Aao ai zamzama-sanjaan-e-saraa pardaa-e-gul
Come, oh revellers, let’s leave the company of flowers
And move towards the freshness of the beloved’s breath
Tributes to Josh Malihabadi, born on this day in 1898, hail him as the Shayar-e-Inquilaab, or poet of the revolution. The truth is he was also the Shayar-e-Shabaab, the poet of youth. His poetry of revolution—full of Marxist and anti-imperialist themes—places him alongside Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Iqbal in the canon of twentieth-century Urdu poetry. Yet, it is his erotic poetry that truly establishes his revolutionary credentials, far more than more obvious verses exploring freedom, equality, justice, and class struggle.
The opening couplet, for example, turns the conventional imagery of the Urdu ghazal on its head by urging the youth away from the freshness of flowers. It is the beloved’s breath that is fresher and more desirable. Countless verses have been composed before and after Josh that exaggeratedly compare the beloved's lips, face, cheeks et al to indigenous and exotic flora. Josh has no use for such hackneyed similes.
Josh, the Unabashed Devotee of Desire
It is a meme doing rounds on Twitter that has led to this exploration of the erotic in Josh’s poetry and prose.
Josh apparently describes himself as somebody who needs to perform ghusl, the ritualised washing, after seeing the addressee in his dreams. In Islam, men and women cannot offer namaaz unless they have performed ghusl after engaging in sexual activity.
In his candid autobiography, Yaadon Ki Baarat, Josh Malihabadi explains to the reader how the fragrance of beloveds’ hair is still enveloping him while the colour of their sindoor continues to make him blush.
Josh’s autobiography is important to understand his poetic oeuvre, as his personality quirks keep leaping out of his verse. Per his own admission, he fell in love not less than eighteen times in his life. His love interests—of both sexes—both named and unnamed are youthful, brimming with joie de vivre. In most cases, he’s the pursued one because of his irresistible physical and intellectual charms—yes, Josh wasn’t known for his modesty.
The Tussle Between Duty and Pleasure
Josh’s feudal background from the erstwhile United Provinces and his exposure to the colourful milieu of Awadh and Agra clearly impacted not only his personality but also his poetry. A virtuoso dandy like his predecessor Daagh Dehlvi, Josh revelled in the intimate company of women and, occasionally, men. Unlike Faiz, who discards love and desire in favour of revolution, Josh is unabashed in serenading the irrationality of desire. Yet, in doing so, he remains true to his spirit of iconoclasm like in the following couplet.
Ya rab hisaar-e-najd se ab uth sake na ‘Josh'
Yūnaan de rahaa hai duhaai diya kare
Oh God, I cannot get up from the boundary of Najd
If Greece beckons me desperately, let it do so
Najd, a Saudi region associated with institutionalised religion and all its rigidity, snares, and irrationality is being used as a metaphor by Josh to describe his inability to shed the frenzy of desire and resume the pursuit of knowledge and poetry. He prefers Najd over Greece and for a progressive to do so is nothing short of blasphemy.
In his nazm titled Naqqad, where he gives his own Ars Poetica, Josh says,
Sher ho jaatā hai sirf ik jumbish-e-lab se nidhāl
Saañs kī garmī se pad jaatā hai is sheeshe mein baal
The couplet gets defeated by a mere quiver of the lip
It is the mirror that cracks with just the warmth of breath
For Josh, the intensity of desire is pervasive, overwhelming, and an agent of chaos. His Athena surrenders to Venus every once in a while.
Was Josh Deliberately Baiting His Detractors?
Compared to Iqbal and Faiz, Josh’s works have not inspired any significant scholarship in either South Asia or the West. One of the reasons could be that his Shia identity in an increasingly sectarian Pakistan did not sit well in the country’s canon. In India, on the other hand, his ‘betrayal’ was not taken too kindly by fellow poets and intellectuals. He moved to Pakistan for the love of Urdu and soon began to discover the newly born country in the thrall of Punjabi. However, it was too late for him to come back.
Kamaleshwar, one of the doyens of Hindi literature wrote a scathing article in Dharmyug in 1965, calling into question the revolutionary credentials of not just Josh but also Faiz. Urdu poetry of revolution uses the traditionally employed tropes of love, desire, beloved, separation, and consummation to reflect on socio-political scenarios. Love and desire here are both majaazi (physical) and haqiqi (metaphysical).
Josh’s poetry redefines the love metaphor but he doesn’t think twice before shunning it and becoming more of the Oscar Wilde-like high priest of beauty and carnality. Or, perhaps, he was closer in this regard to the late Romantic poet Lord Byron. A high-born dandy choosing to be on the other side of the class struggle, but never letting go of the cavalier practice of husnparasti.
As the revolutionary in him got increasingly critiqued, Josh—unfazed that he was—might have thought of teasing his critics. An example:
Ab dām-e-husn-o-ishq se niklūñ na tā-ba marg
Ghar jal rahā hai aql-e-rasā kā jalā kare
I'm not leaving the snares of love and beauty,
Let the abode of knowledge burn to ashes.
Interestingly, this particular ghazal begins with a prayer for permanent residence in the net of the tresses of the beloved.
Sayyaad daam-e-zulf se mujh ko rihā kare
Vo din tamaam umr na aaye ḳhudā kare
Josh And Poetry of Passion
Apart from these dialectical verses juxtaposing pursuits of pleasure and wisdom, Josh also wrote about unbridled desire that was oft directed at young potential romantic partners.
Zer-e-dandāñ dabā ke surḳh añgusht
Umr apnī batā rahā hai ye kaun
Ek muddat se jo mufakkir hai
Us ko mutrib banā rahā hai ye kaun
Soz-e-pinhāñ meñ Dhaal kar mukhdā
Saaz mere hilā rahā hai ye kaun
Idhar mirā dil tadap rahā hai tirī javānī kī justujū mein
Udhar mire dil kī aarzū mein machal rahā hai shabaab terā
Here my heart burns in the quest for your youth
There your youthfulness is restive desiring my heart
Josh was not one to hide lust, though, per his autobiography, he could differentiate easily between love and lust and did not dwell a lot on the latter. His poetry, however, belies this rather unnecessary claim and Vasl—consummation of love—becomes both the means and the end to his poetic being.
Kyūñkar na shab-e-mah raushan ho kyuuñ subah na dāman chaak kare
Kuchh vasf-e-rumūz-e-husn to ho kuchh sharh-e-jamāl-e-yār to ho