Creating a multiverse

Iftikhar Arif’s new volume of poems testifies to his command over the art of poetry

The art of poetry lies in exploring how the ensemble of a few words yields a sort of multiverse, i.e. harmonised music, both descriptive and metaphoric image(s), deeply felt emotions, layered meanings or states of mind, a particular human voice telling something to someone and a slush of suggestiveness. Not all poets are fortunate and talented enough to create such a multiverse. Most poets initiate a universe instead of a multiverse. Their poetry is either melodious with descriptive imagery or impregnated with abstract thought. In classical terms, they either prioritise meaning or truth to beauty or vice versa. Iftikhar Arif’s recently published Bagh-i-Gul-i-Surkh (A garden of red roses), a slim volume, testifies to his masterful command over the art of poetry. He accords equal importance to truth and beauty.

The title of the book is taken from the first line of a matla (first couplet of a ghazal) in the book. As Arif mentions in the last couplet, the ghazal is inspired by Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980), a modern Iranian poet who has also been called a modern ’arif (mystic). In his long poem Sada-i-Pa-i-Aab (The sound of water’s footfall), Sepehri seems to be redefining his religious identity with these lines: “Man Musalmanam/ Qibla am yak Gul-i-Surkh” (I am a Muslim, and a red rose is the focus of my devotion). He looks towards nature to seek spiritual enlightenment and aesthetic ecstasy alike. Nature seems to have served as a foundational — and archaic principal in Sepehri’s poetry that had been erased from human psyche in modern industrial age. Gul-i-Surkh is a metaphor for vigour, vitality, ebullience, and splendid beauty — foundational and archaic characteristics of being. Iftikhar Arif’s inspiration from Sepehri’s poetry seems to confine to foundational principal, though for Arif, foundation of being is fundamentally religious, cultural, social and in certain contexts political, rather than natural. Hence, Arif appears disinclined to set up nature for his focus. To him, his religious identity is not problematic, even as he finds his nation entangled in innumerable problems. His earlier books Mehr-i-Doe Neem, Harf-i-Baryab, Jahan-i-Maloom, Shehr-i-Ilm kay Drwazay Par and Kitab-i-Dil-o-Dunya speak of these entanglements.

It is not just the titles of his books that evince Arif’s predilection towards a kind of classicism that features, among other things, the use of Persian idiom or Persianised phrases; the overall poetics of his ghazal, too, are deeply rooted in what can be termed as neoclassicism. However, this neoclassicism does not render him alienated or apathetic to the modern South Asian history. Instead, his neoclassical literary approach might be taken as a well-wrought, pitched creative strategy to deal with the intellectual and literary challenges ensuing from a particular notion of modernity South Asia had to embrace during and after the colonial era. Of course, there are a few couplets on the solitude and alienation that speak of a modernist sensibility, which is the hallmark of his contemporaries Irfan Siddiqui, Saqi Faruqi, Ahmad Mushtaq and Zafar Iqbal.

For instance:

Khwab ki tarha bikhar janay ko ji

chahta hae/Aisi tanhai keh mar janay

ko ji chahta hae

[I wish to diffuse like a dream. I am

suffering such loneliness that I wish to die].

We find one in the book under review as well:

Kabhi mein saray zamany ko muyssar aya/ Kabhi yun bhi hua, khud ko bhi

hasil na hua mein

[There were occasions when anybody could see me; there were occasions also when I was unable to access myself].

His poetry speaks of a life engrossed in a perpetual quest: a quest for home, for lost things, culture, people, places; for his origins; and for livelihood. Hence displacement (hijrat), homecoming and talash-i-rizq (pursuit for livelihood) are a few of his major themes. It is significant that the three themes are intertwined, giving rise to a big psychological dilemma. Joining hijrat and rizq was, in the psychological realm, an attempt to bracket the sacred and the profane. This is how we can account for couplets like the following:

Shikam ki aag liay phir rahi hae shehr ba shehr/ Sag-i-zamana hein, ham kia hmaari hijrat kia

[It is the fire in the belly that drives us across the world. Otherwise, we are worldly dogs, we do not matter, nor does our displacement].

Arif left Lucknow for Pakistan in 1965, at the age of 23, when his formative years had passed. Lucknow has been a great seat of (a composite) culture, literature and azadari (the tradition of mourning for martyrs of Karbala). So, he did not leave behind just a land but also a civilisation. We have memories of places and people. Memories might fade or grow dull or turn into nightmares, depending on our choice of ways to deal with our present. Unlike places and people, a civilisation refuses to be taken as an object. It is ingrained in our perceptual, intellectual and emotional makeup. Hence, Arif has the urge again and again to pronounce his ties to Tehzeeb-i-Lucknow.

Mein aaj bhi hoon usi lahja-o-lughat ka aseer/ Namood karti hae tehzeeb-i-Lucknow mujh mein

[I remain a captive to Lucknow’s dialect and diction. In me the civilisation finds an expression].

The hint of vanity (t’alli) here is stylistic; what the poet intends to emphasise is that he is a product as well as a guardian of the civilisation. Moreover, he asserts that he is uniquely qualified to narrate the story of bygone days, vanishing manners, waning style, disappearing people, deserted places and of unrestrained passion — a favourite theme of Urdu ghazal.

Qissa-i-ahl-i-junoon koi nahin

likhay ga/ Jaisay ham likhtay hein, yun

koi nahin likhay ga

[No one will write the story of the mad lovers, except me; for no one can write it the way I can].

In another ghazal, he laments that no muhafiz-i-rawish-i-raftgan (guardian of the ways and manners of the departed) is to be found. It needs to be stressed that Arif does not unnecessarily glorify the past. He just reminisces about a cultural past. Past is sometimes glorified not just because of historical reasons but also for psychological ones. The more helpless one finds oneself in coping with the present day challenges, the more one indulges in venerating the bygone days and their culture. Arif is not unaware of the perils of getting caught in a glorified notion of the past. He seems to remind himself that there is a thin line between being nostalgic or reminiscing, occasionally, and being caught in the talisman of the past. Being nostalgic off and on is not only refreshing but also spurs the creativity. It provides a short break from the tyranny of the immanence of the present. Some of the best pieces of love poetry have sprouted from cherishing a nostalgic-melancholic mood. The book under review carries a few couplets of the kind. But when an imagination is wholly captive to a past and its imagined glories, one begin, on one hand, to wish for the revival of the past, and on the other, sets out to curse the present instead of meeting its challenges. Arif lets his imagination go back to remote Muslim past seeking blessings and inspiration on one hand and to affirm his national identity on the other — this accounts for his devotional poetry, which forms a major part of this book — but he does not shut his eyes to the present and its challenges.


Now, a few words about his devotional poetry. Embedded in personal beliefs, it is peppered with a national ethos. Its popularity in Urdu is essentially a post-colonial phenomenon, a part of the move to reclaim the past — and national identity — which had had to suffer an epistemological violence at the hands of colonisers and orientalists. However, devotional poetry has had to meet a big challenge — posed by none other than poetry itself. Poetry, as well as other kinds of art, originate from and speak to the human realm. A man belonging to some other belief system finds it difficult to empathise with the devotional sentiment pervading the verses let alone cherish the beauty and meaning of such poetry. Arif tries to meet this challenge, though not always successfully, by invoking metaphoric significance of events and phrases primarily related to religion. We know the metaphors are not universal but metaphoric perception is universal. He is the only modern Urdu poet who deftly uses the metaphor of Karbala in his ghazal in a perspective that goes beyond the boundaries of faith, race and nation. This couplet stands out:

Hussain tum nahin rahay, tumhara ghar nahin raha/Magar tumhary ba’d zalmaon ka dar nahin raha.

[Hussain you were martyred and your household was erased; but since then the oppressors’ might does not terrify people like it used to do].

In Bagh-i-Gul-i-Surkh, too, there are a few fine couplets that show how adroitly Arif composes his devotional poetry.

A major part of his poetry appears to have been a shehr ashob (lament for a whole land). In Bagh-i-Gul-i-Surkh we find a plethora of verses that describe how barren and deserted our present has become.

Shehr ashob kay likhnay ko jigar

chahiay hae/ Mein hi likhoon to likhoon,

koi nahin likhay ga.


Yeh zakhm, yeh zakhmon ka tamasha nahin hota/ Deevar na girti to yeh

malba nahin hota


Aankh ki nami bhi raigaan/ dil ki roshni bhi raigaan/ nazm-i-Faiz jins-i-karobar/

Nasr-i-Yousafi bhi raigan

The key to how deep the sense of loss is lies in reflecting on why the poet asserts that the works of Faiz and Yousufi have been a waste. Faiz and Yousufi are not only two of the giants of Pakistani Urdu literature, but also canonical figures. He says that their works have been reduced to consumer items (jins-i-karobar). Backed by capitalistic globalisation, consumerism has metamorphosed everything, including art, into something that can be showcased, purchased, exchanged and consumed for recreation. This commodification is end of aesthetics, signifying value, and power to move that defines any canonical literary text. This has caused faqirs (mendicants and artists alike) in the words of Arif to run after kkilat-i-zar (golden robes) and titles. Beside utilitarianism, a certain extremism that informs our polity, accounts for the redundancy of art in our society. However, as Arif reminds us, each new book brings us a new dream.

Ik kitab aur nai ai naiy khwaab kay aaath/ Ik chiragh aur jala hujla-i-darveshi


[A new book is out with a new dream; there is one more lamp lit in the

mendicant’s hut].

So, let’s welcome new books.


Author: Iftikhar Arif

Publisher: Maktaba-i-Daniyal, 2021

Pages: 157

Price: Rs 650

The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer, Professor of Urdu at PU and author of Urdu Adab Ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid , Jadeediat aur Nau Abadiyat and Aik Zamaana Khatm Huwa Hai

Creating a multiverse