…but if the war is really over why then do we await more loss, more death to mourn, more severe trials, more tears to mourn…

The tradition of Urdu poetry has been one of the most longstanding and popular poetic traditions of the subcontinent. It emerged from the court of Mughals as a necessary negotiation between the competing linguistic traditions of Hindi, Persian and Arabic, and rapidly displaced them as the reigning literary tradition that stayed invincible till the revolt of 1857.

Firmly set in the courtly milieu, the early tilt of the tradition emerges in the form of the ghazal. The ghazal, famously described by Agha Shahid, as the supreme model of ravishing disunity, was irremediably esoteric and exclusive relying on set conventions devised solely for a trained audience sensitive to the metaphoricity and symbolism that formed its basis.

The ghazal poetry of Ghalib, Daagh, Sauda, Dard, Mir, Moomin and Zauq all bear witness to the immense complexity and beauty of this aesthetic tradition set in intricate poetic geography of shehr – e- malamat (the city of censure) with its maikhaana (tavern) and dair-o-haram (temple and mosque) complete with fixed binaries of metaphoric characters like Saaqi (Cup Bearer) and Waaiz (Preacher), Shair (Poet) and Raqeeb (Rival); all revolving around the moon-faced but stone-hearted mehboob (beloved).

The Sufi tradition that had already emerged fused seamlessly with the poetic tradition to produce several foundational aspects of Urdu poetry e.g. conflating the poetic persona with the mystic devotee, for example in the image of Mansur – a condemned heretic according to conventional religion, celebrated as a hero in poetic and mystic traditions.

With time, however, the formalistic impersonal tradition of ghazal paved the way to a more democratic and flexible form of nazm that lowed significant liberties with the content as well as vocabulary besides the rigid formal concerns of structure and meter.

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The modernizing influence of free verse found its perfect embodiment in the nazm; the nazms of Miraji and Akhter ul Imaan for example are written in conversational language. Faiz Ahmed Faiz – the renowned Pakistani Urdu poet, journalist and activist – emerges as a transitory figure between these two divergent traditions.

Trained in the ghazal tradition, Faiz’s politics of anti-imperialism in both its traditional pre-colonial form and post-colonial adaptive forms, and Marxist aesthetic find supreme expression in his nazms. Employing the traditional imagery of ghazal, the poet blends it with an overt political aesthetic to evolve a species of poetry that Carolyn Fischer termed poetry of witness – an assertion of subjective voice against collective social voice, or imposed voice of the sites of power.

Representational Image / web archives

A typical example of Faiz’s oeuvre of nazm is the anti-war poem Tum yeh kehtay hau who jung ho bhi chuki (You claim the war is long over).

A critique of the celebratory nationalism and rabid euphoria that remains till date, the greatest legacy of post-colonial movements, the poem questions the popular memory of postcolonial emancipation captured famously by Raj Kapoor in his claim of being “merchant of dreams”.

The poem destabilizes the whole hegemony of a celebratory post-colonial belief, and calls into question the historicizing process that fantasizes August 1947 as a radical departure from colonial practices and therefore liberatory.

The poem emerges as a prototype of the literary subversion of censorship, that Faiz pointed out once, while addressing an Asian writers conference. A careful study of it could be made to understand this subversion.

A cursory reading of the first line would yield the observation that it is set in the past tense: You claim the war is long over.

The past tense – the indicator of an irreversible culmination of time and irreplaceable loss contributes a nuance to a sentence that is beyond the tangible present or the futuristic future. Whether this can be attributed to the infallible charm of melancholy in Shelly’s strain: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought”, or the human reluctance to accept the loss, is hard to say.

With a poet, this shade of brooding loss serves as a handy embellishment to lay the foundation of a poetic thought that seeks to interrogate and subvert a totalistic belief, without attracting censure.

By poetic thought, I, in a strategically essentialist vein, imply the overriding thought that constitutes the essence of the poem – the force that drives the poet to pen the poem. With a sympathetic audience, the chances of the resonation of the poetic sensibility are more than in its absence.



Faiz employs this nuance of semantic usage to great effect in the poem. He immediately sets the subject of the main phrase in the past tense. Now, what purpose does this serve?

Before I delve into that question, let me examine the construction of the phrase. What difference does the war was over – a syntactic past, rather than a semantic past convey? Why should the past tense be implied by ‘long over’, to qualify the auxiliary ‘is’, a marker of the present?

I believe the answer lies in the differential amplification that the two usages entail. The semantic past allows for an increased distancing from the ‘action’ in mimetic-linguistic terms as occurring at the last place in the sentence. Further, since ‘is’ marks the present, it allows for a notion of contrast with the present to seep in, and hence immediate identification.

Were the verb ‘was’ to be used, the double past would arguably set up a larger distance. But such a difference would be applicable to identification that would also subvert the poem’s poetic effect. The mixing occurs at a further level with the framing phrase: tum ye kehtay hau: you claim that.

The finite verb ‘claim’ is an interesting play on ambiguity. It is set in the present as occurring at the time of speech or the indefinite past as being a recollection at the time of speech – a differential postponement by a chain of signifiers.

The interplay of this ambiguity has a direct bearing on the nature of the poem and its subject. At one level this duality is symbolic of the ambiguous nature of war as extracting the best of men in terms of bravery and yet also signifies the worst in the nature of man in terms of war atrocities and destruction.

On a macro-framing level, it is a tussle between nationalist prestige- imagined or otherwise, identity – constructed or otherwise, ambition (perceived or otherwise) and reality (believed or otherwise).

Such narratorial distancing serves as the underlying framework on which the hallowed notion of war as a purging and liberatory activity, is set bare.

Here we arrive, therefore at the answer to the question about the difference between syntactic and semantic usage.

The semantic past allows for a distancing from the war through a radical aesthetic displacement without resorting to propaganda or compromising the tradition. It is a preferable and more radical displacement than an emotive critique practiced by the likes of Jalib, which departs radically from conventions of Urdu poetry.

The distancing allows the poem to interweave the future which is deeply rooted in the distant past with the present and future. It allows for the demolishing of the spatial time and space – a deconstruction as it were. Liberated from the notions of spatial time, the poet can peep into the past in light of the future and vice versa and question its validity or truthfulness.

In this sense, the poet assumes the role of an omniscient narratised narrator who can doubt or question the linguistic truth arrived at by social agreement.

And thus Faiz engages in a recollection of the claims made by a silent second person in what would be termed as “Transposed speech, free indirect style” wherein the character’s words or actions are reported by the narrator, but without using a subordinating conjunction (He confided to his friend: his mother had passed away).

But since the reader understands by a close reading of the first line that the poem is not a recollection but a reflection, musing, by virtue of which every narration is transformed into an interrogative rather than a declarative.

And so the poem attains a circular movement. Every single narrative leads to the first line: you claim that the war is long over? Is it really over? If it is over then why can our blood not paint the annals of freedom red with colours of a vibrant humanistic democracy? If the war is really over why then do we await—

More loss, more death to mourn.
More severe trials,
More tears to mourn.

You claim that the war is long over? But is it so? The opening line constructs the doubt and the whole poem flows seamlessly in this mould.

We are left with no answers but only questions, questions only we as a collective rational-emotional being can answer. Answers demand introspection not scapegoating. When you say that the war of liberation is long over we must ask: is it really over? Did we manage to achieve true liberty? In the age of neo-imperialism, the answers are not hard to find.

Trials of Love

You claim the war is long over
Though, the barren trenches lay unused.
No bugle was sounded, no marches held.
No ranks formed, no flags flutter, no notice supplied
to stir complacent allies into combat.

You insist: cure is beyond us.
Feeble, frail, youth past us.
You insist:
Heads crushed under stones
Outsourced from the plains of tyranny.
Atlas is dead!
We can’t lift mountains of dry ice
hired from the plains of tyranny.
We console now in parentheses:
Wonders of an imagined history.

Is the warm bloom of our blood
in the beloved’s barren lane past us?
Will white roses and red chrysanthemums
never spring again under her feet?
Will this silent frost never thaw?
Won’t the cry for truth ever echo again?
Won’t the lovers ever rise and rebel
For their right to the scaffold?

The trials of love borne-
Injury, death and war indemnity
We only await fresh supplies
Through snaking tunnels of snowed misery.
More loss, more death to mourn.
More severe trials,
More tears to mourn.

—Translation (Huzaifa)

(This Essay appeared in the November 2020 print issue of the Mountain Ink.)

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