More than a thousand years ago, a small group, including women and children, fearing bloodshed in the sanctified city of Makkah, began an arduous journey to Kufa – more a city of deception than a mirage shimmering in the distance – only to have a fateful encounter in a previously unremarkable Karbala. The shadow of these events would move across centuries to exert a defining influence on the Urdu literary tradition.

A short elegiac poem mourning a deceased person was known as marsiya in ancient Arabic poetry but came to be particularly associated with the martyrs of Karbala in Persia. It took some time to cross over but it struck roots quickly. Like the ghazal and the dastaan (chivalric romance), the new form blossomed in the fertile ground of India, acquiring new hues and shapes of its own.

While this route is well-known, another source is also worthy of mention.

Intizar Husain translated selected lamentations from the Mahabharata and in the wailing of a mother, there is a prefiguration of the marsiya. This aspect seems to cry out for further exploration. The marsiya developed in the hands of the poets of the Deccan and some scholars have speculated that the destruction of their kingdoms under the Mughal onslaught made this form acquire poignancy.

As with the ghazal, the marsiya reached Delhi where it was well-received and among its early practitioners were Mir and Sauda, the classical masters. The new form had a natural affinity with the tantalising and cruel beloved in the ghazal and the lover ready to lay down his life. The taunt of a failed poet turning into a marsiya-go (marsiya writer) became irrelevant as new parameters were set up by the gifted poets based in Lucknow – Zameer, Khalique and Dilgeer – but the final polish came from the hands of Mir Anees and Mirza Salaamat Ali Dabeer, in whose hands the theme reached its pinnacle.

This was recognised by Ghalib, who wrote a few lines of marsiya, acknowledging how Anees had made the realm his own. Much later, Faiz was to do the same. From Mir and Ghalib to Iqbal and Faiz, the influence of Karbala is expressed in terms which go beyond the risai or elegiac tradition.

Both the poets concentrated mainly on the marsiya and their work became fully integrated into the tradition of classical Urdu poetry so that one cannot imagine one without the other. Here I will dwell only on some aspects of their work to complete the picture. The reputation of these poets is hardly matched by the critical analysis around it. Probably any meaningful discussion is killed out by the finality in Shibli’s authoritative Mawazna-i-Anees-o-Dabeer, which fixes the two in an ever-warring pair while tipping the scales against Dabeer almost as if the mawazina (comparison) was nothing but a munazira (debate).

Interestingly, new dimensions of scholarship around Dabeer are opening up now. Shifts in critical perception are an important recent development related to the marsiya. In addition to a meticulously detailed biography of Anees, the critic and scholar Naiyer Masood explored the recitation and oral renderings of soz-khwani.

Unexpected places

An interesting aspect emerges from Ali Abbas Hussaini’s Urdu Shairi Ka Difaa (A Defence of Urdu Poetry), written somewhere in the 1960s but only published now. Painstakingly listing all the objections critics have made against the marsiya, ranging from its thematic limitations to occasional reliance on legends, Hussaini responds by quoting at length without realising that many of the objections were based on a limited understanding of the Urdu poetic tradition and were made redundant by a major post-colonial shift in the critical paradigm. In his brilliant style, Intizar Husain highlights the contours of the city which emerges in Anees, a city which could have been the one in which he was writing or may well be the city where you read this. In another place he focuses on the women whom we see or hear in the marsiya, a formidable presence unlike classical conventions.

That the marsiya was not narrow in its scope is also borne out by the several Hindu poets who used this genre. Not dressed up to look exotic, there is a long list of such poets but a recent addition is Roop Kumari who seems to be moving out of the shadows to take her rightful place as her poetry has recently been edited and published. There has been some suspicion whether she was a concocted figure such as Tahira Devi Shirazi or Qamar Zamani Begum, all inventions of male writers, but she is given credibility by the scholarship of Taqi Abidi.

A seminal book which transformed this entire field of study is Gopichand Narang’s Saneha-e-Karbala Ba Tor Shaeri Isteara (The Tragedy of Karbala as a Poetic Metaphor), a fascinating analysis of modern poets who have derived their poetic metaphors from Karbala. Josh Malihabadi visualised Karbala as the harbinger of revolution while the Progressive poets were inspired by the refusal to bow before tyranny. Going one step further, many modernists find a contemporary relevance so that one poet speaks of having lived like Ulysses and wanting to die like Hussain; another poet describes the entire land taking on the resemblance of Karbala without there being any sign of Hussain.

From Irfan Siddiqui and Parveen Shakir to Shahida Hassan and Qamar Raza Shahzad, there is a formidable list of poets who have employed the imagery of Karbala in the ghazal. Narang himself makes a special mention of Iftikhar Arif who has written on these themes more than any other poet and whose verse is informed by these references, giving it an almost classical voice.

Karbala casts it shadow in unexpected places. Its impact goes beyond poetry, as when poetry is there, can prose be far behind? It should not surprise anybody that the list of major authors in this context includes Premchand, the major fiction writer whose single short story Kafan (Shroud) is still regarded as the stark and bleak masterpiece in the twin traditions of Urdu and Hindi, an unsurpassed touchstone. When Premchand moved across languages, he changed more than the script but also the religious beliefs of the characters so Hajj-i-Akbar becomes Maha Teerath, but nothing could change as nothing needed to change in Karbala, his full-length play.

That play is built around the legend of the Indian prince ready to sacrifice his life on the battlefield as truth and righteousness are more important to him than religious difference, an important lesson of the marsiya tradition. Some of Premchand’s books remain in print in Pakistan where he is rather neglected and unjustly so, but it is a pity that no good edition of this book is available here. Neither has any daring director ventured to have the play performed on stage. Perhaps the fear is that the censors would see through the historical references as just an excuse and understand the play is about contemporary matters. Just as well, as who can say that it’s not?

The powerplay and the name of Yazeed come up unexpectedly in a late Manto short story which lent its name to one of his many collections from his prolific post-Partition era. Written in the era of the squabble over the newly formed states of Pakistan and India, as the fear of India blocking the waters of the rivers begins to spread, the protagonist decides to name his son Yazeed in the hope that this one will open up waterways in the same way the “other one” had blocked access to water. The story stops short and we know that naming such names will not help as these conflicts have escalated into full-fledged battles between the two countries.

The narrative of the marsiya also moved Ismat Chughtai, one of the greatest fiction writers from the Progressive era. Well known as a non-conformist and iconoclast, Ismat had a no-holds-barred approach being labelled an “Uncivil Woman”, also the title of a newly published of essays on her life and work, edited by Rakhshanda Jaleel in India. Ismat was moved by the great humanistic power of the marsiya and this is what she attempted to recapture in her Aik Qatra-i-Khoon (A Drop of Blood), a retelling that is a kind of half-way house between a marsiya and a novel. Most readers missed the acidic bite of the characteristic Chughtai style, the zip and zing. I found it to be a rather damp squid when I reviewed it on first publication. After so many years, I wonder if the required pathos was somewhat of an alien element for her but also begs the question whether the events of Karbala are amenable to contemporary prose?

All such questions were reduced to mere trifles when a few years back Qurratulain Hyder came out with a long story called Qaid-Khanay Main Talatum Hai (Tumult in the Prison). Author of the magisterial Aag Ka Dariya (River of Fire), she was a master of telescoping different historical moments into a pulsatile present and had by then written three volumes of Aakhir-i-Shab Kay Hamsafar (Co-travellers at the End of the Night), a non-fiction novel of the author’s life and times beginning a mere thousand years ago.

Taking the narrative framework from the famous marsiya by Mirza Dabeer, and rendering almost entire lines into prose, she recaptures the situation in which Zainab is responding to her interrogators in the prison cell of Syria. In the narrative are blended the tragic voices of children affected by the ceaseless violence in the Middle East, making it one ceaseless and continuous story. With the subsequent civil war in Syria, it is a haunting reminder of history serving as a bone-chilling account of today.

While this enigmatic piece bewildered some of her admirers, it led to a critical essay from Intizar Husain, the arch fictionalist who was also a close contender for fiction’s crown and a contemporary, never an unquestioning admirer. Named after the story, the essay was reprinted in his last collection Apni Danist Main (In My Opinion), published in 2014. He suggests a reading of Hyder’s work as a marsiya and at the same time as a short story, an afsana of the 20th-century Karbala. He disregards questions as to why the author did not write a straightforward marsiya, but goes on to point out that that far from being the enlightened age of modernity, our age is tainted with its “religious fanatics, tyrants and ideologues”, drenched in blood and best expressed as a Karbala.

Avoiding any sort of direct comment to the extent of being reticent, Intizar Husain never made any pointed reference in his fiction. Burnt cities, desolation and the erosion of hope are constant themes in his work, often free-floating so that one city could be the other and one historical period easily the other. Directions keep getting reversed in the brilliant and angst-filled fable Khwab Aur Taqdeer (Dreams and Destiny), where a group of travellers intending to head back to Medina find themselves facing Kufa each time. Clearly, they have lost their moorings and their quest has acquired the proportions of a dystopia – the Promised Land turned sour. This is what lies on the other side of Karbala.

Although not overtly political, the events of Karbala are part and parcel of the personal affliction borne by Mariam in Asad Muhammad Khan’s brilliantly evoked character study. She wants the young boys to wear green shirts during Muharram days instead of playing hockey and resorts to choice abuses when she has nothing else to say about the “murderers of her shejada [little prince].” Even more real is the singular person from Kufa in the story named after him who hears about the tumultuous events but goes on to eat a hearty meal, smear the spilled oil on his beard and fall into a satiated sleep. Nothing else matters to him and he can let history deal with its turmoil.

I have been thinking off and on about this Singular Person ever since I heard Asad Muhammad Khan read it out in his inimitable style many years ago. This man’s sense of contentment continues without any disturbance but sometimes I see with him with a sword in hand, ready to spill the blood of those who dare disturb his repose with any news. For him Karbala is Nowhere. He may be overbearing, but he would be an outsider in the realm of Urdu literature.

Asif Farrukhi is a writer, editor and teaches literature. He has written extensively on Intizar Husain, Partition stories and fiction

This article first appeared in Dawn.