Dreamer of Tomorrow

In a nation beset by extraction and drought, the poetry of Munir Niazi yearns for justice not escape, writes Ali Shehzad Zaidi, in a sequal to his study of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Beyond the Crimson Tide.

Munir Niazi (1923-2006), who wrote both in Urdu and Punjabi, swayed between hope and despair as Pakistan withered under military rule. His poetry, which is gentler than that of his contemporaries Ahmed Faraz and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, furthers the range of expression within the imagist and modernist traditions of Urdu poetry. He mastered the nazm, the main verse form of Urdu poetry, as well as the more disciplined ghazal, the Urdu poetic form consisting of five to fifteen self-contained couplets that create an overarching architecture. Niazi is celebrated for having affirmed the primacy of the imagination in a repressive country.

As a young man, Niazi was forced to leave his native village in eastern Punjab and to migrate to the newly created Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947. This uprooting, the death of his first wife in a road accident, and the predicament of Pakistan, underlies the sadness in his poetry. Nonetheless, his ideals spurred his literary creativity, as can be seen in “Compass of Stars”:

to point me the way –
one on my right,
the other on my left.
A third in front of me
dim and obscure
like an earthen lamp
The fourth behind me
in the dark clouds
of memory.

The faint third star suggests an uncertain future enveloped in mist, while the fourth star hints at how the past shaped his future and his poetry.

In “The Point of Intersection,” the swirling winds of a revolutionary spirit evoke life experiences, ancestral memory, folk tradition, and more:

Restless, swirling winds –
Come to my help!
Voices of my lost dead –
Come to my help!
Let us turn this world
Into a paradise.
Let us smash the old gods
And usher in the new –
The glorious gods
Of beauty, truth, and love.
Restless, swirling winds!
Voices of my lost dead!

Foremost among the voices of Niazi’s lost dead are those of the Sufi Punjabi poets Bulleh Shah and Sultan Bahu who were a bridge between religions and whose lyrics are still sung today throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Niazi’s aspirations remain undiminished in “Signalling to a Friendly Star to Keep Shining,” in which star and poet, the outer and the inner, merge in a journey towards the unattainable:

My dream-star!
My beacon of hope!
Be it the darkness before dawn –
Night of inconsolable grief –
Last horizon of an arduous journey –
The roof of an ill-omened house –
Fruit-laden trees –
Barren water-logged land –
City of vibrant expectations –
Wilderness haunted by memories.
Wherever I may be –
Keep shining.
My dream-star!
My beacon of hope!

The dream-star represents a quest rather than a destination. In the words of Sam Hamill, “[t]he moon and the sun are travellers through eternity. Even the years wander on. Whether drifting through life on a boat or climbing toward old age leading a horse, each day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” The image of “an ill-omened house” in the above poem recalls Niazi’s lost childhood home in the Punjab, a place name derived from the Persian words panj (‘five’) and ab (‘waters’), and which is the “Land of Five Rivers” mentioned in the Mahabharata.

The childhood memory of “fruit-laden trees” contrasts with the grim present-day reality of a Pakistan beset by drought and floods. Water-logging and salinity have damaged several million hectares in the Indus valley. The Himalayan glaciers that provide water to Pakistan’s cities are disappearing due to global warming. With 68% of its citizens dependent on firewood for cooking, Pakistan loses roughly 27,000 hectares of forest a year. Like Niazi’s childhood home, Pakistan is an “ill-omened house.”

Pakistan was in better shape when, as a young man during the sixties, Niazi wrote features for radio and television and earned acclaim for his film songs. However, the censorship and repression of successive military regimes threatened his livelihood as editor, journalist, and poet. During the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, which lasted from 1977 to 1988, writers went into exile and literary journals ceased publication. The regime carried out public floggings. Saudi-funded fanatics began to massacre religious minorities in increasing numbers. The Pakistani press euphemistically terms the ongoing genocide “targeted killings.”

The dictatorship also legally sanctioned punishments such as stoning and amputation, which have no basis whatsoever in the Quran. These punishments, which are taken from the Old Testament, were justified, not by literal interpretations of the Quran, but by willful misreading that precludes debate, reason, and history. Blasphemy laws, and the dark scowls of men whose deeds were written on their faces, all but ended theological disputation, for cogent argumentation ceases at the point of a barrel of a gun.

After the onset of the U.S. War on Terror in 2001, Pakistan experienced a steady increase in terrorism. Suicide bombers targeted Sufi shrines, Shia mosques, Christian churches, and the Pakistani army itself, which had supported various terror groups for its own strategic ends, first in Afghanistan, and then in both Indian and Pakistani-occupied Kashmir. It is understandable, then, Niazi should have despaired as in “Futility”:

Why complain
and to whom?
This whole world
is rotten
to the core.

in the name of heaven,
can you preserve
what must one day

A lie
has subjugated
the city of God.
Why then prattle
of truth?

Nothing has
any meaning any more.
Compliance or refusal –
acceptance or revolt –
All so utterly futile.

The “lie that has subjugated city of god” refers to the murderous and ostentatious orthodoxies that impose the lowest common religious denominator as divine mandate in service to capitalism. Saudi-funded mosques and madrassas, in particular profoundly altered the mentality of Pakistanis.

Seemingly a painful mirage, Niazi’s dreams invoke a new spiritual dawn, as in “Eagle of the Morning Sun”:

Another chapter
in the book of life
is finished:
Youth’s sweet torment
comes to an end.

Tantalizing chimeras
of the desert:
birds hurled
from cloud to cloud –
deceitful whores.

Morning sun
let down your net
in water –
with your sharp talons
defang my dreams.

In this poem, Niazi yearns for divine mercy to fulfil his thirst for justice, thereby turning his dreams of another tomorrow from pain to joy. The eagle in the poem title represents spiritual ascension, power, and dreams reborn in the hearts of readers.

Niazi came to recognize that his dreams would not be realised in his lifetime, if at all. The dreamer of tomorrow was writing for another age, as he conveys in “Now Is Not The Time”:

Eyes of innocence
(‘magic casements’)
luminous as stars:
glowing embers.
Every wound is a valley –
a pain
that nothing will dissolve.
Now is not the time
for love.
All happiness
has been squeezed out
of the udders of night
and the heart’s subterranean mirror
reflects only
what was
and what might have been.
Defer your dreams:
cloud, rendezvous, cathartic rain.

Niazi sought justice, not escape. His dreams, however deferred, were meant to release Pakistan from its spiritual drought. The phrase ‘magic casements’ in “Now Is Not The Time” is taken from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”: “Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.” It was chosen by Daud Kamal, the translator of the poems in this essay, who taught English literature at the University of Peshawar until his death in 1987.

Niazi understood that his dreams would be fulfilled someday in the hearts of his readers. In “Horizons,” he meditates on his imminent death and the indefinite deferral of his dreams:

by her own beauty
the moon
plunges into the river
and drowns herself.

on roofs, streets, graveyards.
The wind’s savage cry.
is the final estrangement.

Strange seeds
rot and germinate
in memory.
I turn to you
and the horizons meet.

The moon represents the ineffable and, in a narrower context, a yearning for a just social order in Pakistan. Through his childhood memories, Niazi sought to cleanse the polluted wellsprings of existence and to thereby effect a lost paradise. His dreams and longings – those “strange seeds” – are destined to germinate and bear fruit in the hearts of his readers.