by: Nadir Ali

Description: is some of Najm Hosain Syed's work, where you can tell the earlier writings from his later ones, at least in his poetry, but not in his prose, criticism or drama. This book is a collection of newspaper articles written by him in his mid 20s. But it is as mature and authoritative as his later work in the last forty years. It is a measure of the classic quality of his work, right from the outset. The book under review is the only one in English, all the rest of his 23 books are in Punjabi.

Literary criticism in Punjabi is a barren field. Firstly, there is not much work done in this field, and what passes as criticism is extremely poor. Najm is the pioneer of modern criticism in Punjabi, covering all aspects of language, style and the historical context. The relationship of history and literature is his principal concern. Although he has remarkable command over English language he chose to write in Punjabi only in his following seven books of literary criticism. If criticism in essence is knowing the literature, how can you express it in language other than the one in which the reviewed work was written? This view is difficult to appreciate in our 'English only' world. The author has a class view of history as well as literature and language. Hence his choice to speak to the 'Punjabi only' audience. This is not a composite book of criticism, being a collection of sundry newspaper articles. To convey the real flavour of the book here are extracts from four of the book's ten articles in author's own words.
The first poet discussed is Lahore's very own, Shah Husain. "Grandson of a convert weaver, he embarrassed everyone by aspiring to the privilege of learning what the revered guardians of traditional knowledge claimed to teach. Then again fairly late in life, he embarrassed everyone by refusing to believe in the knowledge he had received from others and decided to know for himself. He plucked the forbidden fruit anew. Through his deliberate rhythmic, Shah Husain evokes the symbolic music of the Punjab folk songs. His 'Kafis' live within this symbolic background and use it for evolving their own meaning. By calling into life the voice of the folk-singer Husain involves his listeners into the age-old tension which the individual emotion has borne in its conflict with the unchanging realities of Time and Society. But then, suddenly one is aware of change. One hears another different voice also. It is the voice of Husain himself, apparently harmonized with the voice of the folk-singer, and yet transcending it. The voice of the folk-singer has for ages protested against the bondage of the actual, but its fleeting sallies into the freedom of the possible have always been a torturing illusion. The voice of Husain in transcending folk-singer's voice brings into being the dimension of freedom — rendering actual what had for long remained only possible."

"Do not talk of the Kheras to me, O mother do not. I belong to Ranjha and he belongs to me. And the Kheras dream idle dreams. Let the people say, 'Heer is crazy; she has given herself to the cowherd.' He alone knows what it all means, O mother he alone knows. Please mother, do not talk to me of the Kheras."


The second poet discussed is Bulleh Shah. "Perhaps the most commonly recognized recurrent pattern of the tradition of Punjabi poetry is the poet's intense and unwavering concern with the ultimate and the eternal. This pattern is so commonly known that, as will be illustrated later, its implications are generally exaggerated and distorted. The poet's concern with the ultimate and the eternal is not an indulgence in abstract speculation. It is the search for a perspective through which to interpret everyday experience. For two reasons it is convenient to view the phenomenon of the recurrent patterns of tradition in the work of Bulleh Shah (1680-1753). Firstly, because chronologically he occupies almost a central position in the known history of Punjabi poetry, and secondly, because in his work the patterns outlined above find their most emphatic delineation."

"Attend to your spinning girl! Do not waste your nights in the complacent slumber. The chance will not be yours again; you will not return here to mend matters. You think you will always sit among playful companion of your age? Attend to your spinning girl!"


Farid is the earliest recorded great poet of Punjabi language, preserved in Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book Najm comments in the next article. "Farid's renown as a mystic enhances his isolation as a poet. There is, round the Bawa Sahib, a halo of revered legends — a halo, which sometimes seems to touch his poetry and absorb it into itself, and sometimes to focus on the more popular aspects of sainthood and leave out poetry entirely. The curious student of history may follow the arbitrary movements of this legendary halo and strain his eyes between frustrating darkness and suddenly vanishing promises of light. This commonly prevalent view of tradition is scarcely helpful in appreciating Farid's relation with later poets. Using an old analogy, poetry is the changing, developing foliage, tradition the sap that issues from the past. Tradition to the poet as any particular moment manifests itself in a series of recurrent patters in the work of poets before him. These recurrent patterns have corresponding patterns in the consciousness of the people to which the poetry belongs. Poetic tradition thus is a dynamic factor that asserts itself on its own, interpreting the present through its present shape and assuming fresh shapes with every new moment. It is this latter sense of the word tradition that we find Farid skipping the disconcerting lapse of ages to sit in the company of 'Kafi' poets like Shah Husain and Bulleh Shah. Farid's verse, as is often taken for granted, are not finished pieces turned out of the didactic aloofness of a seasoned teacher. They often are, within their diminutive compass, scenes of involvement, decision and repercussion."

"My promise with my love, a long way to go and a muddy lane ahead. If I move I spoil my cloak; if I stay I break my word."


But the moment of resolution has to come and it does in the Dohra that follows:

"Drenched and smirched be the cloak; let God's cloud pour out all the waters: Go I must; I go keep my word of love."


The street is the place where conventionally shared attitudes force the individual into allegiance, where mud can slander indiscriminately. It is noticeable how the images bear their symbolic content and yet retain their actuality through the drastic change of tone in the two couplets.

Waris Shah is next. "In spite of the fact that it is found on few bookshelves and fewer bookstalls, Waris Shah's 'Heer' is one of those rare books in all literature which have been popular for ages without any effort being organised in their behalf. Whatever causes that lead to the formation of various outlooks on Waris Shah's work, we can be certain of one thing: none of these outlooks can help us discover the real significance of 'Heer'. The work, where we approach it with any popularly inherited interpretations, slips out of our hands and stands aside mocking our arbitrary presumptions. Waris's mode in 'Heer' is comedy — comedy, though unrestrained to the extent of boisterousness, still more a means of irony than hilarity. The comedy in 'Heer' fulfils itself through patterns of contrast — contrast between surface attitudes and inner reality, between declarations and intentions, between social and individual motives, also the related contrast between tones, rhythms, and gestures.

"The mosque was a replica of the Bait-ul-Atiq. It had the shape of the Kaaba — as if the twin-sister of the Aksa. They had perhaps raised it with light and fragrance."


Then a careful look reveals a faint yet undeniable shade of irony around the two lines. Ranjha's uninhibited words to the 'Mulla' implicitly draw in this praise of the mosque a ludicrous contrast:

"News of death brings the odor of Halwa for your nostrils, you pray for the living to shorten their stay on this earth. The Sharaa is the cover for the dishes of your desires."


Constraint of space does not allow a summary of the entire book, which like all great books is complete in the whole as well as in parts. This is the third edition of this book. The text has been edited very meticulously. This is by far the best of the three editions, in keeping with the high standard of City Press Karachi publications. It also has three additional articles of the same vintage These will be a feast for those who only know Najm Hosain Syed through this book. That is a pity though! He is, arguably, the person who has contributed more to the Punjabi literature in the 20th century than any other writer. The treasure trove of his Punjabi writings are in no danger of extinction, every serious student of Punjabi language is familiar with this work and it will continue to be among the Punjabi classics in times to come.