‘You cannot separate morality from literature’

September 5, 2021

‘You cannot separate morality from literature’

Somebody once asked Josh Malihabadi who the greatest Urdu poet of all times was. He promptly replied: Nazir Akbarabadi. This, he said, was on account of how the common man related to the poet. The relationship was established through his use of language. Anwar Masood – humorist, poet, essayist and translator – shares the same echelon as Akbarabadi who “takes words from people’s mouths and returns them to their ears.”

Born in 1935 in Gujrat, Anwar Masood has the distinction of being perhaps the only poet who writes with equal ease in Urdu, Punjabi and Farsi. He has a master’s degree from Oriental College, Lahore, and has authored more than a dozen books, including Meli Meli Dhoop, a book of Urdu qit’aat dedicated to environmental control and ecology.

In a poem addressed to Dilip Kumar, written upon his visit to Pakistan, he adumbrated his point of view about acting. “I said to him no one knows what happens the next moment. But the one who has a scripted goal already knows. To play out the already known as if one didn’t is acting.

Waqeya yeh hai keh agla saneha un-ginat asrar kay pardon main hai/ Lekin ik filmi kahani kay har ik kirdar ko apni sari dastan maloom hai/ Waqeya yeh hai keh iss maloom ko yun basar karna keh goya har ghari mastoor hai/ Jiss hunarmandi say tu nay tae kiya – yeh kathin jaada, yeh mushkil marhala.

In this interview with The News on Sunday, he shares the story of his life. Excerpts:

The News on Sunday (TNS): Being born in Gujrat and brought up in Lahore shortly before Partition, what are your recollections of your childhood?

Anwar Masood (AM): The last poem in my book Ik Dareecha, Ik Charagh is called Meri Pehli Nazm. I wrote it when I realised that I had lost something; that something had been snatched away [from me]. I wrote this poem about the childhood that had slipped out of my hands. The circumstances were such that I could not participate in most of the childish activities when I was young. Right from the beginning, an air of solemnity prevailed. My father who used to run a business in Lahore had suffered a huge financial loss. Overwhelmed by its effect on his personality, he retired to a sufi lifestyle. The entire burden of my education, my siblings’ education and upbringing fell on my young shoulders. Therefore, I did not enjoy my childhood like most children do. I wanted to play like them but there were many reminders of the harsh reality in my surroundings. Two motivations spurred me on: one that I would become a teacher, and the other that I would be a poet. I loved to study. Whenever I was being taught, I would think to myself that what the teacher had just said should have been said differently. There was already a teacher hiding in me.

That had always been my passion even though my parents wanted me to become a doctor. I had no interest in natural sciences. Initially, I was a student of medical science but poetry was ingrained in me – my maternal grandmother and my mother were poets – they used to live in Mohallah Imambara in Bagh Sardaran in Rawalpindi. I used to enjoy eating loquats there.

TNS: How did you start taking interest in poetry?

AM: My maternal grandmother and my paternal uncle used to write poetry, both in Urdu and Punjabi. I used to be a great admirer of Iqbal while still a child. I must be in the 6th grade studying at Watan High School on Brandreth Road in Lahore, when, on one hot day, I started walking towards Iqbal’s last resting place. While I was sitting on the steps outside the Badshahi Masjid, I saw a cloudlet move towards the poet’s grave; it began to drizzle. I observed that not a drop had fallen outside the grave’s limits. At that point, I recalled a couplet written by Iqbal for his mother:

Aasman teri lehed per shabnam afshani karay/ Sabza-i-naurusta iss ghar ki nigehbani karay

My grandmother’s kalam was published by the title Gul-o-Gulzar. I recall that it cost one rupee. Its preface was written by Altaf Parvez. Most of the kalam was naatiya, including manqabat and letters to brothers and sisters in verse. It was printed by the same press that used to print the Ta’meer newspaper from Rawalpindi that was edited by Naseem Hijazi. My naani’s name was Karam Bibi alias Aajiza. The atmosphere in Gujrat was such that mushairas would be held there in which I would participate. Some of the great names in poetry used to reside there, such as Pir Fazal. I was still very young when once upon an occasion, he asked me to recite a couplet. I recited: Rooh ka tun hai qafas/ Gor qafas hai tun ka. Pir Fazal said that if I could write 100 couplets of that kind, I could be a great poet.

TNS: What happened after the Partition in 1947?

“I lance open the wounds of my inner self with poetry.” — Photo by the author
“I lance open the wounds of my inner self with poetry.” — Photo by the author

There’s music in words. For instance, in Persian, there’s ‘taaza’ for fresh but in Punjabi we say ‘sajra’. There’s also an image in every word. There are words that terrorise and words that induce feelings of love.

AS: We went back to Gujrat where I matriculated from the Public High School. Initially, I took up medical science at Zamindara College but that didn’t suit my temperament. It was Ustad Fazl-i-Hussain, who became the principal later on, who encouraged me to shift to humanities. Once I had shifted to the Arts, I stood first in every single subject, as far as I can recall. Hussain encouraged me so much that I wrote my first poem Lahore Say. Hamid Khan gave us the theme Tulu’-i-Aftab to write on. For a month, I would wake up with the lark and step out of my house to witness the hour the day began. I was deeply immersed in poetry: once I read in a newspaper that a woman had been sexually assaulted. For her honour’s sake, she had doused herself with petrol and set herself ablaze. Ten years had passed by since this incident happened. One day, while writing a ghazal, I was reminded of it and ended up writing:

Ukta kay hawasnaak nigahon kay sitam say/ Ik paer nay sho’lon saye badan dhaanp liya tha

During Gen Ayub’s regime, I chanced upon an occasion to write about the Ruet-i-Hilal Committee that while others in the world had landed on the moon, we could not even sight it reliably:

Bohat dukh hua, chand ko haath laga aaye hain ahl-i-himmat/ Unko yeh dhun hai keh ab janib-i-nilgeer barhain/ Aik hum hain keh dikhai na diya chand hamein/ Hum issi soch mein hain Eid parhain ya na parhain

This is when I realised that I could write humorous verses as well.

TNS: You often write in the vernacular, with a special emphasis on syntax.

AM: My financial circumstances were such that I could not enroll in an MA programme soon after graduation. So, I started teaching at a school in Kunjah near Gujrat. I was teaching physics to 7th grade students when, one day, a young man stood up and asked: “Is there anything that has all the three phases – solid, liquid, gas – together in it?” I asked him if his father had ever smoked a huqqa? I said the material it was made of was a solid, the water it contained was a liquid and the smoke it belched out was a gas.

My attention had always been focused on words. Every single word would contain a lot of clues for me. Windows on meaning and doors leading to content open up in words. There’s music in words. For instance, in Persian, there’s the word ‘taaza’ for fresh but in Punjabi we say ‘sajra’. There’s also an image associated with every word. There are words that terrorise us and words that induce feelings of love.

I firmly believe that nothing has more energy than words. For instance, kainaat came into existence from the word kun. Poetry is an expression of that energy contained in words. Mein nay yeh jana keh goya yeh bhi meray dil main hai. One expresses oneself through poetry; that is its great importance.

Somebody once asked me: why do you write poems? I said it was because I couldn’t live without them. I lance open the wounds of my inner self with poetry.

TNS: Your mother has been a seminal influence on your poetic career. Please comment.

AM: My mother used to teach the Quran. Whenever we visited my maternal family residing in Pindi, the girls in the mohallah flocked to my naani’s house for learning. Known to us as Apa ji, she was very fond of reading. My mother and I, together with my mamoo, used to read books by Naseem Hijazi such as Aakhri Chattan, Insaan aur Devta, Aur Zanjeer Toot Gayi, etc. One day she asked me if I had gone to see my paternal aunt. How did she know, I wondered? She said I used a particular word in my speech that was spoken only at my aunt’s house.

I inherited some of my mother’s talent, chasing words like a child running after butterflies. I used to be in Dera Ghazu Khan [at that time]. Before returning home, I wrote my mother a letter announcing my arrival. When I came home, I found my mother sitting on the doorstep, reciting:

Nigahain dar pe lagi hain, udaas baithay hain/ Kisi kay aanay ki hum lae kay aas baithay hain

My most popular poem, Ambri, took me ten years to write – it kept simmering and boiling inside me. I used to write it and, not being satisfied, tore it apart. I was posted as a lecturer in Pindi Gheb when one night I was awakened from deep sleep as if by the poem itself, saying: write me down.

TNS: How do you perform the ‘balancing act’ between Urdu, Punjabi and Farsi, since you write in all three?

AM: The fact is that Punjabi is a much older language than Urdu – the word Punjabi itself is derived from Farsi, meaning ‘five rivers’. The ‘good’ things in Punjabi are a gift from Farsi. We cannot understand our national anthem unless we know Farsi. You cannot read and enjoy Iqbal, Ghalib and Faiz without a grip on Farsi. There was a poet/critic in India, Abdul Mughni, who once said: Iqbal is the world’s greatest poet. I was amazed, and thought to myself: there are poets like Dante, Goethe and Shakespeare in the world. Then, there are poets like Hafiz, Waris Shah and Khayyam. Later on, I realised that Iqbal is the mufassir of the book that we consider to be the world’s greatest.

There are some strange subjects and themes that constitute Farsi kalam. For instance, in one couplet, the poet says: the water finds it embarrassing to drown the wood that it has nurtured itself.

I have no difficulty in writing in all three languages but the kind of ease, comfort and facility I enjoy in my mother tongue I do not in any other language simply because that’s the language I know best. Nowadays, the moment a child leaves his mother’s lap you start teaching him English which is unnatural. Most of my popular poems are in Punjabi, such as Aj Ki Pakayae, Anarkali diyan Shanaan, Lassi taye Cha, Bunain, etc. When I went to Australia and Norway, some people in the audience started reciting my poems even before I could. In Canada, a four-year-old girl recited Bunain from memory. I was astonished. Her father said that when she memorised it, she was only two-and-a-half. For me, Bunain is a symbol or a metaphor for the Western culture. Here’s a couplet:

Baray aajiz hain takht-o-taj walay/ Koi Qaisar, na koi Jum bara hai/ Chalo chal kay yeh Amreeka say poochhain/ Corona ya keh Atom Bomb bara hai

TNS: Recount your experience of visiting Iran during Reza Shah Pahlavi’s time.

AM: There were forty teachers of Farsi chosen from various institutes, schools and colleges to visit Iran. I was their patron. We were sent to learn modern Farsi in Tehran through a course called Training in Modern Persian. We were there for four months, travelling around the country. We visited different universities, and had the great opportunity to be taught by some of Iran’s leading scholars. Later on, I wrote a book called Farsi Adab kay Chand Goshay which includes a commentary on ancient and modern poets and writers of Farsi literature, their biographies and their achievements in prose and poetry. It’s rather unfortunate that I couldn’t meet Faroogh Farrukhzad personally. She and Parveen Shakir had a lot in common: both had an unhappy marriage; both had a son each, Kamyar and Murad; and both died in a road accident.

By all means, Farsi’s greatest poet is Bedil. Munir Niazi once commented: “Ghalib is Bedil’s baghal bacha”, while Iqbal said: “Ghalib could never understand Bedil.” Iqbal wrote a paper on Bedil called: Bedil in the light of Henri Bergson. His and Iqbal’s concept of ishq was almost identical. There’s mysticism and reflection on time in Bedil’s verse. At the same time, he’s so complex that he could only be his own best translator.

Talking about translations, Ghalib has been beautifully translated into Punjabi by Aseer Abid. In an essay that I read at Murray College in Sialkot, I said: “Somebody known as Asadullah wrote poetry in Lahore; somebody called Ghalib translated it in Delhi “.

TNS: What was your association with Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi like?

AM: Qasmi sahib’s greatest contribution was that he nourished and projected the younger generation. He encouraged us all. Once upon an occasion, we were together in a hotel in Abbottabad. I wonder what possessed him that he asked: “Anwar, tell me, what is so special about your poetry?” I said some turn painting into a verse, some music into a verse. I think I turn acting into a verse. He replied: “Absolutely wrong! The most important thing about your writing is observation.”

You can neither dismiss nor ignore his contribution to literature. His landscape/ background had always been the Punjab but it’s ironic that to present the Punjabi landscape he chose Urdu. (Like Tahir Iqbal always describes the Punjabi landscape in Urdu). Even though he was a man of few words, he wasn’t frugal when it came to appreciation of good things. He truly trained us all through his essays, poetry and short stories; and through Funoon. Qasmi sahib used to call my poem Dina a masterpiece – the poem won a Writers’ Guild Award.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

‘You cannot separate morality from literature’