A poet’s transformation (on Javed Akhtar)

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Humair Ishtiaq

Javed Akhtar’s reputation is built on his lopsided engagement with the Indian film industry, and he is known more as a lyricist than a poet or anything else. But he has to carry the weight of a massive literary pedigree. And, to his credit, he has carried it well. The legacy of Jan Nisar Akhtar and Safia Akhtar — not to mention the likes of Allama Fazle Haq, Muztar Khairabadi, Ahmed Hussain, Saeed-un-Nisa Hurmaa’n, Asrarul Haq Majaz — would have been too potent to carry for lesser mortals, but Akhtar has proved that he is no ordinary soul by carrying it forward with grace.

While his forefathers would have cringed at the thought of writing lyrics for the silver screen, Akhtar has traversed the tricky path with aplomb. And the route he chose for himself was an indication of his desire to optimise his literary inheritance in materialistic terms.

Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder noted in the preface to Tarkash (Quiver) — Akhtar’s first collection of poetry — that the young lad could have become a political activist with a leftist bent of mind, but “having seen the crude ways of the world, he decided that he would himself be a rich man”. His interaction with Bollywood has surely taken him much beyond whatever his poetry alone could have taken him.

Going through his latest offering, Lava (Molten Rock), there are times when one wonders if the process of moving up the social ladder has taken place at the cost of his poetic craft. Lest it be mistaken, there is absolutely nothing wrong with or ordinary about Lava. It has almost everything that one expects of fine poetry, but, critically, nothing more.

Read alone Lava would still leave Akhtar holding his head high. But read it together with Tarkash, and you won’t be able to miss the distinct downward slope, and, to put it straight, it is a slope to nowhere. Ironically, the problem with Lava is Tarkash. And in such a scheme of things, Akhtar comes out as a mere bystander. Two decades separate the two volumes, but the difference in the poet’s approach to life, his choice of subjects, and indeed, his creative treatment apparently has to do with more than just a gap of these 20 years.

The fact is that Akhtar’s journey in the realm of poetry can be viewed in true perspective only against the background of his childhood upbringing, and for that, the most relevant and authentic marker remains Zair-e-Lab, the famed collection of letters that his mother Safia wrote to her husband Jan Nisar Akhtar. It is obvious that Jaadoo (as he was called) had a childhood that was less than ideal on many counts.

If the physical distance from his father was one of the main characteristics of that childhood, it only attained emotional and psychological overtones when in relative adulthood he had to move out of his father’s house under circumstances that were less than ideal. This was followed by a life of struggle.

As such, when Tarkash came out in 1995, it was a product of his experiences in the first four decades of life that had converted him into a mature, thoughtful poet who had a lot of finesse. Sample this:
Read it alone and ‘Lava’ would still leave Akhtar holding his head high. But read it together with ‘Tarkash’, and you won’t be able to miss the distinct downward slope, and, to put it straight, it is a slope to nowhere. Ironically, the problem with ‘Lava’ is ‘Tarkash’. And in such a scheme of things, Akhtar comes out as a mere bystander. Two decades separate the two volumes, but the difference in the poet’s approach to life, his choice of subjects, and indeed, the creative treatment apparently has changed a lot in the gap of these 20 years.

And, indeed, the expression was laced with an acute awareness of a social landscape that he had seen being transformed right in front of his eyes.

The leftist, progressive streak in his poetry was also evident, and, arguably, nowhere more so than when he said,Lava, on the other hand, encompasses his experiences and thoughts of the preceding 20 years that represent the life of ease and all that comes with the package of being a celebrity. Society does not make him bitter the way it used to do earlier. There are frustrations, but of a different kind. Life under the spotlight has taken its toll, as expressed in a poem titled ‘Shabana’ which addresses his wife who is a celebrity in her own right.

Akhtar remains a thinking soul. No doubt about that. And he is clearly aware of the change that has crept up in his approach and has, apparently, clouded the choice of his subjects. What he feels in, say, ‘Kachchee Bastee’ (slums), is not the predominant colour of the current output. He has moved on, but this is not a move that the more discerning readers would feel happy about.

Akhtar himself appears to share this view, for there is an expression of regret more than once about the direction of his journey.

And to make it worse he knows the reason behind the momentum that brought him to where he is.

There was one free-floating single couplet in Tarkash which has been converted into a full-scale ghazal in Lava.

By the looks of it, the wish therein has been granted. Javed Akhtar of Lava is not the Javed Akhtar of Tarkash who showed immense potential for three-dimensional possibilities, but has apparently settled for less. He has arrived for sure, but not where many thought he would.

However, those who get their first taste of Akhtar with Lava will surely savour social and political awareness expressed with literary elegance. He has linguistic command that most, at best, would envy, and when he chooses to be, say, lyrical or satirical, he hits the bull’s eye effortlessly.

In essence, Akhtar doesn’t allow the craft of poetry to override the art of it. There is no manufacturing; it just flows. It’s a clear victory of art over craft and that is the mark of a true craftsman.

The reviewer is a Dawn staffer.

Lava
(Poetry)
By Javed Akhtar
Maktaba-e-Daniyal, Karachi
ISBN 978-969-419-059-4182pp.

Citation
Humair Ishtiaq, “A poet’s transformation ,” in Dawn, April 26, 2015. Accessed on April 26, 2015, at: http://www.dawn.com/news/1178329/poetry-a-poets-transformation

Disclaimer
The item above written by Humair Ishtiaq and published in Dawn on April 26, 2015, 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 April 26, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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