Saturday, September 30, 2006

On the Shortness of Life

In mid June this year I drove up with my family for a short vacation to picturesque Lake Tahoe on the border of California and Nevada. As is my habit when I visit a new place, I started to investigate if there was a decent bookstore near where we were staying in South Lake Tahoe. After some discouraging conversations with people at the hotel, who seemed to believe Lake Tahoe was devoid of booksellers, I finally located "Neighbors Books & Music" on Lake Tahoe Boulevard.

Browsing in the store I came across a slim paperback volume of three essays by the Roman statesman Seneca (4 BC - 65 AD). The first essay in the book is titled "On the shortness of life" and as I read the first essay in the serene environment of Lake Tahoe I was mesmerized. The essay is addressed to Seneca's friend Paulinus, who the essay seems to suggest is a successful public official. Seneca's Stoic philosophy emphasizes the need for men to face the fact of their own mortality and to prepare for death, to treat time as the most precious and irreplaceable commodity and to use this limited resource for reflection and understanding not frivolous pursuits. What amazed me was the incredible relevance of this ancient essay to modern man's existence. Here are a few passages:

"Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves officiously preoccupied in order to improve their lives; they spend their lives in organizing their lives. They direct their purposes with an eye to a distant future. But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune's control, and abandoning what lies in yours." (Pg. 13)
Seneca is bitingly sarcastic about those who seem to have primarily desired, strived for and attained prosperity.

"All the greatest blessings create anxiety, and Fortune is never less to be trusted than when it is fairest. To preserve prosperity we need other prosperity, and to support the prayers that have turned out well we have to make other prayers ... So it is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil ... New preoccupations take the place of old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it." (Pg. 28)
"You must retire to these pursuits which are quieter, safer and more important ... In this kind of life you will find much that is worth your study: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, the knowledge of how to live and die, and a life of deep tranquility." (Pg. 31)
Earlier today I was reminded of Seneca's essay as I was reading a poem called "Next, Please" by the British poet Philip Larkin (1922 - 1985). Larkin, too bemoans our tendency to always look to the future, waiting for our proverbial ship to come in. However, unlike Seneca's essay, Larkin's poem is not a plea for the pursuit of virtue. His poem is just an image of stark realism where the essential truth of human life is only death.

Next, Please

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear,
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! and how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet they leave us holding wretched stalks
of disppointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Majeed Amjad - The Poet Less Remembered

Inspired by my friend Raza's literary blog Jahane-e-Rumi , I have been meaning to post something on Urdu poets and poetry. In the post-Iqbal era of Urdu poetry there are few greater poets than Majeed Amjad (this is a link to a short bio of him in Wikipedia that I wrote and I would love readers familiar with his work to add to it). Even amongst the lovers of Urdu poetry his name is least likely to be recognized. Reading Majeed Amjad's magnificent poetry I have often wondered how it is that some literary reputations get created from meager contributions but some people forever struggle to gain just acclaim.

In Majeed Amjad's case I think it was a confluence of factors: he was a quiet, reserved introvert with no inclination for self-marketing. He lived away from the literary center of Lahore in small Punjabi towns like Sahiwal and Jhang and never had many influential advocates of his literary merits. But, perhaps more importantly, Majeed Amjad was not an ideological poet affiliated with one or the other group of literary luminaries who could beat their partisan drums on his behalf (Progressive Writers Movement managed to turn everyone who knew the words 'mazdoor' or 'kisan' into literary giants).

However, on to some examples of his wonderful poetry (unfortunately I do not possess any talent for translation so my apologies to those who struggle with literary Urdu).

"Shab-e-Rafta" was the only collection of his poetry published in his lifetime. He wrote a beautiful poem ("Harf-e-Awwal") as an introduction to that collection:

DardoN ke is koh-e-garaaN se
MeiN ne tarashi, nazm kay eewaN
ki ik ik sil,
Ik ik soch ki hairaaN moorat ...

Garche qalam ki nok se tapke
Kitne tarane, kitne fasane
Lakh masaail
Dil meiN rahi sub dil ki hikayat!

Bees baras ki kaawish-e-paiham
Sochte din aur jaagti raateiN
Un ka haasil:
Aik yahi izhaar ki hasrat!

The persistent undercurrent of Majeed Amjad's poetry is a view of life that is essentially tragic (perhaps another reason why it is difficult for the young to embrace him compared to say Faiz's optimistic theme of 'we shall overcome') . Majeed Amjad feels the inexorable cruelty of time in his bones. Life's circle continues with unremitting regularity indifferent to what it leaves behind.

In the poem "KunwaN", the water wheel symbolizes the perpetual circle of time and the water carrier, symbolizing the divine, watches this passing of time and its ravages with complete detachment:

KunwaN chal raha hai! magar khet sookhe pare haiN, na fasleiN, na khirman, na dana
Na shakhon ki bahein, na phooloN ke mukhre, na kalioN ke mathe, na rut ki jawani ...

KunwaiN wala, gaadi pe leta hai, mast apni bansi ki meethi sureeli sada meiN
KahiN khet sookha para reh gaya aur na us tak kabhi aai pani ki bari
KahiN beh gayi aik hi tund rele ki fayyaz lehroN meiN kayari ki kayari ...

Aur ik naghma sarmadi kaan meiN aa raha hai, musalsal kunwaN chal raha hai
Payape magar narm rau us ki raftaar, paiham magar betakan us ki gardish
Adam se azal tak, azal se abad tak badalti nahiN aik aan us ki gardish
Na jane liye apne dolaab ki aastinoN maiN kitne jahaaN us ki gardish

RawaN hai rawaN hai
TipaN hai tipaN hai
Yeh chakkar yuhiN jaawidaN chal raha hai
KunwaN chal raha hai

I could go on but the last poem that I would like to quote in this piece is "Maqbara-e-Jahangir". I was particularly reminded of this reading the poem Raza has posted on his blog with an allusion to Shalimar. Notice the wholly different tone of Majeed Amjad's poem. His reaction to this beautifully historic sight is a deep sadness as he sees human beings (gardeners, people picknicking etc.) in this serene setting either struggling to get through the day or wholly oblivious to this fleeting existence.

Khurdre, maile, phate kaproN meiN boorhe maali
Yeh chaman band, jo guzre hue sultanoN ki
HaddiaN seench ke phulwariaN mehkate haiN
Ghaas kat ti hai ke din in ke kate jate haiN ...

Teen sau saal se mabhoot khare haiN jo yeh sarv
In ki shakheiN haiN keh afaaq ke sheeraze haiN
Saf-e-ayyam ki bikhri hui tarteebeN haiN
In ke saaye haiN keh dhalti hui tehzeebeN haiN ...

MarmareeN qabr ke ander, tahe zulmaat kahiN
Kirmak-o-Moor ke jabroN meiN salateeN ke badan
Koi dekhe, koi samjhe to is eewaN meiN jahaaN
Noor hai, husn hai, taz'een hai, zeebaish hai
Hai to bus aik dukhi rooh ki gunjaish hai

Update: (December 15th, 2009)

An extremely rare recording of Majeed Amjad reciting his own poetry. This is recorded at the residence of Mr. Mazhar Tirmazi in Farid Town, Sahiwal on November 13th, 1973.