The Island of Poets: a Satirical Fantasy of Ghulam Abbas

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Rauf Parekh

Writers and poets are a strange lot. They wish to create utopia—an ideal society. But everyone has their own concept of a perfect society. For some poets and writers, an ideal society is a place where life means having to do nothing but reading and writing. But how practical is it? And what would happen if poets of Urdu are granted their wish?

The answer to this hypothetical question, as given by Ghulam Abbas (1909-1982), one of Urdu’s foremost fiction writers, is very interesting. Ghulam Abbas’s answer is in the shape of a novella, a satirical fantasy named Jazeera-i-Sukhanvaran (“The Island of Poets”). The novella not only caricatures classical Urdu poets and their limited approach to both art and life, but the theme of the novella itself has a ring of satire: what if poets are asked to do nothing but compose poetry, their all needs are taken care of and their fans adore them?

The answer comes in the form of a simple plot that tells the story of a couple that is going on a long boat journey to see the unexplored islands in the Indian Ocean. But a massive storm washes their boat ashore on the beach of an uncharted island. The island is ruled by the poets who are known as “sukhanvaran”, or the composers of poetry. The inhabitants of the island consider poetry the biggest wealth; hence, no sukhanvar is allowed to hold any property or worldly possessions. Neither does he have to do any work to earn any livelihood, since it is the duty of the common people, known as “maddaah” (fans), to support the poets and look after their all needs. A fan can be promoted to the status of sukhanvar and become a part of the ruling elite of poets if he or she composes good poetry. Poetry is the official religion of the island and plagiarism is the biggest crime punishable by law. A legal offence of slightly lesser intensity is “using the incorrect language”. The government appoints some “naaseh,” or adviser—a religious character of the classical Urdu and Persian poetry that exhorts poets to live a pious life and refrain from falling in love—so that poets can compose “hajv,” or a poetic genre that lampoons. The couple after a few months somehow manages to get rid of the morbid characters of the island and sail to safety.

This central idea pokes fun at the poets and writers who daydream of an ideal society that pampers them and honours them. Aside from sarcastically rejecting the impractical idea of not having to work, Ghulam Abbas has found ample room for satirising the writers and poets with classical and outdated ideas about love, beauty and the world at large. The samples of Urdu poetry reproduced in the book are a perfect example of what was wrong with the restricted vision of some of our poets. What Ghulam Abbas wants to say is that detaching oneself from the world around to compose poetry is not only impractical, but it also defeats the very purpose of arts, which is to depict the realities of life.

Although based on a theme presented in a novella by French fiction writer and biographer Andre Maurois (1885-1967), Jazeera-i-Sukhanvaran is altogether a different book. The original work, first published in 1928, was translated into English under the title A voyage to the island of articoles. But Ghulam Abbas has transformed this theme so beautifully into Urdu with examples of Urdu poetry that it has become an original Urdu work. The examples of Urdu poetry quoted in the book so wonderfully capture the essence of classical Urdu poetry, with all its beauties and intricacies as well as shortcomings, that one cannot believe it is based on a borrowed idea. As Ghulam Abbas has said in the preface “the book is so immersed in the eastern colours and is so deeply rooted in the tradition of Urdu literature that even I myself cannot believe that the main theme was borrowed from a satire of Andre Maurois.”

Ghulam Abbas first serialised the work in 1937 in Sheeraza, a humour magazine published by Chiragh Hasan Hasrat (1904-1955) from Lahore. Ghulam Abbas published it in book form from Delhi in 1941 with some changes. Although a poorly produced edition of the work had appeared from India some 30 years ago, it was hardly available in Pakistan. Now Oxford University Press has done a good job by publishing a new edition and making it available.

As for the answer to the question “what if a society could be formed that rewarded the poets and their fans took care of everything they needed”, one has to read the last few pages where the couple discusses the future of “the island of poets”. They conclude that in 20 years’ time, either all the fans would become poets and there would be no one left to carry out the everyday work, such as growing grains, and all would starve to death. Or, maybe, the fans would wake up to the reality and realise how poets had been fooling them and would kill all the poets, hence, ending the culture that pampers the parasitic poets.

This conclusion is rather sardonic, one must say, but that’s how the novella ends.

Rauf Parekh, “The island of poets: a satirical fantasy of Ghulam Abbas ,” in Dawn, August 4, 2014. Accessed on March 1, 2015, at:

The item above written by Rauf Parekh and published in Dawn on August 4, 2014, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on March 1, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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