A unique voice

Mahmood Awan

The news, November 9, 2014

Irfan Malik’s diction and thematic experimentation may be western but his poetic sensibility is rooted in Punjab and he still belongs to his native land Lahore

“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 bloody lonely in the wilderness of poetry.”

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 in Noon 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.