Volume 5: Number 1, Feb 21 2002
Reading the
NCERT Framework

by Balmurli Natrajan, Rahul De', Biju Mathew
NCERT Framework Meeting
-- A Report from the Khoon Pasina Network

Review: Manil Suri: The Death of Vishnu
by Anhoni Patel

Dream and Nightmare: Urdu Progressive Poetry's Flirtation with Modernity
by Raza Mir
Notes From The Street
Hisham Amer's
by Biju Mathew
A Victory for Ms. Kaur
by Amitave Kumar
Ghadar Home
proXsa Home

Dream and Nightmare: Urdu Progressive Poetry's Flirtation with Modernity 1

by Raza Mir


The full power of the idea of modernity lay in a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, so as to achieve a radically new departure, a point that could be a true present.2

In 1958, when Sputnik blasted into space, it received one of its most lyrical tributes from an unlikely source, Sahir Ludhianvi. In a poem titled Mere ahd ke haseeno (Beauties of my generation), he presented the event as a success of humanity over yet another of nature’s barriers, the stars. Taking aim at those who saw their futures as astrally determined, Sahir saw in Sputnik’s rise yet another sign that humanity had trumped nature:

Wo buland-baam taare, wo falak-maqaam taare
Jo nishaan de ke apna, rahe be-nashaaN hamesha
Wo haseeN, wo noor-zaade, wo qilaa ke shaahzaade
Jo hamaari qismatoN par rahe hukmraaN hamesha

Mere ahd ke haseeno, wo nazar-nawaaz taare
Mera daur e ishq parwar tumhe nazr de rahaa hai
Wo junooN jo aab o aatish ko aseer kar chuka hai
Wo qilaa ki vus-atoN se bhi qiraaj le rahaa hai

Mere paas rehne waalo, mere baad aane waalo
Mere daur ka ye tohfa, tumhe saazgaar aaye
Kabhi tum qala se guzro kisi seem-tan ke qatir
Kabhi tum ko dil mein rakh kar koi gul-o-zaar aaye

Those exalted stars, those heaven dwellers
Who revealed themselves, but mocked our tantalized reach
Those children of light, those princes of space
Who always lorded over our fates

Beauties of my time, those very stars
My loving generation is bequeathing to you
The passion that has already enslaved the stars
Now commands obeisance from the depths of space

You who live with me, and you who will follow me in time
May this gift from my generation please you
May you fly in space looking for a silver-bodied beauty
And may someone of rosy cheeks come here looking for you

There is a passionate optimism in Sahir’s poem, which works at several levels. First, it is imbued with an internationalism, in the way in which it appropriates a foreign achievement with unselfconscious ease. There is a mocking disavowal of tradition, implying that those who believe in the eternal power of the stars are now to be pityingly invited into the scientific fold. But above all, the poem demonstrates an abiding faith in technology, a belief that nature will ultimately bow down before the power of human endeavor.

Indeed, the concept of modernity held an extremely seductive appeal to the Urdu progressive writers. Committed as they were to social change, they saw a lot of promise in an ideology that had little regard for many of the sacred cows of their generation. So much so, that they ended up making a sacred cow out of modernity itself.

That modernity was one of the most important inspirations of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) is obvious upon even the most cursory of examinations.3 The famous London manifesto of the PWA almost gags us with its insistence on a modernist outlook. Some of its more modernist assumptions bear scrutiny:

  • The PWA believed that older socio-political institutions stand in the way of progress. It thus revealed its focus on a teleological and unitary vision of time.
  • It constantly underscored the causal link between materiality and literature, in both positive and normative terms.
  • It focused obsessively on ‘rationality’, often deriding extant literature for not being rational enough for the times.
  • Finally, it took aim at the priestly class, exhibiting a disdain for religion that went way beyond the sly iconoclasm of earlier Urdu poetry.

Sahir’s poem is not an isolated instance of the celebration of modernity by the Urdu poets. In his famous poem on construction workers, Makaan, Kaifi Azmi celebrated construction workers for their role in the conquest of nature, and indeed, in the evolution of humans from their simian ancestors:

Ye zameen tab bhi nigal lene pe aamaada thhi
PaaoN jab toot-ti shaaqon se utaare hum ne,
Un makaanoN ko qabar hai, na makeenoN ko qabar
Un dinoN ki jo gufaaoN meiN guzaare hum ne

Ki ye deewaar buland, aur buland, aur buland
Baam o dar aur zaraa aur sanwaare hum ne
Aaandhiyaan tod liya karti thhi sham-on ki laven
Jad diye is liye bijli ke sitaare hum ne

The earth could have swallowed us
When we descended from trees and became human
What do these city dwellers know
Of the time humanity spent in caves

And then we built our walls higher and higher,
Made the ceilings and doors even more beautiful
Earlier, storms used to break the flames of our lamps
So we built stars made of electricity in our skies

Of course, Kaifi then goes on to lament how the actual creators of this wealth of modernity, the laborers themselves, were deprived of the fruits of their own creation:

Ban gaya qasr, to pehre pe koi baith gaya
So rahe qaak pe hum shorish e taameer liye

Once the palace was built, they hired a guard
And we slept in the dirt, with our screaming craft

This brings us to the important issue of how the PWA poets dealt with the immediate failure of the modernist promise. How did they deal with the fact that the conquest of nature never really lived up to its promise, and sometimes even proved to be more venal and repressive than the traditions it displaced?

For one, they sought refuge in a different form of modernist logic. For example, they blamed this disjuncture on the incompleteness of the modernist project, on its failure to vanquish some of the traditionalist demons that it was supposed to replace. In other words, the problem with modernity was seen as related to the fact that we did not have enough of it. In his characteristically direct poem, Mera maazi mere kaandhe pe (My past on my shoulders), Kaifi wondered at the persistence of sectarian violence in the subcontinent, despite the tremendous progress that had been achieved in years past. He concluded:

Ab tamaddun ki ho ye jeet ke haar
Mera maazi hai abhi tak mere kaandhe pe sawaar

Padta rahta hai mere maazi ka saaya mujh par
Daur e qoonqaari se guzra hoon, chhupaaoon kyoonkar
Daant sab qoon mein doobe nazar aate hain mujhe

Mal liyaa maathe pe tehzeeb ka ghaala lekin
Barbariyat ka hai jo daagh, wo chhoota hi nahin
Gaaon aabaad kiye, shehr basaaye hum ne
Rishta jangal se jo apna thha, wo toota hi nahin

Call it the victory or the loss of culture
My past is still seated on my shoulders

Its shadow always falls on me
I have been a beast, how can I deny it
My teeth are still bloodstained

I have painted civility on my face
But it is still pockmarked by barbarity
I have populated villages, moved to cities
But never severed my relationship with the jungle4

As many of these poems depict, the ‘other’ of progress is often religious practice. Progressives indeed upped the ante as far as attacks on religion were concerned. It is worth noting that the tradition of attacking religion that the PWA poets introduced was markedly different from earlier traditions of religious dissent.5 For example, Sahir cuts to the chase:

Aqaid wahm hai, mazhab khayaal e khaam hai saaqi
Azal se zahn e insaaN basta e auhaam hai, saaqi

Faith is but superstition, religion an inferior idea
Since the dawn of time, human imagination has been imprisoned by these falsehoods

Israr-ul Huq Majaaz makes a similar point, which is brusque and dismissive of all religious fervor:

Dair o kaabe ka maiN nahiN khaayal
Dair o kaabe ko aashiyaaN na banaa
Mujh meiN tu rooh e sarmadi mat phoonk
Raunaq e bazm e aarifaaN na banaa

I believe neither in the temple nor the kaaba
Do not make them your home
Breathe not an eternal soul in me
I am not going to grace the company of the faithful.6

The modernist dream thus appeared to acquire its own agency over time, becoming as important in its own right as the dream of an equal society. To that end, the PWA poets venerated artifacts of the industrial revolution: rockets, electricity, mills, and trains. Trains were especially popular, for their straight path, their piercing whistles, and their singleminded teleological journeys. In his elegy to the train, Raat aur rel Majaaz offers a veritable inventory of its desirable attributes:

Phir chali hai rel, istayshan se lehraati hui
Neem shab ki khamushi mein zer e lab gaati hui

Daalti behis chataanon par hiqaarat ki nazar
Koh par hansti, falak ko aankh dikhlaati hui

Daaman e taariki e shab ki udaati dhajjiyaan
Qasr e zulmat par musalsal teer barsaati hui

Zad mein koi cheez aa jaaye to us ko pees kar
Irteqaa e zindagi ke raaz batlaati hui

Al-garaz, badhti chali jaati hai, be qauf o qatar
Shaayar e aatish-nafas ka qoon khaulaati hui

Once again, the train jauntily leaves the station
Breaking the silence of the night with its whispered song

Casting scornful glances on the placid cliffs
Laughing at mountains, making eyes at the sky

Cutting a swath across the night
And shooting arrows of sparks at the darkness

Crushing anything that comes in its way
Revealing the secrets of the evolution of life

There it flies, fearless
Roiling the blood of the fire-souled poet

Ultimately, then, the progressives cheerfully and defiantly pushed the cause of modernity with such optimism, that when the backlash came, they were left desperately holding on to their fragmented thoughts.7 Modernity cruelly announced its failure to the optimist progressives in several ways. The abject failure of the moment of freedom and decolonization,8 the rampant and ugly sectarian conflict in urban South Asia, and above all, the failure to secure a decent and dignified life for the common man, weighed heavily on the progressives. And when this failure sometimes looked deeply into their eyes, the PWA poets wrote their best poems, poems of anguish and rage. I end by invoking what I feel is one of the saddest poems ever written, Majaaz’s Aawara (Vagabond):

Shahar kii raat aur mai.n naashaad-o-naakaaraa phiruu.N
jagamagaatii jaagatii sa.Dako.n pe aavaaraa phiruu.N
Gair kii bastii hai kab tak dar badar maraa phiruu.N
ai Gam-e-dil kyaa karuu.N, ai vahashat-e-dil kyaa karuu.N

ye roopahalii chhaao.N ye aakaash par taaro.n kaa jaal
jaise suufii kaa tasavvur jaise aashiq kaa Khayaal
aah lekin kaun jaane kaun samajhe jii kaa haal
ai Gam-e-dil kyaa karuu.N ai vahashat-e-dil kyaa karuu.N

phir vo TuuTaa ik sitaaraa phir vo chhuuTii phulajha.Dii
jaane kisakii god me.n aae ye motii kii la.Dii
huuk sii siine me.n Uthii choT sii dil par pa.Dii
ai Gam-e-dil kyaa karuu.N ai vahashat-e-dil kyaa karuu.N

raaste me.n ruk ke dam le luu.N merii aadat nahii.n
lauT kar vaapas chalaa jaauu.N merii fitarat nahii.n
aur koii ham-navaa mil jaae ye qismat nahii.n
ai Gam-e-dil kyaa karuu.N ai vahashat-e-dil kyaa karuu.N

ik mahal kii aa.D se nikalaa vo piilaa maahataab
jaise mullaah kaa amaamaa jaise baniye kii kitaab
jaise muflis kii javaanii jaise bevaa kaa shabaab
ai Gam-e-dil kyaa karuu.N ai vahashat-e-dil kyaa karuu.N

Night has fallen in the city, and I roam disappointed and defeated
On dazzling, lit streets, I roam, a vagabond
It is not my neighborhood, how long can I loiter like this
Anguished heart, desperate heart, what should I do?

These beautiful shadows, this net of stars on the sky
Like a Sufi’s contemplation, a poets thought
But aah, who is to narrate my heart’s tale
Anguished heart, desperate heart, what should I do?

There falls a shooting star, like a sparkler
Perhaps a string of pearls fell in somebody’s hand
A shooting pain hits my chest, like a blow
Anguished heart, desperate heart, what should I do?

To stop and rest on the way is not my habit
To admit defeat is not my style
To find a companion, is not my fate
Anguished heart, desperate heart, what should I do?

From behind a palace, emerged the yellow moon
Like a mulla’s robe, like a money lender’s ledger
Like a poor man’s youth, a widow’s beauty
Anguished heart, desperate heart, what should I do?


I dedicate this paper to the living memory of Kaifi Azmi, one of the last surviving stalwarts of the Progressive Writers’ Association, in the spirit of this poem, that he recited at the end of the movie Garm Hawa:

Jo door se toofan ka karte haiN nazara
Un ke liye toofaan yahaaN bhi hai, wahaaN bhi
Dhaare meiN jo mil jaaoge, ban jaao ge dhaara
Hai waqt ka elaan, yahaaN bhi hai, wahaaN bhi

Those who merely watch the storm from afar
For them, the storm is both here and there
Jump into the waves, and you will become the current
This is time’s verdict, both here and there

2 Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (Hammondsworth: Penguin), p. 311.

3See for example, the treatment of the PWA in Ralph Russell, How Not to Write the History of Urdu Literature and Other Essays on Urdu and Islam (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 34-48.

4This is not to suggest that the progressives did not acknowledge that something was quite wrong with the object of modernity, in light of the horrors of urban violence. For instance, Kaifi begins a later poem Saanp (Snake) in defensive terms. He deploys the snake as a symbol of fundamentalism:

Ye saanp aaj jo phan uthaaye
Mere raaste mein khadaa hai
Padaa thha qadam chaand par mera jis din
Usi din use maar dala thha mai ne

This snake that blocks my way, poised to strike
I had killed it the day I set foot on the moon

However, he describes how the wounded snake ran into a temple, a mosque and a church, where it was progressively treated and made stronger. So far, it appears quite conventional. But by the end of the poem, Kaifi is acknowledging that the fault does not lie only with religion:

Hui jab se science zar ki ghulam
Jo thha ilm ka aitbaar uth gaya
Aur is saanp ko zindagi mil gayi

Ever since science has become capitalism’s slave
Knowledge has been proven untrustworthy
And this snake has found life.

5. Older Urdu poets like Ghalib and Meer made a career of sly attacks on religion, but their modus operandi was far less violently direct than the PWA poets. In the earlier poems, the character of ridicule was often a bumbling misinterpreter of religion, titled the shaikh, the waiz, the safeer-e-haram or the naseh. For example, there is the famor Ghalib couplet:

KahaaN maikhane ka darwaaza, Ghalib, aur kahaaN waiz
Par itna jaante haiN, kal wo jaata thha ke hum nikle

Where the tavern door, and where the holy man, Ghalib
But believe me, he was entering as I left

Sometimes, they made mischievous references to their love of the kafir, the infidel but desirable other:

Dekhi hai jab se us but-e-kaafir ki shakl, Meer
Jaata nahin hai jee tanik Islam ki taraf

Ever since I saw that infidel statue, O Meer
My heart is not even mildly inclined toward Islam.

For a detailed discussion of this trend, see Harbans Mukhia, "The Celebration of Failure as Dissent in Urdu Ghazal," Modern Asian Studies, 33:4 (1999), pp. 861-881.

6 The mocking of the waiz also became increasingly intransigent and uncivil. Josh Malihabadi collars the mufti thus:

Teri baatoN se padi jaati hai kaanoN meiN qaraash
Kufr o eemaaN, kufr o eemaN, taa kuja? Khamosh baash!

Your drivel now gives me an earache
Religion, religion, how long? Shut up!

7 Faiz perhaps best summed up their inarticulation:

Aaj ek harf ko phir dhoondta phirta hai khayaal

Today, my thoughts go in search of a single word.

8 Apart from Faiz’s famous lament Ye daagh daagh ujaala (This ashen dawn) there are numerous such poignant admissions of the failure of August 1947. Josh Malihabadi: Apna galaa kharosh e tarannum se phat gayaa, Talwaar se bachaa, to rag e gul se kat gayaa (The strain of song tore our throats, We escaped the sword, but were beheaded by the rosebush).


(Raza reads poetry in Jersey City.)


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