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Essay

Pandemic and Poetry: How Writers in Pakistan react to COVID-19

By Dr Aftab Husain

There is a proverb in Persian and Urdu that could be roughly translated thus — ‘A collective death has an air of festivity’. The great Urdu poet, Ghalib, however, would have not subscribed to this notion as was made evident from an episode in his personal life. Once afflicted by his financial and existential miseries, he had foretold his own death the following year. There broke out in the given year an epidemic that claimed many lives in the city, but luckily our poet survived. When asked later about his prognostication, Ghalib replied with a tinge of humour that his forecast had been accurate, but it would have degraded him to die a common death, therefore, he held himself back.

This could be seen as a hyper-individualistic thought process of a genius poet which was ultimately reflected in his poetry. But common human beings think differently. The line of wisdom that the proverb at the starting of this essay conveys does not in any way celebrate death, but our collective, gregarious nature. It is a strange fact of human existence that a catastrophe unites people more than a festivity.

World literature, as many of us know, is replete with the examples of writing inspired by or dealing with different catastrophes; draught, floods, different types of epidemic: plague, cholera, influenza etc. The Plague by Albert Camus (French), Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (Spanish) and Blindness by José Saramago (Portuguese) – incidentally all three written by Nobel laureates – immediately come to mind.  

Rabindranath Tagore’s long, descriptive poem: ‘Puratan Bhritya’ (Old servant) – ‘Keshta, old manservant of mine’, stemmed from smallpox.  In a few short stories by Premchand, the founding father of Urdu and Hindi fiction there appears pestilence – albeit as subtext. In ‘Idgah’ (mosque), the child protagonist lost his father to cholera. Similarly, in ‘Doodh Ka Daam’ (price of milk), one character dies of plague. Famous Urdu and English fiction writer Ahmad Ali who is known to the Urdu world as one of the contributors to Angaaree (The Burning Coals) an anthology of mainly short stories that had stirred the somewhat stagnant waters of the then Urdu literature, ventured into this area with his maiden novel in English. Ahmad Ali’s novel, Twilight in Delhi, offers a bleak and pathetic picture of the city in the wake of an epidemic. ‘How deadly this fever is. Everyone is dying of it. The hospitals are gay and bright. But sorry is men’s plight’.

Rebati, a well-known short story by Fakir Mohan Senapati, one of the pioneers of modern Odia literature depicts a village hit by a cholera epidemic. The list is endless, but so far Urdu literature is concerned, ‘Quarantine’, a poignant short story by Rajinder Singh Bedi presents a detailed and exclusive description of the life affected by plague and also of quarantine as the title of the story also indicates.

Human beings in the long span of their history have been going through many different epidemics, but the present one is unique in that it has not only affected different strata of society, it has also had a global outreach. With bated breath, we watch the movement of this pandemic that has paralysed social life. Nevertheless, health-care workers, scientists, politicians, policy makers, psychiatrists, media persons and many other groups are actively working to finding a solution to the problem or at least curb its growth.

People from art and literature too are responding to the disease in different ways. Pakistani writers, especially poets, have profusely responded to the situation.

One interesting fact that one notices is in the word ‘corona’, that is, we know, a noun but when spelt out in Urdu-Hindi it makes a full-fledged meaningful phrase: ‘Don’t do.’ Resultantly, one observes a lot of versifications exploiting this pun – albeit major and established poets have shunned this facile jugglery. Barring this word play, poets who have chosen to write in a lighter vein seemingly have set their comic spirit to work as a defence mechanism to make the grave situation a little less intimidating. For example, a poem entitled as ‘Thanks’ by a senior poet Tahir Sherazi argues that this compulsory restriction that confines us to our home places might provide us an opportunity to repair our broken relationships with our family members. The poems ends on a jubilant note on acquiring the newly-gained leisure in this way: ‘My wife will make a cup of tea for me and I will write poems on roses, lamps, on the earth and the heaven’. Well, the male poet is scheming of enjoying this free time at his will while his spouse will be doomed to carry on with her routine domestic chores. This aspect does make this otherwise light poem somewhat pathetic.

Poets with a religious sensibility see this development as sort divine wrath and put forward their sentiments either in direct prayers or by employing religious terminology. ‘A Dialogue with God in the Days of Epidemic’ by Najma Mansoor, and ‘In the Days of Epidemic’ by Safia Hayat, are both of this vein. But, in major and significant poets you find no direct recourse to divine powers or holy personages, but only a thin, veiled religious consciousness.

‘God Smiles in Their Eyes’, a poem by Ali Muhammad Farshi, a senior poet, pays tribute to the life-saving endeavours of a nurse who had wrenched back a bride from the clutches of death. Quite pertinently, the poet invokes figures of Mary and Christ, the messiah, and despite having no apparent reference to corona the poem provides a penetrating presentation of the present state of affairs. ‘God, Epidemic and Human Beings’ by Jameelur Rahman is also a poem sprinkled with religious diction, but its overall philosophical tone saves the poem from becoming mere-lamentation of a pious soul caught in an unbearable suffering.

However, Maqsood Wafa altogether rejects the role of religion in such a dreadful disease as he puts it in the closing lines of his poem, ‘The Captive Days’: “I will listen to the Prime Minister’s speech/And I won’t be able to make the people of this holy land understand/that when a virus attacks a human being/It doesn’t ask the name of his god”.  Almost similar is the tone in Saqib Nadeem’s poem: “We Don’t Accept (The Poem of A Petty Sentimentality)” where the poet lashes at the shallow and hypocritical religious community. “After every prayer we embrace and congratulate each other on being alive and we trade in kisses, (but) we don’t hear screams of virus in our kisses”.  

Then, there is a group that believes that one can with the power of love conquer this monster. ‘An Innocent Poem’ by Parveen Tahir speaks about the wishes of its female protagonist – a lover – who kisses her lover and dines with him in the naive expectation that the disease will at least spare those who are in love. Seemab Zafar’s ‘One Erects Love with the Bricks of Affliction’ does not offer such optimism but presents a desolate scenario – within and without. ‘On Death Bed’ by Fatima Mehru juxtaposes among the triad of love, disease and death. It is soulful poem that vacillates between life affirming spirit of love and that of despair.  Some poems in this category remind you Márquez’s Love in the Times of Cholera – at least title of the novel which is quite a popular book. Khumar Meerzada’s two short and impressive poems ‘Love in the Days of Epidemic’ and ‘Love and Epidemic’ show how love act in front of such a fatal malady.  Iftekhar Bukhari’s ‘We Descends from One Father’ does not lose touch to the ground reality, yet it rises up to the lofty human bonds. “We will not shake hands/This is time that we united our heart….Without urgent needs we will not leave our house/In order that roads, fields and gardens are again full of life…./If needed, we will go and die in a silent corner/So that the earth might echo with songs, even after our departure.” A powerful poem, indeed!   

Arshad Latif took a different, cynial and somewhat callous stance towards the given grave situation. “We couldn’t control our inhuman impulses/And our negative thoughts took us far away from the life itself…We, you and some others proved a total failure…./Embrace death willingly so that souls of us, yours and some others could bequeath peace”. (‘The World Wants A Cure’).

Whereas Salmat Sarwat’s ‘Quarantine No 1’ portrays the ennui spawned by an ever-spreading leisure and the resultant disinclination to write further, Gulnaz Kausar’s ‘Precaution’ is composed in the poet’s typically soft and feminine style. Her diction and her treatment leave, despite the morbid subject of the poem, a soothing effect on the reader. 

At least two other poems: ‘Quarantine’ by Irfan Sadiq and ‘Seventh Day in the Quarantine’ by Omer Aziz, take not only the term of quarantine in their titles, but they revolve around this trope.  Aziz, a doctor by profession, has quite effectively captured the physical affliction and mental agony of a patient put in quarantine.

Alongside such poems, there is a wide circulation of individual ghazal couplets: the two liners that quite succinctly sum up the general mood about the epidemic. Most of these small pieces, for their overflowing sentimentality or sheer propaganda do not have much appeal. Yet, a few of them not only hit the bull’s eye, but they do not veer away from the aesthetic requirement of a piece of literature.

Afsaos, Ye Wabaa Ke DinoN  Ki MohabbateN

Ik Doosre Se Haath Milaane Se Bhi Gaye

(Sajjad Baloch)

Alas, these love affairs in the days of epidemic!

Even shaking hands with each other is rendered hard

*

Har Taraf Aisii Khamoshii Hay Ki Sar Ghoomta Hay

Log Pahre MeN HaiN Aur GalioN Men Dar Ghoomta Hay

(Seemab Zafar)

A terrible hush rules all over and makes you feel giddy

Human being caught in the custody

While a certain fearfulness prowls in the streets

*

Ajeeb Dard Hay Jis Kii Dawaa Hay Tanhaaii

Baqaa e Shahr Hay Ab Shahr Ke Ujadne MeN

(Mahmood Shaam)

What a weird malady is it whose cure lies in solitude!

Now the survival of the city is in its depopulation.

Thus, we see that an overwhelming response to the pandemic came from our poets. As for prose, though in general there are a plethora of pieces written on the subject, that is,  journalistic writing, but quite rarely one comes across relevant fiction, fictional narrative or imaginative prose. Justifying this comparative absence fiction writer M Hameed Shahid says: “Poetry might be composed in reaction to a happening, for fiction that is not enough. Fiction needs something more to build up its aesthetics,” he adds. Well, our writers writing on the communal riots in the wake of the Partition of India in 1947 did produce literature in reaction to these events, though such literature was, to be sure, not created while the riots were still taking place.  M. Hameed Shahid is therefore in favour of waiting and seeing and letting his experience take a mature form, so he stayed away from offering something half-backed in fiction. Nevertheless, he has come forward with a non-fictional narrative: ‘Epidemic Days, Closed Door & Deserted Street’ – a sort of chronicle-narrative and despite its excessive self‐referentiality, the write up is interesting in the sense that it, at least, introduces us to the disquiet and anxieties of a writer finding himself in the midst of a prison-like claustrophobic confinement.  

Meanwhile, another fiction writer who has given a clarion call to his colleagues and urged them use their pens in dispelling the gloomy atmosphere created by the disease is Amjad Tuhfail. He was, however, snubbed by a senior short story writer declaring that any such move was to yield nothing but slogan-mongering that jump on the bandwagon could bring out only ‘faction’ and in no way any genuine fiction. A Lahore based short story writer, Tufail, did not take this warning seriously and immediately posted a three-page short story in a social-media outlet. Jabir Ali Syed had once called Shamsur Rahman Faruqi known as the  “the impetuous critic”. The gentleman story writer might be no match for Faruqi, but he shares, at least, this quality with his senior contemporary.

As a saving grace to this discouraging deficiency in prose, comes an English write-up, “Something’s not right with the world”, from Farah Zia. The small item that the writer prefers to call “a mood piece” appears like a free stroke by some accomplished painter: laconic, telling and powerful. “It is like waking up every day into a dream: in a place where life imitates fiction” thus begins the write up. Written with profound concern, yet at the same time, with a cold objectivity, it makes a serene and soulful reading. No wonder, the piece was quickly rendered into Urdu and published, but one wonders if such a deeply-felt prose could be translated without losing much of its essential charm and pathos.

Closing the deliberations one can say that each piece that is being written in the name of literature cannot be, quite naturally, up to the literary mark – let alone to be remembered by posterity. Most of these writings fall into the category of pièce d’occasion. But such pieces, occasioned by certain events sometimes transcend the given situation and live on, beyond the time of their creation. Some of the given stuff has remarkable literary value and therefore it might survive longer; the other ones might not be fortune enough, but the fact remains that they too bear a witness to a momentous phenomenon in human history and have transcribed these times on the climate of our minds.

Aftab Husain (Pakistan/Austria) is an eminent name in modern Ghazal poetry from South Asia. In addition to Urdu, he writes in English both poems and literary essays and translates from German to Urdu and vice versa. He earned his doctorate in comparative literature from Vienna University where he teaches South Asian Literature and Culture. He has four collections of poetry and three of books of translations – from German into Urdu – to his credit. He was a fellow of Heinrich-Böll-Haus, Germany as well as the ‘Writer of Exile’ of Vienna City. His poems have been translated into many languages. He is a member of the Austrian PEN and co-edits a bilingual magazine – Words & Worlds –  for migrant literature.