COMMENT: I want to forget Jaun Elia
MEMORIES play strange games with us. Those that hurt us, stay with us for a long time, if not forever. Those that give you pleasure lose their charm as time’s cruelties wear us down. But the memories that enrich us become part of us, of our ‘self’. There’s a reason Ghalib keeps haunting us with his mystique-laden couplets and linguistic hubris. There’s a reason Shakespeare feeds us a comforting phrase whenever we need it the most. There’s a reason we do not want to disrespect Einstein even if we haven’t the faintest notion about the theory of relativity. There’s a reason Dali’s surrealism appears as our own oneiric trips. All of them remain with us for as long as we do not become senile and forgetful. And yet, I want to forget Jaun Elia.
It was in February 1994 that I obtained my master’s degree in English literature from the University of Karachi —– the course was done and dusted in December 1993, perhaps. I am not particularly proud of it, because I was an average student, my claim to fame being that I could memorise Shakespearean soliloquies without missing a syllable. What I thoroughly relished was the fact that during those few years at university I got a chance to read Jaun Elia, the inimitable Urdu poet that the poetry-loving youth of Karachi was crazy about. Justifiably so.
I still remember the day when a friend handed me Jaun Elia’s Shaed. I went through the book in one sitting, something I’m not capable of doing otherwise, and immediately fell in love with it. Though the extremely eloquent foreword to Shaed in which Elia had described his creative and personal journeys was a thing of beauty in itself, it was his poetry that had an overwhelming affect on me. Two things clearly stood out in the ghazals and nazms in the book: ruthless contextual verisimilitude and the facility with which he had exhausted the phrasal nuances of the Urdu language. I knew I had found my hero.
The urge to meet Jaun Elia was natural. So when I did get to see him in person, I could, to some extent, identify with the words I had read in Shaed. He was an exceptional man — witty, intelligent, well-read, and could see through the person sitting across the wooden table that was a permanent fixture of his Garden East home. It is because of all these attributes that not many would notice the poet’s diminutive, frail frame. His poetry was his stature. His words were his face, hair, ears, nose, torso and hands.
Like all great artists, Jaun Elia was an idiosyncratic man. His presence of mind was unmatched as was his ability to create a scene when he craved attention. He would utter the cleverest of phrases at the right time and stun his listeners. His antics at mushairas were legendary: Elia would beat his head or call out an acquaintance’s name while trying to emphasise the importance of a couplet he’d been warming up to recite, caring two hoots about the laughs that it would elicit or the wry smiles on his fellow poets’ faces. He was one of a kind. However, amidst all of this, what eclipsed everything else were his ghazals and nazms.
Raat din hon kaenati masa’ale pesh-i-nazar
Aur jab thak jaen to us shokh ko chhera karein
(Days and nights are spent analysing the universe’s issues/But when I get tired of it, I flirt with her)
This was Jaun Elia: philosophical and human, with poetry as his mouthpiece. Who can forget that extraordinary ghazal with ‘machine’ as its refrain?
Yehi rishton ka karkhana hai
Ik machine aur us ke pass machine
(This is the business of relationships/
A machine alongside another machine)
Unfortunately, today Jaun Elia’s poetry has taken a backseat. All people remember about him at literary functions are his antics, his witty retorts, his sharp punch-lines. Agreed, they were a part of his persona (as they were of Ghalib or Dali), but what made Jaun Elia the most unique voice in Urdu literature in the second half of the 20th century were his ghazals and nazms, which are seldom discussed.
Dil ne daala tha darmayan jin ko
Loag wo darmayan ke thay hi nahin
(Those whom the heart wanted to mediate/
Weren’t worthy of being mediators at all)
A few weeks back, a known broadcaster presided over a literary sessions on Elia. In his presidential address all he talked about was Jaun Elia’s dress. This is how the great poet is now reminisced about.
When I first read Jaun Elia, I could sense he was special, way above the rest. What I see today (and I hope I am wrong) is that he is turning out to be one of the also-rans of Urdu poetry. I want to forget him now. I wish I could.
Zaat hai, aitbaar-i-zaat nahin
Ab to main khud bhi apne saat nahin
(The self is here, equivocally/
I, myself, am not with me anymore)
The writer is a Dawn staffer