“Bol ki lab aazaad hain tere”

Anthems of Resistance:
A celebration of progressive Urdu poetry
by Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir
India Ink, 2006

Rs. 295

There is one kind of lament about Indian politics that has become commonplace: politics has become characterized only by corruption, self-indulgence, and venality.  In fact, as this review is being written, India seems racked with some of the worst scandals at the highest levels of government since the infamous Bofors scandal of the 1980s.  Against the backdrop of an overly-rehearsed drama of political criminality, we hear an equally poignant appeal for the traditions of justice and social change that have also been a long part of Indian history.  Only these voices are smaller, when they are not, like Binayak Sen, unjustly prosecuted and thrown in prison.

There is another kind of hope that has been resurrected with the rising of the Arab peoples against American-backed dictators all across North Africa and the Middle East: that power cannot indefinitely project itself without a challenge.  The toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt has raised the hopes of people throughout the world that revolutionary politics are now returning to the agenda.  They are also, incidentally, returning to the world of poetry.  Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi’s poem “To the Tyrants of the World” was on the lips of protesters in Tunisia and then in Egypt.

You, the unfair tyrants…

You the lovers of the darkness…

You the enemies of life…

You’ve made fun of innocent people’s wounds; and your palm covered with their blood

You kept walking while you were deforming the charm of existence and growing seeds of sadness in their land

Wait, don’t let the spring, the clearness of the sky and the shine of the morning light fool you…

Because the darkness, the thunder rumble and the blowing of the wind are coming toward you from the horizon

Beware because there is a fire underneath the ash

Who grows thorns will reap wounds

You’ve taken off heads of people and the flowers of hope; and watered the cure of the sand with blood and tears until it was drunk

The blood’s river will sweep you away and you will be burned by the fiery storm.

This is a poem that could have easily been in the Mir brothers’ Anthem of Resistance: a celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry, alongside Faiz, Sahir, Naheed, and Majrooh.  Not only does al-Shabi’s poem ring out with the same power as the poetry of the early Progressive Writers Association, but its images would have found easy homes with South Asian cousins.  This may have been the dawn that Faiz awaited.

In part, what gives the Mir brothers’ book its power is their profound sense that the mission of the Progressive Writers Association – “to fight cultural reaction” and “to further the cause of Indian freedom and social regeneration” – is still incomplete.  If the first reaction to Indian politics (as thoroughly corrupt) gives rise to a furious indignation, the second reaction to recent events has stirred hope, and both of these emotional worlds are not only the product of the incomplete revolution in India and Pakistan, but they are also the bread-and-butter of progressive poetry.  Perhaps it is because both of these emotions exist simultaneously in our understanding of contemporary south Asia that the Mir brothers’ book fits so well into the current moment and manages to resonate still.

Describing the book is no easy task: it is part anthology and part history; part translation and part criticism; part panegyric and part paean.  The multipurpose nature of the book lends it a great deal of elasticity to elaborate a range of issues that relate to the long legacy of progressive writing: its influence on and reaction to the political struggles of post-independence south Asia; the enduring presence of progressive themes in filmi music; and the confident message of social change that progressive poetry embodied despite substantial obstacles.

One of the most important contributions of the book is its examination of poetic internationalism (done through the auspices of linkages made by the Third International).  Langston Hughes’ poem about Gandhi sits next to Sardar Ali Jaffri’s poem about Paul Robeson.  Makhdoom Moheeudin penned a poem on the death of Dr. Martin Luther King; Faiz lamented Israel’s colonization of Palestinian lands; Sahir eulogized Lenin.  The poets of national independence were also deeply committed to global justice and their lines expanded the scope of Urdu poetry beyond national boundaries.

Also unique to this account of the Progressive Writers Movement is its frank discussion of sexism within the ranks of the taraqqi pasandis.  The reliance on ghazals and other kinds of romantic poetic conventions meant that for the most part, the poetic production of the progressives treated men as the agents and women as the objects in the narrative of desire (even when that desire was an allegory for justice, independence, revolution, etc.).  The rise of a new kind of progressive feminist poetry in response to Zia ul-Haq’s campaign of Islamization, which included the anti-woman “Zina Ordinance” and “Hudood Ordinance,” produced the likes of Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riaz.

But there is a problem in both of these contributions that the authors hint at but never really address.  Internationalism was always on the pattern of Soviet internationalism, so while certain causes could easily find progressive solidarity, others were markedly absent, and in the case of Pakistan, perhaps most obviously was any poetic objection to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  The strong hold that the Communist Party asserted on the meaning and content of progressivism also left a number of literary casualties, the most famous of whom (perhaps because they worked in fiction rather than poetry) were left out of the book all together: Ahmed Ali and Saadat Hasan Manto.

The discussion on feminism also raises important questions that the Mir brothers don’t address openly.  For instance, did the criticism that Ismat Chughtai and Quratullain Hyder received at the hands of Progressive stalwarts have any role to play in the slowness with which feminist themes found themselves included in progressive poetry?  It’s also highly suspect whether or not Fehmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed would consider themselves part of the Progressive Writers Movement without substantial qualification.

In fact, the incredibly generous reading of the Progressive Writers Movement – historically so that it stretches almost into the 21st century and biographically so that it includes people who never joined the PWA – means that while the book can produce a very moving account of protest literature (at times Progressive poetry seems simply to mean all protest poetry in the book), it is at pains to describe why the movement languished and why the best poets of today no longer consider themselves progressives.  It is telling that the rage of most subcontinental progressive poetry produces nostalgia, both in the translations the Mir brothers offer and in the tone of the book throughout.

But the book is serendipitous.  On the heels of massive protests internationally and facing the corrupt bureaucracies of the Pakistani and Indian states, progressive poetry is slated for a renaissance.  Perhaps then, the book can best serve as a reminder of the power of revolutionary protest and the costs of leaving it unfinished.