From Gulzar to Wahidi, Here’s How Gandhi Is Still Alive in Urdu Poetry

What is it about Mahatma Gandhi that still resonates with the Urdu poet of today?

4 min read
Hindi Female

What makes a man, a national leader, stand out from others? Why does he continue to appeal to the modern mind? Why does the writer go back to revisit his life and work in search of new meanings? What is it about Gandhi — who was born 152 years ago in a world altogether different from ours, who died 73 years ago in a newly-independent India, fresh from its ‘tryst with destiny’, waiting to find its feet among the comity of nations — that still resonates with the Urdu poet of today? First, a sampling from some recent works and then a search for answers…


A Life Force That Shows the Way

In a long, lyrical ghazal, Nushhur Wahidi speaks of him as a light that cannot be snuffed out, as a life force that will always show the way, as a treasure that can never be pillaged:

Woh hamesha ke liye chup hue magar ik jahan ko zabaan di

Woh hamesha ke liye so gaye magar ik jahan ko jaga diya

(He was silenced forever but he gave voice to a world

He went to sleep forever but he awakened a world)

Writing especially on the occasion of Gandhi’s birth, in a poem entitled ‘Gandhi Jayanti’, Kanval Dibaivi speaks with the pride of ownership, that a man such as Gandhi was “ours”:

Watan ke aasman par ek raḳhshanda sitare thhe

Hamein ye faḳhr hai ahl-e-jahaan Gandhi hamare thhe

(He was a resplendent star in the country’s firmament

We are proud that among all the people in the world, he was ours)


What Gandhi Stood For 

Also writing on 2 October, Nazish Pratapgarhi seizes upon the occasion to exhort his country to remember all that Gandhi stood for: love for fellow beings, peace for all mankind, and above all, the creed of ahimsa (non-violence). And forsaking all the bloodshed, hatred, violence, enmity and ill-will of past years, the poet is urging his people to take a pledge on this special day to replenish and renew:

Phir apne zehnon mein lahkao dosti ka chaman

Phir apni sanson se mahkao pyaar ka madhuban

Phir apne kamon se chamkao sar-zamin-e-watan

(Once again, let the garden of friendship bloom

Once again, let the forest of love become fragrant

Once again, let us burnish the soil of our motherland)

To the generations of Indian children who have seen the photograph of Gandhi hanging on a wall, for whom the “Father of the Nation” is little more than a quaint, smiling, toothless figure in a loincloth, clutching a stick, here’s Ataur Rehman Tariq writing about the nation’s collective mahapita (‘great father’) in a poem entitled ‘Bapu’:

Bachcho tum ne Bapu ki tasveer to dekhi hogi

Eik nazar mein samjhoge tum un ko budha jogi

(Children, you must have seen the picture of Bapu

At a glance you’d have taken him for an old ascetic)


Gandhi's Legacy Lives, But So Does the Other That Killed Him

No talk of Gandhi’s life is possible without a mention of his death, the manner in which he was killed, how and by whom. Here’s Gulzar, a poet with a distinctly modern sensibility, presenting a harsh truth in a uniquely modern, straightforward way, without mincing words, and with great economy of expression, he is saying that just as Gandhi’s legacy lives so does that other, opposing, view that killed him:

Sawa gaz aasmaan odhe huwe sar pe

Badan par eik langoti lapete

Prarthana le liye nikla thha baahar


Kisi ne aagey badh kar

Tamancha rakh diya seene pe yeh keh ke

Tumhari raaye se sehmat nahi hoon main!


Tamancha chal raha hai –

Woh raaye marti nahi hai!

(Wearing a yard-and-a-quarter of the sky on his head

A loincloth wrapped around his body

He had come out for prayer

Someone stepped forward and

Placing a pistol on his chest said:

I do not agree with your opinion!

That pistol is still firing —

That opinion does not die!)


Treated All As Equals

And now, for a search for some answers as to why Gandhi remains relevant in a world that has changed dramatically, and not for the better, since he lived and worked. What is the reason for his enduring appeal? Charkh Chinoiti offers some clues:

Bapu ne har insan ko insan samjha

Bahbudi-e-har-fard ko iman samjha

Injeel ko Quran ko aur Gita ko

Seene se lagaya unhen yaksan samjha

(Bapu treated every human being as a human

Regarded the welfare of every individual as his faith

Be it the Bible, or the Quran or the Gita

He embraced them to his bosom as equal)

Abrar Kiratpuri, better known as a poet of the hamd and naat, writes a lovely short poem telling us why we should remember this rahbar, guide/mentor, who showed us the way of desh-bhakti (patriotism):

Dosti ka sabaq de gaya

Mar ke javed vo ho gaya

(He has left a lesson of friendship

He has become undying after dying)


'I Will Not Be Killed by a Bullet'

That Gandhi is alive and well in the modern writer’s imagination is evident from this short, very short, story by the Hindi writer Asghar Wajahat; so keen is its rapier-sharp insight, so deep the well of belief from which it springs, that it gives you fresh reasons to hope:

The spirits come to Shah Alam Camp after midnight. One night, an old man’s spirit comes along with all the other spirits. The old man’s body is naked, save for a skimpy loincloth. He wears chappals on his feet and holds a wooden staff in his hand. An old-fashioned fob watch peeps from the folds of his loincloth.

Someone asks the old man, “Are you too looking for a relative here in this camp?”

The old man replies, “Yes, and no.”

The others leave him alone, taking him for a senile old man. The old man walks round and round the camp.

Someone again asks the old man, “Baba, who are you looking for?”

The old man says, “I am looking for someone who can kill me.”


“I was killed fifty years ago by a bullet. Now I want the rioters to burn me alive.”

“But, why do you want that, Baba?”

“Simply to tell the world, that I was not killed by their bullet, nor will I die if they burn me alive.”

(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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Topics:  Gandhi Jayanti 2021 

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