REVIEW: In good company

Reviewed by Murtaza Razvi:  June 15, 2003

There is a pristine naivete about Punjabi poetry that makes it at once endearing and coy. Like the land of the five rivers itself, the language also greets you with open arms. The idiom is homely informal, the content primeval and the images they evoke are rooted deep in the fertile earth, with just the heads showing like spring-fresh saplings. The works of the best known Punjabi poets are no exception and, thus, do not take kindly to aging.

Two very picky collections of the verses of the 18th century poet Waris Shah and the 19th century poet Mian Mohammed Bakhsh are the subject of this review. The former was known for immortalizing in verse the romance of Heer and Ranjha and the latter for his lyrical epic Saif-ul-Malook. Traditional Punjabi poetry follows the tone set by sufi poets and tends to offer natural wisdom in an unvarnished way without glamourizing the act or even wasting time on embellishments.

Heer and Saif-ul-Malook, thus, have remained all-time favourites with the Punjabi masses and the literati alike. Like Baba Guru Nanak's simple supplications such as in the verse Joto prem khedan da chaao, sir dhar tali gali meri aao (Want to play love with me? Then come carrying your head on the palm), Waris Shah and Mian Mohammad Bakhsh also represent Punjabi poetry in its best popular and classical form.

The two books in paperback by Saeed Ahmed give a taste of that pristine wisdom that reaches out to everyone who understands the language without requiring the reader or the listener to have any prior knowledge. This is because Punjabi poetry has remained very much a public domain where social and economic classes merge and mingle to share a cultural richness. In the books under review, the compiler has translated the selected verses into English with a painstaking earnestness, which at times sits heavily on the mind. But this perhaps has to do with his complete devotion to the two men of letters whom he regards as two great sufis poets.That said, the books, by and large, offer fairly representative collections of the two poets' verses. The one containing Waris Shah's selection tends to be focused more on the sufi content of his thought rather than the known 'beauty' and the aesthetics for which Waris Shah was better known.

The following content on page 19, for instance, sums up the mood of the book:

(He who holds himself and his country more important is a worldly man not a dervish).

The footnotes include Baba Nanak's line:

(The subjects, the raja, the entire society is a bunch of lies). The page ends with a quote by Hazrat Ali that reads: He who trusts the world, the world betrays him.

The selection of Mian Mohammed Bakhsh, on the other hand, contains some of the great poet's best known lines such as the following:

(Do not rejoice at the death of your enemy because friends too have to die. The afternoon sun is soon going to set)

The two books are, no doubt, a labour of love and devotion. Saeed Ahmed's chosen format is extremely informal. Where he provides footnotes to explain the contents further, he uses quotes, in prose and poetry, from multiple sources including the western ones. The verses have been transliterated and translated into English reasonably well. The printing on a few pages is out, which is the only major flaw in the publications.

The informal chatty tone and manner in which the books have been presented, where often a verse by some other poet is offered as an explanation of the work at hand, make you feel as if you are sitting in and listening to the author and not reading a book. The running commentary in the form of one-liners, here and there, is in Punjabi, and only the lines by Waris Shah and Mian Mohammed Bakhsh have been translated. Quoted verses by other poets appear in their original English, Urdu, Persian or Pushto.

The adopted informal format of the two books also reveals quite a bit about the author and his disposition: that he is deeply rooted in his culture where the oral tradition of reciting poetry to a select gathering is very strong.

So for all those who like to listen to good Punjabi poetry, these books offer just the right flavour. Welcome to Saeed Ahmed's rendezvous; and no, you don't have to come carrying your head on the palm to be in good company here.


Great Sufi Wisdom:

A Selection of Waris Shah's Verse

A Selection of Mian Mohammed

Bakhsh's Verse (Saif-ul-Mulook)

By Saeed Ahmed

Adnan Books, Dubai Plaza, 6th Road Chowk, Rawalpindi

Tel: 051-4417813


64pp. & 104pp. Rs40 each