Breathless in COVID Country: What Did Urdu Poets Say About Breath?

Literary Historian Dr Rakhshanda Jalil dwells on the one activity that separates life & death: the act of breathing

4 min read

A recent, somewhat prolonged, bout of COVID has given one ample time to dwell on the singular activity that, literally, makes the difference between life and death — namely, breathing. More specifically, every single breath one draws.

When life is measured not with coffee-spoons like Alfred J Prufrock was wont to do, but in every lungful of air, when the tedium of the endless days and nights is broken by the hub-dub of the oximeter, puffs of steroids, frantic pulls at the oxygen mask as well as endless steam inhalations, lying prone on one’s belly, breathing exercises and blowing up three tiny balls in a spirometer, the very idea of breathing acquires a special, painful urgency.

In the few moments of clarity, between all of the above, when enough oxygen is reaching your brain, you think fitfully of this whole business of ukhdi hui saans, uljhi saansein, saanson ki mala, raahat ki saans, and why the poet – long before the deadly pandemic struck an unsuspecting world – wrote so prolifically on the breath.


‘Draw Breath Gently, for it is a Delicate Business’

Every Urdu sher one had ever heard about breathing, be it laboured, faltering, stifled, ratchetty, tangled and so on — and yes, there’s a gamut of breaths, and the Urdu poet has managed to describe each one with an uncanny ability — acquires a special, poignant meaning in the light of one’s own experiences, such as this by Mir Taqi Mir, that many have quoted at some point without ever fully understanding its significance:

Le saans bhi ahista ki nazuk hai bahut kaam
Aafaq ki iss kaargah-e-shishagari ka

Draw breath gently for it is a delicate business
In this glass-making factory of the world

Or this by Makhdoom Mohiuddin, for all its romantic mooring nevertheless brimful with poignancy:

Saans rukti hai chhalakte hue paimane mein
Koi leta tha tira nam-e-wafa aḳhir-e-shab

Breath stops in goblets that are filled to the brim
When someone takes your name in the last watch

‘Till I’m Drawing Breath, I’m Walking in My Sleep’

And this other also by Makhdoom that I have often recited to myself without ever realizing what it would mean to my COVID-wracked body one day:

Raat bhar dida-e-namnak mein lahrate rahe
Saans ki tarah se aap aate rahe jaate rahe

You fluttered in my tearful eyes all night long
Like the breath that came and went all night long

Or this by Arshad Karim Ulfat that encapsulates the feeling of transience:

Saans chadhtii huii utartii huii
Zindagi tuuttii bikhartii huii

Breath that rises and falls
Life that breaks and scatters

And the keenness with which every breath cuts through your chest, like a sharp-edged knife, as described here by Saeed Shariq:

Saans ki dhaar zara ghusti zara kaatti hai
Kya daranti hai ki ḳhud fasl-e-fana katti hai

The sharp edge of breath enters a bit and cuts a bit
What a saw it is that itself cuts the harvest of mortality

Noman Shauque’s sher acquires an especially macabre significance in the light of a barrage of friends and acquaintances dead and dying:

Aankh khul jae to ghar maatam-kada ban jaaegaa
Chal rahii hai saans jab tak chal rahaa huun niind mein

If one were to wake suddenly the house would turn into a mourning chamber
Till I am drawing breath I am walking in my sleep

As this by Ghulam Murtaza Rahi that captures the surrealness of simply breathing in, breathing out:

Saanson ke aane jaane se lagtaa hai
Ik pal jiitaa huun to ik pal martaa huun

With the coming and going of breaths
I get proof that I live for a moment, and diethe next moment

And finally there’s Mustafa Zaidi who said:

Dil ke rishte ajiib rishte hain
Saa.ns lene se tuut jaate hain

The ties of the heart are strange
They break when you breathe


‘My Breaths Too Will Stop When I Stop’

And Sudarshan Fakir who could well have spoken up on behalf of countless COVID sufferers when he wrote:

Mere rukte hii mirii saansein bhii ruk jaaengii
Faasle aur badhaa do ki main zinda huun abhii

My breaths too will stop when I stop
Increase the distances for I am yet alive

When all of nature seems to be a reflection of one’s own individual suffering as in this sher by Suroor Barabankvi:

Be-kasii barastii hai zindagii ke chehre se
Kaaenaat kii saansen dhal rahii hain aah.n mein

Helplessness drips from the face of life
As though creation’s breaths are turning to sighs

And finally, in the dark watches of endless nights and the half-gloom of interminable days when the body is wracked by fever and cough, the same breaths turn into a rosary, telling each breath as though a bead — in the raspy voice of the inimitable Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing the 16th-century Mira bhajan:

Saanson ki maala pe simrun main pee ka naam…

I shall recite the name of the Lord on the rosary of my breaths

In the final analysis, a disease as wretched as this needs equal doses of modern medicine and science as much as faith and prayer to see you through.

Such is its randomness and such also is its relentlessness that there is no easy answer as to why some are spared and some taken away, why some get off relatively lightly while others are put through the wringer.

(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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