A poetic legend retold

By Mahmood Awan

The Punjabi Adabi Board has published an edited version of Qissa SahibaaN which is exceptional in detail and content, and raises some basic questions about editing and editorial responsibilities

A poetic legend retold

Qissa SahibaaN, famously known as Qissa Mirza SahibaaN, is one of the most misunderstood epics. On one hand, some have dismissed it for the masculine nature of the tale and its nomenclature where the male naming takes precedence over female as compared to other famous qissas like Heer Ranjha, Sohni Mahinwal, Sassi Punnu, ShiriN Farhad. They do so without reading the poets who have repeatedly called it SahibaaN’s Qissa and without analysing how and when Qissa SahibaaN became qissa Mirza SahibaaN.

On the other hand, the Marxist critics insist that it’s an elitist tale because both Mirza and SahibaaN belonged to the upper classes of the society and this whole affair was a feudal class tribal feud and their love an impure and compromised engagement.

The first known poet to compose this tale in verse was Peelo of Dhan-Khushab area. The only published text of Peelo is the one collected by Richard Carnac Temple (1850-1931) that appeared in the 3rd Volume of his legendary Legends of Panjab (Bombay;1886). He provided the original text in roman alongside its English translation. Dr Faqir Muhammad Faqir transliterated that roman text into Punjabi Persian script with the help of Dr Baqir and published it in late 1960s. Temple himself admitted in his introduction that his collected qissa is “characteristically incomplete”. He recorded it from the Jatts of Jalandhur district who used to sing it in their gatherings.

That was the magic of our undivided Punjab that an epic written in Dhan-Khushab region by an unknown poet could seamlessly travel to all corners of the country with its amazing oral flow and cultural oneness with no religious borders. Since then, verses like these have become Peelo’s poetic trademarks: “DassaN maheNaaN da ghio ditta bakki day didh paa/Mairi Bakki tu darran farishtay, maithu darray Khuda (Bakki (Mirza’s mare) eats-up the butter of ten buffaloes/the angels fear Bakki and God fears me).”

However, it was Hafiz Barkhurdar Ranjha of Sargodha whose rendering of the qissa popularised the epic in the real sense of its literary excellence. A poet of Karana Bar compiling a tale of Sandal Bar made it a legend as modern and fresh as Waris Shah’s Heer. Ironically there were more than one Punjabi poets named Hafiz Barkhurdar and they all happened to be contemporaries. However, thanks to the opening canto of the Qissa that confirms who the reverend author of this epic is: Daftar waachay dard day Rãnjhay Barkhurdar/ Qissay karda AashiqaaN gal rahay sansaar.

In Pakistani Punjab, there has never been any editorial skill set among Punjabi scholars who were capable of editing our classics (Asif Khan and Sharif Sabir did commendable work but that is also too little too late). Faqir Muhammad Faqir is our main guard post partition as he made most of the Punjabi classics available in print. However, he was not competent enough to edit any of these books and he never claimed so either. He did a great job of reproducing these classics from hand written and other available manuscripts and, if he hadn’t done that, very little would have been available to later generations for any reference.Qissa SahibaaN_Book Cover

Hafiz Barkhurdar’s epic was published by Dr Faqir in 1965 that was full of errors and typos especially those of its poetic meter. Then it took another forty eight years for someone to put in the much-needed hard work to produce the first credible edited version of the Qissa. It was published by Suchet Kitab Ghar in 2013 where editing credits are given to Sangat. It is the same Sangat whose sessions are held at Najm Hosain Syed’s house at Jail Road, Lahore since 1972 where writers like Nadir Ali, Zubair Ahmad and Maqsood Saqib are a few of the regular attendees among others.

This Sangat-edited version paved way for Mushtaq Soofi and Saeed Bhutta to come forward and produce their masterpiece that was published by Punjabi Adabi Board (referred as Board) earlier this year. Hafiz Barkhurdar is lucky to have finally found so many exceptional people who dedicated their immense talent and time in each word of his poetic legend. An extremely difficult task that should have been taken by public-funded institutions is being left to a few selfless individuals. Blessed is the ever ignored land of the Punjab that has always found those few to take care of its treasures.

Dr Faqir’s print is the common denominator among Sangat and Board’s edited versions. However, Soofi and Bhutta state in their book that they have also consulted three older versions of the epic published by the famous Kashmiri Bazar publishers of Lahore. One version is that of Malik Sirajuddin and other is by Malik Muhammad Din and sons. The third one is published by Matba Sultani, Lahore with the publication date of 1879.

Board’s Qissa SahibaaN is exceptional in detail and content. It has enriched the whole Punjabi literary scene by raising some very basic questions about editing and editorial responsibilities. It insists that Classics are the foundation stone of any literary heritage so no text should be rejected or changed without providing an authentic reference and solid reasoning. In a literary formation like ours that is based on oral traditions, editing becomes more challenging and demands for any change ought to be fully substantiated and justified.

Sangat writers don’t provide any primary sources they have relied upon while editing Barkhurdar except the sole mention of Dr Faqir’s print. Neither do they explain their editorial methodology. They do, however, give an opening disclaimer that editing of Punjabi classics is an ongoing process and all work done so far including this one is basically incomplete. They also suggest that young scholars should come forward to do the job.

So Bhutta and Soofi have come forward and produced their edited version that carries a forty page long preamble of findings, comparisons and editorial methodology, detailing verse by verse and word by word listings. They have identified five major flaws in Sangat’s edited version:

i) Sangat’s only reference is Dr Faqir’s version of the Qissa and they haven’t consulted Kashmiri Bazar editions at all that weakens the editorial authenticity.

ii) Although Dr Faqir’s version is Sangat’s primary and only source, in spite of that they did not try to stay closer to its text. Rather wherever they failed to comprehend any words or lines, they have changed the text altogether without providing any reasoning.

iii) Sangat has forcibly changed the grammar and verbs originally used by Hafiz Barkhurdar in previous prints to suit their preferred lehndi/western dialect, especially verbs related to future tense like ‘awaaN gay’ is changed to awsan , ‘lahwaaN gay’ is replaced withlahwsan and so on.

iv) Sangat has failed to provide the correct meanings of many words that belong to the bar’s native idiom and expression. Board version cites nineteen such instances. One of such words is Sana’h. Barkhurdar has used it at couple of places. It’s a word that means saneha or message but Sangat has translated it as zirra baktar (armour).

v) Sangat has removed four cantos (191 to 194) from Dr Faqir’s version without providing any reasons or references for removal.

This doesn’t mean that Board editors have altogether rejected Sangat’s efforts. They have openly appreciated their commendable effort in correcting poetic meter of the text and providing meanings of difficult words that sets the base of a smooth reading experience and makes further research possible. However, it will be interesting to see how Sangat responds to the above listed arguments.

Whatever that response may be, these two edited collections have brought back our classics into the scholastic mainstream that should be cherished and celebrated. In Hafiz Barkhurdar’s own words: Bhar katora dudh da, neeviN ho turri/ Sukki vall qadeem di, keeti phir harri. 

Qissa SahibaaN — Hafiz Barkhurdar
Editors: Mushtaq Soofi and Saeed Bhutta
Publisher: Pakistan Punjabi Adabi Board, Lahore
Distributor: Sanjh Publications, Lahore
Book Cover: Sabir Nazar
Pages: 175
Price: Rs. 360
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Irfan Malik: A Unique Voice

“Even the language felt dangerous in my mouth” poeticised Stephen Dunn while talking about the wildness of southern Spain. He lamented that he had been riding too long in cars and wished to buy a horse. He loved smell the of oranges and olive oil and the noise of men torn between church and sex. The women captivated him, beautiful, full of public joy with a cross hanging around their necks. He then sells his motorbike and starts a journey to find a quieter place in the crowded world. The same quieter place where he may have found Irfan Malik sitting next to him.

After an equally enthralling experience of a different kind than Dunn, Irfan wrote in his poem Daal-Darr (The Fear): “This very moment our union is so raw and absolute, that it has rendered our presence obsolete. A primeval terror, I fear I may say something in this language of words, shattering the spell.”

Irfan Malik is a poet, short story writer, translator, theatre actor and director. He was born in the old Lahore, the historical walled city. After founding a literary organisation Naya Uffaq (New Horizon) with his fellow comrades in late 1970s and spending his early life as a political and social activist, he moved to Sweden in 1984. He studied Indology in Stockholm University, became a member of the Swedish Writers Association and translated Swedish Poets in Punjabi and short fiction in Urdu.

A decade later he migrated to America. He now works at Harvard University where he also studied acting and direction and is actively involved with SAATH (South Asian American Theatre, Boston) as its Artistic Director. He has published five books, directed and acted in half a dozen plays and is currently busy with his upcoming book of Punjabi Poetry Dooji Aurat(The Other Woman) that is due early next year. His Punjabi poetry collections published so far include Wich Jagratay Sutti Tahngh (In Sleeplessness Sleeps Longing; 1992), Akath(Untold, 1998) and Noon Ghunna (The Silent “N”; 2000). He has also published Punjabi translations of Swedish Poet Gosta Friberg titled Wadhda Hoya Ghaira (An Ever Expanding Circle; 2002) and Ghonghay (Fossils; 1993) that includes Urdu translations of nine Swedish short stories.

Irfan wrote poems in Swedish, English and Urdu but it was Punjabi that opened her arms to his silence, sadness, alienation and aesthetics. He is a poet of languagelessness who thrives while composing silence of the language.

Irfan is a postmodern cosmopolitan poet who claims: “I am not a Punjabi poet but a poet who writes in Punjabi.” He wrote poems in Swedish, English and Urdu but it was Punjabi that opened her arms to his silence, sadness, alienation and aesthetics. He is a poet of languagelessness who thrives while composing silence of the language. Language is his most favoured thematic concern and entirely on this single subject he developed his second book of Poetry Akath(Untold) where he wrote: “All we have are syllables and words but not the language”. It seems, the more the language let him float freer the more betrayed he feels. He believes it’s the poet who betrays the poem and not the other way round: “There is not a single part of a poem which is not a poem, it’s the poet who is inadequate” (Akath; 1998).

In another poem from this series he writes “She, a poem, which could be written by me, is still following me, she wants to unwrite herself, in my words.” Irfan’s poetic philosophy is well summarised in his statement that appeared in a Swedish poetry anthology Poet’s Stage(1991) where he wrote: “Where runs the poetic line between thinking and writing? Hasn’t writing removed me from the poet I really am? To write poetry is to get lost and not being able to find your way back. It is so lonely..so bloody lonely in the wilderness of poetry.”irfanMalik

Every outstanding writer has a grand narrative and Irfan too has one that lies hidden in the treatment of thematic complexities and comprehension of the available lingual space. All his poetry is in free verse that carries its own indigenous lyricism. It’s not lyrical in the traditional metric conventions but the whole charm lies in the inherent contrasting expressions, contemporary vocabulary and poetic sensibility.

He invokes a paradox, plays with contrasts in as fewer lines as possible and relishes this grand spectacle of wonder and brevity. This one liner poem Par Khol Maira SauN Nu Jee Ay (Butterfly: Open your wings, I want to sleep) is from his first book. He has boldly and inventively compiled those forbidden pleasures that were seldom touched in the West Punjabi poetry. He defamiliarises and deconstructs his metaphors and creates dramaturgical twists and turns while keeping the whole poem accessible. His poetry is sensuous, rich and intense.

Here’s the most-celebrated poem from his first book: “Kal raateeN jad main dair naal/ Ohday gharoN aya/ Tay apnay hathãN nu/ Ohday hathãN wich ai bhul aya/ Fajray da Pindday wich ik ajeeb jahi baychaini nay / Phawa keeta ay/ Hath honday taaN/ Cigrat laa kay / Do chaar bharwaiN sah ai khichda” (Last night very late, I left her house, and forgot my hands, in her hands. Since morning I’ve felt a strange tightness in my body, if I had my hands, I’d light a cigarette, and take some deep drags).

He is a born experimentalist. He wrote “Se-Harfi” (33-aplhabet Farsi script Acrostic, a Punjabi Poetic genre pioneered by Sultan Bahu 1632-1692) not in traditional alphabetical order but on phonetical basis. In Akath he reversed the order of the book to justify his theme and printed table of contents and dedication note at the end of the book and not at the beginning. He even left four pages blank in his last poem Kunn conceivably to invite the reader to fill in for himself or write his own poem. He titled his free verse poems as ghazals inNoon Ghunna (2000) where he used other writer’s lines translated into Punjabi as “Free verse Maqtas”.

Irfan’s diction and thematic experimentation may feel westernised but his poetic sensibility is rooted in the Punjab, and the recent emergence of Lahore in his last two books is an indication that whatever influences there may be, he still belongs to where he should in Lahore. Seamus Heaney once said: “I live here in Dublin and Heaney lives there in the countryside and in the memory”. Irfan’s poem An ode to Mall Road (Noon Ghunna; 2000) is a Heanian expression that ends like a lament: “Boston, Cambridge, Arlington/ I am walking on these rich American Streets/ since ages/ Even if I keep on walking for many hours more/ Massachusetts Avenue will not become Mall Road yet again today.”

Most of us, the self-exiled immigrants, experience multifaceted alienations, emotional, political and social but the most brutal of these all is alienation of language. At times we feel that our mother tongue is leaving us. We face an existential threat. It’s only our rootedness in language and native connectivity on conscious and sub conscious levels that carries us through. Every new poem and every next book is a battle and as Irfan is in the process of publishing his latest book after a lapse of fourteen odd years we will see if he has survived the attack and how has he surfaced after this sustained encounter.

“Rfaan Bao” of Haveli Kabli Mal, Dabbi Bazar, Rang Mahal, Lahore, your childhood prayers for immense wealth at Shaam Shahzaday’s shrine during every lunar calendar’s eleventh night seem unanswered.

However, in return you have been blessed with the ever increasing currency of sounds, silences, words, language, life and poetry. So keep sharing your wealth and never stop this charity. Jay Kandh Da Naa Pandh Honda/ Tay Pandh da Pakha/ Pakhay Da Naa Chunni Honda/ Chunni Da Khargosh/ Kee AssiN Fir vi Inj Day Honday / Jinj Day AssiN Ajj HaaN(Akath; 1998); (If wall was called a way/ and way was fan/ if fan was shawl/ and shawl meant rabbit/ would we still be the same?). Believe me we are never the same after reading this incredible poetry so get hold of any copies of Irfan’s poetry and relish this treasure.

[Originally appeared in The News on Sunday : http://tns.thenews.com.pk/unique-voice-of-irfan-malik/#.VGPQ4fmsXgc%5D

Mahmood Awan

The author is a Dublin based Punjabi poet. He may be reached at mahmoodah@gmail.com