Saturday, 30 March 2013

Johar Mir: A Tribute

by S.A Hussain

In the waning days of 2004 that Mir Qurban Ali also known as Johar Mir, a Pakistani literary icon, passed away in New York City. As is the fate of most writers and poets from the Third World he remained unappreciated and uncelebrated. It was only in recent years that his impact on Urdu literature in general and the literature of resistance in particular had been realized. He was 67.

During his literary upbringing in Peshawar in the 1950’s he was shaped by the giants of Dabistan-e-Peshawar when he, along with Ahmad Faraz, Mohsin Ehsan, Irshad Siddiqi and Khatir Ghaznavi, sat at the feet of the likes of Farigh Bukhari, Raza Hamdani and Zia Jaffery.

Mir was a born revolutionary. Or as in the words of Shakespeare rebellion lay in his way and he found it. No sooner was he able to articulate his views in prose and in verse than he started writing about injustices of the society around him. In this he was influenced by the fledging Progressive Writers Movement that took its start in London in 1935. In a radical departure from the past the Movement dispensed with the old and staid staple of ‘feel good’ romance literature and instead tackled the painful and often embarrassing issues of tyranny and deprivation. Johar Mir became one of the vanguards of the Progressive Movement after the creation of Pakistan. He expressed his views on the pages of now defunct daily Anjaam in the sixties and also in serial plays that he wrote for Pakistan Television.

The rise of charismatic Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the early 1970 gave him a purpose and a platform. Bhutto was the embodiment of the aspirations of the common man and Mir lent his pen and his voice to the egalitarian liberal values espoused by the leader. In due course he became the voice of Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

And then suddenly Bhutto was toppled by the military and subsequently hanged. This put Mir on a collusion course with the military government of Zia ul Haq.

Each recital of his poetry, even in a private gathering, was followed by a mid night knock and subsequent imprisonment on charges of sedition and anti state activities. He would serve out the time and start doing the same after his release. In 1980 after one such imprisonment he learned that the government was fed up with him and would rather get rid of him for good. At the urging of his friends in the government he left the country through the backdoor and ended up as a night clerk in a non-descript hotel in Manhattan.

In exile his restless intellect led him to found Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauqa in New York City and his small apartment in Jackson Heights became the hub of literary activities. On Monday evenings anyone with a literary bend, no mater how skewed, and an opinion, no mater how distorted, could walk in and participate in a lively discussion and partake of his superb hospitality. He also created worthwhile literature, both fiction and non-fiction and published a dozen books of prose and poetry. Most of his literary work however was tinged with a sense of loss and a feeling of longing for Bhutto years. On Bhutto’s execution he wrote a touching poem ‘Islamabad Ke Kufay Se’ which in part reads:

Islamabad ke Kufay se mein 
Sind Madinay ai hun, 
Mat pucho kia kho ai hun,
 mat pucho mein kia lai hun. 
Kuch manzer hain, kuch yaadain hain, 
kuch Aansso kuch faryadain hain, 
Kuch lamhoon ki soghaatain hain,
 kuch gharyun ki roda- dain hain, 
Kuch sang zadon ke tohfay hain, 
jo kuch bhi mila lai ai hun
Islamabad ke Kufay se mein
Sind Madinay ai hun

Upon Zia ul Haq’s death in 1989 in a plan crash he poignantly wrote:

Ik hadasa hai machinoo(n) ki ba-zameri bhi
 Jahaz uske gunahoo(n) ka bhoj utha na ska.
Wo zinda reh na saka ihtesab tak Johar
 Wo apne hissay ka insaaf le ke jaa na saka.

Deep in his heart however he very much remained a boy from the labyrinthine walled city of Peshawar. This common bond brought us and two other expatriate friends together in what we jokingly called, after a classic Urdu tale Qissa Char Dervish, the four vagabond dervishes. In the early eighties we started corresponding about the fast disappearing culture of the city of our birth and in due course we published three books on the linguistic and cultural legacy of Peshawar. That was however the only literary diversion he allowed himself. His usual literary canvass was much broader than what the ancient walled city of his could provide.

Poor health and a series major operations a few years ago left him jobless and discouraged. He decided against all odds to launch an Urdu literary magazine from New York in the late nineties. He poured in his life savings to bring out and sustain a magazine the likes of which had not been seen in Urdu language. For that he was praised the world over by Urdu circles.

Unfortunately accolades could not replace hard cash that is needed for such enterprises. After his recent illness last year the magazine folded. A series of major cancer operations last summer had left him weak and discouraged. Some of us would make an occasional sojourn to New York to keep him company. Two months ago he came to Toledo for a long weekend to renew our friendship and to celebrate our roots. Somehow the long battle with cancer had sapped his energy and sagged his spirits.

One is often at a loss to take measure of a man like Johar Mir. Perhaps I could borrow from the Bard to sum up the life of this remarkable man: His nature is too noble for the world: He would not flatter Neptune for his trident, Or Jove for’s power to thunder. His heart is his mouth: What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent.

Shakespeare, Coriolanus According to his wishes his body was retuned to Peshawar for burial in his family graveyard where, as in the words of poet Daud Kamal, ‘ancestral dust sharpens the taste of ultimate sleep’. He was a class act. I shall miss him.

-Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is Professor Emeritus of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery at the Medical College of Ohio and an op-ed page columnist for the daily Blade of Toledo, Ohio
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