mela Chiraghan, dominant appropriations by organised religion present Hussain as an abstinent, otherworldly sufi, choosing to emphasise institutionalised spiritual practices around the shrine over the rebellious potential of Hussain’s verses. On the other hand, Marxist and progressive interpretations dismiss the narrative and instead celebrate his rejection of the Mughal status quo as embodied in his kafis. However, in both these camps, a studied silence hangs over Hussain’s queer identity, a connection made in Alam’s poetry. This allows us to reconcile the historical figure and poet into a new reading that can speak to contemporary struggles against patriarchy, casteism, and exploitation. The relationship between Hussain, the Muslim weaver, and Madho, an upper-caste Hindu is the nucleus that feeds the poet’s vision of transgressive love, as seen for example, in the poems Khed Tamasha, Kite String Waila Samran Da and Matins. Alam draws on the colloquial, yet intimate tone of the Hussaini kafi, and develops it into a lens that telescopes how the sexual permeates the everyday. Some of his most evocative poems like Matlab and Motive paint seemingly mundane exchanges in quotidian urban settings, yet leap off the page with their sensual expression

“You offered a free ride. Thank the boy/his fourteen minutes of silent company/ that compels you now to keep open/the office window and watch contentedly/ the drizzle-turned-downpour soak up/ the useless contents of your desk.” (72)

Further, in Choohray and Cleaners, Alam draws on Hussain’s Sajjan De Aaye Laggi Chikk Poh to sketch life at the margins of caste, class, and religion. His poem resonates with Hussain’s critique of casteism to present a poignant portrayal of the singular oppression suffered by Dalit Christians, in a society that has deluded itself into believing itself freed from the Brahminnical dogmas of purity and pollution. In poem after poem, Alam conjures the spirit of Hussain’s rebellion in contemporary settings – this is seen again in his witty take on Hussain’s verse Into the bonfire/ Your white shawl/ You’ll be better off/ In a mendicant’s cloak, in Kamm Da Kapra and Possessions. The poem transposes the idea of the nobleman’s ‘white shawl’ onto the strait-laced wardrobe of what could be a corporate executive, commenting on the mechanical drudgery of the eight-hour workday:

“Now he gets so easily frustrated/as he selects the right shirt out of/a stack of plastic-wrapped/dry cleaned garments/hanging in the stuffed closet.”

The linguistic and visual form of the book is also central to its thematic thrust. The pages place the Punjabi and English poems side by side, held together by the thread of a single evocative verse from Hussain. Thus, they are alike, intimately related, yet distinct. The bilingual structure and physical layout outline Alam’s language politics, which rebels against the legacies of colonialism even as it contends with what Fanon described as the Manichean colonial world, which renders a split in the very self of the colonised. He opens significantly with two poems about writing poetry in both an estranged mother tongue and a colonial language:

“Speak I must/Split, broken, bent out of shape…” (Gal karsaan/Maarree moti, udhrree khudree, ralli milli…)

The “split, broken,” and “ralli milli” verses in The Others/ Nimaanay, mastaanay, te kujh pardesi sawaniyaan delight the reader with their mix of cheeky humour, heady desire, and sensitive detail. Anand Alam’s latest offering is a must-read for anyone interested in queer Pakistani writing, Punjabi poetry and Madho Lal Hussain.

The Others/ Nimaanay, Mastanay, 

Te Kujh Pardesi Sawaniyan

Author: Anand Alam

Publisher: Saanjh Publications, 2020

Pages: 210

The writer is a doctoral candidate in   Criticism and Culture at the Department of English, University of Cambridge.

Desire and rebellion in poetry