Ratnottama Senguptagives a glimpse of the life of Zohra Sehgal, based on the book Zohra: A Biography in Four ActsbyRitu Menon, and her own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal. Click here to read.
At the stroke of midnight, on 14th-15th August, 1947, the colonials handed the Indian subcontinent back to the indigenous population — but they did not leave it as they had found it. They made changes: some reforms and alterations, like the introduction of railways helped the subcontinent move towards a better future once the plundering of raw materials and the transport of British mill cloth halted. However, the major change which continues to create conflicts in the sub-continent to date was the Partition on the basis of religions. This was initiated by the colonial policy of divide and rule, which came into play post the revolt of 1857 and is often perpetrated still by the local inheritors of the colonies. Was it justified and does the packaging by the colonials have to be given credence so that the progeny of the ruled keep othering and thinking of differences?
To help you find answers, we bring to you writings about the days of the Raj like Aruna Chakravarti’s The Mendicant Prince, where the colonials try to deprive a state of its rightful ruler to fill their own coffers, and Premchand’s Pus ki Raat (A Frigid Winter Night) that reflects the sorry state of peasantry under the Raj. Prince or pauper — both suffered. Voices that pleaded for secularism, like that of Nazrul, Tagore or Gandhi remained unheard by those who drew the lines of division. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review: “On his way to Noakhali and in the face of the large-scale massacre, to the question ‘Will Partition Change Us Forever?’ Mahatma Gandhi replied: ‘I have seen more of history than anyone of you, and I tell you that I have known Hindu boys who called Muslims ‘uncle’. Hindus and Muslims used to participate in each other’s festivals and other auspicious occasions.’”
And perhaps this is borne out from the life of Zohra Sehgal, a legendary dancer as reflected by the essay written by Ratnottama Sengupta, based on Ritu Menon’sZohra: A Biography in Four Actsand her own interactions with the aging performer. Along with these, we have the voices from the present like that of G Venkatesh who finds that the borders may not be what the indigenous population had wanted and Aysha Baqir’s narrative reflecting on the darker aspects of life in the sub-continent.
Aruna Chakravarti unfolds through the life of a prince in pre-independence era in her latest novel,The Mendicant Prince, based on the prince of Bhawal controversy in the first part of the last century. Click here to read.
Premchand is the pen name adopted by the Indian writer, Dhanpat Rai Srivastava (31 July 1880- 8 October 1936). He was a pioneer of modern Hindi-Urdu literature which focused upon contemporary social issues including caste, the treatment of women, day labour and other socio-political concerns. He remains one of the most heralded writers in South Asia. His oeuvre includes more than a dozen novels, about 300 short stories, numerous essays as well as translation of foreign literary works into Hindi.
Pus Ki Raat or Frigid Winter Night
Halku came home and told his wife, “Sahna has arrived. Get those rupees you’ve saved up and hand them over to him. We need to rid ourselves of this noose around our necks one way or another.”
His wife, Munni, was sweeping. She turned her head and responded, “We have just three rupees. If I give it to him, how will we get the blanket? How will you spend these freezing nights in the field? Tell him we’ll give him the money upon harvest. Not now.”
Halku stood there in silence for some time. He kept thinking that the coldest month of winter was already here. Without a blanket he wouldn’t be able to tolerate sleeping in the field. But Sahna wouldn’t accept this. He would hurl threats at him. As he thought this through, he hauled his heavy body — which belied the silliness of his name which suggested he was slender — over to his wife. He grovelled, “Come one. Hand it over. Let’s be rid of this noose. We’ll come up with some other way to get the blanket.”
Munni stepped away from him. With arched brows, she retorted, “This was our other plan. Just tell me what your plan is. Who is going to give us a blanket for free? Who knows how much more money is left to be paid or how we are going to pay it? Why don’t you give up farming? You’re working yourself to death. If there is any yield, then you’ll pay off the loan. Come on, it’s over. We were born to pay off this debt. Let’s just avoid this kind of farming. I won’t give him the money. I won’t.”
Halku repined, “So what kind of abuses will I have to endure?”
Munni shot back, “Why should you suffer them? Is he a king?” But even as she said this, her taut eyebrows relaxed. There was a heart-wrenching truth in his words. She looked at him tenderly and withdrew the rupees from the niche in the wall. She brought them to Halku and placed them in his hand and said, “Stop share cropping. We can eat from our day labours in peace. We won’t have to deal with anyone’s bullying. It’s a good crop. Bring it in through hard work then chuck it…and the browbeating because of it.”
Halku took the money and headed outside towards Sahna. It took all the courage he could muster to give him the money. He had managed to save these rupees one by one for the blanket but today they would vanish. With each and every step, the weight of his debt was squashing his soul.
It was a dark night of Pus, the coldest month of winter. Even the stars in the sky seemed to quiver. Halku sat on a bamboo cot at the edge of field, shivering with his old, coarse sheet wrapped about him. Beneath his cot was his companion dog, Jabra, who was curled up tightly and shuddering from the cold. Neither of them could sleep a wink.
Halku curled his knees to his neck and said “Jabra, it is so damned cold. I told you to stay home where you can lay upon the pile of husks. Why did you come here? Now, you’ll have to suffer the cold! What can I do? You thought I was coming here to eat halva puri!” Jabra ran to him. “Now go and wail to your grandmother.” Jabra, wagged his tail, took a long yawn then laid still. Maybe he thought that his whines were disturbing his master’s slumber.
Halku stretched out a hand to caress Jabra’s cold back and told him “From tomorrow, don’t come with me, otherwise you’ll freeze. God only knows from where this freezing west wind is bringing this frigid cold. I’m going to get up and fill my chillum in hopes of somehow passing this night. I’ve smoked eight already! These are the joys of farming! There are some fortunate beings whom the cold doesn’t even consider harassing because it knows it will be vanquished! They have thick quilts, comforters and blankets that are so warm that they can tolerate the cold. This is the nature of fate. Some of us work ourselves to the bone while others enjoy themselves.”
Halku got up and took a cinder from the pit and filled his chillum. Jabra also got up. Taking a drag on the chillum, Halku asked Jabra, “Want to smoke the chillum? It doesn’t make the cold go away but it does soothe the mind a bit.”
Jabru looked towards him, his eyes overflowing with love. Halku said, “Just put up with this cold tonight. From tomorrow, I’ll spread out the husks here. You can curl up in the husks and it won’t feel so cold.”
Jabra put his front paws on Halku’s knees and brought his snout near his face. Halku could feel his warm breath. After taking a drag of his chillum, he laid down. He was determined that come what may, he would sleep. But within a minute, his body was shivering once more. Sometimes he laid on this side, sometimes on that side. The cold sat oppressively on his chest like an invisible enemy.
When there was no way to sleep, he gently lifted Jabra, patted his head, and put him to sleep in his lap. A terrible stench came from the dog’s body but from embracing him in his lap, Halku felt a contentment which he hadn’t felt here for months. Jabra must have thought this was heaven. Halku’s soul was so pure that he had not the slightest aversion towards the dog. He never would have hugged a close companion or brother so eagerly. He no longer resented his poverty, which was the reason for his predicament. No. This extraordinary friendship had opened all of the doors of his soul and he was beeming from head to toe.
Suddenly, Jabra heard an animal. This special intimacy imbued him with a new verve that made him immune to the shocks of the frosty air. He jumped up and with a pounce bolted outside and began to bark. Halku called him several times with kissing noises, but he did not come. Without catching his quarry, he kept running around everywhere and barking. Even if he’d come for a moment, he’d run off again. Duty surged in his heart as if it were desire.
Another hour passed. The cold winds invigorated the night. Halku got up. He drew both knees to his chest and burrowed his head in the crevice, but this did little to mitigate the cold. It felt as if ice water was coursing through his veins. He looked off into the horizon and wondered how much of this terrible night remained. The Big Dipper hadn’t even climbed halfway into the sky. It will be morning only when it fully ascends. More than one fourth of the night remained.
There was a mango grove a mere tip of a bullet away from Halku’s field. It was early autumn. The leaves began to pile up in the grove. Halku thought, “If I can muster the strength to go and get some leaves to burn, it will give off good heat. If someone sees me gathering these leaves at night, they will think I’m a ghost. Who knows, there could be some animal lurking over there. But I can’t just keep sitting here in this cold. He passed through the pigeon pea field and plucked some plants to make a broom. He then walked to the grove with the smouldering cow chip in his hand. When Jabra saw him coming, he came along too and began wagging his tail.
Halku explained, “We don’t need to stay here. Let’s collect the leaves in the garden and warm up. Once we warm up, we come back and sleep again. The night is still long.”
Jabra whined in agreement and headed off in the direction of the grove.
The grove was pitch dark and, in the blackness, the ruthless wind crushed the leaves then blew them away. Drops of dew dripped from the trees.
Suddenly a gust of wind came in, carrying the scent of henna blossoms.
Halku said “What a lovely fragrance, Jabru. Can you smell it too?
Jabra was gnawing upon a bone he found lying on the ground.
Halku put the smoldering cow chip on the ground and began gathering the leaves around it.
Within a short while, he had gathered a large heap of leaves. His hands were chilled to the bone. His bare feet felt numb. Yet he was able to create a mountain of leaves. With this bonfire, he would turn this cold into ashes.
A short time later, there was a campfire. The blaze grew so high that it began to singe the leaves of the tree above it. In that capricious light, the magnificent trees of the grove seemed as if they had gathered all of the unfathomable darkness upon their heads. The light of the fire seemed to quiver and heave like an unsteady boat moving through that infinite ocean of blackness.
Halku sat in front of the bonfire warming himself. He removed the sheet and tucked it into his armpit. He stretched out his legs as if he were challenging the cold to do whatever it could. Having subdued the seemingly limitless power of the cold, he could not hide his pride of this conquest.
He asked Jabru, “Jabbar are you still feeling chilly?”
Jabbar whined as if to say, “How could I still feel chilly?”
“Had this solution occurred to me earlier, we wouldn’t have had to put up with so much cold.”
Jabbar wagged his tail.
“Good. Come. Let’s leap over this flame and see who can do it without getting burned. Son, if you get burned, I will not get you medicine!”
Jabbar looked at that fire in terror!
Don’t tell Munni about this in the morning. If she catches wind of this, she’ll give me hell.
Then he leapt over the blaze without injury. The flames grazed his feet, but it was no big deal.
Jabra circled around the fire and stood near him.
“Hey! Come on! That’s not fair. You have to jump over it.” Halku said and again bounded over the flames.
All the leaves had burned. Once again, darkness spread across the orchard. Some embers smouldered beneath the ashes which would begin to burn brightly when a breeze would arouse them only to be extinguished a moment later.
Halku again wrapped the sheet about himself and, sitting near the hot ashes, began humming a song. The heat entered his body, but as the cold intensified, he began to feel lethargic.
Jabra barked loudly and ran towards the field. Halku wondered whether a herd of animals had entered the field. Maybe it was a herd of nilgai. The sounds of their running and jumping could be clearly heard. It seemed as if they were eating the crop as the sounds of their chewing were audible.
He reassured himself, “No. No animals could come into the field with Jabra around. He’d tear them apart. I must be out of my mind as now I don’t hear a thing. Clearly, I was mistaken.”
He loudly yelled “Jabra! Jabra!”
Jabra kept on barking but did not come near him.
Once again, he heard the sound of his field being ravaged. He could no longer tell himself otherwise. But the thought of moving from his seat seemed so difficult. He got up with a jerk. But going into the fields and running after the animals in this cold was unthinkable. He didn’t budge.
He called out loudly “You rascals! Damned rascals!”
Jabra again barked loudly. Animals were ravishing the field. The crop was ready. And what a good crop it was but these damned animals are destroying it.
Halku readied his resolve, got up and took a step. Then suddenly a frightfully cold, biting wind came. It felt like the sting of a scorpion. He returned and again sat near the fading bonfire and began to warm his frigid body by stirring up the ashes.
Jabra had barked himself hoarse. The nilgais were clearing out the field while Halku kept on sitting placidly by the warm embers. Languor clutched him.
He wrapped himself in his sheet and fell asleep near the warm embers.
He awoke in the morning after the sunshine has spread out in all directions. As he woke up, he heard Munni’s voice. “Are you going to sleep all day today? You came over here to laze about while over there our entire crop was being ruined.”
Halku got up and said, “Are you coming from the field?”
Munni said “Yes. The entire crop has been wiped out. Who else sleeps like this? Why didn’t you use the hut you built there?”
Halku, concocting an excuse, explained, “I was here trying to save myself from freezing to death and you are worried about the crop. Only I know how horrible it was!”
Both walked to the edge of the field. The entire crop had been flattened and Jabra was lying under the hut lethargically.
Both were surveying the field. There was sadness on Munni’s face, but Halku was ebullient.
Munni apprehensively opined “Now we’ll have to pay off the tax through day labour.”
Halku replied with joy on his face, “At least I don’t have to sleep here at night in this cold.”
 Nilgai is the largest Asian antelope in Asia and is ubiquitous in north India.
C. Christine Fair is a professor in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. Her books include In Their Own Words: Understanding the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (OUP 2019); Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (OUP, 2014); and Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States (Globe Pequot, 2008). Her translations of Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi stories have appeared in the Bombay Literary Magazine, Bombay Review, Muse India, Kitaab, The Punch Magazine, and Borderless Journal. She reads, writes and speaks Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
“The 19th century Oriya novelist Fakir Mohan Senapati was a most oblique writer — he hardly said or meant anything in a straightforward manner. Much of his work is ironical and satirical, and of course irony and satire work through indirection, by way of the meaningful glance rather than the plainspoken word. Yet irony, while aiming to surprise, can sometimes be applied too predictably, and then it becomes as unsubtle as the more homespun narrative mode it disdains. Thankfully, this is not the case with Senapati: he worked with a very light and delicate hand.“
Father of modern Odia literature, Fakir Mohan Senapati’s birth anniversary is around the festival of Makar Sankranti (mid-January) every year. There are a bevy of festivals by various names celebrated across India during this period.
As a novelist, short story writer, poet, philosopher, social reformer and forerunner of Odia nationalism, Senapati (1843-1918) played a foremost role in establishing the distinct Odia identity. But for his sweat over a lifetime, Odia — which is today India’s sixth Classical language — wouldn’t have survived the onslaught by adjoining vernaculars. The life of Fakir Mohan is undeniably the story of the “resurgence” in Odia literature. He protected the Odia language from near extinction.
Mallikashpur village of Balasore district neighbouring West Bengal is where Senapati began his formal education — when he was nine years old. Since he could not pay for his tutoring, he is said to have even worked at his teacher’s house to pay the fee. Balasore’s Mission School was his Alma Mater, and he went to become a teacher where he served until 1871. Still later, he rose to become the headteacher. Around this time, he started teaching Odia to the Balasore Collector John Beames.
Fakir Mohan learnt English all by himself with the help of a dictionary. He readto read several famous classics — Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, the English Bible, and Bengal Peasant Life by Lal Behari De — he started learning English at twenty-three. Fakir Mohan’s instinctive wisdom was recognised even by foreigners.
The early life of Fakir Mohan was one of courage and dexterity. His accomplishments were amazing. A multi-tasker, Fakir Mohan, even worked as a labourer in a port. He ventured into the wood and paper business having worked in a press only to become an editor. Besides being a teacher, Fakir Mohan became a dewan of Athagarh and later of Tekkali in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh.
In the second phase of his life, Fakir Mohan worked as administrator in the princely states of Nilgiri, Dampada, Dhenkanal, Daspalla, Pallahara and Keonjhar. As a manager, Fakir Mohan was very efficient and successful. During Keonjhar Praja Meli (people’s agitation against the feudal lord), he escaped cleverly writing a symbolic letter to the king.
Mayadhar Mansingh, another celebrated, Odia called Fakir Mohan the ‘Thomas Hardy of Odisha’. He had the ability and expertise in whatever arena he laid his hand on. These prodigious abilities were reflected in his later-day writings as well. Although Senapati translated from Sanskrit, wrote poetry, and tried numerous forms of literature, he is known primarily as the father of modern Odia fiction. His four novels, written between 1897 and 1915, mirror the socio-cultural conditions of Odisha during the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries.
The time in which Fakir Mohan lived was the darkest period in the history of modern Odisha. The infamous ‘Naanka’ Famine of 1866 — which one third of the region’s population — hurt the economic and social condition of Odisha beyond recovery. The deprivation during this period has been documented in many of his stories and novels. In course of time, he emerged as a novelist of rare caliber not only in Odia but also in a pan-Indian setting.
Senapati’s Rebati (1898) – recently translated into thirty-six Indian and foreign languages — is widely recognised as the first Odia short story. It is the tale of a young innocent girl ‘Rebati’ whose desire for education in the context of a backward conservative society went beyond the ordinary. The village where the protagonist lived was hit by the killer epidemic, cholera. Rebati’s grandmother – the last survivor — believed that it was the craving for education that brought misfortune to the family. In fact, ‘Rebati’ was one of the earliest stories in the realm of world pandemic literature.
‘Randipua Ananta’is a story of a very notorious, errant youth who in the end transforms himself. While the flood water entered the village through a hole of the river-embankment, Ananta pulled the wooden door of his house and covered the hole standing as the supporting pillar and asked villagers to pile soil onto it. Gradually, his body heaped-up up and at last he was buried. Ananta dedicated his life to the welfare of the village and was a rare character in the Odia short story genre.
‘Dak Munshi‘(The PostMaster), ‘Sabhya Zamindar‘ (The Educated Feudal Lord), ‘Patent Medicine’, ‘Adharma Bitta‘ (The Ill-gotten Money) are the other famous stories for which Senapati is known far and wide. But, it is the three novels — Chha Mana Atha Guntha (Six and a third Acres,1902), Mamu (Maternal Uncle, 1913)and Prayaschita (Penance, 1915) — which have made Senapati immortal because they explored the realities of community life in its manifold dimensions.
Chha Mana Atha Guntha is the first Indian novel to deal with the exploitation of landless peasantry by the feudal system. The importance of this novel is that it was written much before the October revolution and even before the emergence of Marxist ideas in India. Set in Orissa in the 1830s, it is about village politics, caste oppression, social malpractices, and land-grabbing under the zamindari system in colonial Odisha. Both a literary work and a historical document this novel provided a unique ‘view from below’ of Indian village life under colonial rule. Ten years after this novel came Mamu.
Prayaschita was the last of Fakir Mohan Senapati’s ‘trilogy of crime and justice’ novels — to use the epithet coined by the eminent Senapati scholar John Boulton. It was published just three years before the death of Fakir Mohan. The novel is unique because it sheds light on Senapati’s increasingly dark and tragic perception of colonialism. The novel was a defender of the traditional values and the Hindu way of life which the writer saw was gravely threatened by an alien value system of the British which had made huge inroads into Indian society.
Lachhama is another novel by Senapati dealing with the anarchic conditions of Odisha in the wake of Maratha invasions during the eighteenth century. It narrates the historical romance of Rajput lady Lachhama and her husband Badal Singh, in the backdrop of the political disturbances between the Mughals and Marathas to gain supremacy in Odisha. The story is set in a period of early advent of the British in India during which Nawab Alivardi Khan was Governor of Bengal. The depiction of love, honor, courage and revenge of the woman protagonist Lachamma is significant.
Fakir Mohan also wrote the first-ever autobiography in Odia – Atma Jeevan Charita. It gives a socio-cultural account of Odisha along with the novelist’s own life spanning over half a century and makes for prodigious reading.
Senapati wrote a long poem, Utkal Bhramanam, in 1892. Literally meaning Tour of Odisha, this poem is not a travelogue but a commentary on the state of affairs of that time, written satirically. He has also translated the Mahabharata, the Gita, the Ramayana and Boudhavatar Kavya into simple Odia verse.
Fakir Mohan’s innovative technique, ineradicable characters, humour, imaginativeness, and the insights into the rural milieu had few parallels. His contribution to Odia language and its revival was immense.
Senapati was a great genius, a versatile personality and an ardent literary artist who breathed his last on June 14, 1918, when Odisha hadn’t become a separate province for which Senapati fought relentlessly. He is unsurpassed and commands great respect among the authors. In the words of Dr. J.V. Boulton, Fakir Mohan is the Gorky of Odisha. The Dhammapada estate conferred on him the enviable title Saraswati. He was also endowed with the title of Katha Samrat (Emperor of Fiction) and is rightly called Vyasakavi.
His fiction and short stories reflected the theme of social realism, societal reform, and preservation of cultural values. Fakir Mohan dedicated his whole life to the development of the native language in the late 19th and changed the course of Odia literature.
Fakir Mohan is to Odia what Prem Chand is to Hindi and Rabindranath Tagore is to Bengali literature.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of Unbiased, No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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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. ThePlague 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
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
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
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.