Zia Mohyeddin column
Meera Ji died
young, not fully appreciated for a poetic expression that was very
experimental and hounded for his unconventional lifestyle.
Given the current situation
where the ideological divide between the right and left is no longer the
decisive criteria in assessing a work of literature, some newer critical
canon is waiting to be established. Since the erstwhile divide imposed with
rigidity posited literature as front for an ideological battle, it was not
always assessed on the basis that was its very own.
Meera Ji’s life was
difficult because he decided to swim against the current of the mainstream
Progressive Writers Association. His was a distinct voice, very individual,
extremely subjective and sensitive to the smaller issues and feelings which
otherwise get swarmed by overwhelming questions.
He wrote nazms and was
obviously inspired by much that was happening in the West in literature and
other disciplines like psychology. Initially the nazm was a revolt against
the highly stylised dominant form of the ghazal. It was considered to be less
well-wrought, less dependent on associated references and loaded metaphors.
It was closer to being a statement and this objectivity was a much cherished
aim in the 19th century but, by the time nazm came within the creative grasp
of Meera Ji, it became the poetic manifestation of an inner voice.
Meera Ji’s inner voice
was of suppressed instincts that did not find an outlet in poetry directly
but only in the well-wrought framework of an inherited tradition. The
instincts were given a form that was artistically closer to the chaos and
anarchy of the instinctual aspects of a human being and its expression too
had to be reflective of the turmoil that makes up the essential self of man.
Before Meera Ji, Noon Meem
Rashed had written the nazm inspired by the late Romantics and the Imagists.
Rashed really worked on his poems, and at times the hardwork showed. But
where Rashed’s effort was contrived, Meera Ji wrote with an effortless
ease. This is not to say that he did not work on his poems and wrote in a fit
of inspiration, only that his effort did not become obvious and his craft was
more honed than some of his contemporaries.
Meera Ji’s work was seen
by some as directly flowing out of sexual energy and was libidinal, as if
what he wrote was actually an expression of the lack of an outlet for sexual
expression as well. But this was only a selective reading of his works. He
was less concerned with repression and its lack of outlet and more with the
mysteries of the sex drive, the basic instincts that filled human life with
the force and the energy to think beyond the precision of the event. It was
fully comprehended without wrapping it in an elaborate system of thought.
Meera Ji had the spontaneity of a super craftsman.
In his earlier phase, Meera
Ji wrote nazms that were formalistic and structured. In the later phase,
under the influence of the geet, he wrote poetry that was extremely lyrical
but did not follow any formalistic design. The geet does not, as a genre,
follow a formal structure and is quite accommodating in its pattern and rhyme
scheme; the only criteria being that it should retain its lyrical quality.
This criterion was fulfilled with great promise by Meera Ji. His geets were
extremely lyrical and did not follow the form of a nazm. He was in the
process of discovering an inner structure for the unity of the poem as
compared to a more formal one. The association of meaning, the references and
the allusions, all knitted his nazm to give it a sharpened edge that possibly
could not have been achieved if the dictates of a formal structure had been
lurking in the background during the act of creation.
As the inner structure was
not apparent, Meera Ji was criticised for being ambiguous. The subject that
Meera Ji found to be potent was ambiguity itself and the initial reaction of
the reader to be lost in the maze of an experience, though overwhelming, was
shrouded in mystery and questioned by many. The subject itself was not cut
and dried and laid down in any order. This ambiguity was the consequence of
the magical environment that Meera Ji was able to weave in his poems, the
atmosphere that he created, full of indirections with no direct linkages.
Meera Ji was a very
well-read man and extremely educated about the poetic forms of the past and
the age that he was living in. The greatest proof of that are his extensive
prose writings on various poets and literary movements. As a critic, Meera Ji
was a critical observer looking very closely at the writings and poems,
developing arguments backed by historical references and contemporary
instances. His critical pieces had no ambiguity, no magical maze — instead,
only clarity of thought and a forcefulness of reasoning.
His understating of
contemporary poetry and the reasons that gave birth to such a poetic
expression was quite astonishing. The poetry closer to his own was ruthlessly
scrutinised and he found these either truly inspirational, or at least the
words resonating his own poetic experience.
Meera Ji was not alone in
that ambiguous mysterious, haunting world; it was the sensibility of an age
that he was only sharing. The European poets of the late nineteenth and
twentieth century had moved away from the formal structures to explore an
area of experience that could not be grasped by rationality and scientific
explanation. New doubts had arisen and questions were being raised also by
poets, some directly and some not so directly. As in those poets, in Meera Ji
too, childhood played a critical part. For authenticity, he could relate to
that primal experience and then to its sublimation, mythology, which gave an
artistic cover to the hopes, aspirations and foibles of human existence.
The personality of Meera Ji
too was put under the microscopic lens and many moral issues were raised
regarding his conduct in society. But he was essentially a poet in rebellion
against the mainstream culture of his times.
For him truth lay beyond social norms and manners, even if it involved
sacrificing mundane living. His love for poetic truth was just as sincere as
his love for Meera Sen. He lost in love but succeeded in immortalising the
supremacy of love through his poems.
While writing his autobiography, K.K Aziz’s memory drifted towards his days spent in the company of many a literary luminary of the past. The memories of those lovely days forced him to pick up the pen to portray very moving pen sketches of the wonderful personalities he hobnobbed with. “I have enjoyed summoning my dear friends to sessions of sweet memory. As almost all of them now sleep their last sleep I have wept at the separation. Before long time will cease for me and I will be with them. That is the only attraction of death”.
The Coffee House of Lahore is therefore part autobiography/part homage to Aziz’s contemporaries and friends who were once the leading lights of the Lahore’s cultural and literary landscape.
Banking on his memory, Aziz has listed down all the habitués of the Coffee House and divided them into different categories. There are more than two hundred personalities which his pen brings to life for this generation which might not be aware with a majority of them.
He starts his list of distinguished people with famous leftist critic, poet and also a man of theatre, Safdar Mir. Aziz seems to be very much impressed by the genius of Safdar Mir as “he was probably the only communist in Pakistan who had read the entire text of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital more than once and could therefore argue convincingly from a firm base…He was the best read journalist of his age, and I know no other man whose reach and understanding encompassed so many fields: English, Urdu, Punjabi Literature, Marxism, politics, the way a society works and modern history. His hall mark was a resounding laugh which could be heard three rooms away.”
Aziz noticed that “his patent laughter sounded more as an ironical comment on life or a bitter sarcasm on the passing of time than as a mark of merriment or humor as there seemed to be hollowness in its echo which only his closest friends could notice, and they felt sorry for him.”
Then there is a Nasir Kazmi, a poet who loved to pass his night gossiping with his friends in various tea houses. Walking on the Mall with a coterie of his friends in starry nights was his favorite pastime. “Both Kazmi and Faiz in Urdu poetry set fire to our imagination. But Faiz’s passion lies in his romanticism. Faiz has no profundity or subtlety; Nasir has. Many lines of Nasir’s ghazals, which speak of the passion of love, make one sit up and think. This depth is strengthened by the poignant note of nostalgia which runs throughout his poetry”.
There is also a very long piece on Dr Abdus Salam in which Aziz shares how he was maltreated by his colleagues when he was teaching at his alma mater, Government College, Lahore. Aziz got many rare chances to be with Salam at many different places. In 1953, he became a colleague of Salam when he was appointed the head of the department of political science. He narrates an incident in which a minister snubbed Salam in an official meeting. The then education minister, Chaudhry Akbar Ali was not concerned with the teacher’s formal qualifications and academic achievements but only with the percentage of students who passed the university examinations every year. Making the point that however highly qualified a teacher may be he would himself issue orders for his transfer to some God forsaken place if he failed to produce a satisfactory pass percentage, he turns towards Salam and said, “For example if Professor Salam’s pass percentage record does not please me I will send him back to Jhang.” Aziz writes that staff members were literally stunned to hear these crude remarks of the minister as Salam was the only teacher who was named, and he was the most brilliant member of the teaching staff.
There are many other men of letters, painters, journalists, educationists and men of other inclinations whom the author has wriiten on. You can also read powerful pieces on men like Mukhtar Siddiqui, Yusuf Zafar, M.D Taseer, Abid Ali Abid, Chiragh Hasan Hasrat, K.H Khurshid, Hafeez Hoshiarpuri, Shakir Ali, F.E Chaudhry, Rauf Malik, Maulana Salahuddin Ahmad, Sahir Ludhianvi and scores of others.
There is also a piece on the lesser known Muhammad Hasan Latifi whose love for others knew no bounds. “Whenever he had a little money, he came to the rescue of those whose misfortune exceeded his own. He would stand outside a tandoor and pay for the bread and dal consumed by the beggars.”
American food, no
matter which state you are in, is not known for the subtlety of its cuisine.
This is why the well-heeled nobs prefer to eat in dimly-lit French or Italian
restaurants which boast of their roulades and ratatouilles in anthropomorphic
Most of these restaurants
(apart from the exaggerated accent of their maitre d’s which thrills their
patrons) are neither French nor Italian but posh and pricy. The satirist Bill
Bryson once wrote a magnificent piece spoofing the haughty manner of a
head-waiter: “Our crepe galette of a sea chortle kept in a rich mal de mer
sauce is seasoned in dishevelled herbs layered with steamed wattle and woozle
The famous television host
Robert Robinson (writer, presenter, quizmaster) once said that “the
national dish of America is menus.” There are eateries in America who take
a great deal of trouble in the planning and printing of their menus. The menu
of a restaurant called ‘Blum’s’ was in a class of its own. Robinson
told us that it read like “an opera libretto translated into English by a
Rumanian.” The famous aria celebrating “Blum’s Blunderful Patisserie”
went as follows:
A joy for the palate, a
treat for the eye
Beautiful luscious, yet
light as a sigh,
To eat this cake and have
Is the delightful dilemma
Apricots, apples, dates and
Custard and pastes and
filled half moons,
Raisins and nuts, poppy
seeds, cheese –
‘Ach Gott mein herr’!
to choose among these
A better example of bathos
is hard to come by.
It is my experience that in
posh restaurants one must disregard the advice of the head-waiter. Some years
ago I was lured into trying a soup with steamed bay-leaves. It tasted like
Optrex eye drops and that is a taste I know well. You may be cleverer than I
am when you bathe your eye with Optrex, but I can never manage to prevent —
even though I keep the eye-glass pressed close to my sockets — a drop or
two trickling down to my lips. It’s not a taste I cherish.
The taste of American
bread, white or brown, never rises beyond a chewy, limp listlessness.
Toasting it doesn’t help either. As for the real American burger, it is so
tall I can never dare accommodate it in my mouth without removing a couple of
layers from the top. I defy anyone to bite into a proper American hamburger
— that mound of onions, lettuce, and the yellowest cheese imaginable —
without squirting some bits on his shirt.
The greatest culinary
revolution that took place in the 20th century was that red meat came to be
recognised as the most harmful thing for human health. Vegetarian food that
had been looked upon as a faddist cuisine became popular. I am, of course,
talking about the West, for in our part of the world a meal is never
considered to be complete unless it includes a couple of meat dishes.
There are two types of
vegetarians in the West: those who include fish and an odd sliver of white
meat in their diet, and those who avoid eating any living creature. The later
category may be in a minority but their food preference has influenced the
larger carnivorous population so much so that not so long ago, a million
pound campaign was launched to make people aware that red meat was a
necessity they ought not to ignore.
Gone are the days when food
writers advised their readers where to buy aubergines and artichokes. Today
most chain supermarkets sell not only fresh herbs and pesticide-free
vegetables, but also free-range eggs and a staggering variety of organically
grown potatoes and salad leaves. The attitude of the shoppers has been so
transformed that in the up-market grocery stores no housewife would dare pick
a sack of “King Edwards” (the cheapest variety of potatoes) without first
making sure that no one is watching her.
Health conscious middle
classes (even in our part of the world) have now taken to eating vegetables
because they have been brain-washed to believe that celery and lettuce is
good for them and ‘meat and two veg’ is bad for them. Today the paths of
vegetarianism and concern for healthy living have diverged. A diet of
processed cheese, digestives and cream cakes; or aubergines, artichokes and
courgettes may be free of meat, but it is now being judged to be unhealthy.
Doctors and other
specialist have come to the conclusion that a wide variety of foods that will
include fresh fruit and raw vegetables must also allow occasional indulgence
to read meat and chicken. They have based their observations after conducting
thorough research into the eating habits of teenagers and young women — the
group most committed to vegetarianism — who, it so happens, are highly
prone to eating disorders.
The most notable and sudden
change in our urban society is not the trend towards vegetarianism but the
advent of the mobile telephone. Most of the television ads that you see on
your screen are about the cell phones. They keep showing us glamour images to
prove that communication has been made increasingly simple and extremely
inexpensive. There is also a hint that acquiring a certain brand of cell
phone will enable you to find a gorgeous looking bride.
Everybody seems to talk on
the mobile phone, mostly telling each other where they are, or reading out
the latest risqué jokes. Some people I know spend half the time trying to
look for their lost mobile phones; the rest of their time is taken up in
informing their near and dear ones that they have found their beloved
instrument. Who says that more than two hundred cell phones are snatched
There is no end to the
one-upmanship about the mobile phone. I see from an advertisement that XYZ
company can provide you with a phone that has “an in-built digital TV tuner
with added DRM encryption features allowing for faster file transfers over
the initial MMC speed.” Don’t ask me what MMC speed is; I don’t even
know the meaning of DRM encryption.
I have heard people proudly
telling others that their Telebit Tuner card enables them to have access to a
whole mobile broadcasting service. What pleasure they can derive form
listening to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on a mobile phone is hard for
me to comprehend.
My aversion is not to the mobile phone but its users who never think of turning it off when attending a live performance. Fear of death alone persuades them to make it dysfunctional during a flight. On all other occasions they blithely ignore the requests to switch them off.