I was in one of those small intellectual bookstores about two months ago — you know, those small business ones where they shelve their books with natural history and economic reform and a customer can’t find a romance novel anywhere — when lo and behold I found a book of poetry in with other titles about regional affairs. (As an aside, I was in Nepal, and due to language barriers, when I asked for books on poetry, the clerk took me to the section on poverty. It wasn’t until I said “poems” instead of “poetry” that she understood my intentions.)
Kaifi Azmi was an Urdu poet who became so popular he wrote songs for Indian films as well. He was both a poet of love and a poet of revolution. He was a spokesman, and a member of the Communist party. He was all these things, but he was not an ideologue. His beliefs were fluid and he refused to be pigeonholed. Later on he left the Communist Party in part because of this.
His poems are all passionate. It was easy for Pavan K. Varma, who translated his poems in Penguin Poetry’s Selected Poems, to combine his love poems with his revolutionary ones because they all work; one subject is not better than the other. They are driven by passion, and so his political poems are never didactic. You can see love in his politics and politics in his love.
“Habit” is such a poem. It reads like it was a based on a dream; it is a metaphor of people’s rights and inequality, and one person’s own personal experience thereof. My father-in-law read this poem aloud in its Urdu form after I had remarked on its imagery. In its original composition, it’s a very haunting poem indeed.
The poem begins with an introductory quatrain of medium to long lines:
For aeons, I was imprisoned in a blind well
I kept beating my head, kept muttering to myself:
I want sunlight, I want moonlight, I want life itself
The sunlight of love, the moonlight of friends, the freedom of death.
Notice he wasn’t blindly imprisoned in a well, or blind and imprisoned in one, but imprisoned in a blind well. I’m not sure what that means. But in the fourth line, I find it interesting that it is the sunlight of love and the moonlight of friends, not the other way around. Moonlight of love is cliche, but cliche for a reason. So we have two images, one in the first line and one in the fourth, that seem to be opposite of what I’d expect.
|“I want sunlight, I want moonlight, I want life itself”|
He then goes on to expand on this in dramatic passion, leaving his emotions at bay for a bit. The entire middle of the poem is one long stanza.
Day and night I heard only my voice
And gradually I came to believe
In this lonesome world
In the disloyalty of friends
In the lap of the gallows
There is no sunlight
There is no moonlight
There is no life,
Life is one long night
The world an illusion
Towns, citadels of envy
Villages even worse.
These are not happy times. The narrator is sitting in a pool of bitterness; his world is depressing. Something has to change. Some force must catapult him into action. And something does — with it comes longer lines; emotion has returned, and drama remains.
When this darkness had completely crushed me
The well, suddenly, ejected me
From its depths it expelled me.
I saw before me a million Egyptians
There were a million bazaars
Not one aged Zulekha there was
God knows how many buyers there were
Yusuf’s price constantly rose
And people were willing to be sold.
Yusuf and Zulekha refers to an Islamic story I am not familiar with; however, its Biblical counterpart is that of Joseph (Yusuf) and his master’s wife (whose name is never mentioned). The master’s wife wants Joseph to lie with her, he refuses several times, and when he flees from the house, his garment drops into her hands. She claims foul play, and Joseph is imprisoned. The lines make reference to biblical slavery and injustice.
Suddenly, everyone’s luminous faces were unveiled
Their silken sheets were cast away
No eyes blinked, no glance was lowered
Fingers, marble-white, were cut aside
If a hand came close to a garment
The body was dismembered, scattered wide.
And then the stanza break, and the quatrain that finishes the poem. The narrator does not act, after all; the fight for justice does not happen, the revolution is silenced. Fear takes over.
Afraid, I jumped back into the well
Began to beat my head with the same agony
I began to grovel again with the same pleading:
I want the sunlight, I want the moonlight, I want life itself.
Varma in his translator’s note believes the book would be a successful project if it inspired more readership of Azmi. Hopefully, this blog post will also help with that cause.