From the theaters and university campuses of Delhi to the graffitied walls and teahouses in Lahore, and from the Urdu poetry circles in North America to the mushairas in the UAE, the enduring influence of Jaun Elia’s work and persona is ubiquitous. A mystique surrounds his legacy, sparking a question that lingers in the minds of his naïve critics: what is the reason for this profound impact?
While those who have studied his work in depth know the reason behind this ramz – and they can find humour in the bizzare claims of some haters who ludicrously suggest that Jaun Elia’s rising fame is a “conspiracy” to mislead the younger generation. This absurd conspiracy theory is a recent emergence from some Pakistani literary circles and cyberspace, propagated by some conservative poets.
They blame him for negatively influencing the youth by romanticising self-destruction, nihilism, and propagating atheism. Some of these right-leaning, state-recognised poets publicly take pride in the fact that the number of their published books surpasses the number of years they have lived. Ironically, they try to mock Jaun Elia (1931-2002), who only published one book in his lifetime, with the majority of his work being published posthumously – and yet his influence continues to be felt without the patronage of state-run institutions. It is not possible to find another example of such an impact in the modern history of Urdu poetry.
Why this appeal?
Amidst the myriad poetic voices in Urdu, from Pakistan and India, one is left to ponder what enigma lies within Jaun’s work that alleviates him as a torchbearer, leading the way forward into uncharted territories of thought and language. Why does he always resonate with young readers of our times? Is it because he has been masterfully able to capture the inherent meaninglessness one feels living in today’s world? Perhaps. But is meaninglessness not timeless? Perhaps, it is so.
However, it would be reductionist to simply label Jaun Elia a nihilist. Although he claimed he was one in the introduction of his first book, Shayad, the expression of nothingness in his work does not imply a lack of effort to seek out and create new meanings. On the contrary, in his search for meaning, he uses and crafts language, metaphors and musicality that are starkly original and audacious. They create a truly unique voice that sets him apart from his contemporaries in the genre.
As a poet and as a scholar of philosophy, he believes in the sacredness of words. Sometimes, for example in his short poem “Sophista”, he declares words are more significant than meanings, because they are creations with etymological histories, unlike meanings that have always existed.
Jaun’s philosophical concerns encompass a wide spectrum, as he traverses civilisations across ages, at times “bearing his own corpse”, and at other times witnessing himself as the other. During this journey, evident from his long poem “Ramooz”, he often adopts a Biblical tone, while exploring and deconstructing several mythologies, faiths and ontological parameters. At times he glorifies the people’s resistance for socialism, while he also cynically questions the human existence and laments the lack of universal meaning. This dialectic of optimism and pessimism – despite sounding Gramscian – is a lot more than the matters of the will and intellect and is an outcome of his deep exploration of metaphysics and theology.
When he denies the existence of a supreme being – explicitly or subtly – it often seems his whole being cries out for God. This spiritual crisis brings him in the company of the world’s major existentialist authors. However, what makes his existentialism and agnosticism truly unique is his continuous wandering across civilisations, from the Greco-Roman world to pre-Islamic Arabia and Persia, and from Karbala to Amroha. In this vast ocean, he mystically sails a boat crafted from the fragrant woods of Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit, Persian, English and, of course, Urdu.
Lack of attention
However, due to a lack of substantial literary criticism on his work and the complexity of both his content and form, the universes created by Jaun in his poems remain largely unexplored, beyond the reach of his widely popular sehl-e-mumtana ghazals that resonate with the masses. But I want to briefly stress three points here: first, the seemingly “simple” ghazals, because of their accessible diction, are masterfully crafted creations. This facility comes only after decades of riyaz. At times, it is easy to seduce the reader by the labyrinths of verbose verse that nazms allow one – however, only a master can create magic using words from the vernacular, knit in short-meters, to such an extent that such couplets become zarb-ul-masal (proverbial).
Second, there’s nothing wrong with a certain type of poetry resonating more with a lay reader, including social media users. Whether it’s Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz, or Jaun, only a limited number of easily accessible couplets from any poet’s body of work have always appealed to the masses. This doesn’t undermine the rest of their work.
The detractors (or so-called critics) who claim that Jaun is only a poet of a few ghazals often forget this fact. And lastly, a lot of Jaun’s ghazals, just like most of his nazms, remain unexplored by the uninitiated. Not all of his ghazals are easily accessible either – this intoxication is perhaps too heady for some because of its infusion of the wines of allegories, allusions and histories that would need to be consumed first, before you decide to dis it.
Let’s be honest. Jaun Elia has reinvented the ghazal-scape of Urdu. The scents of “hijr” and “visaal” and the sparks of “ishq” and “yaad” have always perfumed and ignited our poetry. However, the way he brings out the painful nuances of a dysfunctional relationship or the crises of indifference of the universe and mankind has not been witnessed before in the ghazal. His ghazals reflect a deep psychoanalytic understanding and an everlasting alienation of the human condition. The body of the poet-persona becomes the site where memories appear like riots, slashing the bloodstreams within, with knives. When he stops breathing for a moment, he feels at home. He yearns to meet his beloved every time he meets her. He knows whatever doesn’t exist is more beautiful.
The lonely desert within him, where a female deer looks for a mate, is often so empty that God finds shelter in him. He regrets wasting his life waiting for a person who never existed. He confesses that he has perhaps never been in love, but has been expressing his love for everyone. He admits that even intimacy had wasted time, yet he can’t help but praise that wastage. He wonders at his unusual self that he doesn’t despair despite self-destruction. His consistent talk does not deny his perpetual silence within and he often gets tried and breathless because of self-talk.
He asks, how can one take care of a house where everyday something is broken? And how to talk about his abode where someone spat the blood mischievously? And when he eventually leaves this house that was set on fire before even being constructed, the lamenting street finds solace in the fact that he did not really belong there. This is Jaun Elia, the multi-faceted master, whose spectre will continue to haunt the canon of Urdu poetry.
Ammar Aziz is a poet and filmmaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.