Jon Elia – the intimate stranger

Jon Elia – the intimate stranger

As all would die, so did Jon Elia. During the last 40 years Death
stared in his face many a time but he kept on eluding it. A chronic
TB patient in the mid-50s, he escaped from the clutches of Death due
to sheer will power. May be his fervent faith in the immortality of
his poetry overcame the frequent summons of Death. Finally he bowed
out on 7th November, leaving behind thousands of his fans to mourn
his loss.

I saw, over five decades of close association with him, numerous
batches of young poets flocking in to him for inspiration and
guidance but it is an irony of fact that not many of them proved
constancy to be their main virtue. One saw them vanishing in thin air
thinking that they had reaped the harvest and could survive on their
own. I do not want to name numerous poets and writers who benefited
from Jon Elia’s Greek Academy like discourses on philosophy and

Some of his pupils have acknowledged their indebtedness to him, some
died before committing themselves to Jon’s contribution to their
upbringing as poets and writers and some still cherish the day when
Jon Elia, along with his two illustrious brothers Raees Amrohvi and
Syed Muhammad Taqi, contributed a great deal to the cause of a
serious intellectual culture in this country, the way Voltaire’s old
man did in the Candide – not carrying about the harvest. The sowing
of seeds was more important than the thought of reaping the resultant

The way Karachiites – in fact Pakistani writers – have received the
news of Jon Elia’s death – is quite reassuring to all those who
thought that poetry and literature had ceased to enjoy any priority
in our scheme of things. I have seen some of those writers who never
came out of their houses for years thronging the condolence meetings
held to pay homage to Jon Elia. To tell you the truth some of them
appeared to have come from their graves!

It appeared that a lifetime of active participation in literary and
cultural life of the City had made Jon Elia an icon – a symbol of our
literary legacy – and the City intellectuals rose like one monolithic
body – to mourn Jon Elia’s death as a loss of some very precious
possession which could have been taken for granted while Jon was
alive. However it become when it became a certainty that Jon Elia was
no more to keep us unaware of his worth as a gift of Providence.

His first collection of poetry, brought as part of the Duabi Jashn
1990 was not a representative selection of Jon Elia’s poetry. It was
not the selection which his Mahram – a phrase formed with the initial
letters of the group of friends comprising Mumtaz Saeed, Hasan Abid,
Rashid Saeed and I – had compiled keeping in viewing the gradual
development of Jon Elia’s poetry but a collection of some Mushaira
stuff interspersed with the real 22-carat Jon Elia poetry –
sparkling, penetrating and highly innovative. Any how his next
collection Yaani, soon to be published, is going to be quite
representative of Jon Elia’s poetry.

I have written a number of articles on Jon Elia’s poetry in English
and Urdu – in fact a monograph of my writings on Jon Elia could be
brought out and, perhaps, it will appear in due course of time but
Jon Elia deserved a lot more.

I believe that there are many writers among the mourners who could
share their impressions about him. Jon Elia was not only a brilliant
poet. He invented scores of new metrical schemes in his poetry – more
than many classical poets of Urdu. He also gave birth to hundreds of
unusual phrases – similes and metaphors – which no other poet of his
age has done so far.

Besides Jon Elia has use well-rhymed Nazms and free-verse poems with
an unusual command over the form and content. There is no doubt that
he has no peer in the area of innovative form of creativity. As a
Mushaira poet he dominated the Mushairas and quite a few popular
poets feel compelled to refrain from participating in Mushairas
fearing that they would be eclipsed by Jon Elia. I have seen the
audiences he bewitched as a magician overseas and the least that
could be said bordered on the superlative: he was amply dazzling. He
had the unusual gift of turning a Mushaira into a great event.

Jon Elia was a scholar of great merit. He translated numerous
classics of Arabic and Persian e.g. Masih-i-Baghdad Hallaj, Jometria,
Tawasin, Isaghoji, Rahaish-o-Kushaish, Farnod, Tajrid, Masail-i-
Tajrid, Rasail Akhwan-us-Safa – perhaps the kind of work which no
single person could ever think of attempting – and Akhbar-ul-Hallaj
etc. He has also authored four works Ismailiat, Sham-o-Iraq Mein,
Ismailiat, Jazair Arab Mein, Ismailiat, Yemen Mein and Hasan Bin

Since the above works were translated or authored for Ismailiat
Association and Islamic Cultural Centre, Karachi, it is expected that
these learned bodies will make arrangements to publish these works. I
know that the financial resources of the above named organizations
were quite adequate and they could really ensure that these works of
one of the most important writers of his age would enrich Islamic
studies as well as Urdu.

Tajrid is one of the most difficult works and so is the Rasail-i-
Akhwan-us-Safa. Only one or two Rasails of the Akhwan-us-Safa (the
famous work of the Brethren of Purity of the Abbasid period) could
only strengthen the modern generation’s perspective of a grand
intellectual legacy. I believe that Jon Elia could have a place for
him in the annals of our intellectual history if his translations,
compilations and original works in prose were published. They could
prove to be a landmark.

Jon Elia, it has not been often conceded, is an important stylist of
Urdu prose as well. He had a peculiar stamp of originality deriving
its strength from the modern Arabic stalwarts of prose and he
excelled in the prose – style characteristic of the revealed or
inspired Semitic classics. Perhaps he was the Khalil Jibran of Urdu.
In fact his Mushaira image never allowed him to turn to these areas
of accomplishments. He thought that his labour of love in prose will
be looked after by the organizations he worked for. But this has not
come to pass.

I believe it is about time his editorials in Monthly Insha, Alami
Digest and other periodicals are compiled so that the pieces of
vibrant, yet reflective, prose are available for those who did not
have the opportunity of going through his ‘stray reflections.’ I hope
that these writings will open the door of perceptions about a writer
who has been intellectually active for over five decades.

Jon Elia is dead but he will live on because his poetry touches the
chords of our intimate but unusual feelings so often that he emerges
as the most intimate stranger

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