ESSAY: The Portrait Artist – the poetry of Harris Khalique in retrospect
By Bilal Tanweer
Harris Khalique’s new collection of poems, Melay Mein, is marked by a certain weariness. These poems lack the defiant verve of his earlier poems. The poet who wrote about boldly coveting other people’s wives, about kissing a new friend at Jehangir Kothari parade on 14th of August, who celebrated sex and drunkenness and adultery, whose pitch and tone was revolutionary, who resolved life’s gravest dilemmas in a delightfully off-handed manner (kaun jaanay kia hai wafa/ kis ne dhoonde se paya khuda/ in jhamelo’n mein parne se kia/ aa’o jeenay ki baatein karein) and wrangled with the world about love being greater than the individual, greater than society, of love being its own time and space (Musheer Uncle, zamana ishq se barh kar nahin hai/…/ ishq to khud ik zamana hai/ yeh poora ‘ahad hai) — that poet, that voice is gone now.
This is Harris Khalique’s eighth book, and the occasion has led to a republication of new editions of his previous selected works: Ishq ki Taqveem Mein (Urdu) and Between You and Your Love (English; revised and expanded edition). Quite fittingly, it is a moment for deeper examination and evaluation of his work to allow it the place it deserves in the corpus of Pakistani literature. I hope this essay is a beginning of that conversation.
Compared to his earlier work, the voice in Melay Mein appears worn out, more aware of life’s fragilities and body’s weaknesses, and more cynical, far more cynical about what can be achieved in a lifetime. This is a voice that is seeking refuge; it is in conversation with Husain, pleading in Hazrat Mueenuddin Chishty’s darbar, presenting verses to Shah Habib. It’s begging for favors and mercies, seeking solace. The tone of defiance, wherever it may be found, is one of martyrdom.
Clearly, things have changed.
The weariness in Harris Khalique’s new poems stem from the dissipated promise of life — a recurring theme in these poems — and the defeated ideals one has built a life on. The two couplets from the opening poem, “khwab-e khush-numa”,set the mood:
shayad woh khwab-e khush numa
hum ne kabhi dekha na tha
khud pe kia taari use
woh khwab jo apna na tha
However, the fatigue also seems to have extended into his language, which becomes by turn hackneyed, by turn clichéd, and — even more shockingly — vague and indulgent. I am pointing to the earlier poems in the collection, like “Gha’o”and “Safar”. The first one is worth reproducing at length:
mere gha’o bohat gehray hain
unn ka bharna sehal nahin
aik ik gha’o kee gehra’ee mein
basee hu’ee hain
khauf aur dehshat ki duniya’ein
aur inn duniya’o’n mein naach rahee hai’n
lambay kaalay choghay pehnay
pichal peri ka’ee bala’ein
saari bala’ein baari baari
mera kaleja noch rahee hain
kafee deyr ke baad balaa jab thak jaati hai
phir se kaleja bhar jaata hai…
This poem is so spectacularly indulgent, so extravagant in its vagueness and so dull in its language that the kindest thing to say about it would be that this is perhaps a poem’s way of doing an Indian soap opera. It lacks both the rigors of imagination and language that one would expect from a poet of Harris Khalique’s caliber and experience.
Other poems in this opening section of Melay Mein fare no better. Consider the ending of the title poem, “Melay Mein”— a poem written from the perspective of a mother ‘jiss ka bacha/ jahan-e baazi giraa’n ke melay mein/ kho gaya hai’:
woh mera masoom dil ka tukra
woh mera gul-goothna sa bacha
mein uss ke sadqay mein uss pe vaari
mein apna sukh, apna chen haari
khuda hee ab mujh pe rehm kha’ye
khuda hee hai jo hamein milaa’ye
While the poem aspires to universality with ‘jahan-e baazi giraa’n’, it fails to exert itself either imaginatively or emotionally to live up to that aspiration. The world of this poem remains vague, and no image, no line comes alive on the page (except maybe for a phrase: ‘woh be-niyazi ke khauf aaye’. Maybe).
In the covenant between a reader and a writer, there is no greater transgression than for a writer to do less than he is capable of and to not make his writing as good as he can. The fact that most of these poems were not shot to death by either the editor(s) or the poet himself is greatly dismaying. And look, the matter is even graver. We believe in poets because they look at the world harder, with more care and attention, with greater sensitivity and insight than the rest of us. I recall a moment in Jack Gilbert’s poem, “I Imagine the Gods”, where the gods offer to grant the poet everything: wisdom, fame, three wishes. The poet rebuffs it all:
…Let me fall
in love one last time, I beg them.
Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present. Help me to find
the heft of these days. That the nights
will be full enough and my heart feral.
In the covenant, the role of readers is also clearly stated: to make good books possible and to make bad books impossible. Good readers must work as hard as writers. We must demand more life, more heart, more imagination from our writers. They must tell us what it is to be alive. Frighten us into the present. Help us find and lift the heft of these days.
What I am saying is this: the dream of literature is to be richer, fuller — even greater than life. Literature should never betray that promise. We can all live with a world that betrays us, but not literature.
But let me not get carried away in my frustrations with these early poems of Melay Mein. There are more good poems in this book than bad, and to be sure, this is a moment of celebration.
For those not familiar with his work, Harris Khalique has written poetry in three languages (Urdu, Punjabi and English) and has a distinct voice in each one of them. His verse in Punjabi is most lyrical of the three, while in English it is at its sparest and most direct. His English verse shows a range of influences — from Borges, Nazim Hikmet, Czeslaw Milosz, Amichai, Qabbani (whose poem he has translated: “Ijazat Mil Sake Gee Kia?”) to Taufiq Rafat, and over the years he has written some truly remarkable poems in English. Consider, for instance, his poems on Karachi. Here’s one (perhaps the finest):
“I was raised in Karachi”
When young I always asked my mother:
“Why can’t we give names to numbers and numbers to names?”
It took her twenty-five years to come up with a reply.
“Son, we name the streets and count the people.”
Three Unknown Men Killed on M.A. Jinnah Road
read the morning’s newspaper.
Examining his oeuvre in languages, one realises that Harris Khalique’s best poems are made not of ideas but people: “Kaana Bati Koo”, “Ghulam Azam Musalli”, “Nazeer Alam Gavayya”, “Sabeen Ehsan Akhtar—Defense Phase II”, “Ali Mohsin MBA—Khalid bin Waleed Road”, “Razia Sultana—Korangi K-Area”, “Sa’adat Khan Baloch Rakshay Waala—sakana Purana Golimaar”, “Muzammil Ghari-saaz”, “Uncle Jacques”and others.
Character portraits are Harris Khalique’s forte. He can pull them out of thin air and make people stand in front of you in a manner that can safely be described as shockingly vivid and exhilarating. He buses you through his characters’ work days and their domestic squabbles, and details their drawing room gossips, the thickness of their lips and their sexual interests. His portraits have both the lightness of touch and unsentimental compassion that makes for great writing, and reading them you wonder if any other contemporary writer from Pakistan — bar none and no genre — has been able to create such characters with so much clarity, conviction and above all, with such deep and abiding humanity. Those two boys who died yesterday in police firing near Sindhi Hotel, Lalu Khet, they are in these pages telling each other dirty jokes, cussing, eyeballing girls on the street and saying shit to passersby. Ghulam Azam Musalli, who serves Malik sahib, cleans and refills his hookah and beats up the opposition workers come election time, is dealing with the unbearable rash in his armpits and pubis, and trying to bear the loss of his son who died at birth. Nazir Alam Gavayya, who has been practicing his craft of singing for a lifetime, now wakes up in the middle of the night, and we get to glimpse his nightmares. They are the contours of the world we live in.
The last time you saw such terrific portraits were in the work of Majeed Amjad, that master. Think of his brilliant portrait of Manto, which opens:
mei’n ne uss ko dekha hai
ujli ujli sarko’n par aik gard bhari heraani mei’n
pheltee pheltee bheer ke andhay aundhay
katoro’n ki tughiyaani mei’n
jab woh khaali botal phei’nk ke kehta hai
“duniya! tera husn yahi bad-soorati hai”…
But Harris Khalique’s portraits are even more remarkable and stand on their own because a. they are no hagiographies; and b. his characters don’t simply have names and faces, they also have an address. Harris Khalique’s poems have an extraordinary tendency to move away from the abstract. His cast of folk have no time for existential dilemmas because they are all busy untangling themselves from the ensnaring world they inhabit. They are busy earning their share of sadnesses from the world, while he exquisitely lays bare the interstices of power on the spectrums of gender, class and space where they fall. In that sense, Harris Khalique is a good Marxist (as opposed to, you know, a Marxist) because he understands Faiz and Hikmet: meri jaan tujh ko batla’oon bauhat naazuk yeh nukta hai/ badal jaata hai insan jab makaan uss ka badalta hai.
While Harris Khalique has some gems in ghazals, nazms that also deserve a careful and detailed reading, I believe it is in his portraits where he delivers on one of the essential promises of literature: to illuminate our world and render it legible. It is this work that marks him as one of our truly original voices, a true portrait artist of our times.