‘He irrigated the garden with his tears’: Re-reading Ahmed Riaz’s tribute to Manto

Urdu’s arguably greatest writer Saadat Hasan Manto passed away 67 years ago today in Lahore, his body poisoned by alcohol, his art unrecognized by critics and his daring penalized by courts. Yet though he has come to be recognized belatedly in the 21st century by the government of the country he reluctantly adopted following the partition of India in 1947. Two biopics on his life have been made on either side of the subcontinental divide as he had no shortage of admirers among his own contemporaries. Apart from the more well-known poetic tribute to Manto titled Kon Hai Yeh Gustakh (Who Is This Audacious One) by Majeed Amjad, a lesser-known tribute to Manto was written by the Lyallpuri poet Ahmed Riaz under the title of Azeem Fankaar – Manto (Great Artist – Manto), which is included in Riaz’s lone – and sadly last – collection of poetry Mauj-e-Khoon (The Blood Wave) published in 1961. The ‘characters’ of this poem allude to the themes Manto himself wrote about.

Riaz too like Manto did not last long in independent Pakistan, passing away from tuberculosis in 1958, just three years after Manto himself. The poem can also be read as a tribute to Riaz himself since he put his poems to paper amid similar circumstances as the subject of the poem. In fact, the poem is being presented here in its original English translation not only on the death anniversary of Manto today but also as a way of commemorating Ahmed Riaz, since 2022 marks the birth centenary of this great worker-poet.

The universe, the battlefield of the people of tyranny

The guardian of dandies, friends of the city

The universe, the slave-girl of the lords of wealth

The guardian of the quarrelsome and the greedy.

A fashion of this world, the bargaining of chastities

The construction of the sanctuary from the blood of modesties

The beauty of curls, the style of bazaars

The puberty of youths, the expense of sorrow.

Life, the grave of dying desires

The tomb of stumbling hopes

Life, the autumn of defeated dreams

The black spring of bitter wishes.

In the shadow of the battlefield of this oppression

Between this world of pain and affliction

A sage in the name of life

A lunatic with the title of the world

Upon the eternal instrument of life

Kept praising the greatness of Man

Irrigated the garden with his tears

Kept brightening the portrait with hard work.

His art, the universe of the tablet and the pen

His art the beautiful reflection of the surroundings.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, ‘Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi’, forthcoming in 2021. He can be reached through email at razanaeem@hotmail.com.