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Friday, 29 June 2012

Kashmiri Lal Zakir -- The Last of the Progressives

Urdu progressive writer, Kashmiri Lal Zakir, celebrated his 93rd birthday on 7 April 2012. Looking back, it has been a life well spent. Awards and encomiums have come in ample measure, including the Padma Shri in India and the Nuqoosh award in Pakistan; they serve as signposts of an eclectic and rich career spanning many decades.

Born in village Bega Banian in District Gujarat in west Punjab, now in Pakistan, Zakir sahib is a prodigious and eclectic writer. Having written over 130 books, including novels, short stories, plays, travelogues, as well tomes on environment and education, he is possibly the last of the progressives and remembered best for his seminal novel, Karmavali, a novel that depicted the tragedy of the partition with rare empathy.

Such was the effect of Karmavali on its readers that it moved fellow progressive writer, K A Abbas to note that it had been ‘not authored with ink only; but penned with the tears of humanity.’ The novel was turned into a play by the premier National School of Drama and staged over a hundred times all over India. What sets Karmavali apart from the scores of other ‘partition novels’ is Zakir sahab’s consistent refusal to be snared in the binary of viewing the cataclysmic events of the year 1947 as either taqseem or azaadi. He insists on viewing partition as a human tragedy of epic proportions. What is more, it is a tragedy that the principal characters in his novel never fully comprehend. In Karmavali, Zakir sahib also goes beyond the rhetoric of nationalism, the much-touted two-nation theory and the building of a new country on purely religious grounds. As events pan out and murder, loot and pillage unspools in epic proportions from the decsions of a handful of men, there appears to be little fellow feeling on religious grounds amongst those most affected. In the villages of rural Punjab, the ties are of kinship and neighbourliness. In the new country, where these refugees search for new homes, they are treated as ‘aliens’ the refuge-seekers who speak a different dialect, eat different food and despite the commonality of religion are still different.

Zakir sahab’s depiction of physical hardships and abuse, especially of women, is heart rending. His portrayal of women is in the same league as some of the great progressive writers such as Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi. And like Bedi, his depiction of life in Punjab is redolent with the full-bodied flavours, sights and sounds of a way of life that is rooted to the soil. Timeless and unchanging, it follows the cycle of the seasons and is comforting in its ceaselessness. Mendicants roam the villages singing songs of Heer-Ranjha:

            Heer aakhiyya jogiya jhoot bolein

            Kaun bichchare yaar milanwada ae

And so it continued till the tides of partition rent the fabric of life asunder. Karmavali, the protagonist of Zakir sahab’s seminal novel, recalls the annus horribilis thus:

‘That year Khushia became ten years old. That year Faiza laid the foundations of another human life in my womb. That year our fields yielded much more crops than previous years…’

But that same year her life withers; she has to leave for a new country and a new home leaving behind her son whom she will meet decades later, a son who has been raised by a Sikh Granthi. The years that follow, of struggle and rehabilitation, are years of hardship and disillusionment. Karmawali knows that her story is the story of a dried-up stem, solitary, tenderless and unyielding: a story without a moral. A way that leads nowhere, can that be a way. A night without end, with no morning in sight, is it a night?

In contrast to the dark, pathos-laden landscape of his prose, his poetry is fiull of vim and vigour. As a testament to his faith in better times ahead, he says:

            Yeh aur baat hai ke aage hawa ke rakhe hain

            Chiragh jitney bhi rakhe hain, jala ke rakhe hain

And elsewhere:

            Woh chala jayega zakhmon ki tijarat kar ke

            Muddaton shehr mein uss shakhs ka charcha hoga


            Tum gunahon se darke jeete ho

            Hum inhein saath leke chalet hain

To conclude, we can only wish Zakir sahib a long and fruitful innings ahead and, in the words of the poet:

          Allah karey zor-e-qalam aur ziyada!

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

When the ghazal grieved -- Obit for Mehndi Hasan, Crest, Times of India

With tapes and CDs becoming passĂȘ and Youtube and World Music having claimed our lives, it is hard to imagine a time when pirated music cassettes from Pakistan were like manna from heaven for lovers of the Urdu ghazal. And if the tape was of the shahenshah of ghazal gayaki (singing), the inimitable Mehdi Hassan, it was clearly a case of sone pe suhaga (icing on the cake). All through the 1970s and 80s, right up till the turn of the century when ill-health made it impossible for him to stir abroad, his trips to India drew rapturous audiences and his adaygi (style of presentation) inspired a generation of singers on both sides of the border.

With a characteristic, almost idiosyncratic style of singing with the breaking up of the first verse of a sher (verse), the matla (the first couplet of a ghazal), into several short phrases which would be repeated hypnotically over and over), a richly timbered voice and an instinctive understanding of the ghazal, Mehdi Hassan could transpose his listeners to a state when sound and meaning become one, a state of near-ecstasy, a state the Sufis have called sama. Despite his popularity, not much is known in India about the man who owned the golden voice. A coffee-table book on the maestro, entitled Mehdi Hasan: The Man & His Music (Liberty Books, Karachi) by veteran Pakistan journalist, Asif Noorani, contains several delightful nuggets of information. For instance, not many would know that despite being born into a family of musicians in his ancestral village of Luna in Rajasthan and taking his early taleem (training) from his father and uncle, Mehdi Hassan also learnt a mechanic's trade. In the early years following independence and his move to Pakistan, when recordings were hard to come by, he took up odd jobs repairing bicycles and assembling tractor engines. In fact, in an interview to Raza Ali Abidi, he claimed to have assembled about 300 to 400 diesel engines in the state of Bahawalpur while also taking time out to do his daily riyaz (practice). Sultan Arshad, the manager of PIA in Bombay, narrates an interesting incident in the book: Just before a performance at his home, the liftman accidentally dropped Mehdi Hassan's harmonium. The host was crestfallen, the audience dumbstruck but the great artiste, drawing on his early years of assembling machine parts, put it back together in no time.

Many commentators have noted Mehdi Hassan's instinctive knowledge of Urdu poetry in general and the peculiarities of the ghazal in particular. With no formal education, he relied on trying to understand the wazan (weight) of the ghazal;when he understood where the weight rested, he knew how to sing it so each fragment, each phrase, each pause become redolent with meaning. Perhaps that explains the haunting quality of his Faiz ghazals, such as Gulon mein rang bhare... (recorded in 1962) or Mir Taqi Mir's Yeh dhuan sa kahan se uthta hai (his own perennial favourite). In fact, such was the popularity of Gulon mein rang bhare... that Faiz is reported to have said: "Woh ghazal to ab unki ho gayi (That ghazal has become his)"!

While the Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ahmed Faraz's ghazals in Mehdi Hassan's repertoire never fail to delight Indian audiences, the kalaam (poetry) of relatively lesser-known poets open the door to new voices and startlingly new poetic vocabularies;what is more, these poets would have remained unknown to many lovers of Urdu poetry had it not been for Mehdi Hassan's rendering. How many of us in India would know the kalaam of poets such as Masroor Anwar, Anwar Mirzapuri, Talib Baghpati, Farhat Shahzad or Saleem Jilani were it not for the maestro's golden voice? Unfortunately, we still don't know all of Mehdi Hassan's vast and varied oeuvre. Some early recordings are believed to be the most popular and - erroneously - taken as the best and therefore most representative. In this category would fall ghazals and nazms such as: Ranjish hi sahi, dil hi dukhane ke liye aa, Mujhe tum nazar se gira to rahe ho, Main nazar se pi raha hoon, Zindagi mein to sabhi pyar kiya karte hain, Yeh dhuan kahan se uththa hai, Shola tha jal bujha hoon, Pyar bhare do sharmile nain, Baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi to na thee.

Unfortunately, we do not know much about the songs he had sung for the Pakistan film industry as a playback singer, or those he recorded for the radio, let alone his Persian recordings. This, perhaps, has something to do with the largely one-way traffic between India and Pakistan as far as the film industry of the two countries is concerned. But in the popular music category, and especially the ghazal, the Pakistani singers have always scored over their Indian counterparts. However, the immense popularity of certain ghazals in comparison to others is possibly due to the limitations of cross-border traffic. Even to this day, when limited trade has commenced between the two neighbours, when sugar and chemicals go from India and textiles and onyx come from Pakistan, books and music do not seem to fall within the parameters of free trade.

Mehdi Hassan suffered a debilitating stroke in 2001 which left his right side paralysed. Echoing the concern of thousands of Indian fans, the Indian Prime Minister, A B Vajpayee, wrote: 'Your music, like the music of all the great artistes of India and Pakistan, reminds us of the many common bonds of culture and spirituality that unite our two countries. ' In the years that followed, battling ill-health and financial constraints he, however, showed no diminishing of the two traits those close to him had most admired: simplicity and modesty. In the last years of his life as his circumstances grew more straightened and the voice that had gladdened millions grew silent, offers of help poured in from across the globe. When the end came and the call from the kooh-enida (the Mount of Summons) was heard, the Shahanshah of Ghazal went quietly into the night. May his soul rest in peace. May he receive the gifts of maghfirat and rehmat (mercy). May he continue to sing, enthralling the angels with his golden voice. And may he continue to live her hearts and teach us, afresh, new meanings in the old ghazals he sang so well.

This appeared in The Crest, Times of India, 16 June 2012

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Jashn-e-Khusrau --- A Review

In a rare example of a fruitful public-private partnership, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the Central Public Works Department and the Aga Khan Foundation have taken the Basti Nizamuddin area under their wing and initiated a remarkable series of small changes, each of which are beginning to show remarkable promise. What is more, these efforts – as part of a larger project of urban renewal of historic cities -- hold out enormous hope for cloistered communities such as the one in the Basti Nizamuddin area, a neighbourhood that for all its antiquity is cloaked in backwardness, neglect and apathy. One such effort is the Jashn-e-Khusrau, part of a five-year project called the Aalam-e-Khusrau funded by the Ford Foundation, and is meant to showcase the basti’s rich cultural traditions.

Home to the 13th-century Sufi master, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, also known as Mehboob-e-Ilahi or Beloved of God, the basti (meaning ‘settlement) is a repository of a real, lived, ganga-jamuni tehzeeb. The first qawwwalis were composed here and it was here that Amir Khusro, the saint’s closest disciple, handpicked a group of singers – the qawwal bachchas – and trained them to sing in a new sort of way.  As a celebration of pluralism, the festival of Basant was celebrated with joy and the whole area decorated with yellow flowers – a practice that continues to this day to mark the end of a bitter North Indian winter and the herald of a balmy though short-lived spring. During the Jashn-e-Khusrau Festival, this legacy of syncretism is remembered in different ways: through performances of qawwalis from qawwals belonging to different khanqahi traditions; discussions with the singers to explore the nuances of their repertoire which consists largely of the songs, qawwalis, poetry in Persian, Braj and Hindavi composed by Amir Khusrau; heritage walks in the historically-rich area by volunteers from among the basti’s youth; as well as academic discussions and paper presentations.

A handsomely-produced and profusely illustrated coffee-table book, Jashn-e-Khusrau: A Collection (Roli Books), brings together performers, academics, activists, conservationists, musicologists, historians. The first section, comprising a selection of three essays, focuses on: the literary aspect of Khusrau’s work; the musicology of the qawwali tradition; and the patronage of this centuries-old tradition by Sunil Sharma, Regula Qureshi and Irfan Zuberi, respectively. This is followed by transliterations and translations of the kalaam itself, presented with the girehs as sung by the qawwals.

However, what makes this book truly a collector’s item,  are the set of three Cds of qawwalis, each containing vintage sufiana kalam: Mun Kunto Maula, Tori Surat ke Balihari Nijam, Kahe ko Biyahi Bides, Teri re Main to Charnan Lagi, Eidgah-e Ma Ghariban, Chashm-e Mast-e Ajabi, Aaj Tona Main Aisa Banaungi… The CDs in themselves are enough reason to buy this book for where else do you get to hear such kalaam? What is more, where else can you get such a selection of qawwalis sung by the real qawwal bachchas now scattered in different cities, now belonging to different khanqahs.

When Nizamuddin Auliya died in 1325 at the venerable age of 87, mad with grief, Khusrau wrote:

Gori sowe sej par mukh pe dare kes

 Chal Khusro ghar aapne, rain bhayi pardes

(The beloved sleeps upon her couch, her face covered with her tresses

Come, Khusro, let us go home, for night falls in these strange lands)

Seven centuries later, the area around the hospice  continues to be venerated, people continue to flock to the bustling dargah that came up around the grave of the Sufi master  and to the small shrine of Amir Khusrau who lies buried nearby. What is more, Khusrau’s words live in the music of the qawwals. A book such as this is a fitting tribute to an enduring legacy of love and longing that transcends the here and now.

This review appeared in The Tribune, Chandigarh, 10 June 2012.

Friday, 8 June 2012

My Interview with Gloria Steinem

‘If the shoe doesn't fit, must we change the foot?’

--Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem, feminist writer and editor, is a most uncommon woman. An untiring activist for women’s rights, a ceaseless campaigner for social justice, this poster girl of the feminist movement and the ‘It’ girl of the 1960s has mellowed into a seasoned yet influential writer and thinker. However, over a career spanning five decades she has remained steadfastly non-traditional, always thinking outside the box, consistently refusing to conform. Co-founder of New York Magazine and Ms, she has been a prodigiously prolific writer and speaker, drawing attention to issues of race, sex, ethnicity, conflict and abuse in its many forms; but her prism for viewing the world has remained a feminist one. On a recent visit to New Delhi, to deliver a lecture on ‘Feminist Approaches to Combatting Sex Trafficking and Prostitution’ organised by a women’s self-help group called Apne Aap, she spoke to Rakhshanda Jalil about the compulsions and contradictions of the feminist movement today.

Feminism today is a house divided. Feminists are clashing and disagreeing on most issues that face those who are campaigning for equal rights. These disagreements occasionally seem like a generational gap, but sometimes they appear as a clash between academics and activists, or between liberals and radicals. What do you make of these differences?

That hasn't been my experience. On the contrary, there is probably more agreement within the global women's movements than in other global movements. For instance, women may want to give birth or limit birth, but they join forces for reproductive freedom as a human right that's at least as important as freedom of speech. After all, whether women can decide when and if to give birth is the single greatest element in whether we're healthy or not, educated or not, active outside the home or now, and how long we live. There's also a majority shared belief that decisions about our bodies should be made by us and not our governments.

Ending violence against females is also a common cause, whether this means ending honor killings and dowry murders and female genital mutilation and son preference or sexual assault and domestic violence and body imagery that creates eating disorders.

Access to education is a widely-held goal, whether this means literacy or professional schools. So is equality in the media. Also, women in elected and other public decision-making positions is a big common cause, from Congress in Washington, which is way down the world list for female representation, to Liberation Square in Cairo.

As a path to these goals and more, women gather together in small groups to discover shared experience and support each other -- that's as tried and true in the India of SEWA and Apne Aap as it is in the villages along the Zambezi River or teenage activists and healthcare professionals and women executives in New York. We've learned that humans are communal creatures who need to form alternate "families" for support, that someone who's experienced something is probably more expert than the experts, that the personal is political, and that change grows from the ground up like a tree. Women often tell me they're surprised at the similarity of struggles in dealing with male-dominant systems -- even very far away.

Maybe language differences need bridging. For instance, academics may say "agency" and "discourse" when they just mean free will and talking. I'm always threatening to put a sign on the road to Yale or Harvard that says, "Beware! De-construction ahead!" But just as we ask physicians to describe our health options in words we can understand, activists can ask academics to make their work actionable; otherwise it won't get off the page and into real life -- which is also what academics want. And academics are giving us the huge gift of our history, learning from the past, less reinventing the wheel.

One major point of conflict among feminists appears to be on the issue of sex trafficking and prostitution. While one group is clamouring for legalisation of sexual labour and unionisation of sex workers, another set believes legalisation. What is your view?

We've mostly passed the polarization into "criminalization" versus "legalization." I don't know any feminist groups that want to arrest the women or men -- and certainly not the children -- who perform sex acts for money -- which of course is the surrealistic and unjust punishment that still happens in most of the world. I also don't know any feminist groups that think traffickers who buy, kidnap and deceive human beings into sex slavery shouldn't be arrested.

To state a complex issue in an everyday way: An adult may have the right to sell her or his body, but nobody has the right to sell somebody else's body.

In the U.S., we've also learned a lot from the ten Nevada counties where prostitution is legal -- as it is in, say, Germany. The women's movement had to march to keep the state government from denying welfare, unemployment and other benefits to women who wouldn't take this job -- because it was presented as "work like any other." In Germany, too, legalization turned the government into a procurer -- until there were massive objections. Traffickers also use legalized areas to "break in" new captives with drugs, beatings, the Stockholm Syndrome. In the U.S., the average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen; just a little older than in India. Our girls are less likely to have been "sold" because of poverty, but between 70% and 90% of prostituted females have been sexually abused as children, and so often have come to believe they have no other value.

In Amsterdam where legalization was pioneered, the Mayor reports that there's no way to keep out organized crime. Demand for prostitution creates trafficking, and many now regret it. Legalization is what the traffickers want. They put a lot of corrupting cash into lobbying for it, and also hide behind such titles as "peer AIDS educators" or "facilitated migration." Inside the women's movement, I've noticed that household workers are the most worried by efforts to legalize prostitution -- because they feel the most vulnerable if it's "a job like any other". Body invasion plus the exchange of bodily fluids makes it a job unlike any other. In South Africa, I met village women who compared prostitution to selling organs in order to survive, but then changed their minds after many body invasions a day.

But at least now, we know what works: de-criminalizing the women, men and children, offering them services and real alternatives; prosecuting the traffickers, pimps and brothel owners to the full extent of the law; and educating customers on the realities of the global sex trafficking for which they are the demand. That's what has worked in Sweden and other Nordic countries. They are the only ones in which trafficking has decreased. This approach is also beginning to work in places like Atlanta and Chicago.

Obviously, the long term answer is creating economic alternatives. Where ever there is the most equality between women and men, there is the least prostitution and trafficking. Where ever there are strong race, class and caste hierarchies, prostitution is also greater because so-called "superior" groups of women are sexually restricted, and so-called "inferior" groups of women are sexually exploited.

The really long term answer is Eroticizing Equality -- at least that's now a slogan on T-shirts! Also, young men are more likely to understand that cooperation is pleasurable, domination is not.

It has been a long battle. Looking back, tell us, briefly, what have been the highs and lows?

The highs have been the successful contagions of mutual values and brave actions among diverse women -- and some men, too. The lows have been seeing that majority support for issues doesn't mean they triumph. We don't yet have democracies. Money often trumps majorities, and religions are often patriarchal politics that can't be criticized.

In your memorable ‘Address to the Women of America’ (1971), you had said: ‘Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups…’ Would you not add religion to sex and race as a way of putting people into easy and visible groups? I am asking this question specifically in the context of Islam and the way the West, in particular views Muslims?

Yes, that's often true of religion, but I would still say sex and race -- and often caste and class -- are still different because they are much less likely to be changeable than are our religious beliefs or even our religious identities. There may be huge differences within one religion. Think of the difference of, say, Sufis from much of Islam, or the difference between such Christians as Quakers -- who reject violence and hierarchy -- and fundamentalist Christians who "beat the devil" out of children and even murder abortion doctors.

In the Indian sub-continent, we have had a long history of discrimination against women and the girl child. Activists in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have, in different ways and different degrees, been waging a war against gender-based discrimination. Legislation, no matter how gender-sensitive, can only go so far. What are the other issues in our part of the world –apart from unequal sex – that appear urgent to you? And how best can we tackle them outside the realm of legislation?

I wouldn't attempt to judge which issue is the most important for anyone else; each of us knows what hurts the most. I would just say that inequality in the family normalizes inequality everywhere else, including by caste or class or race or ethnicity. Cults of gender are relatively new in human history -- from 500 to 5000 years old depending on what part of the world you're in -- but that's still less than 5% of human history. They arose gradually with patriarchy and its control of reproduction and the bodies of women.

Sometimes, a reporter will ask me: Aren't you interested in anything other than the women's movement? I always say: Tell me something? In forty years, no one has ever been able to come up with anything that wasn't transformed by an understanding that human beings are linked, not ranked, and are also linked, not ranked, with nature.

Now that new Doomsday Weapons have coincided with hierarchical beliefs, I think we all wonder if it's too late for us on this Space Ship Earth. But if even one generation of children were born wanted, loved, and raised without hierarchy and violence, I think we have no idea what might be possible.

(My interview with Gloria Steinem appeared in The Herald, Karachi, June 2012)

Javed Akhtar's New Book -- Lava

Lava, Javed Akhtar, Star Publications Pvt Ltd., Dec 2011.

Kaifi Azmi once memorably described a film lyricist’s job as first digging a grave and then finding a body to fit it! Needless to say, he managed to find some spectacular bodies. So has Javed Akhtar, one of the most popular film lyricists of our times and, coincidentally, Azmi’s son-in-law. In fact, several of Akhtar’s songs have far exceeded the brief extended to a song writer by the Hindi film industry; they have risen beyond their time and circumstance and spoken to our collective consciousness. Blurring the definition of lyric and poetry, there is a great deal in Javed Akhtar’s cinematic ouvre that is outstanding poetry, such as this lyric from the film 1942: A Love Story which contains within it tremulous beauty and technical finesse in near-perfect proportions:

 Kuch na kaho, kuch bhi na kaho

Kya kahna hai kya sun-na hai

Mujhko pata hai, tumko pata hai

Samay ka yeh pal thum sa gaya hai

Aur iss pal mein koyi nahin hai

Bas ek mein hoon, bas ek tum ho

The Hindi film industry — and its sorority of regional-language sister industries in the sub-continent — has elevated the song-and-dance sequence to a rare art form. Inspired partly by turn-of the-century stage adaptations of popular "musicals" in the West and partly by the equally popular though entirely home-grown Parsi theatre, film songs serve a variety of purposes. Studded at judicious intervals all through the story, they can make a more telling statement than mere dialogue; they can be both entertaining and illuminating; they can, of course, leaven an otherwise flat story with humour and spice and colour. Though the average song "picturisation" does tend to require large dollops of "willing suspension of disbelief" — given the mind-boggling change of costumes, the hordes of incredibly dressed background artistes who descend every time the hero and heroine romance against sylvan backdrops (imagine something more incongruous than Rajasthani folk dancers on a Swiss mountainside) and the callisthenic exercises that pass for dance movements — the results are, to say the least, eye-catching. In fact, many a "hit" song has contributed to a "hit" film!

It would be fair to say, film songs have, by and large, served the Hindi film industry rather well in the last 80-odd years of constant use and abuse. Yet, oddly enough, little serious work has been done either on the craft of song writing itself or on the men who pen these lyrics. Though there are plenty of biographical studies of eminent film personalities, there has been nothing whatsoever on the film lyricist, his compulsions and inspirations. For the average film buff, there is precious little on what goes on behind the scenes, what constitutes a great song that might catch the nation's fancy for a given time till the next big one comes along and why some songs stay "evergreen", the oldies-goldies as they are lovingly called.

However, since much of film lyric-writing is in the nature of a command performance, Akhtar has written another set of poetry too, one that is a truer reflection of his real concerns and a more faithful echo of his own poetic voice. His first collection, Tarkash, meaning ‘quiver’ published in 1995, established him as the writer of the nazm. With his second volume, Lava, we see him dabbling in both the ghazal and the nazm and I personally rate his ghazals as being superior to his nazms. Conventionally, and by the admission of several poets themselves, the ghazal is relatively easier to write; the poet has a time-honoured ‘mould’ of the two-line couplet (sher) in which the poet pours an equally time-honoured repertoire of words and images. The nazm, on the other hand, demands far more mehnat and mushaqqat (labour and diligence) from the poet; as the late poet Shahryar used to say, the nazm has a will of its own and often takes the poet on an uncharted course in a way that the ghazal can not and does not.

The matter of technique and labour aside, I do believe Javed Akhtar reveals himself fully to us as a poet in his ghazals. The nazms contained in this collection, several of which he has recited with great verve and passion at recent mushairas, have immense aural charm; stunning, multi-hued images tumble out of them as though in a kaleidoscope, dazzling us with bursts of ideas and thoughts. The nazms also have a questioning, probing quality as though the poet is using the nazm to ask larger metaphysical questions about the world around him, as in Kainat, Aansoo, Yeh Khel kya Hai? where he creates an avalanche of questions.

The pace and tempo, the almost quicksilver-like quality of the nazms, is replaced by a quiescence and lucid stillness in the ghazals. If the nazms have the swiftness and haste of a bubbling mountain brook, the ghazals have the sedateness and leisure of a river that has descended to the plains.

Brimful with the pain of loss, longing and loneliness, the ghazals contained in Lava show Akhtar’s mastery over the genre. Using both short and long beher (metre and rhyming scheme), he infuses the classical template of the ghazal with a sensibility that is modern and unconventional, as in:

Bahut aasan hai pehchan iss ki

Agar dukhta nahi to dil nahi hai

(It is easy to tell its identity

If it doesn’t ache, it isn’t the heart)


Aaj woh bhi bichad gaya hamse

Chaliye yeh qissa bhi tamam hua

(Today, I lost him too

So, this matter too ends here)            

Like the earth that spews molten rock from deep within its bosom in the form of lava, Javed Akhtar’s ghazals emerge from some deep crevice within his soul. Flowing like a molten river, gleaming and incandescent on the surface but rippling with a singeing and scorching heat, this collection hides unexpected depths. But just as, upon cooling and calming, the lava that erupts from the innards of the earth can also nurture and nourish, so too can this collection of poetry that is by turns angry and philosophical, questioning and answering, restless and restful.