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The Age of Ishrat Afreen: 50 years of raising the flag, making history

Dunya hum ko abhi nahi gardaane gi
Aane vaali nasl magar pehchaane gi
(Just now the world does not think us worthy of consideration
But we will be recognized by the future generation)

Ishrat Afreen (b. 1956), who was born 65 years ago on December 25, moved from Pakistan to India and then to the USA, and retired from teaching at the University of Texas. She has her own official website, and has been publishing her poems since she was fifteen. In fact earlier this year on April 30, she reached a unique milestone among her contemporary poets who were born in the 1950s: the golden jubilee of her poetic career, a distinction which is hers alone.

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Three of her collections have been published, one in the 1980s, Kunj Peele Phoolon Ka (The Grove of Yellow Flowers) and two, more recently, in 2005 and 2017: Dhoop Apne Hisse Ki (My Share of Sunlight) and Diya Jalaati Shaam (Lamp-lit Evening). All her existing collections of poetry were published as Zard Patton ka Ban (The Forest of Yellow Leaves) in 2017. One can watch her perform her poetry in the public domain. As I write these lines, she is giving final touches to her new work poetic work Parinde Chahchahate Hain (The Birds Are Chirping). Her poems published in Rukhsana Ahmed’s anthology, Beyond Belief: Contemporary Feminist Urdu Poetry (1990), deployed a rawness that consciously gendered the poetic experience.

One of my favourites among her poems is Intesaab (Dedication) for its ‘take-no-prisoners’ attitude and its direct evocativeness.

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Mera qad
Mere baap se ooncha nikla
Aur meri maa jeet gayi
(I grew taller than my father.
My mother had won.)
The second poem Gulaab aur Kapaas (Roses and Cotton) positions her more in the tradition of the progressive writers, especially Makhdoom, who sought to see beauty in labour and valued women’s labour through traditional invocations of beauty. Afreen takes the metaphors much further, though, positioning them directly against the ephemeral concept of beauty associated with privilege.

Kheton mein kaam karti hui ladkiyaan
Jeth ki champai dhoop ne
Jin ka sona badan
Surmayi kar diya
Jin ko raaton mein os aur paale kaa bistar mile
Din ko sooraj saron par jale
Ye hare lawn mein
Sang-e marmar ke benchon pe baithi hui
Un haseen mooraton se kahin khoobsoorat
Kahin mukhtalif
Jin ke joode mein joohi ki kaliyan sajee
Jo gulaab aur bele ki khushboo liye
Aur rangon ki hiddat se paagal phiren
Khet mein dhoop chunti hui ladkiyaan bhi
Nai umr ki sabz dehleez par hain magar
Aaina tak nahin dekhteen
Ye gulaab aur dezi ki hiddat se naa-aashna
Khushboo-on ke javan-lams se bekhabar
Phool chunti hain lekin pahanti nahin
In ke malboos mein
Tez sarson ke phoolon ki baas
Un ki aankhon mein roshan kapaas
(These girls who toil in the fields
Whose golden skin has been dyed dark by the sun
Who sleep on beds of frost and dew at night
And are burned by the sun in the day.
They are much prettier than those statues
Sitting on marble benches
On green lawns
Prettier and more different
Than those whose tresses are adorned with roses and
jasmine buds
And who run wild in a sharp profusion of colours.
The girls who pluck sunlight in the farms
Are also at the green threshold of the new era, but
Do not even look at mirrors
They are unfamiliar with the sharpness of rose and
They pluck the flowers, but do not wear them
Their clothes carry the pungent scent
Of mustard flowers instead
And their eyes the brightness of cotton.)
This is how she introduces herself for the uninitiated, in her poem Mein (Me):
Yeh anaa ke qabile ki
Saffaak larki
Teri dastaras se
Bohat door hai
(This cruel girl
From the tribe of ego
Is very far
From your reach.)

Then in another short poem Aadam ki Maan (Adam’s Mother) she sums up the dilemma of Aqleema, Cain’s sister who according to some versions of the Biblical/Islamic tale had desired her for himself although she was forbidden to him.

Aadam ki zauja
Aur__ Aqleema?
Wife of Adam
And__ Aqleema?)

Aqleema, who was denied a voice in deciding her own fate, finds a kindred sister in Ishrat Afreen who herself ends her maiden collection Kunj Peele Phoolon Ka on the couplet:

Yeh chand haroof bhi ik umar ki kamaai hain
Ke ghurbaten hi viraasat mein hum ne paayi hain
(These few words too are the earnings of a lifetime

In that poverties are very much what we have obtained in inheritance)
Being a woman in a patriarchal society also means confronting – and conveying – rude truths from one generation to another, as Ishrat Afreen narrates in her poem Aik Sach (A Truth):

Khavateen ke aalmi din par
Main ne apni beti ko
Apni taaza nazm suna kar
Daad-talab nazron se dekha
Is pal
Is ki aankhen
Aisi tanz bhari muskaan liye theen
Jese mujh se kehti hon
Maan tum kitni jhooti ho!
(On the International Day of Women
I, reading out my new poem to my daughter
Looked at her desiring appreciation
That moment
Her eyes
Carried such a taunting smile
As if saying to me
Mother you are such a liar!)
It seems pertinent to re-read Ishrat Afreen’s recent poem Saalgira (Birthday) given her own birthday today:
Main sochti hoon ab se pehle
Jin ko ginti kam aati thi
Voh kitne maze mein rehte the.

Jo bacchon ki pedaish ko
Baadh aur vabaa ke saalon se jora karte.

Tab basti mein
Jab tak ik boodha rehta tha
Basti ke baaqi log toa bacche hi kehlaate the
Ab saalon aur maheenon ki is ginti ne
Hum ko boodha kar daala hai.

(I think in times past
Those who were weak in counting
Used to have quite a blast.
Who used to link the birth of children
With the years of flood and contagion.
Then in the village
Until there lived a man of old age
The remaining people of the village were very much known as children
Now this counting of years and months
Has made us into old women.)

When I called Ishrat Afreen sahiba just last week on December 16 to share with her our mutual anguish on the 50th anniversary of the separation of then-East Pakistan and the independence of Bangladesh, she did not offer me a poem on the event itself rather a fresh trauma of a creative soul who has not been able to accept her adopted country as her home, partly because her current home does not give her the recognition she so richly deserves. Ironically, it was also the events of December 16, 1971 which deepened the crisis of identity in Pakistan, since the very basis of the ‘Islamic’ identity of the country born in 1947 was ruptured. In my humble opinion, the identity crisis of the poet becomes at with identity crisis of her native country in her latest poem Shanakht (Identity):

Mujh ko koi nahi jaanta hai yahan
Log mujhe kehte hain
Kya aap bhi shayiri karti hain
Acha! Kya likhti hain
Aapko toa kabhi hum ne dekha nahi
Aap ke shauhar-e-naamdaar
Shehr saara inhen jaanta hai
Kaun desi hai is shehr mein
Jis ne in se khareedi na ho aik kaar.
Main bhi hans deti hoon
Hum jo hain tees barson se is shahr mein
Saath jaate hain bazaar toa
Log karte hain in ko lapak kar salaam
Mujh ko koi nahi jaanta hai yahan.
Jab main vatan laut ke jaati hoon
Kya pazeeraai hoti hai meri vahan
Sochti hoon yaheen bas rahoon
Roz interview karte hain aa-aake log
Lekin is mein bhi diqqat ye hai
Log karte hain mushkil savaal
Qaumi aizaaz koi mila aapko?
Aap ki ghazlen
Kitne gulukaaron ne gaayi hain?
Sakht mayoos hote hain voh
Sun ke mera javaab.
Ho gaye sher kehte mujhe
Saal poore pachaas
Aur yahaan bhi hai ye mera haal
Koi mujh ko nahin jaanta.
(Nobody knows me here
People say
Do you also write poetry
Really! What do you write
We have never seen you
Your husband is a celebrity
He is known to the whole city
There is not a desi in this city
Who has not bought a car from him.
I too smile spontaneously
We who have been for thirty years in this city
When we go together to the bazaar
People hurriedly greet him
Nobody knows me here.
When I return to my native country
How I am welcomed there tremendously
I think to settle here permanently
People arrive in droves to interview me relentlessly
But there too is this difficulty
That people do not inquire delicately
Have you gotten any national honours?
Your ghazals
Have been sung by how many performers?
They get very disappointed
Hearing my response.
It’s my golden jubilee
Of versifying triumphantly
And here too is my situation
Nobody knows me.)

There is no space here for a detailed discussion on her trilogy of epoch-making longer poems which are part of her second volume Dhoop Apne Hisse Ki, and which the poet herself describes as critical to the evolution of her critical consciousness, namely: Mazaafaat (Suburbs), Jahanzaad and Yeh Basti Meri Basti Hai (This Settlement is My Settlement), which present a dirge for the experiences of rural anomie, women empowerment and urban bonhomie; they are nothing short of micro-histories of a Pakistan from another time which we seem to have lost as we gradually descend towards intolerance, patriarchy and paranoia.

In completing the golden jubilee of a remarkable career that spans whole cultures and continents, Ishrat Afreen remarkably, and uniquely combines the classicism of her predecessors like Ada Jafri and Zehra Nigah, and the more conscious feminists like Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed. This combination is rare among her contemporaries. She is also the sole torchbearer of the much-vaunted Ganga-Jamuni civilization as she is of the rebellious ethos of the Progressive Writers Movement in our own time. Her aforementioned poem on identity modestly camouflages the fact that in her own country of origin she remains forgotten and neglected. No national honours have indeed been bestowed on her nor her works been widely translated or critically analyzed for a younger generation. It was this invisibility and short-sightedness that the late Fahmida Riaz lamented in her foreword to Ishrat Afreen’s second collection of poetry when she wrote:

…Would this unparalleled poetry be able to find a discerning reader? Unfortunately mediocrity has totally dominated Urdu literature for a long time. True poets (and Ishrat is very much a poetess) have been ejected from the ranks of popular poets. Only traditional, decorative and social poets are very much being preferred.

However Ishrat Afreen’s poetic legacy is secure. Her own name means the creator of joy but her heart continues to bleed for the concerns of the underprivileged, be they in the United States, India, her native Pakistan or any other part of the world. For the last fifty years she been the leading female Urdu poet of her generation and she is a national honour and institution unto herself. For we are very much living in the age of Ishrat Afreen. May she live long and continue enlightening us.

Apni chador ko parcham kar sakti hai
Aurat ik tareekh raqam kar sakti hai
(From her chador a flag she can make
A whole history can a woman narrate)


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