Remembering Amjad Islam Amjad, the Poet of Love and Danger

Amjad was a poet, dramatist, columnist, translator and travelogue writer. With his poetry's focus firmly on love, it was always interesting how Amjad negotiated the idea of nation.

No one can return

From the pathway of death;

The moment that has passed

Can never be lived again

– Amjad Islam Amjad, translated by Baidar Bakht

We exist to die. We are here, only to go over there. Our every step takes us closer to the darkness we all must melt into – the darkness named eternity by sober, rational souls.

Amjad Islam Amjad has embraced eternity. He is no more with us. However, he will keep making his presence felt through our memories of him. He will continue speaking to us through his vast oeuvre.

Amjad was a poet, dramatist, columnist, translator and travelogue writer. Though he wrote both ghazals and nazms, the latter was his real forte. He began his literary career in the early 1960s, reciting his poetry in mushairas across the country and soon became a well-known figure.

It was the television drama serial Waris (Heir), aired on Pakistan Television (PTV) during 1979-80, which bestowed on Amjad the status of celebrity. He used to say that, before Waris, he had an audience of a few thousands; with Waris, his audience swelled to four crores. Nevertheless, he preferred his poetry to playwriting.

Amjad Islam Amjad, who passed away February 10, was, in the jargon of mushaira organisers, a ‘crowd-puller’. His immense popularity, especially with youngsters, hinged on how he focused on the theme of love

Amjad’s artisan, humble family, originally of Sialkot, had moved to Lahore before Partition. Amjad – real name Muhammad Islam – was born in Lahore on August 4, 1944. Lahore’s famous Fleming Road was where he spent his childhood and memories of the place stayed with him forever.

He matriculated at the age of 16 and began composing poetry the same year. Although during his school and college days he wrote humorous stories, which were published in Chand magazine, he soon realised it was only poetry through which his creative potential could be best exhibited.

But a tragic incident occurred in between. Amjad had an ardent passion for the game of cricket, but wasn’t able to make the university team. He was shocked and disappointed, but later realised it was a blessing in disguise. He abandoned the idea of cricket and threw himself, heart and soul, into poetry, becoming even more successful and popular in mushairas than he would have been in cricket matches.

In his early days, Amjad was influenced by the romantic-revolutionary poetry of Sahir Ludhianvi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz on one side, and the neoclassical ghazals of Jigar Muradabadi on the other. Later, he was inspired by Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, who became his mentor as well.

In the days when General Ayub Khan’s dictatorship was under public attack, Amjad wrote a revolutionary poem, ‘Hawa-i-shehr-i-wafa Sharaan’ (The Air of the City of the Loyal), which was carried by Nusrat, a literary magazine edited by Hanif Ramay, and widely circulated. However, with the passage of time, the revolutionary element in Amjad’s poetry began to diminish, while the romantic and neoclassical strands kept strengthening.

Barzakh (The Time Between Death and the Day of Judgement) was his first collection of poetry, published in 1974. Other collections followed, such as Saatvaan Dar (The Seventh Door), Fishar (Compression), Zara Phir Say Kehna (Say it Again), Us Paar (Over There), Sahar Asaar (Indications of Dawn), Mohabbat Aisa Darya Hai (Love is Such a River) and Zindagi Ke Melay Mein (In the Carnival of Life). All collections were compiled in one volume, Meray Bhi Hain Kuchh Khwaab (I Also Have Some Dreams), which was released in 1999.

He also published a handful of his plays, such as Waris, Dehleez (Threshold) and Raat (Night) among others. His book Naey Puraanay (New and Old) contains brilliant, delightful appraisals of a selection of classical Urdu poetry and is a must-read.

Amjad’s poetry has been translated into English, Italian, Turkish and Arabic. The recently released Light of the Shadows: Poems of Love and Other Verses is a voluminous, bilingual anthology of Amjad’s poetry, compiled and translated into English by Baidar Bakht.

Just a month ago, Amjad Sahib presented this book to me when I met him at writer Irfan Javed’s residence in Lahore. He was feeling blue, yet none of those gathered there could have guessed that this was to be our last meet-up.

When seeking a professional path, Amjad wanted to become a lawyer, but his mentor, Aqa Baidar Bakht, advised him to acquire a master’s degree in Urdu. Subsequently, Amjad chose teaching as his career. After retirement from Government MAO College, Lahore, as Associate Professor of Urdu, he served at the Urdu Science Board, the Children Library Complex and as head of the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board.

Amjad was a popular poet – in the jargon of mushaira organisers, a ‘crowd-puller’. He would mesmerise the ‘public’ – mostly youngsters – with his poetry and style of recitation. His exceptional popularity hinged on the maximally advantageous wielding of the theme of love.

Love is the most archaic, most popular, most common and most powerful theme in world literature – and a giant cliche as well. Love is imagined in unimaginable, uncanny ways; experienced in diverse manners; played with varied elan and narrated, painted and described in multiple manners. So, every writer and artist deals with the theme of love in their own, exclusive way.

Realising love’s inimitable power to sway the audience, Amjad worked out a particular notion of it and kept it traversing his ghazals in general, and nazms in particular. This notion doesn’t challenge or contest the prevailing norms and values of society and it avoids navigating the danger zone of bodily pleasures.

That ‘bodily pleasure is a danger zone’ was thought up by modernist writers. When the powers-that-be sought to discipline the masses by exercising control over people’s bodies, modern writers retaliated by writing wild experiences of bodily pleasures.

Amjad wrote about the desires for love instead of the emotion’s corporeal experiences. His popular poems ‘Mohabbat Ki Aik Kahaani’ (One Story of Love), ‘Aik Larrki’ (A Girl), ‘Zara Si Baat’ (A Minor Matter), ‘Tum’ (You) and ‘Hawa Seeti Bajaati Hai’ (The Wind Whistles) best embody his notion.

When one writes of desire instead of experience, one prioritises the act of transference and the postponement of experience. In ‘Mohabbat Ki Aik Nazm’ (A Poem About Love) – and other poems, too – the poet transfers the desire for wild, passionate wasl (union) out on to the aesthetic adumbrations of nature.

Amjad’s love poetry is more romantic, platonic, imaginative and idealistic and less corporeally realistic. It invokes memories, dreams, thoughts, fantasies and reveries of love. In his own words, “Jo bhi kuchh hai, mohabbat ka phailao hai” (Whatever exists is the extension of love) — though not in the sense of Wahdat al Wujoodi (monism).

Amjad knew that imagination and, eventually, dreams and fantasies can go wild, overriding customs and breaking chains:

(Be it any chain

The chain of silver, steel or custom

Love can break it)

But he also seemed to tame the wildness of imagination, chain the potential anarchic power of platonic love and bring the fire of love into the fold of legitimate norms.

Interestingly, this sort of love poetry coincides with poetry for a nation. Amjad composed a slew of verses for national heroes. He cuddled the notion of ‘nation’ as articulated by the Pakistani state and popularised by textbooks and official media.

This was why noted Urdu critic Fateh Muhammad Malik termed Amjad a poet whose sensibility emerged out of September 6, 1965 – a day the Pakistani nation celebrates as a day of defence. At this juncture, Amjad’s popularity took quite a distinct route from that of Habib Jalib, Faiz and Iftikhar Arif.

Interestingly, perhaps in a nostalgic streak of the earlier revolutionary element of his poetry, Amjad translated two different strands of resistance poetry. One was the verses of modern Arabic poets writing against Israel’s atrocities on Palestine. Titled Aks (Reflection), the collection was published in 1976 – one year before General Ziaul Haq imposed martial law.

During the Zia dictatorship, Urdu writers were divided in their response to the brazen violations of Pakistan’s Constitution and human rights, and Zia’s agenda of Islamicisation. One cohort of writers opposed the dictator, another set supported him.

In 1981 came the collection Kaalay Loagon Ki Roshan Nazmein (The Bright Poems of Black People). These were poems by African poets that Amjad had translated into Urdu, and it had several examples of ‘dangerous poetry’ – a sort of writing that speaks directly to the earthly gods who use religion for the purposes of exploitation and servitude.

For instance, in the first poem titled ‘Khuda Ko Batao’ (Let God Know), a Black poet asks an unidentified addressee to convey his message to God, that ‘the sick, the helpless, the devastated, the forgotten are crying out for His blessings/ they are calling to God to leave His heavenly abode to visit their squalid wards, the hell they are surrounded by.’

In the backdrop of Zia’s Islamicisation, such poetry was a sort of indirect resistance and bringing it to the Pakistani public was Amjad’s way of telling the powers-that-be, though obliquely, that ‘we, too, are living in hell.’

The writer is a Lahore-based critic and short story writer and Professor of Urdu at the University of the Punjab. His most recent publication is Naey Naqqad Ke Naam Khatoot. He tweets @NasirAbbas65

This article was first published in Dawn, Books & Authors, on February 19th, 2023. It has been republished with permission.