From memory’s unmapped isles: A poet on alienation – and nature’s rhythms

By Vikas Datta,

One of the rather negative aspects of urbanisation is a sense of alienation, of isolation – that despite being surrounded by masses of people, you are quite unlikely to have any meaningful connection with them. And this perception can be felt more keenly at night when walking through teeming or deserted thoroughfares and markets, brilliantly lit or gloomily dark. This motif and its stark imagery have been employed quite a bit in modern Urdu poetry by some big names. But its champion was a most highly-regarded but short-lived poet of rare sensitivity, though his fame in the non-Urdu speaking world may only rest on a haunting ghazal made popular by the unmatched Ghulam Ali.

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The ghazal is “Dil mein ek lehr si uthi hai abhi/Koi tazaa hawa chali hai abhi” by Pakistani poet Syed Nasir Raza Kazmi (1925-1972). One of the few not to take a ‘takhallus’, he is known for his abundant use of nature’s imagery, his unparalleled use of metaphors – “yaad ke benishaan jazeeron se… (from memory’s unmapped/uncharted isles)” in the ghazal cited above – and his skill in using “chota behr (small/short metre)” in his poetic constructions.

But there is a unhappy influence on his poetry – the Partition. Born in Ambala (then in undivided Punjab), he had been there since 1945 looking after his ancestral lands. Though he safely translocated to Lahore, the trauma of that troubled, terrible summer – which an entire generation could never easily shrug off – is present as an undercurrent of sadness – and of the friendships sundered – in his verse.

But still, Nasir Kazmi cannot be typecast as only a poet of melancholy and sorrow like his earliest influence, Mir Taqi Mir, or for that matter, Fani Badayuni, because he does occasionally strike up a note of hope, of optimism.

The ghazal “Dil mein ek lehr…” ends “Waqt achcha bhi aayega ‘Nasir’/Gam na kar zindagi padhi hai abhi”, while another ends “‘Nasir’ ashob-e-zamane se ghafil na raho/Kuch hota hai jab khalq-e-Khuda kuch kehti hai (Don’t remain unmindful of the sorrows of the world/Something happens when the multitude of God speaks)”.

It is however the city night imagery that mark Nasir Kazmi’s art. He was certainly not first to use the motif – two leading Indian poets’ creations had been immortalised on celluloid by then. There was Majaz with his nazm “Awaara” beginning “Shahr ki raat aur main nashad-o-nakara phirun/Jagmagati jagti sadkon pe awaara phirun”, rendered by the mellifluous Talat Mehmood in Shammi Kapoor-starrer “Thokar”, or Sahir Ludhianvi’s scathing “Chakle”, adopted with slight changes in Guru Dutt’s “Pyaasa”, as “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hai” with its line “Yeh sadiyon se bekhauf sahmi si galiyan…”

But creating his own mark, Nasir Kazmi in “Dil mein ek lehr….” says “Shahr ke becharaagh galiyon mein/Zindagi tujh ko dhundhti hai abhi”, while another famous ghazal “Kuch yaadgar-e-shahr-e-sitmagar hi le chalen..” has the more powerful thought: “Is shahr-e-becharaagh mein jaayegi tu kahan/ Aa ae shab-e-firaq tujhe ghar hi le chalen (Where will you go in this unlit city/Come, o night of separation, let me take you home)”. Then “Main kyun phirta hun tanha maara maara/Yeh basti chain se kyon so rahi hai” and so many other examples.

He also shines in his use of natural objects – seasons, times, flowers, celestial bodies, rivers, and wind to express an entire gamut of states of the human condition. Longing: “Shaam se soch raha hoon ‘Nasir’/Chand kisi shahr mein utra hoga”, romance: “Woh sitara thi ke shabnam thi ke phool/Ik surat thi ajab yaad nahi” or “Phir saavan rut ki pavan chali tum yaad aaye/Phir patton ki paazeb baji tum yaad aaye”, Loss or absence: “Cheekh rahe hai khaali kamre/Shaam se kitni tez hawa hai” and even aging: “Yeh subah ki safediyan ye dopahr ki zardiyan/ Ab aaine mein dekhta hun main kahan chala gaya”.

The ‘chota behr’ was another Nasir Kazmi trademark, though he did use the longer, double clause form too. Apart from some examples above, another famous ghazal (performed by Ghulam Ali) is “Apni dhun mein rahta hun/Main bhi tere jaisa hun”, but there is also “Aaj to be-sabab udaas hai ji/Ishq hota to koi baat bhi thi” or “Kaun is raah se guzarta hai/Dil yun hi intezar karta hai”.

Tragedy was however not done with Nasir Kazmi, who died of stomach cancer at 46, with just one volume of poems published and three others, a play, a collection of prose, and an autobiography coming out posthumously.

“Suraj doob chala ‘Nasir’/Aur abhi manzil hai door” could serve as his epitaph!

(31.08.2014 – Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])