Posthumous poetry

In praise of Urdu poets

Posthumous poetry is one of several features that set Urdu poets apart from their non-Urdu counterparts. No, I am not alluding to a creative man’s works managing to keep him relevant after his death; I am talking about a poet speaking from his grave.

            Consider this representative sample:

مری لحد پہ پتنگوں کا خون ہوتا ہے
حضور شمع نہ لایا کریں جلانے کو

To spare the moths from the fate of getting killed on his grave, the poet is requesting his anonymous beloved (or somebody else) to stop lighting candles on his grave. Observe how concerned the poet is about insect rights even after his own untimely demise. The poet in this instance happens to be Qamar Jalalvi but there is an unbroken tradition of this sort of thing from Mir Taqi Mir through the inimitable Ghalib down to the present day. It is in this very spirit, for example, that Mir warns the object of his unrequited love regarding the inevitable tide of affairs in these immortal words:

آوے گی میری قبر سے آواز میرے بعد
ابھریں گے عشقِ دل سے ترے راز میرے بعد

There can hardly be any doubt about the fact that it is beyond the capacity of Keatses and Wordsworths of the world to come up with anything that could come close to rivalling this sentiment.

Of course, these couplets are ‘said’ while the poet is very much alive. (Unlike poetry in other languages, Urdu poems are never written; they are ‘said’, or better still, they ‘happen’ – another distinction of Urdu poetry). Urdu poets are as much concerned about their legacy as they are certain of their mortality, so they make it a point to plan ahead. Therefore, they have a great deal to say from their graves, so to speak. It is true that while they are alive it does sound somewhat silly – a poet narrating his after-death sentiments. But once he dies (as we all must), it gives a haunting effect to his words, something impossible to match unless one has had the foresight and the skill to plan equally ahead.

Unlike poets of other languages, the Urdu poet is least bothered about nature. Death and decay are more appealing to him than growth and flowers. Even when he talks about spring, it is merely to remind himself that it is time to rend his shirt collar again, rather than anything to do with the delights associated with springtime. When he mentions the famed bulbul – and he mentions it a lot – he does not exactly know what he is talking about. He has never seen a bulbul and will not recognize one if it landed on his head. Knowing bird species is not the strong suit of Urdu poets. Knowing any other animal or plant species for that matter is not their strong suit either. But what they lack in knowledge of nature, they more than makes up for in passion. Bulbul (whatever it looks and sounds like, and wherever it is found) is a symbol of altruistic and tragic love, and that is that as far as our poet-lover is concerned.

Urdu poets are as much concerned about their legacy as they are certain of their mortality, so they make it a point to plan ahead. Therefore, they have a great deal to say from their graves, so to speak.

To return to posthumous poetry, the first rule of business for Urdu bards after their untimely demise then is to observe the conduct of the beloved on the funeral itself – starting with whether ‘he’ (this usually means a ‘she’ – another quirk of Urdu poetry) repents after being indifferent to the poet during his lifetime or continues being a heartless monster.

آ ہی گیا وہ مجھ کو لحد میں اتارنے
غفلت ذرا نہ کی مرے غفلت شعار نے

Here, the poet (none other than Hafeez Jalandhari) notes with an unmistakable hint of irony in his tone that the beloved, who remained a picture of indifference and cold-bloodedness while the poet was alive, has dutifully turned up to bury him. Jalandhari, the creator of the national anthem and the author of the epic Shahnama-e-Islam here demonstrates that he is very much at home in the field of posthumous running commentary as well.

Although it is not my topic today, let me end by mentioning in passing that posthumous poetry is not the only envy of poets of other languages. Not only do Urdu poets routinely speak from their graves, but they can also equally effortlessly address (while they are alive) and have conversations with those who have already passed on – souls of people long dead; address inanimate objects and abstract entities – arz e watan (‘soil of the homeland’), etc; and I dare add, talk to those animate entities as are least likely to be interested in what they have to say – raqeeb (rival in love), for example, who, depending on the situation, is selflessly offered useful advice in light of the poet’s own experiences and failures.

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Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed

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