‘Hamraz Ahsan’s Third Eye’ by Arif Waqar

Hamraz Ahsan is a well known figure in the Asian circles of England: an experienced Urdu journalist and columnist, a trusted researcher for documentary film producers, and an authentic Punjabi poet who is equally respected in the Muslim and Sikh communities of the UK.

His first Punjabi collection ‘Tibyan uttay Chhawaan’ (Shades on Dunes) got good response from general readers as well as skeptical critics. He wrote several short poems on various aspects of the life of Pakistani immigrants in Great Britain and these poems were collected in a book called ‘Paar Samundraan Wallay’ (Trapped on the Other side of the Ocean). His most recent work is a collection of Punjabi quatrains: ‘Meki Kujh na Aakh’ (Don’t Scold Me)

These short poems draw on the Sufi tradition of Punjabi poetry and they are composed in the traditional four-line format. Before we proceed further let’s have a look at some of these quatrains… in English translation, of course:

Don’t scold me
The worthlessness immersed in my soul
I took the leash of the beast within
And collared myself instead

Don’t scold me
I left both mammon and mother
To take a peek at the firmament
I returned disenchanted, Adam’s brood once more
-

Don’t scold me
I have wept in my dreams
Churning the vat of my heart
Hot tears my only curd
-

Don’t scold me
I have worn out my soul
For each act I was given a different costume
Made by the designer, I simply put it on
-

Don’t scold me
In the dust before me glint particles of sand
In my sky only darkness reins
Stars are trodden underfoot
-

Don’t scold me
My mantra neither Rab nor Rama
I seek benediction without supplication
Clutching neither Koran nor Gita
-

Don’t scold me
I have forged eternal bonds with fire
Red embers caress my palms
I, the baker, whose hand is married to the burning clay oven
-

Don’t scold me
I met my groom in my dotage
My ear rings hang loose from my ears
My nose cannot bear the knobbing ornament’s weight
Translated by the poet

These quatrains are preceded by a detailed, and rather philosophical preface, titled ‘Khraabkaar di teeji akkh’… The Third Eye of the Subverter… masterfully written by Professor Amin Mughal, who firmly believes in the Subversion Theory of Herbert Marcuse, and without referring to him directly, Professor Mughal says, “Authentic poetry, indeed all authentic art, is subversive. Hamraz Ahsan is subversive, and his subversion is directed against his (inner) self. Let’s not forget that ‘self’ is constituted by man’s relations with the universe, of which he himself is a part. Hamraz seeks to break his self, that is, his relations with the rest of the universe and his self, in order to identify all those relations that stand in the way of his self becoming, or moving continuously towards becoming, an authentic self!’

To describe the subversive nature of an authentic artist, Prof. Mughal uses the term ‘kharaabkaar’. This Persian word denotes a destroyer or a saboteur, but traditionally this expression has been reserved for qalanders, or the wandering dervishes. Some of the quatrains in this book have direct references to qalanders.

Hamraz negates class and cast, and the lust that is caused by them. But a distinctive feature of Hamraz’s poetry is his negation of gender distinction. This aspect may easily be overlooked because it forms the base of Punjabi poetry and is therefore not obtrusive and hence not visible. The obliteration of the category of gender turns the poet and the sufi into the woman, and not merely a woman but, following Dostoevsky, they become the prostitute the dust of whose feet they kiss with reverence.

To become a fallen woman is not enough; to think and feel like her is the ultimate test of the negation of gender, and Hamraz tries to do precisely the same.

A major role in the formation of inauthentic relations is played by the way that man employs to see the universe. The way is empirical, rooted in rationalism, and ultimately the senses. The metaphor for the senses in Hamraz’s poetry is ‘the two eyes’ The third eye is needed to authenticate one’s self. The failure of the third eye to open causes the elusiveness of what is missing. The poet starts from negation and reconstitute his self and ultimately affirms life and the universe, but on his own terms. It is no accident then, that Hamraz’s patron saint is Madho Lal Hussain and the 101 quatrains dedicated to his murshid have grown on soil of the Punjabi folk tradition.

‘I did not follow any particular genre of Punjabi poetry’ says Hamraz, ‘the four-line structure came naturally to me, but the words of the first line (me ki kujh na aakh) were uttered by a woman in Pothohar. I heard them years ago and somehow they stuck to my mind’.

One unique feature of this poetry book is its dual script: it’s printed both in Persian and Gurmukhi scripts. It’s worth mentioning that the Lingua Franca of the pre-partition Punjab was divided into two separate languages, in 1947, on the basis of Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi (Persian) scripts. Speakers of the same language, ironically, are unable to read each other’s ideas in the written form, and thus the Punjabi literature is mutually unintelligible across the borders in Indian and Pakistani Punjab.

During my recent visit to London, I had a chance to see the poet in person and discuss the situation with him. ‘How do you compare the situation in Southhall, Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds or other diaspora centres in the UK?’ I asked Hamraz, ‘Do you think there are better chances, in this more educated and liberal atmosphere, of breaking the script barrier?’

‘I don’t accept the premise that Punjabi communities are more educated and liberal in the UK than in the Punjab’ comes the answer from the poet, ‘I migrated to this country as an adult, but all my children were born and brought up here in Britain, and the willful lack of integration between diverse groups meant that while Hindu, Sikh and Muslim children may have been friends at school, intermarriage between these religions means ostracism for both parties, or even worse, rather than creating a need to understand and communicate across the divide. Certainly anecdotally most of the young Punjabis I know – Sikh, Hindu or Muslim – do not read either script, even if they’re fluent orally. The similarities of language mean a close bond of friendship but friendship is not the same as a desire to read extant literature of either group because this would require a level of educating oneself that is barely there for the English language, let alone for either scripts of the Punjabi’.

If that’s the case, why did he take the trouble to publish his poetry in both scripts? ‘Just because most of my friends and readers in East Punjab, Europe and North America, cannot read Persian script’.

The status of Punjabi language in the Pakistani Punjab is quite enigmatic: there are hundreds of Sindhi medium and Pushto medium schools in Pakistan but not a single Punjabi medium school in the whole country. ‘What’s your take on educating Punjabi kids in their mother tongue?’
Hamraz looked at me rather helplessly, as if I had put him a very unexpected question. ‘well, I’m a Punjabi poet, but not an activist; this question should be asked of those who have been working for the cause of Punjabi’.

Alright then, let’s come to a less political question:
Shahmukhi (Persian) script is not hundred percent phonetic and Gurmukhi is associated with the Sikh religion; in this situation, can Roman script be a way-out? If not, what else can be done to enable the Punjabis across the borders to read each other’s literature?
‘I think that would be an inelegant solution’ comes the answer from the Punjabi poet, ‘to me, the best approach is straightforward translation. While it is easy to become dazzled by the thought that it is the same language in two distinct scripts and want logically to bring about one that crosses borders, it isn’t resolved by learning a third set of phonetic symbols. Before long each group would be bemoaning the endangerment of their own scripts as youth are always game for learning the easiest way out, in this case Roman script. In a lesser form, good publishers edit books for American English and idioms when presenting a UK or Australian text in the States. Publishers should just accept the need to pay translators to do the same for texts crossing borders within the Punjab’.

From Saqib Maqsood (http://puncham.com/) at Pancham Sulaikh SaNg
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