An oxymoron of a man
By Hammad Ghaznavi
Jaun Eylia was a giant whose stature never diminished — not even in the absence of distance which renders important everything far off
“Jaun Bahi, what shall I write in your obituary?” I asked Jaun Eylia a couple of years ago. First, he smiled, then wore a solemn look. Gazing into distance, he said: “Exaggerate my poetic talent as much as you can. Just prove to the world that your Jaun Bhai was the most prominent Urdu language poet of Federal B Area, Karachi.” I told him he was asking for too much and I would lose all credibility as a writer if I inflated his stature to such implausible proportions. Then he almost begged to be mentioned at least as “one of the” most prominent poets of Federal B Area. And I, magnanimously, agreed.
In one of his letters written about six years back, he gave me directions about his funeral. “I come from a Semitic race, so it’s your duty to ensure that according to our tradition my funeral is grand and profound, with millions of mourners wailing, beating their chests, and throwing dust towards the sky.” Later, when we talked, I promised to carry out his wishes.
Jaun Bahi died last week. I could not even attend his funeral. Now I will break my other promise as well. I will not describe him as one of the most prominent poets of any Karachi neighbourhood.
Writing Jaun Bhai’s obituary is tough for me. Though I have written many, I have no experience of writing the obituary of someone so close, so dear. I don’t know what to say. Analysing the finer points of his poetry or uniqueness of his prose here seems stupid. Or perhaps it is not. I really don’t know what to say, where to start from.
Jo Guzaari Na Ja Saki Hum
Hum Nay Woh Zindagi
These were Jaun Eylia’s first lines that I heard as a school boy in late 1970s. I did not know then whose couplet that was but I liked it. It was about a decade later that I first saw Jaun in a TV mushaira where he recited his famous Do Ghazla (Maira Ik Mashwara Hay Iltija Nahin; Tu Meray Paas Say Is Waqt Ja Nahin). I felt he was my kind of poet. Jaun’s rock star looks and his unique way of reciting certainly contributed in attracting me towards him.
I started looking for his collections of poetry. Most of Lahore booksellers were not even familiar with his name. I didn’t give up and asked a friend in Karachi to do me the favour of sending a collection of Jaun’s poetry. After a few days, my friend called and revealed that I was looking for something nonexistent. He clarified it was not that Jaun’s collections of poetry had run out of print — they were never published, not a single book.
In 1990, I read a small news item in daily Jang: Jaun Eylia’s first collection of poetry — Shayad — published.” In a few hours, the book was in my hands. For the next few weeks, it remained in my hands. It was a unique experience to read the book. Jaun was even more amazing as a poet than I had been expecting. An absolute surprise was his prose, the 30-page preface of his book. His prose was a rare mix of spontaneity and erudition. It was distinct. Jaun appeared as a fictional character in Shayad’s poetry and prose; someone who desperately wanted to suffer from tuberculosis and spit blood and die young for that was all considered ‘revolutionary’ those days; someone who would swallow the food in his mouth without chewing it if his beloved entered the room for he considered chewing food in front of her a vulgar and unaesthetic act; and someone who, on the other hand, discussed major philosophical debates with a master’s ease. “Is he real?” I would ask myself every time I read Shayad.
Poet Shehzad Ahmad told me on the phone one day in 1993: “Jaun Eylia is in town.” I was thrilled. Jaun was staying with actor Munawar Saeed, who is his close relative. It was not difficult to find Munawar Saeed’s phone number. I dialed the number and asked for Jaun Eylia. Shortly afterwards, he was on the line. I vividly remember that conversation. I was formal, he was not. I tried to seek an appointment with him the next day. He said ‘why not today’. I recited one of his couplets (Hasil-e-Kun Hay Yeh Jahaan-e-Kharaab; Yay hi Mumkin Tha Itni Ujlat Main). He said ‘these lines are yours now’. I was at his place in an hour.
Meeting celebrities, especially poets and artists one admires, is a dicey thing. At least my experience in this context is not great. In the absence of the illusion that distance creates, giants do not necessarily look giants. Some even prove big yawns when they are, say, not singing or reciting poetry. I was hence well aware of the hazards of seeing Jaun Eylia.
He was barefooted as he came out to receive me at the door. As a reply to my greetings, he kissed my forehead. “Jaun Sahib, I am…,” as I started my sentence he interrupted me: “Call me Jaun Bhai.” I said, “Jaun Bhai, I’m your fan.” He said, “And I’m your fan.” I told him I wanted to interview him. He said: “What interview? You know me, you know my views on every issue. Just write what you want.” Till three in the morning, we kept talking. I asked him if he was an atheist. “Why did you ask this question?” he asked me. I quoted one of his couplets: Ay Khuda (Jo Kahin Nahin Maujood); Kya Likha Hay Hamaari Qismat Main. He smiled and explained: “At least from these lines you cannot prove me an atheist. It is the biggest ‘kufr’ to say that God exists in any one direction as He is direction-free. Haven’t you heard this verse — Fa’ayna Ma Tawalloo Fasamma Wajhoallah (Whichever way you turn, Allah is in that direction).”
After a while he was talking in detail how his sensitive nature had affected his love life. “While I was still in Amroha, I would go in the afternoon to my fiancee’s, whose mother was my student. It was a routine. One day as I reached her place I was told she was asleep. It hurt me. I felt she was taking me for granted after the engagement. That was an insult to my love. I somehow came out of that relationship, an act that changed the course of my life.” Then he narrated another incident from the 1960s. “I liked a girl. One day we met in a famous restaurant of Karachi. While making tea she asked me how much sugar I took. One and a half spoons, I told her. Next time, after a month or so, we met in the same cafe´ and while making tea she asked me the same question. I was devastated. It was against my idea of love to forget basic things about your lover. I walked out of the relationship.”
The opinion I formed about Jaun Bhai that day never changed.
The next day I decided to have a small gathering with Jaun Bhai as the chief guest. To be honest, I wanted to share my ‘find’ with some of my friends. I was curious to see if Jaun Bhai charmed everyone the same way. I can never forget that evening. Jaun Bhai talked about culture, history, religion, languages with amazing grip on all these subjects. On most of the ‘established facts’, his point of view was different and thought-provoking. Then he began to recite his poetry. We all were enthralled. He suddenly stopped and said he wanted to recite some cantos of his incomplete epic and for that he needed something to hide his dress. His argument was that since his poem was timeless he needed unstitched cloth to hide his dress that represented a certain era of human history. We could manage a blanket which he happily wrapped around himself, stood in a corner of the room, and began to recite those marvelous cantos in an extremely dramatic way. The audience was spellbound. As he finished the cantos, he almost fell on the floor and kept quiet for the next few minutes. After a while he got up from the floor and for the next hour he discussed the poetic techniques of Persian Ghazal poets, particularly Roadki, perhaps his favourite.
He was a curious mix of opposites — a highly learned man who could dance without the faintest of hesitation any moment to express joy; who mentally lived in bygone centuries though he could discuss relativity for hours; who desperately wanted to look attractive but refused to comb his hair for days; who was a Shia but had attended Deoband; who was a majzoob with a surprisingly sharp mind and memory.
About five years ago, Markaz-e-Sadaat-e-Amroha organised a function where Jaun Bhai was to be tried in a fake court for his literary crimes. Jaun Bhai invited me, along with Professor Aqil Rubi, from Punjab as a defence lawyer.
As a journalist, I have had the privilege of meeting celebrities from all walks of life — showbiz, sports, politics, literature. Some of them were impressive and attractive, for different reasons. To be honest, I have never met anyone more mesmeric than Jaun Bhai.
One night, at about three in the morning, we were talking randomly, digressing from topic to topic when Jaun Bhai revealed the name of his next collection of poetry. I objected to it. After a while everyone present agreed that we had to find another title. We all suggested various titles but could not agree on any. After a long pause, when we had almost given up, someone said ‘how about Yaani’. Jaun Bhai was excited and started discussing various meanings and nuances of the word Yaani. The more we thought about it, the more we were convinced of its appropriateness. Yaani would be the name of Jaun Bhai’s next book, we all agreed.
During the last three years, Jaun Bhai asked me at least a dozen times to write a brief note explaining how the name of the book was decided. He wanted that note to be part of his next collection. I could not write it. And I have no excuse for that.
I know I am being incoherent. It reminds me what Jaun Bhai used to say when he appeared incoherent: “There is an internal coherence in what I am saying.” It seems he was right.
“I have no claim as a poet. But when it comes to language, I am Urdu personified,” he would say. He used to claim that he could tell the meaning of an Urdu word even if he had never heard it before. Whenever I wanted to know the meaning of a word, I would call him. “Jaun Bhai, what does Dhaak mean in Dhaak Kay Teen Paat?” I asked him recently on the phone. Pat came the reply. It was not restricted to an ignoramus like me alone. Even people considered authorities on the language used to call him for the same purpose. Urdu was an issue with Jaun Bhai. He could talk for hours on the language’s right usage, on how to popularise it, about the changes that its spelling needed and so on.
One of the bitter facets of his life was his failed marriage. And the distance that various factors had created between him and his children. He had places to live, but did not have a home for many years towards the end of his life. “Ghalib had a home, Iqbal had a home, Faiz had a home, but I’m homeless. I’ve suffered more than all of them,” he would say. Living without a ‘caretaker’ was really tough for Jaun Bhai, a man who actually could not do even the easiest tasks for personal upkeep.
Mohabbat Kuchh Na Thi Juz
Woh Band-e-Qaba Hum Say
I’m sure it was a real life situation. “I’ve failed to do two things properly in life, taking medicine without choking myself and kissing a girl without choking her,” he would sadly announce while struggling to swallow his tablets. But, on the other hand, perhaps for less mundane matters, his mind was laser sharp, his memory was fascinating.
About three weeks ago as I was flying back to Pakistan from the UK, where I stayed over a year for studies, I decided that my first documentary would be on Jaun Bhai. A documentary on an intriguing character like Jaun Bhai! I was excited about the idea. I wanted to visually document him; I wanted to show that such a mythological character actually existed. I could not do it. Jaun Bhai died.
Jaun Bhai was angry with me for various reasons. “Stop wasting your time in journalism and do something serious,” he would advise me many a time. I promised him every time that soon I would start doing something meaningful. “I’m shocked at the absence of a lota in your toilet. You are custodian of a culture,” he would angrily say. I always promised him but could never get one. I promised him to write a few introductory lines for Yaani but couldn’t do it.
I had decided to break yet another promise. But now I have changed my mind. I will fulfill that promise. I hereby declare Jaun Eylia one of the most prominent poets of Federal B Area, Karachi.