Amjad Islam Amjad — Poet par excellence

Amjad Islam Amjad — Poet par excellence
1 / 3
Amjad Islam Amjad — Poet par excellence
2 / 3
Amjad Islam Amjad — Poet par excellence
3 / 3
Updated 13 January 2016

Amjad Islam Amjad — Poet par excellence

Amjad Islam Amjad — Poet par excellence

Amjad Islam Amjad is currently Pakistan’s best-known Urdu poet. Born on Aug. 4, 1944, he enjoys immense popularity among Urdu lovers in both India and Pakistan because of his brilliant poetry and excellent screenplays. Winner of many awards, including the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, and an author of many books of poetry, he has been a regular feature at poetry readings all over the world for the last four decades.

Some of his plays, dramatized by Pakistan Television (PTV) and other private television channels, have won international acclaim. “Waaris,” “Samandar,” “Waqt,” “Dehleez,” “Raat” and “Apne Log” are among his most popular screenplays. He wrote his first drama, “Pehla Khel,” in 1973.

First and foremost, however, he is a poet whose lines tug at the hearts of those who have either fallen in or out of love. Few modern-day poets have captured the feelings of lovelorn souls the way Amjad Islam Amjad has. His work is brilliant and towers well above his fellow poets.

In this wide-ranging interview, Amjad Islam Amjad spoke about a number of issues related to Urdu poetry, literature and its unique script. The conversation was repeatedly interrupted by his admirers who wanted to compliment him on the quality of his work.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

Q: How does it feel to be the object of such adulation around the world?
A: One feels happy. The late Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi, a towering figure of Urdu literature, would have said, “Kisi bhi shehr me jaaun, ghareeb-e-shehr nahi.” The love and adulation of friends and admirers and this acknowledgement is always welcome. People come and recite my couplets, recall meetings and poetry reading sessions — all these make one feel better. We get strength. It makes us realize that we have not led an empty, meaningless life. The greatest gift for a writer and a poet is for people to recall their work. I am always thankful to Allah for this bounty, this adulation, this respect.

Q: You have been all over the world. What is the status of Urdu?
A: There are two sides to it. One bright and one dark. Urdu as a spoken language is prospering in the world. There is no doubt that in the next 10 years, it might become the topmost spoken language in the world. Even now, it is among the Top 3 spoken languages — Chinese, English and Urdu. Spanish is No. 4. The fastest-growing language is Urdu. Having said that, I must say, rather ruefully, that its script is in danger of being forgotten. Urdu has become the language of the ear. It is no longer the language of the eye. There was a time, when it was the language of the eye. We used to read the written word. Now in SMS and smartphones, and on the Internet, you see the language in electronic format. Thus our attachment to the book, and especially to the script, is slowly losing its appeal. The new generation in Pakistan and India mostly write Urdu in Roman or Latin script. That is bad.

Q: The umpteen high-profile Urdu events organized in Saudi Arabia, in the UAE, in Canada and in the United States surely indicate that the language is thriving, doesn’t it?
A: In the last 10 years I have been invited to these Urdu-ki-nayee-bastiyan-type programs in Australia, in Europe, the United States and different places. (The term “Urdu ki nayee bastiyan” loosely translates as the new Urdu territories). These events are organized with passion and effort and I congratulate them, but I also tell them that these “Urdu ki nayee bastiyan” will become “nayee bastiyan” only when your children listen to and attend these programs. At these events, older people make up the audience rather than younger ones. The older generation comes to these events because of their sense of nostalgia in a foreign land. The older generation is well off, well settled; it has the money. They say let us invite some celebrity — some writer, some poet. Let us celebrate an evening with them. You cannot create new territories of Urdu like this.

Q:Then how can you create new territories of Urdu?
A: You have to teach your children Urdu in whatever way possible. At least make them aware of the Urdu words. This is because language is the door to culture and the key to it as well. Our children are being provided with all amenities and education in the West. When they are asked who they are, sadly they are lost. The noted Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri, has an interesting couplet: “Main bas ek baar laajawab huwa/Jab kisi ne kaha ke kaun ho tum.” This amounts to an identity crisis, especially for those who are growing up in the West or in the Gulf. These children are unaware of our folklore, unaware of our traditions. Their parents teach them something about religion and that is it. Where do they belong? What is their history? What is their culture? The answers to these questions can only be provided by the language.

Q: Going back to the question about the script, is it possible for a language to survive without a script?
A: As I said the world is changing. Forty or fifty years ago, we could not have imagined the world we have today. The world has truly become a global village and it is connected. The question in this global village for you and me is dignity; if we are not equal to the rest of the world, what is the point? To hell with the global village, it means nothing to us. We have to look at it from this point of view. In the global village unless, and until, they have your own identity, these children will not be able to tell which country they belong to or which culture they belong to. Look at Danish children or Norwegian children. If you talk to them, they will tell you about their history and their culture. On the other hand, we have not taught our children our history and our culture because they cannot read the books that are in a language that is now foreign to them.

Q: Any particular examples that would explain this point?
A: Take the case of the popular and provocative Urdu fiction writer, the late Ismat Chughtai. I met her 30 years ago. What she told me was shocking, not least because I was a great fan of hers. She told me that her daughters couldn’t read her books. I couldn’t believe it. None of the children of many of the best Urdu writers could read or write Urdu. Take the case of the late Akhtarul Iman. In his family, nobody could read Urdu. Kaifi Azmi’s daughter, Shabana Azmi, can neither read Urdu script, nor can she write it.

Q: Shabana Azmi, the actress?
A: Yes, Shabana Azmi, the famous actress. She writes Urdu in Roman script. This is alarming. I am always concerned about how to connect the younger generation with Urdu script. Once they know the script, then their world will be open to them.

Q: You wrote some of the best Urdu plays. Are you still writing plays or are good plays still being written?
A: No, I have not written for television for the last 10 years; this was my personal decision. You can call it an emotional one. I am known to the people of my generation because of my dramas. I have a wider audience because of my plays. Poetry is limited. Everyone watches television. However, the proliferation of TV channels has brought the standard of screenplays down. I am not comfortable with what is happening.

Q; What about the state of fiction?
A: Literature moves in circles. The wave that came with the Progressive Writers’ Movement was so massive and high that a new wave that equals it might take some time. But still there are good writers. They may not be as good as the old-timers, but you never know if in the next 10 or 12 years, there may emerge writers who will take things to a different level.

Q: What about poetry?
A: The same is true of poetry. I am very optimistic. I am a little worried about poetry in India. Shahryar (Akhlaq Mohammed Khan) died three years ago and now there is nobody of his caliber. Irfan Siddiqui who is also no more was a remarkable poet. They were great poets, but not mushaira poets.

Q: Poetry seems to have degenerated. It is all about marketing these days, right?
A: I like one particular couplet from Altaf Hussain Hali. I have applied this couplet to my life as a writer. “Ahl-e-maani ko hai laazim sukhan aaraayi bhi/Bazm me ahl-e-nazr bhi hain tamashaayi bhi.” You have to cater to both. If you only cater to the “tamashaayi” (spectators), then you will turn into a “nautanki” (theatrical) poet. If you only run after the “ahl-e-sukhan” (the literati), then you will be confined to books and libraries. The writer as a poet has to take the middle way. Stoop to the level of the audience sometimes, but then try to bring them to a higher level. Poets should do both. After Shahryar, there was a younger generation of poets in India. But since they were not mushaira poets, they did not get enough recognition.

Q: What makes poetry in Pakistan of superior quality?
A: In Pakistan, poetry is of good quality because Urdu is the country’s national language. It means a great deal. Plus, Urdu has economic utility in Pakistan because it can get you employment, unlike in India. That also matters a great deal. In Pakistan the consistency of tradition has not broken while in India it has.

Q: Consistency of tradition? Can you please elaborate?
A: Let me explain. When India and Pakistan separated, the dominant thinking in India was that India’s national language should be Hindi and Hindi’s origin was Sanskrit. Because of that, they deliberately rooted out Persian and with that, the Arabic influence was also erased. Thus, Indian Urdu got closer to Hindi and at the same time got away from the main traditions. It got separated from the fountain where its source was. The mixture of Persian, Arabic and Hindi led to the creation of Urdu. When you remove two of those languages, you become dependent on only one. I asked many Indian friends as to why were they writing such poetry? Why do you seek and beg for appreciation in a mushaira? They said something very interesting that I had not realized. They said, “Amjad Sahib, among these 4,000 people who have come to listen to us, not more than 500 can read Urdu.” I am talking about 30 years ago. For me this was a revelation. I did not know things had reached such a point. Many of them could not read Urdu; that is what the writers said. In other words, they could only understand spoken Urdu. If you say to them, for example, “gham-e-jaana,” they will not be able to understand, but if you tell them “jaan ka gham,” then they may be able to understand. So they had to come down to their level to write poetry which they liked, and then they started clapping. If Urdu has survived in India somehow, it is because of Indian film music. Otherwise it has almost vanished. The tradition, however, continued in Pakistan because there was no distraction.

Q: What is your view about the Indo-Pak relations? What is your take on increasing people-to-people contacts?
A: This is the biggest tragedy, and however much we express our anguish, it does not diminish. If you want to know about the state of the Pakistan-India relationship, you must find out how long it takes for you to get an Indian or a Pakistani visa. If the relationship is good, visas are immediately issued; if not, then it takes days or months. This is the litmus test that people have devised. The visa office is the best barometer. This is absolutely wrong. I think people should meet each other. We have to accept the reality, whether we like it or not. The truth is that there are two separate nations. Personal likes and dislikes are a different thing. If we accept this, then we will be able to proceed. I am an eternal optimist. I feel — and it is my conviction — that because of people-to-people contacts and because of international pressure we will be forced to draw closer.

— The Pakistan Embassy has organized An Evening With Amjad Islam Amjad in Riyadh on Thursday, Jan. 14, at the Chancery Hall in the Diplomatic Quarter.