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A Poet in the Soiree of Sincerity: Mustafa Zaidi, 50 Years On

Mustafa Zaidi’s aesthetic taste could never compromise with the speed of time and neither could he harmonise the demands of the heart with the realities of life.

Inhi pathharon pe chal kar agar aa sako to aao
Mere ghar ke raaste mein koi kahkashaan nahi hai

(‘If you wish to come, you must take the stony road
The stars do not light up the way to my abode.’)

On October 8 last week, 77-year-old American Louise Glück became the latest Nobel literature laureate, awarded “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

Prior to this unexpected elevation, I had neither heard of, nor read her. It prompted, nay, tempted me, to look her up and compare her with the subject of my latest essay, a Pakistani poet who was born and who passed away in October. Both had been contemporaries.

The American’s career took off with the publication of her first poetic work at age 25 (1968). The Pakistani poet had published his first collection at 19 years of age (in 1949). But by the time the American completed her second collection, after a gap of seven years, at age 32 (1975), the Pakistani poet had completed four collections of poetry.

Chances are that neither have read nor met the other. Yet Glück had been recognised as a star on the American literary firmament long before the international literary world recognised her prowess, with the Nobel. The Pakistani poet – no less able – passed away, relatively unrecognised and uncelebrated within the Urdu canon. Let alone receive world recognition. 

Also read: The Meaning of Despair in Louise Glück’s Poetry

That unfortunate Pakistani poet, Mustafa Zaidi (1930-70), who died 50 years ago today and whose his 90th birth anniversary was just a couple of days earlier on October 10, died young.

The circumstances of his death were lurid, involving extramarital liaisons, a suicide pact with a lover who survived, and dark accusations of murder. These issues have tended to overshadow discussions about his considerable talent. Zaidi should have been seen as one of the stalwarts of the Progressive movement in Pakistan in the 1960s, but his due has mostly eluded him, partly because of the rather colourful posthumous publicity that enveloped him.

Zaidi’s first book, Raushni, was published when he was 19 and still in India. He moved to Pakistan in the early 1950s, and after a brief stint in academia, went on to become a senior civil servant. His career ended badly when he was dismissed during Yahya Khan’s purge of 303 bureaucrats in 1970. His death, shortly after, led to the murder trial of his partner, which became a media circus.

During that time, several literary journals brought out special issues on his work. Eventually, his Kulliyaat (complete works) was published in the mid-1970s. It included superlative praise of his work by Faiz, Firaaq and Josh. However, he was strangely ignored by the intelligentsia.

For example, in his magisterial analysis of the Progressive literary movement in Urdu, Khalilur Rahman Azmi dismisses Zaidi in one line as one among a slew of ‘emerging’ poets post-1947 ‘who have been successful in maintaining their individuality to a great extent.’

When Azmi was writing this on his doctoral dissertation at Aligarh, Zaidi had already published two collections of poetry. Even when Azmi’s dissertation was published in 1971, a year after Zaidi’s death, our critic chose to ignore the fact that Zaidi had already published seven collections of poetry aged just 40.

Laurel Steele’s doctoral dissertation on Zaidi, completed in 2005 at the University of Chicago, titled Relocating the Postcolonial Self: Place, Metaphor, Memory and the Urdu Poetry of Mustafa Zaidi (1930-1970) remains the definitive word on Zaidi in English.    

I have chosen to translate two brief works by Zaidi. The first is a ghazal that has been sung by Abida Parveen, among others.

Aandhi chali to naqsh-e-kaf-e-paa nahin mila

Dil jis se mil gaya vo dobaraa nahin mila

Aavaaz ko to kaun samajhta ke door door

Khaamoshiyon ka dard-shanasaa nahin mila

Hum anjuman mein sab ki taraf dekhte rahe

Apni tarah se koi akela nahin mila

Kachche ghade ne jeet li naddi chadhi hui

Mazboot kashtiyon ko kinara nahin mila

(So intense was the storm, even footprints were wiped out

To lose those I desired – that’s been my fate throughout

Who could have recognised that voice, no one had the gift

That could feel the painful cadence of a silent shout

I locked eyes with everyone in that public soiree

Alas I found none as lonely as me, without a doubt

The clay pitcher survived the swells of flooded rivers

It reached the shore, while the storm shattered ships strong and stout.)

While the second is an excerpt from his luminous poem Koh-e-Nida (hat tip to my humnaam comrade Raza Mir for introducing me to this poem, and to Zaidi).

The imagery of Koh-e-Nida is from the Arabian folk tale of Hatim Tai in which a mountain called out to people, who upon entering it were consumed by it. Written at the tail end of Zaidi’s life, this poem has been interpreted by many as a poetic suicide note, where Zaidi sees the world as a beckoning killer mountain.

Ayyohan-naas chalo koh-e-nida ki jaanib

Kab tak aashufta-sari hogi naye naamon se

Thhak chuke honge kharabaat ke hangaamon se

Har taraf ek hi andaz mein din dhalte hain

Log har shehr mein saaye ki tarah chalte hain

Ajnabi khauf ko seenon mein chhupaae hue log

Zaat ke karb mein bazaar ki rusvaai mein

Tum bhi shamil ho is anboh ki tanhaai mein

Tum bhi ek baadiya paimaa ho khala ki jaanib

Ayyohan-naas chalo koh-e-nida ki jaanib

Raat bhar jaagte rehte hain dukaanon ke charaagh

Dil vo sunsaan jazeera, ke bujha rehta hai

Lekin is band jazeere hi k eek goshe mein

Zaat ka baab-e-tilismaat khula rehta hai

Apni hi zaat mein pasti ke khandar milte hain

Apni hi zaat mein ek koh-e-nida rehta hai

Sirf us koh ke daaman mein mayassar hai najaat

Aadmi varna anaasir mein ghira rehta hai

Aur phir in se bhi ghabra ke uthaata hai nazar

Apne mazhab ki taraf, apne khuda ki jaanib

Ayyohan-naas chalo koh-e-nida ki jaanib

(My fellow humans, let’s go answer the mountain’s call.

How long will we use new names to conceal our distress?

You too must be tired of this misfortune and stress

Everywhere the new day brings similar tired woes

In each city folk move strangely like zombie shadows

In their hearts they conceal strange fears camouflaged as cares

Demons disguised as idols, this strange multitude bears

Private pains of existence, the market’s public shame

Don’t you judge this crowd, you too have played this lonely game

Like barren promises, into this void let us fall

My fellow humans, let’s go answer the mountain’s call.

The bright lamps of shops stay lit all night, garish and stark

The heart, though, is that silent island that remains dark

But in every corner of this island, near and far

The magic door of selfhood remains open, ajar

In our self, we see lowly ruins of hurt and pain

In our own self we see the cursed beckoning mountain

In that mountain’s caves – that is where our salvation lies

Else humans stay trapped in webs of relations and ties

And fearful of those too, they slowly raise up their eyes

They summon their God, enveloped in religious thrall

My fellow humans let’s go answer the mountain’s call.)

The singer of beauty and love, Mustafa Zaidi, was deprived of a beautiful thing as life. A poet of such optimistic ideas was taken from us by death. He was an idea or a verse which till then was yet to be cast within the mould of words; a song whose tune had not been made yet.

Wherever he sat down, he filled the gathering with his talk, his laughter, and his verses. When he left, he left the full party desolate. His sincere personality was so attractive that nobody could forget him after meeting him once. 

Mustafa Zaidi’s life was a sum of opposites. He always remained a stranger in government offices. His poetic disposition could never harmonise with the arrogance of officers. But to break the golden collar of government employment too was not within his power. So he repeatedly ran into the embrace of love to find refuge. But in a society where everything has become a market commodity, who would praise the passion, love and sincerity of an empty-pocketed poet?

Though every sensitive person in this society has to imbibe the poisons of sorrow and live by dying several times, Zaidi’s life was extremely delicate. He was aware of the value of life. So his famous qataa is that:

Din ki ik ik boond giraan hai, ik ik juraa-e-shab nayaab

Shaam-o-sehar ke paimaane mein jo kuchh hai dar dar ke piyo

Aahista aahista barto in ginti ki saanson ko

Dil ke haath mein sheesha-e-jaan hai qatra qatra kar ke piyo

(Every single drop of the day is costly, every single sip of the night is rare

Whatever lies within the measure of night and day, consume it with fear

Gradually expend these limited breaths

The mirror of life is held by the heart, drink drop by drop, beware.)

But sometimes he was suffocated by this form of caution and his danger-loving vein began to throb. At that time, Mustafa Zaidi would begin to insist on drinking the liquor of life in one gulp, indifferent to the worry of tomorrow and the sorrow of last night. This romantic manner of living indeed brought much enjoyment to his verses but Zaidi was also convinced of applying this sensory experiment to life.

Mustafa Zaidi’s aesthetic taste could never compromise with the expediencies of time and neither could he harmonise the demands of the heart with the realities of life. There was no difference between his exterior and interior. He neither wore the garment of piety and virtue nor called the poison sugar.

That his measure of values was merely aesthetic is another matter. He used to say that a special creative beauty overflows on the face of artists, which conceals their ugliness. His friends, indeed, liked these innocent gestures of his but ill-wishers would become jealous.

Mustafa Zaidi left behind a sorrowful tale. His friends read this tale with great pleasure; although we do not know whether in this tale of sorrow they also see traces of their own society, the obnoxious life of their palaces of pleasure.

A society where one is allowed to hate a human but not love him; where the standard of humanity and decency is not the beauty of morals but a pursuit of money; where the purity of passion and emotion and truth of art and skill is injured by the whip of the censor; where expression of self is a crime though there is no limit upon the active markets of deceit and where the blood of man is cheap and the facilities of justice and equity are costly, there the death of Zaidi, Manto, Majaz, Saghar and Sara Shagufta is a cause for wonder, not regret.

Tu ne mere labon ko gham ki nae di

Mard-e-Azaad ko banaya qaidi

Uff dhoond rahi hain tujhko aankhen meri

Zaidi Zaidi kahan hai beta Zaidi

(You have given my lips sorrow’s reed

You imprisoned a man, from every limit who was freed

Alas my eyes are searching for you

Zaidi Zaidi, where are you, my son indeed)

– Josh Malihabadi     

All translations from the Urdu are by the writer.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader, currently based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at [email protected].