A poet extraordinaire

November 7, 2021

Dr Abrar Ahmad lives on in his poetry

A poet extraordinaire

— Abrar Ahmad

It is the poetry that is most at risk in the act of a translation of poetry. What the sh’er quoted above intends to convey can be said in English language but the overall semantic ambience around these two fairly small lines is hard to reproduce. The meaning(s) of the phrases Tah-i-khak so chuka tha and Koi andar jaagta reh gia are not entirely located in their literal sphere, not even in and around their metaphorical realms as besides literal and metaphorical realms, meanings of poetry are to be found in its cultural-symbolic ambience, in the very act of reading and the moment of reading.

The sh’er had different meanings a few days ago before the passing of its author, Abrar Ahmad. But while the world of Urdu literature mourns his demise – which was somewhat anticipated as his cancer was known to be at terminal stage – this sh’er takes on a different meaning. It can now be interpreted like this: though Ahmad has become eternally silent in the darkness of his grave, his poetry on paper and screen is alive, speaking, uninterrupted, in an unusual loud tone. Poets – like all mortals – are condemned to death but their poetry is blessed to live on.

Born on February 6, 1954, at Jaranwala, Ahmad completed his school education from Al-Islah High School, Chiniot. His father, Mian Gulzar Ahmad, had no formal education and was a goldsmith by profession. However, he was a connoisseur of Urdu poetry and music. He was fond of listening to Urdu mushairas broadcast on Radio Pakistan. Speaking of his marvellous taste in poetry and music, Ahmad said he had inherited and learned much from his father. In 1969, he enrolled as an intermediate student at the Government College (GC). A science student, he was inspired by the literary and co-curricular activities at the college. During his stay at Iqbal Hostel at GC, he edited its literary magazine, Iqbal, which carried his first nazm. Dr Muhammad Ajmal, distinguished psychologist and the then principal of the college advised him not to pursue the medical profession. Acquiescing, Ahmad secured admission in BA but on the insistence of an uncle, later changed his decision.

His next destination was Nishtar Medical College, Multan. In 1979, he completed his MBBS degree. During his stay at Multan, he developed long-lasting personal and literary relations with the literati of the city. It was also there that he developed an interest in existentialist writers of the West. For the next two years he served in the Pakistan Army. The stint was then incumbent on all medical graduates. He spent a few years in Rawalpindi where he actively took part in literary activities. In 1988, he shifted to Lahore. He joined the Services Hospital in 2000 and served there till his retirement in 2014. The highly demanding profession did not noticeably inhibit his passion for poetry and literary activities. He would ardently attend weekly sessions of the Halqa-i-Arbab-i-Zauq, Lahore. His attachment to the Halqa was not without reasons. Since its inception in the late 1930s the Halqa has been a supporter of modernism and Jadid Urdu Nazm. The notion of modernism, the Halqa has embraced since its early days, has been fluid and open to emerging ideas and philosophies. From psychoanalysis to archetypal symbolism to existentialism to postmodernism, it has never compromised on the aesthetics. Insistence on the literariness of poetry and fiction has been a quintessential ingredient in the epistemology of Halqa’s ideology. The poetics we perceive underlying the nazm and ghazal of Ahmad are closely related to that of the Halqa’s. Ahmad published a book of ghazals titled Ghaflat Kay Barabar in 2007. However, nazm – both free verse and prose – had been his real forte all along. Muhammad Khalid, himself a brilliant poet of Nai Urdu Ghazal and an active member of the Halqa, remained his life-long friend and mentor. Last year Khalid died of Covid-19. His death literally shattered Ahmad.

Ahmed began regularly writing poetry and getting published in literary magazines in the late seventies. He took twenty years to publish get his first book of nazm. His debut Akhari Din Say Pehlay (Before the Last Day) was released in 1997. Ahmad Javaid wrote the preface that aimed at contextualising Ahmad’s poetry in the resistance to Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law on one hand, and in post Lisani Tashkeelat (linguistic formulations) movement of the Urdu nazm on the other. Javaid declared in unambiguous terms that Ahmad was an existentialist poet, suffering from alienation and loneliness. He quoted French existentialist novelist Albert Camus who famously asked why we are here, all of us, condemned to death – a fundamental question about human existence that seeks to negotiate a way forward in an indifferent yet perishable world. The resonance of this question can be felt in several poems by Ahmad. For instance, the opening poem of the book titled Teri Duniya kay Naqshay Mein (In the Map of Your World), the poet complains to his Creator (here he follows Ghalib who prefers to open his Divan by complaining to God instead of writing a eulogy) about where in the grand map of His world can he lodge. The question obviously stemmed from a kind of absurdity all existentialists are destined to experience in one way or another. In the introduction to his second book Ghaflat kay Barabar, Ahmad reveals some of his ideas about life, poetry and poetic forms. He makes some well-argued assertions that echo across his poetry too. He asserts that poetry is his way of life. The reason for this being the case, however, remains elusive. As a way of life, poetry doesn’t afford one permanent relief from the life’s miseries and sufferings. Poetry, as a way of life, is essentially yet paradoxically directionless, Ahmad claims. Ahmad maintains that poetry is an accountable undirected wandering. This way poetry provided him room for the absurdities and paradoxes of life. Not only were Ahmad’s views on poetry modern/existentialist and contrary to progressive ideology, his poetry too is awash with themes of loneliness and irrationality sprouting from absurdity, displacement, quest for identity and the search for meaning in daily experiences. All these themes are intertwined. When you find no permanent place in the map of the world created by a powerful elite or by destiny, you are bound to experience loneliness and displacement.

A poet extraordinaire

Aur hi khak ho shaid jo

pata batlaiy

Ham keh is loh-i-jahan say

to mittay howay hen

[There might be another planet

which can guide us to our home/ We have been erased from this plank of universe]

That is why he dedicated his debut book to the old qasba (village) where he had spent his childhood. Addressing his birthplace in his poem Qasbati Larkon ka Geet (A song of small town boys) he says sadly, a day will come when I shall come to see the old bricks and to get myself mouldered near you.

Besides nazm and ghazal, he wrote, though occasionally, prose in Urdu and English. His essays on Urdu ghazal, prose poems and resistance literature were widely read. A few of those were hotly debated. For a few years he had been contributing weekly columns about contemporary Urdu literature to The News on Sunday (TNS). I hope that his friends like Nasir Ali or his younger brother Afzaal Navaid, himself a notable poet of Urdu ghazal, will come forward and compile his Urdu and English writings. His literary career spans over more than four decades, but he published only three books of poetry. He avoided printing most of what he wrote. He believed that a writer must keep evaluating his works. Mauhoom ki Mahek (Fragrance of phantasm) was his third and last book of nazm published two years ago. It was my privilege to review it for TNS. It would not be impertinent to quote a few lines from that review as his third book, too, is replete with the theme of displacement and its attendant overtones.

“It is true that the memories of the past keep haunting him and he comes to know that these memories are the only things that can be termed a treasure in the whole scheme of things. Yet he knows that the past cannot take the place of the present; like other modern poets, he too is compelled to bear the fomentation of the inferno of his times. Sairbeen and Bahut Kam Hae Umr-i-Rawan, two of the longer poems in the collection delineate the characteristics of the inferno where people of the 21st Century are bound to breathe. In these poems, the personal seems to be metamorphosing into political. However, narrating small yet powerful experiences tinged with a subjective approach is what can be called the poet’s forte. Sara ki Potli needs a special mention. The things, places, people, texts that touched his heart appear in his poem nostalgically.” (TNS, June 9, 2019)

How terrible is the reality – and what a paradox it is that all displaced people desire keenly to go back to their birthplaces, but are destined to inhabit the eternal abode. Ahmad has left us but lives on in our memories. Memories of a person might vanish or perish with the passage of time, but a memory built up by creative work survives the ravages of time.

The writer is a critic, short story writer and a professor of Urdu at the University of the Punjab, Lahore. His book Jadeediat Aur Naubadiyat was recently published by the Oxford University Press.

A poet extraordinaire