BOOK REVIEW: ‘Istifsar’ – a poetic inquisition

‘Istifsar’ — a poetic inquisition

By Syed Afsar Sajid

Title: ‘Istifsar’

Author: Ghulam Murtaza Aatir
Publisher: Nasta’liq Publications, Urdu Bazaar, Lahore
Page: 192 – Price: Rs. 500/-


Ghulam Murtaza Aatir (Dr.) is currently a professor of English at GC University, Faisalabad. He is a bilingual writer/poet. His first major (and innovative) poetic work in English titled ‘Straggling through Fire: An anthology of Proemistry’ appeared on the literary scene with a bang, in 2021.

The following year he came out with another creative sensation ‘Istifsar’, a miscellany of his Urdu verse comprising Hamd, Na’at, Salam, nazm, and ghazal. A mix of some famed veteran and up-and-comimg young academics/litterateurs like Prof. Saghir Afrahim, ex-Chairman, Urdu Faculty, Aligarh Muslim University, Prof. Dr. Khwaja Ikramuddin, Jawahar Lal Nehru University, Delhi, Prof. Soya Manay, Osaka University, Japan, Dr. Saeed Ahmad (GCU, Faisalabad), Dr. Tariq Hashmi (GCU, Faisalabad), Mudassar Ali (GC Gojra), Sajjad Mahmood (GC Samundri), and Khawar Jilani (Faisalabad) have contributed prefatory/appreciatory notes to the book.

Aside from Hamd, Na’at and Salam, the book contains a good number of nazms and ghazals (45) bespeaking the author’s apt conversance with the art of versification and its contextual ramifications. The author’s poetic manifesto is amplified in the nazm titled ‘Shayari’ as well as ‘Yeh nazm unkay liyay likhi hai’.

The continuity of tradition and its timely renewal and updation by individual talent in a successive generic lineage – the ‘past-ness’ of the present and the ‘present-ness’ of the future – finds a loud echo in the opening stanza of the first poem which proclaims that the poet’s function is to look into the past with a view to revamping the literary tradition of his predecessors in the purview of what is happening on today’s literary scene so that the creative artist or the critic may advance into the future with sound vigour and vision.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. Permanence in change is the rule here. The poet thus finds himself arrayed against a multitude of harrowing existentialistic realities such as pain, penury, perfidy, perjury, perversity, and pusillanimity, to say the least. In the instant poem, the author dilates on the multiple functions of poetry deeming its creator, the poet as an enumerator and healer of men’s griefs, their fears,  failures, and fumblings besides being a historian of the chequered past of mankind and a harbinger of the future course of human history.

In a sad but exclamatory tone, the poet seemingly dedicates the second poem to those whose dreams of a happy life remain unrealised, who miserably falter in their pursuit of a meaningful existence void of disheartenment and turmoil, who are obligated to rot in anonymity like a swarm of ‘little odious vermin’. The poem betrays a sardonic zest characteristic of a Sahir (Ludhianvi) or Habib Jalib in their dialectical fulminations against socio-political evils of class-distinction, self-aggrandisement, exploitation, deceit, hypocrisy, hegemonism et al. It is a kind of a proletarian stance, as it were, that the poet has adopted in this poem implying that poetry is not alien to life and its dreadful problems.

The title of the book tends to soliloquise its imagistic undertones which are rooted in the language of common speech employing the exact word, hard and clear, free from vague generalities and couched in new rhythms phonetically closer to the workaday idiom of the spoken language of the day. ‘Istifsar’ is in fact a self-inquisition, an internal monologue, a leap into ‘the door in the wall’ leading to a dream-world which is ironically a world of flesh and blood also constituting the confluence of the poet-speaker’s or speaker-poet’s dreams and their materialisation or otherwise.

Aatir’s nazm is more vocal than his ghazal. Here one is reminded of the difference between the artist and the moralist. The essential difference between the two shows best in their attitude to their work. To the artist, any piece of work that is to be of value will acquire a life and an importance of its own, quite distinct from the thought of the function it is intended to serve. To the moralist, the message he intends to convey is important. He chooses his medium because it is the most convenient to hand and emboss on it the image of thought which has already concretised in his mind.

The question that has haunted him all along in the daily course of his temporal life is adequately answered in the nazm part of the book wherein the poet leisurely articulates his intuitive apprehension of the impending doom, most eloquently though adroitly crafted in ‘The Waste Land’ of TS Eliot. The poem ‘Istifsar’ is an emblem of frustration meant to debunk promiscuity and by implication sensuality which is a gift of a moribund culture thriving inter alia on cant, calumny and confusion.

The boundary between art and vulgarity is amorphously tenuous. The poem ‘Istifsar’ exemplifies it in a good measure. The dialogue between the speaker of the poem and a courtesan is too sexually explicit to warrant condonation on ethical grounds, let alone aesthetic. The artist may be compared to a pioneer who has surveyed the jungle, cut a way through it and laid down a track.

The critic is like the first inspector who goes over that finished track to test it. He (the critic) knows that the primary functions of literature are to give delight to the reader, and to clarify and develop experience in the readers’ as well as the writer’s mind whereas its subsidiary functions are to ‘propagate’, ‘release’ and ’escape’.

In his ghazal, the poet does maintain a liaison with the past tradition of Urdu poetry embodying love, pangs of separation and a passionate vying for a union with the loved one. But here too he distances himself from the euphoria of a naive sentimentalism. A deconstruction of the text in the ghazal part of the book would reveal to the reader some existential truisms pertaining to the complex relationship between individual and society, the former seeking love, tolerance, and peace in an environ infested with hatred, intemperance, and chaos.

The author of the book himself terms his poetic creed as an ‘aggressive romanticism’, a corollary of the concept of anti-literature, not neglectful of the prevailing socio-moral taboos or an abiding national feeling. He further avers, humbly but questionably though,
that this book could be classified as ‘alternative literature’ (or alt-lit) deeming it as an offshoot of ‘a literary movement strongly influenced by internet culture and online publishing …… characterised by self-publication and a presence on social media networks.’

Nonetheless it is a full-fledged literary publication in the mainstream of the extant Urdu poetic tradition, in its own right. The luminous prefatory notes on the book would seem to endorse this contention, notwithstanding its indepth but erudite review by noted litterateur Khawar Jilani who is also the author of the famous quasi-epic poem ‘Jamia Masjid ki Dehli (Delhi)’.

Syed Afsar Sajid
Syed Afsar Sajid
The writer is a Faisalabad based former bureaucrat, poet, literary and cultural analyst, and an academic. He can be reached at: [email protected].


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