MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH THE WORK of the Karachi-based Urdu poet Afzal Ahmed Syed left me feeling like I’d been handed a beautiful, breakable object with jagged edges, glazed with a grief that is at once intimate and public. Or like standing in front of a wall crowded with a riot of miniatures, hundreds of images telling stories that are compelling but fractured, weighty but whimsical. This was one of the most remarkable voices of contemporary poetry in the subcontinent, and I was surprised I hadn’t heard it earlier.
I was not alone in my excitement over Syed’s Rococo and Other Worlds, which appeared last year. There is an enthusiastic recommendation on the book’s back cover by his fellow poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra: “One reads Afzal Ahmed Syed’s poems first with disbelief, and then with more disbelief. He lives in Karachi, but it could as well have been Cracow.” Indeed, it could as well have been Mumbai or Delhi.
Consider the first poem in the collection, ‘Our National Tree.’ It refers to the acacia—known as keekar or babool in Hindustani—and the poet announces peremptorily that it ought to be the national tree of Pakistan. He juxtaposes the humble, thorny plant against the delicacy and fragrance of “white jasmine” and the leisure and plenitude suggested by “ikebana practitioners.” Then, without warning, he tosses in a brutal line:
Botanists do not identify acacia as a tree
because it does not support hanging
The translation is sure to have lost some of the cadence of the original Urdu. Botanists, after all, sound nothing like mere botanists if you call them nabanaat ke maahir. Even so, there is no looking away from the striking imagery and the searing narratives. The trend continues in ‘Whom One Loves,’ where the poet begins gently, urging the reader to rescue the beloved from “a fading city/ on the last boat,” and then goes on to say:
must be given the first kiss
a torture cell
in a salt mine
The poems in Rococo and Other Worlds are drawn from three collections published over two decades: Chheeni Hoee Tareekh (An Arrogated Past, 1984), Do Zubaanon Mein Sazaa-e-Maut (A Death Sentence in Two Languages, 1990), and Rococo Aur Doosri Duniyaen (Rococo and Other Worlds, 2000). Within Pakistan, Syed is well regarded by his peers, though not very well known outside the literary world, and it has taken longer for his work to reach across the border than it should have. A few of his poems have appeared in the literary magazine Shabkhoon, published from Allahabad, and some have been translated into Hindi for journals such as Pahal. A selection from Chheeni Hoee Tareekh was also translated into Bengali and published by Tarjama press in Kolkata. But this is the first time that most of Syed’s nazms—poems in free verse—have been published in English.
Readers in the subcontinent may find a special resonance with Syed’s work. Take the poem ‘We Need a Whole Lot of Flowers.’ It presents a litany of deaths, each one hinting at violence, and each deserving of a portion of public grief. Without explicitly saying so, the poem suggests that we do not have the wherewithal to mourn the tragedies that surround us daily. If I didn’t know that the writer was Pakistani, it would have been easy to assume that these lines were written from India. The poet considers not just one particular brutal event but a shared history of brutality. In ‘Why Wouldn’t the Indus Wash Away Our Sorrows,’ he draws a line in blood from the mid-nineteenth century, when the British army’s commander-in-chief in India, Charles Napier, crushed a rebellion against the East India Company in Sindh, up to the present time, when both the Indian and Pakistani governments have used brute force against their people.
Of all the blood
that was spilled
Charles Napier was absolved in his own eyes
and so was the case even a century and half later
with his successors
everything was unchanged
Except Tabasco sauce
had replaced half-ground chillies
in government institutions
for use on women in physical remand
Violence steps into these poems without much fuss, as if it knows that it belongs there, along with the ikebana, the salt mine and the first kiss. “Unfussy” is actually a good description of Syed’s craft, despite the dramatic imagery, grand symbols and tendency to leap across millennia in the space of a few lines. It may even be a good way to describe Syed himself.
I met the poet, and heard him speak, at the Faiz International Festival in Lahore in November. Syed had white hair reaching just below his collar, was dressed in a neat shirt and trousers, and showed a tendency to not speak unless directly addressed, and, even then, to answer only briefly. His reading style, like his poetry, was reflective and quiet, despite all the fierce imagery.
In Main Tumhara Kavi Hoon, a 2011 documentary film, the Hindi poet Vidrohi describes his poems as a form of opposition. “They are a barricade,” he says, “a question mark over the system.” The same might be said of Syed’s work. While he may not directly address the “system” through his poems, he told me, being apolitical was out of the question. “Urdu poets,” he said, “have always been rebellious. It is part of our literary tradition, going as far back as Jafar Zatalli.” Zatalli, a seventeenth-century writer and satirist, critiqued the powers of his time through his verse and is believed to have been killed by the Mughal emperor Farrukhsiyar.
In recent decades, Urdu poets Syed admires, such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, have been celebrated as much for their verse as for their overt anti-establishment stances. Syed, however, chooses a veiled form of critique. Consider the poem titled ‘The Secret History of a Republic,’ which suggests that the nation itself is being sold off:
Brought under the hammer
the Republic was declared destitute.
The poem then slyly hints at censorship through a parenthetical line: “(these words may be expunged.)”
Another poem, ‘As Per Directions,’ plays with the two meanings of the word “directions,” so that it is no longer just about spatial direction but also about authority. It begins with: “The lady Prime Minister shall not head south…” but then it goes on to say: “the people shall not/ move out of homes/ The Ambulances/ shall move zigzag/ History/ Is already moving counterclockwise.”
SYED’S HISTORY IS ENTWINED with that of the subcontinent. He was born in 1946, in the district of Ghazipur, in eastern Uttar Pradesh of pre-Partition India. His father, who worked with the police, was posted in Calcutta at the time. So, instead of heading west after Partition, like many Urdu-speaking north Indian Muslims did, Syed’s family moved east to Dhaka, in East Pakistan.
Syed developed an affinity for poetry early in life. However, it did not occur to him to make literature a professional pursuit. When it was time to think of higher education, he applied to an agricultural college near his home in Dhaka, and ended up studying entomology. He continues to work as an entomologist to this day, and thinks it was just as well that he did not depend on literature or teaching to make a living. ìI had more freedom,î he said, ìto read whatever I chose to read and to write the way I felt moved to write.î
His translator, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, writes in his introduction to Rococo and Other Worlds that Syed’s poetry is a “denouncement of the tyranny of his times.” The poet witnessed some of this tyranny first-hand. Syed was a young entomologist working with the department of plant protection in Dhaka when the 1971 war for the liberation of Bangladesh began. His family attempted to flee to India, but was thwarted at the border. There, Syed saw entire villages razed to the ground.
Back in Dhaka things were not as bad as they were in the villages, but Syed continued to hear reports of killings and “encounters.” In 1972, when he was barely 26 years old, he was caught up in the tumult that accompanied the birth of Bangladesh. The Mukti Bahini, guerillas who fought for independence from Pakistan, were going about looking for people they suspected of having helped the Pakistani army. A stranger pointed to Syed and he was picked up by a police van. It was 23 March, which happened to be Pakistan’s National Day. Syed would have been taken away by the police if some young men of the Mukti Bahini had not intervened. They asked the police to hand Syed over to them. He was taken into a field and told to start running. He ran, fearing the worst, but there was no bullet in his back after all. He returned home.
Though Syed escaped relatively unharmed, the general climate of fear, uncertainty and violence, and his empathy with those who were treated unjustly, left its mark. It is easy to read echoes of it into lines such as these:
It is nothing out of the ordinary
that I was searched
and my heart taken away
to drive me out
my home was set ablaze.
In 1974, Syed moved to Karachi. He went on to study at the American University of Beirut, but, in 1976, was caught in the midst of another conflict—the civil war in Lebanon. Whatever he saw, felt and read then, and in subsequent years in Pakistan, seems to have given Syed what his translator describes in his introduction as an “all-encompassing view of the human story undemarcated by time and place.”
Indeed, Syed does not concern himself only with Pakistan. He presents a view of humanity stretching from ancient Persia to contemporary Latin America. References to varied regional and cultural touchstones dot the landscape of his work, including the Mahabharata, the turquoise mines of Nishapur, the sulphur springs of Mangho Pir, and the Anklesaria Hospital in Karachi—along with more far-flung ones, such as Vienna, Brunei, Sarajevo and Carthage. Apart from Urdu, Syed also speaks English, Persian, French and a bit of Italian, which means he can dip into more than one vocabulary to convey a shifting sense of place and time. For instance, the word “bibliotheque”—the French word for “library”—appears in one of his poems. When I asked Farooqi whether this was a twist he had inserted in translation, he said that Syed had used that very term in the Urdu original.
One of the things that makes his work compelling is its utter modernity. The generation of Urdu poets that came before Syed had already travelled a great distance from the overused romantic metaphors—manzil, mehboob, saki, husn—of classical Urdu poetry, and he continues along that path. Syed also follows in the tradition of having art be driven by a strong social conscience. In Pakistan, this tradition included Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmad Faraz and Habib Jalib. In response to Ayub Khanís dictatorship and the formulation of a new constitution in 1962, Jalib wrote a poem called ‘Dastoor,’ choosing as his title a word that has multiple meanings: tradition, ritual, order. Jalib declared that he did not believe in this new “order” any more than he believes in a dawn that brings no light. Much earlier, in 1947, Faiz had written ‘Subh-e-Azaadi,’ where he called the dawn of independence “tainted,” and declared that this dawn was not the one people had been waiting for.
Syed counts Faiz as one of his strongest influences. In fact, he told me, “When I first began to write poetry, I was consciously copying Faiz’s style. It took me a few years to find my own voice.” The route to his own distinct voice came through translations of poetry from all over the world. Syed counts among his influences not only Persian poets such as Hafiz and Mir Taqi Mir but also modern Turkish poets such as Nazim Hikmet, Spanish poets such as Federico Garcia Lorca, and Latin American poets such as Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda. Such a diverse poetic education meant that Syed was not limited by the tropes or conventions of just one tradition. But a marked shift of perspective came around the time he read a translated anthology of Eastern European poetry written after the Second World War. The book had an immediate, electric impact on Syed and his contemporaries. It exposed them to new voices, ones that had lived through the Holocaust and witnessed unimaginable suffering. These voices were spare, lean, unromantic.
Karachi in the 1970s and 1980s had a cultural ambience conducive to the exchange of fresh ideas and material. One crucial ingredient of it was the public broadcasting network Radio Pakistan, where many poets worked. Syed recalled that a visit to the station meant a chance to share one’s poems and to join literary conversations. “This is also where I had met Tanveer for the first time,” he said, speaking of his second wife, Tanveer Anjum, who is also a poet. The homes of his peers, too, functioned as literary salons. Qamar Jamil—Syed described him as “the leader of the prose poems movement”—kept an open house where poets could just walk in, and discussions went on late into the night. Others, such as Anwer Sen Roy and Azra Abbas, held weekly meetings. Syed’s home was another hub. From this culture, of experimenting with form, sharing and translating, emerged a new generation that began to redefine Urdu poetry. Among them were fine poets such as Zeeshan Sahil, Saeeduddin, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti and Sara Shagufta.
Urdu poets in the past wrote copiously of love and pain. Even now, the corpus of Urdu poetry is dominated by metred and rhymed verse with a very direct form of addressóto the beloved, to the state, to readers, or to God. But, going against this dominant strain, Syed and his colleagues wanted to draw the reader inside their experiences of life, working mundane objects such as bicycles, televisions and dog-catcherís tongs into their lines. Their poems are not neat summaries of human life. They are textured, animated things, with skin and teeth—as if straining to capture life itself. When I asked Syed how he would define modernity in poetry, he said, “To be modern is to deny the great narratives, to resist authority—even the authority of metre in poetry.” This is what he and his contemporaries were doing.
IN ONE POEM, Syed declares: “I invented poetry.” This is a wry, ironic look at the notion of invention. Did the Moroccans indeed invent papyrus, as the poet asks? Did poetry invent love? Nevertheless, to the extent that any single individual can be credited with particular stylistic innovations, Syed has certainly helped reinvent contemporary Urdu poetry. He does not lean on metaphor and simile as heavily as his predecessors did. Syed’s approach is to take readers across a bridge of time, constructed partly of snapshots from his memory, partly of landscapes and their human and animal inhabitants. Echoes of the sufferings described by leading eastern European writers, such as the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who wrote of starvation and concentration camps, pepper his work. But readers will also see the stamp of the Urdu tradition in poems that dwell on the suffering and indignities of love.
For his innovations and the richness of his literary inheritance, Syed can be called a poet’s poet. But he is also a people’s poet, in that he bears witness. In essence, he is a storyteller. In shorter poems he tells stories of ordinary people, or of his own love. In longer prose poems, he tells personal stories in the form of medieval tales, borrowing fixtures such as scimitars, horses, boats, rivers, kings and nomads from classics such as James Frazer’s study of religion The Golden Bough and the Urdu fantasy epic Tilism-e-Hoshruba.
There is a dreamlike quality to Syed’s prose poems. Images and events come hard on the heels of other images and events, taking the reader to a point of logical suspension, as if between waking and sleeping. There is a sense of being trapped in an other-worldly realm, of not being able to pin anything down and yet being sharply aware of each emotion. ‘Sobia’ is one such long poem. At first glance, it seems to belong firmly to the world of fantasy. It could be a fairytale or fable, with its references to nomads and horses; but it also has a slippery quality, a fluidity of context aided by a free-flowing, almost breathless narrative style. By the end of the piece, the reader does not know whether Sobia, the poem’s title character, is a nomad or a princess, but does realise that she is acutely aware of power and its purchase:
When we met again, Sobia said, Of the slaves nomad girls are the cheapest, and of all purchased things freedom is the dearest; hedge my soul with thistles that my soul might never dream of escape ever, and do not put too great a store in love that love could begin any time you offered someone a fresh, red apple
If violence is the left ventricle in the heart of Syed’s work, love is the right one. The poem pours itself seamlessly between these two. Sobia offers to tell the narrator’s fortune at one point, ending her prophecy thus: “before you are hanged from your heels and lynched, someone would have loved you once.”
Later, in the same poem, Sobia peers into a deserted well and asks: “Is this water imprisoned here or is this its abode?” The narrator responds by saying: “Water has a nomadic existence.”
Rootlessness and nomadism form another conjoined thread running through Syed’s work. In a poem titled ‘The Genres of Poetry,’ the narrator describes writing itself as a form of unsettled life. Horses, too, seem to haunt Syed, for they appear in several poems. I asked him if he felt a special connection to the animals, and Syed confessed that he idealises them. “They are beautiful creatures blessed with immense physical power, and yet, they do not harm other creatures.” He dwells upon humanity’s complex relationship with horses in a poem titled ‘On a Political Party Being Allotted the Horse as Its Election Symbol,’ where he urges the horse to “get under the Amazons’ thighs; unseat Nelson at the Trafalgar … do not submit your mane to the lawn mower.”
While prose poems such as ‘Sobia’ leave one grasping for a handhold, other poems are rooted in recognisable events and characters. Dozens of Syed’s poems serve as portraits of individuals; it is interesting to note that most of these characters are women. But the poet’s gaze does not merely rest upon women’s beauty—it turns equally to their joy, vulnerability and their place in the world. There are famous women such as the Argentine first lady Eva Peron, the French queen Marie Antoinette, the Greek deity Aphrodite, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and the British writer Aphra Behn. There are also ordinary women such as Stella D’Cruz, who dies in hospital leaving unpaid bills; Pragat Agarwal, who is a bank teller; Porochista Dastur, who buys beef in Karachi’s Empress Market; Miriam Kenskivic, who is in a labour camp; Hala Faruqi, who features in a sex tape and ends up in police custody; and an unnamed “courageous girl” in Iran after the Islamic revolution.
The poet draws much inspiration from the news. The poem about Eva Peron, he told me, was inspired by a newspaper report about the Argentine president, Juan Peron, keeping his wife’s embalmed body; the report mentioned the fact that there was an ornamental pin in her hair. This detail captured Syed’s imagination and, in the poem, he uses the image of a rusting pin in the head of a corpse to take an ironic look at the lives of the powerful. News snippets about torture cells, a capsized ship, the process of naming satellites, the delay of an academic year—all of these inspire him. But Syed seems equally invested in the past, asking questions about Cleopatra’s whereabouts on the night of Caesar’s assassination, harking back to the seizure of the Latin poet Virgil’s land, or recalling a captain in the army of the East India Company called Richard Burton, who happened to also be the first to translate the One Thousand and One Nights, the famous Arabic epic, into English.
Syed is a translator, too, and has recently published a rendering of the great Mir Taqi Mir’s Persian divan, or collection, into Urdu. The Persian influence appears to be quite strong in Syed’s own ghazals. One collection of them, Khaima-e-Siyah, was published in 1986, but is not available in translation. Farooqi says that although they are remarkable, the ghazals are, in his view, untranslatable.
Syed is, by his own admission, not a prolific writer. He is content to write eight or ten poems a year, and has published very little over the last decade, which is a pity. It would have been interesting to see how his work has developed in the decade and a half since the release of Rococo Aur Doosri Duniyaen, which is his most recent Urdu collection. The chances that he will publish a new collection in the near future are slim. When I asked if there was a new book on the anvil, he shrugged. “I’m writing but I don’t always like what I’ve written. If I don’t like the poem, I tear up the paper. I don’t save it in any form.” One indication of how high he sets the bar for himself is the fact that the poem that gives this translated collection its title, ‘Rococo and Other Worlds,’ is not included in it. When I asked why, Syed just said that, in retrospect, he decided that he didn’t like it so much after all.
Syed also rued the current cultural environment in Karachi. “There are no literary salons,” he said, “nowhere a younger generation of poets can go to find mentors and be exposed to new ideas and influences.” Educational institutions, too, seem to have been taken over by a politics that has little use for poetry.
I wonder whether the literary climate for poets is any different from this in Delhi and Mumbai. Certainly, many of our educational institutions are either indifferent to or suspicious of poetry. How and where do we find a new voice that can declare, with an ironic smile and a wink at the reader, “I invented poetry”? In the meantime, Rococo and Other Worlds is a rare and welcome addition to the South Asian literary pot. Many of the poems in the collection retain their currency decades after they were written. Take the poem ‘An Arrogated Past,’ which mentions targeted killings. When Syed wrote it, he was referring to attempts to kill Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat in the Israeli siege of Beirut, in 1982. However, against the backdrop of the many killings in Pakistan in recent years, it is hard not to read a painful new meaning into lines such as these:
a great distance was put
and of that expanse
we were proclaimed citizens
In the course of our brief conversation, Syed gave me a metaphor to chew on. When I asked if he felt that his entomological work was a chore, he said no. “On the contrary,” he replied, “I find it quite interesting. Consider the fact that the smaller an insect is, the more adaptable it is, and the greater its ability to survive.”
Ever since, I have been wondering if Urdu poetry is like a small insect, trying to adapt to a post-industrialised, globalised world. It is constantly seeking new sources of literary nourishment, and surprising readers with new colours and patterns. At least for Afzal Ahmed Syed—the poet who wrote “I invented poetry,” only to follow it up with the beguiling line: “The mulberry seller invented the silkworm”—the metaphor seems an apt one.
Annie Zaidi is the author of Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales and the co-author of The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl. She writes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and scripts and currently lives in Mumbai.