Hasan Mujtaba’s ‘Koel Shehr Ki Katha’ is an invitation to savour pain and joy of existence
Having read Hasan Mujtaba’s collection of poems Koel Shehr Ki Katha after I met the poet in New York earlier in October, I asked why he chose the cuckoo as his metaphor.
“Cuckoo is a bird that sings the song of longing and separation,” he replied. “No matter how moved you are by the song, you can hardly ever see the bird itself.” His words kept echoing in my mind till I found the word that seems to define the wide spectrum of his poetry: exile.
Koel Shehr Ki Katha engages with many themes that are ultimately experienced in the archetypal experience of exile. The inner emigrant — a fugitive of the mind — who writes these poems, seems to be soaked in the pathos of being away from his homeland. This informs his metaphors and shapes his poetic and historical imagination.
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Whether it is a longing for the country with its splendour and innocence or his disgust for people robbing its resources, or his attempt at understanding the enigma of love and being separated from the beloved, Hasan’s use of language is loaded with metaphors that redefine themselves through his unique way of writing.
In his beautifully intimate introduction to the book, novelist Mohammed Hanif writes: “Hasan is the only poet of his generation who is like the fully animated Indus and barren Sutlej at the same time. His political poems are filled with the colours of the women singing tappay (local Punjabi folk songs) and his nohas (a genre of Arabic, Persian or Urdu prose. In English language, also known as elegy depicting the Imam’s killing) with the jokes of mirasis.”
Hanif’s introduction expands on the local character and intriguing paradoxes that dominate the poems. Written in Punjabi and Urdu alike, these poems oscillate between one’s joy of freedom to express, and the price one pays for such expression. Although many of the poems evoke the spaces in New York, where the poet has lived over the years, they remain deeply reminiscent of the country that continues to beckon him. This particular aspect of Hasan’s poetry throbs in the piercing lines of the poem called Ek Koel Shehr Ki Katha.
Hasan’s engagement with the world around him reminds one of Jalaluddin Rumi’s very first verses of the Mathnawi, where the 13th century Sufi poet is personified as the reed flute telling the story of how she yearns to be united with her home — a longing that becomes the eternal metaphor of exile:
“Hearken to the reed-flute, how it complains,
Lamenting its banishment from its home:
“Ever since they tore me from my osier bed,
My plaintive notes have moved men and women to tears.
I burst my breast, striving to give vent
And to express the pangs of my yearning for my home.”
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This inexplicable experience of exile also transforms the way one thinks about love. As they say, it was the emotion of love that animated the very idea of
language, giving birth to poetry. In a similar vein, Hasan’s engagement with love does not appear to be different from his experience of exile. In every event of love, his metaphors shift from meaningfulness to meaninglessness and this shift is depicted best in the following couplet:
“Hasan don’on jahan ba ma’ani
Tish’nagi’ la zawaal Ishq la ya’ani”
(Hasan! Both worlds are meaningful:
The infinity of yearning and the
absurdity of love)
In any case, the translation does not do justice to the rhyme in Hasan’s poems. No matter how local his verses are, Hasan’s poetic imagination is perhaps the most moving voice in Pakistan’s contemporary poetry which speaks to the
universality of the ‘shipwrecks’.
Koel Shehr Ki Katha is an invitation to
savour the pain and joy of existence, where paradoxically, transcendence and a sense of belonging are intrinsic to exile.
The writer is an AIPS Fellow at the University of North Carolina and is currently translating Mirza Athar Baig’s collection of short stories, ‘Be-Afsana’, in English
Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2015.
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