Jon Elia: Prometheus chained

February 6, 2005

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AUTHOR: Prometheus chained

By Ali Shameem
ACCORDING to Dr Mohammad Ali Siddiqi, Jaun Elia was among the most important and popular ghazal writers of the second half of the 20th century. I agree. Yet, in the following lines, I would like to add that he was one of the most neglected nazm writers of the same period, as part of the unfortunate general phenomenon of neglect of nazm by critics of Urdu poetry as well as the poetry lovers in the general public.

This trend has led to an amnesia-like attitude towards such stalwarts of nazm like Josh Malihabadi, Noon Meem Rashid, Akhtarul Iman, Meeraji, Majaz, Faiz, Wazeer Agha, Majeed Amjad, Sardar Jafri, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Azmatullah Khan, Balraj Komal, Ibne Insha, Muneer Niazi, and many others, including the sole female nazm poet of major significance, Fahmeeda Riaz. The supremacy of ghazal over nazm in criticism and the public mind has its roots in a more fundamental intellectual and cultural underpinning.

Jaun Elia also became a victim of the ghazal and mushaira culture and, in spite of his unparalleled preparation for it, lost his motivation for nazm, to me a higher, broader and more vital expression of poetic endeavour. That is why I regard Jaun as a great poetic promise not completely fulfilled.

Jaun’s excellent formal education in Arabic and Persian poetry and prose, his father’s high scholarship in the same intellectual environment, as well as the intellectual and poetic shadow of his famous bothers Raees Amrohvi, the poet, and Syed Muhammad Taqi, the philosopher-journalist, laid the foundations of his poetic development. Very important to note is his father’s and his own life long and deep rooted preoccupation with charismatic and prophetic personalities of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim milieu, like Moses, Christ, Yohunna, Yermiah, Hallaj, and Gheelanay Damishqi.

All this contributed to the style of his nazm poetry. His early 1960s’ epic nazm ‘Nai Aag ka Ehed Nama’, which he did not complete, and somehow lost, could have qualified as one of the greatest poems in Urdu. Poems published in his three collections are also very significant compositions, and do reflect his intensely messianic, mythology-inspired, oratorical and lyrical style, to a level not found in any Urdu poet.

Great artists have very strong egos, explicitly expressed in social interaction and relationships (van Goh and Gaugain), or implicitly internalized, leading to high achievement motive, as well as humility and tolerance of other’s achievements (T.S. Eliot, Faiz Ahmed Faiz). Jaun belonged to the first category, with contempt for all poets past and present except Khusrau, Urfi and Meer. His tirade against Ghalib was a result of his highly egotistical competitiveness.

Three other major characteristics of Jaun’s personality were intensity of feeling (seen in Josh and Majaz), a continuous internal state of inellectual and emotional agitation, and a dramatic romanticism about life and love; he was fascinated and identified with Keats, Shelley and Byron.

To me, the most effective way of analyzing a poet’s contribution lies through a study of his or her attitudes towards beliefs about the cosmos, society and self, all three overlapping in the actual organic expression, yet separable for analytical purposes.

Jaun’ life long internal state of intellectual agitation, manifested itself in his emotional depression. This lay in his not finding any coherence, meaning and order in the universe. He was agnostically inclined and an existentialist to the core. This is reflected in most of his poems composed in his last 15 years. “Boodish”, “Burjay Babel”, “Ramzay Hamaysha”, and “Waqt” are representative examples.

Yet, the most complete and internally coherent, and powerfully metaphorical statement from him about his view of universe and man is “Wilayat-i-Khaiban”, which qualifies him for the deserved company of T.S. Eliot, whose “The wasteland”, “The hollow men” and “Prufrock” are replete with Jaun’s themes in “Wilayat-i-Khaiban” which is based on the powerful existentialist metaphor of a city whose inhabitants are in a state of deep sleep and dream and are sleepwalking when they get up for their chores.

This bustling foreign land, all its knowledge and vision, all its lofty culture

Its every success, every dazzling light, are born of

The fountainhead of daydreaming/sleepwalking Sleepwalking, indeed.

Romanticizing of gloom, noise of silent voices and half-lit ambience

Directions of confusion, warps, fear of darkness

Who knows what these are? The entire being of ours: perhaps a perpetual gloomAll this a deception; deception perhaps.

It seems as if Eliot and Jaun have met on a path, headed in opposite directions, Eliot the Catholic lamenting the death of certainty of cosmic beliefs in his western world and Jaun rejecting a system of cosmic beliefs he inherited and giving intense expression to his feeling of lack of meaning and coherence in the universe and man’s existence within it. I had heard Jaun say many a time that he was a seeker after certainty but he would not accept any intellectual illusion only to silence his agitation after finding a false facade of spiritual peace of mind. The following excerpt from ‘Waqt’ is again a beautifully composed statement of Jaun’s perception of lack of meaning in the universe:

Feeling is many a life’s problem

Expression is many a tongue’s trouble

A mist from the nucleus of faith

Up to the great summit of doubts

From the East of profit and the gain of flash-glimpse

To the west of darkness and losses

It is difficult to neatly place Jaun in the pigeonholes of the literary movements of his lifetime. Like Jean Paul Sartre, he was committed to two major literary camps, without one casting a shadow on the other. Sartre was not only a devotee but also a pioneer of his own brand of existentialism; yet, he worked with great fervour for Marxist causes. Jaun started his poetic career at the age of eleven under strong influence of romanticism. At 16, he began to be affected by the strongest literary movement of that time, that had swept through Urdu poetry, fiction and criticism, the movement pioneered by the Progressive Writers Association. On the ideological level, his poetry began to be strongly Marxist, particularly under the influence of the famous communist revolutionary activists, Naazish Amrohvi and Sultan Niazi. At 20, he wrote his famous poem “Shahrahai Tamaddun par Do Aawaazai(n)”:

You, on the payroll of capitalism, tell your Master

You, keepers and merchants of bones of the old order

Against your wishes a new civilization shall rise

A new romance, a new song, a new era shall dawn

Your Master was saying all these people are but mad

They are the voice of democracy, leaders of the world

No, they have not gone mad.

Jaun’s conviction that capitalistic society exploits and oppresses the weak, remained with him till his last years. In his last major poem “Darakhtay Zard”, he tells his son about his own childhood:

I was the most attained lad of my city

Most spontaneous, most daring of them all

I kept the foul-doing aristocrats a kick away

Placing the shoes of the working class on the pulpit

His strongest statement of his view of society is in these lines from his preface of Shayad:

I want to say that our arts and

learning duty-bind us to drag those out by the collar

Who run the casinos of capitalism. For, alongside political democracy,

Economic freedom has been and shall remain our hallmark.

In spite of all this, the fundamentalists among the left leaning writers and magazine editors of Karachi, who were his friends from youth, have not published a thing on him nor did they arrange a single condolence meeting after his death; again, in spite of the fact that Jaun lived the life of a poor man even after he was financially well off in the last five years of his life, practising what he preached. I am unable to fathom the reason.

Jaun spent the last decades of his life writing and living like Meer Taqi Meer; yet, his concept of love remained close to that of Ghalib. Meer says,

Idol, you we worshipped to such lengths

That all proclaimed you god

while Ghalib says,

Desire the idiots proclaimed worship

Do I worship that idol of no requite?

Jaun’s narcissism and ego formed his concept of love. Cosmic loneliness, alienation and a romantic sadness were the foundations of Jaun’s inner personality:

Name and name only all around, and a multitude to face

Let someone else be there too; none’s there but me

My forehead I knocked at several times today

Am I there? No, not a trace of me

To me, a great loss of Urdu poetry lies in Jaun not rising to his full potential for writing poems of epic proportions, only because of his near total surrender to fame and acclaim that the ghazal-mushaira culture gave him. His Prometheus stole the fire from the gods but could not fully deliver it to the world.

Jaun wrote his own obituary in Meer’s style:

These mad utterances we let out

Be warned, will be everlasting

We won’t keep you company

But our tales will n

— Translation of Urdu verses by Murtaza Razvi

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