The town of Phillaur in Ludhiana in Indian Punjab is an unremarkable town. In 2017, it briefly got in the news by virtue of Anshai Lal’s debut film, Phillauri, starring Diljit Dosanjh and Anushka Sharma. Though bracketed as a fantasy comedy, the film, at least for this writer, had serious undercurrents running underneath its ostensibly light veneer – not least the relationship between art, the people and social change, as well as the fact that the Jallianwala Bagh incident provided a compelling backdrop to the film itself.
On closer inspection, however, one finds that it is at least two poets born in this seemingly ahistoric town, born almost a hundred years apart, who actually put this nondescript little place on the map. One, Shardha Ram Phillauri – notice that the poet protagonist in the aforementioned film also assumes the pen-name of Phillauri – who is regarded not only as the composer of the popular Hindi hymn ‘Om Jai Jagdish Hare’ but also the first Hindi novel.
But more than this particular ‘Phillauri’, Ibne Insha (1927-1978), who was born 92 years ago today, is of special interest because his literary career – poet, humourist, travelogue and children’s writer and translator – defies easy categorisation.
Abruptly felled by Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 50, his poetic output over three decades was marked by two singular qualities: consistency and variety. At a time when the best and brightest of Urdu poets vacillated between shabab and inquilab, romance and revolution – the two poles around which most of Urdu poetry has always gravitated – Ibne Insha spoke up steadfastly for both.
That Insha held his own against the formidable presence of the Progressives and romantics already firmly established in Lahore – Faiz, Rashid, Faraz, Jalib, Nasir Kazmi, Majeed Amjad, Mustafa Zaidi, Saghir Siddiqui – and kept writing within both the revolutionary and romantic strains, speaks volumes. Insha himself puts it best when he says:
“But I have chosen to fight separately on the fronts of love and non-love. With me there is neither the mixture of ‘come my love the revolution’ nor do I like the gesture of turning the veil into a banner.”
His poetry, published in collections titled Chand Nagar, Dil-e-Vehshi, Is Basti ke Ik Kooche Men, and a collection of poems for children called Billo ka Basta, has a distinctive diction laced with language reminiscent of Amir Khusro in its use of words and construction that is usually heard in the more earthy dialects of the Hindi-Urdu complex of languages.
Picked up by singers on both sides of the border, such as Amanat Ali Khan, the maestro of the Patiala gharana who beautifully sang the famous Insha-ji utho, and Jagjit Singh who sang Kal Chaudavi ki raat thi, shab bhar raha charcha tera, they show us an Insha returning to his familiar tropes, the temporariness of this world and worldly love itself.
‘Arise, Insha-ji, let’s depart
This city’s no place to settle down
We are madmen, we abhor peace
Mendicants have no place in a town.
Cast a glance at your tattered soul
Ponder awhile, with reason calm
Your heart’s but a shroud pierced with holes
Dare you use it to beg for alms?
The night is done, the moon is down
A strong secure chain locks your gate
How’ll you explain to your love now
The reason you’ve returned this late?
Her beauty is a pearl, but I
Can merely watch but dare not touch
Such treasure is hardly worth much,
Eludes the grasp and haunts the eye.
If city-dwellers forsake me
Should I in forests seek respite?
I am fated to insane speech
For such talk is the madman’s plight.
He was, however, one of South Asia’s most gifted poets and humourists who died too young. The world knows him mostly as the author of melancholy ghazals, or the biting satire that can be witnessed in his masterpiece, ‘Urdu ki Akhri Kitab’.
However, little known is the fact that he was one of the early supporters of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in undivided India and would undoubtedly have been one of its leaders had he lived long enough in independent Pakistan.
He also left behind about a dozen odd intensely political poems showing an uncanny awareness of the horrors of war and imperialism. They range from colonial machinations in the Middle East at the beginning of the Cold war and the advance of Mao Zedong’s armies to victory in Beijing to the horrors of the Korean war, and from a dirge mourning the defeat of Arab forces to Israel in 1967 to the failures of world bodies like the United Nations Children’s Fund to provide adequate food to war-ravaged children.
In the preface to his first collection of poetry, Chand Nagar (Lunar City), Insha admits:
“My longer poems are mostly the product of the conflict between the bitter realities of my surroundings and my romantic temperament…The Korean War shook me up and its echoes will be heard in all my poems until the present. For me, war is not a headline of any newspaper but it signifies fire and destruction, and a soldier is not merely a uniform, gun and medal, but a body and form of a son, brother and loved one.”
One of his lyrical anti-war poems, ‘Aman ka Aakhri Din’ (The Last Day of Peace), originally published in 1952, is still a relevant warning about the horrors of war. Here he comes across as a deeply political and prescient poet, a far cry from the anomie of his exquisite ghazals and the affability of his sophisticated humour:
“Why in every headline of the evening papers today
Every word weaves a tangled web
With every cloud a doubt emerging
Thoughts lie writhing in the corners of the mind
Now every line reeks of gunpowder
It is difficult crossing every page unsuspected.
A multitude of memories comes forward like a fleet for a night ambush
Let’s see what happens as the morning arrives
So many thoughts one had never thought before
So many faces one had never seen before
With faces like nightmares embracing every vein and fibre
All those marks becoming hazy by the evening.
The storm is about to rise from the West
There is still hope in the veiled lamp
The atom with its embrace of a thousand upheavals
The Adam whose collar is still torn with grief
A peace which was found after offering a life
A tear still luminous on the dead faces.
That gun which will be subdued somewhere one day
That mass of bombers comes advancing
Sometimes over the peasant’s house, sometimes over his corn
A merciless bolt of lightning waves
Sticks leap from every corner
Sparks burn village after village.
The pension given to the brave soldier in return for which
He is given a jerky crutch to one side
A platoon which flew to reach the field
Those loved ones who never returned from there
That medal awarded after years of toil
And is left shining on the chest of a corpse.
A delicate twig in a garden of youth
Blown to bits by the flying parts of the bomb
The fruit of his aged parents’ years of prayer
He breathed his last in some alien field
The threshold of the house will not buzz with the returning footsteps
‘Your darling child has sacrificed himself for the country.’
That bazaar of the war going where
Man’s price has still not increased in centuries
That silver, those sparkling silver coins
Which could not buy every single thing in the world
But even after every 20 years, the same deals
The same traders, the same commodity, the same price even.
That tale left on the lips unsaid
That longing entombed within the bosom
The rush of thoughts which ceases all at once
The body pressed within the empty hollows of the ditch
The tanks will arrive to level the pile
The unmarked graves will be overgrown by forests within two years.
The land of hearts brimming with pain
The trembling chest, the spilled tear sometimes
The elegant mention of some friend
Alas! The fragrant flowers of how many past springs
Today lies buried within the stench of corpses
Blood issues from the wounds of cold bayonets.
That same rail whistle, the same attractive face
That same night, its terrible dreams, the same
Who is this abruptly rising from the bed, startled
‘May God keep my child safe’
A star had broken at one place, drowned elsewhere
The postman will arrive in a couple of days with a telegram.
That poison which will again dissolve in the soul
That wound which arrives with news even of the heart
Even now there will be a festival of the great Pir in the village
Spring will come in the swaying fields
But the flautist will not return by these lanes
The pasture will not roar with his tunes.
The turban of some bridegroom, a flower of some bed
The burning lead, the edge of some bayonet
The sorcerers of politics sitting at home
With every morning newspaper held on their knees
They think while reading the latest news
About the increase or decrease in the cotton rates.
Far from my city are those fields where
The flame licks the gunpowder’s chest
A minaret of a mosque, the roof of a school
Becomes a burning rubble in an explosion
Any field or factory or bridge or rail
Is a world which may not be built in years despite effort.
That morning which in the expanse of every mind
Sows a row of unseen crosses
The vomited poison of the news supplements
Which just increases the pressure of horror
The names on the lists begin to dance with impatience
Eyes become tombs for unshed tears.
In the desert of Tobruk still
One can hear the call of one’s lost relatives
There is neither news of victory nor meetings and processions
A wind comes and passes
Who would really love bones?
Here there is no friend, companion or visitor.
The river of darkness carries a storm on its shoulders
It arrives to drown the little boat of hope
And when the days of the duration of evil extend further
Tomorrow’s joy becomes rare
The sorrow that is not more special than the beloved or the world
But the heart cannot recover from its pain.
Victory which took something but couldn’t give
Tomorrow remains like a ghost
A town which was never so desolate
The bluish smoke does not arise from the stoves anymore
And there are neither the fields nor the crops or their minders
And an owl cried in a village chaupaal.
The lotus eyes, the bookish face
A tress which was dwelling in fragrance
And when soldiers from far-away lands came
The vulture won these stakes in the open field
Korea informs us of so many desolations
This place was a city, a village, a town.
A singing bullet from a gun
Targeting some unknown soldier
A shadow left to writhe in some ditch
Carrying years of his desires in his chest
A strapping youth brought up in 22 springs
A corpse which can rot within two days.
The embrace of the beloved, but death too
Not possible to commit to both, simultaneously
The melodious song of the stream, but napalm too
Now should one befriend one, or the other?
It is not difficult to choose between life and death
Do not cloak straight talk with arguments.
Time is passing by
Whims come knocking on the door of the heart
The dove may yet be ready and full of lightness
But a thousand miles until the bombers speed
Sharpen; sharpen the melody of the song of peace
The noise of the cannons is being heard from the far shore.
The dashing heroes are out and about
To make every village a Hiroshima
Memories which neither become hazy nor erased
And once again we are on the threshold of war
Those Josephs will not be given to God
They will set upon the same alien fields again.
The sky is unfortunate and dark, the stars sad
The moon afraid of emerging out of the cloud
The flame of the lamp of hope has been trembling for so long
The heart is pressed within the passionate mass of clouds
See far away that church gong struck
The morning caravan arrives – but where?”
Even before Insha was struck by the disastrous Arab defeat to Israel in 1967, he travelled the Middle East. Whatever tragedy he saw unfolding in its bazaars and bylanes, he distilled his entire anguish in the form of a long poem, Baghdad Ki Ek Raat (A Night in Baghdad), written exactly 70 years ago this year.
A veritable modern Arabian Nights written at the cusp of the beginning of the Cold War, this poem today is starkly prescient in anticipating the humiliating subjugation of the Middle East by imperial powers, in league with its various shahs, emirs and tinpot dictators, many of whom are still in power.
Insha’s villains are not only the imperial powers (in the poem it is Lawrence and Glubb Pasha) and their straps in the region, but also the cunning oil traders. On the other hand, his heroes are the ordinary people of the region, the oppressed masses; its “rusted slaves, importunate beggars, the peasant and the workers of the oil mill”.
Later in the poem, he wondered aloud whether the region was resigned to its benighted fate. But like all progressive writers, Insha was an optimist and gently encouraged the ‘people of Egypt and Baghdad’ to awaken and take their fate into their own hands.
Insha did not live to see that at least the Iranian masses rose up to do the same just a year after he passed away in the form of the Iranian Revolution (which turns 40 this year), and just 60 years after this poem was written, the masses in not only Egypt, but Tunis, Cairo, Sana’a, Damascus, Manama and even Algiers and Khartoum (as I write this) awakened to take back their rights in the form of the Arab Spring. Insha would have been elated at this development, and perhaps would have written a follow-up to his aforementioned poem.
For lovers of Insha, as well as to aid a deeper understanding of the poet and humanist who was against war and all forms of imperial exploitation, and believed in a socialist future for mankind, a re-reading of this poem is vital:
‘Sindbad take me with you today,
One entertains the mind when one wants to be entertained
With you, I disappear from the view of time,
A constellation of thoughts accompanies me
Now or after, perhaps we might end up in the same city.
Those were halcyon days, everyone had leisure
People used to live in kingly splendour
Everyone used to have a magic lamp in their pocket,
Djinns used to perform every task.
Where is the Baghdad of Scherezade’s imagination?
Politics of oil and crude dominates the atmosphere,
Even some caliph disguised as an oil trader
Emerges from a Baghdad thoroughfare.
Till when will the city and desert nourish this hunger?
Will Aladdin’s magic lamps be for everyone no longer?
Will no Prince deliver the counter-magic?
Will someone suggest an escape route?
From the lanes of Bukhara and Samarkand, the morning breeze brings the message of spring
And leaves, whispering to every flower
You too may overturn the gardens system,
It’s within your power.
To awaken the fate of Adam you do not need
To invite the sorcerers of Babylon and Nineveh, so pay heed
To keep the affairs in Egypt and Baghdad straightened,
Their people will have to be awakened.
Otherwise the ill-destined rusted slave standing on the royal parapet
Will do nothing but to cry and fret,
And on every turn the importunate ‘Please, in God’s name!’
Will follow every traveller, its demands the same!’
Or my personal favourite, which I quote often to invoke a multitude of feelings – from the perils of old age, to the uncertainty of power, even life itself – from Insha’s classic tearjerker, ‘Ab Umar ki Naqdi Khatam Hui’ (Now the Assets of Age Have Atrophied), which he wrote when he must have heard the summons of death while fighting throat cancer in London:
‘Now the assets of age have atrophied
Now I have need of a loan
Is there anyone who will be a lender
Is there anyone who will be a giver
Some years, months, days, people
But without profit or interest, people’
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@example.com