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Riots and the Artist*

Varis Alvi

Translated by Muhammad Umar Memon


Leslie Machinist, ‘Riot’, acrylic, ink, and charcoal on paper, 1988 | Image courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

Having witnessed the Nazi atrocities, Thomas Mann remarked that “in our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.”1 Actually, Mann was alluding to a fairly complex and obscure feature in the web of causality that lurks behind the tragedy of present-day man. Our age is so deeply immersed in politics that we no longer have any agency in the satisfaction of even our own instincts and spiritual desires, rather it is the political institutions, parties or agendas that preeminently decide their fate. Whether political or something else, at the end of the day an institution remains only an abstraction. Man’s association with an institution or an ideal is not a blood relationship, and neither is it visceral, visible, or physical. Hence, it is a purely nonhuman relationship. It is tragic that Man has offered up his sound and enduring human relation-ships as a sacrifice at the tenuous and abstract altar of political concepts and ideals. Rather than being a flesh-and-blood entity, a complete being, Man has thus come to be viewed as a political unit, an abstract idea.

Man didn’t kill another man in the carnage at My Lai or Ahmadabad, but a dominant political abstraction certainly did. It killed Man in his full-ness, thinking all the while that its victim was none other than a concept–disguised, accidentally, as a man. This is by far the most telling example of the dehumanization of contemporary man: neither the killer nor the one killed possess even a modicum of human greatness. And the process of killing and dying is occurring at such a hideous level that one feels neither sorrow nor amazement. When, at My Lai, the skull of a wounded child is blown to bits from a distance scarcely eight feet away, or, at Ahmadabad, an entire family of ten, children included, is burned alive in just one house–exactly what is one supposed to feel? Sadness and stupor, pity and fear–in other words, the feelings that tragedy inspires in us? But what is happening around us is singularly devoid of the barest trace of tragic majesty. Our violence is as meaningless as our agony and pain is senseless. Entirely unproductive! Our violence and our atrocities have risen so far above all ethical consideration of good and evil, and reached such an extreme form, that they appear laughable. One time I went to see a slaughterhouse with a friend. A slew of bulls tied to ropes just stood there chomping on the fodder. The butcher would go over to them and run the sharp edge of his knife across the throats of a few. The bulls just chomped on, still standing, as though nothing at all had happened to them. Then, one by one, they would collapse to the ground with a thud. Seeing this, my friend observed with a laugh, “How funny!” And I too laughed. Another time a student of mine was relating an incident that happened during the communal riots. Mostly what they did was round up a man, douse him with gasoline and set him on fire. Now and then the victim, his body burning away, would suddenly rise to his feet and start running, and then, “It was so funny,” my student said, “the wild goose chase.” This should do for man’s blood relationship. As for pity, here are a few sobering lines from Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera:

My business is too hard, for my business is arousing human sympathy. There are a few things that stir men’s souls, just a few, but the trouble is that after repeated use they lose their effect. Because man has the abominable gift of being able to deaden his feelings as well, so to speak. Sup-pose, for instance, a man sees another man standing on the corner with a stump for an arm; the first time he may be shocked enough to give him tenpence, but the second time it will only be fivepence, and if he sees him a third time he’ll hand him over to the police without batting an eyelash.

(1998, 95)

I recall something which Mrs. Indira Gandhi had said after touring the devastation at Ahmadabad: “What saddens me the most is that people have not even had shame over the dreadful situation!” But who should feel shame? What did the American press and people say about the My Lai massacre? Just that such things do happen in war. The riots in Ahmadabad elicited the same response from the Indian press and people: Riots and water make their own path! Remorse, shame, sadness, anger are all human emotions which only living human beings experience, not political abstractions. Having already become a mechanical entity in the technological age, today’s living human being has, regrettably, under the tight control of political expedients, turned into a political abstraction as well. Any wonder that emotional springs should dry up in such a man? We see with our own eyes how this cold man, indifferent to all considerations of good and evil, is drifting farther and farther away from his nature and his world and, unaffected by human feelings, is being divested of his instincts. We forget a basic fact, namely, that any situation which has to do with Man is, first and foremost, a human situation, and only subsequently social, political, and moral. This inevitably permits us to ignore the human aspects of the situation and investigate only its social and political aspects. Absent from the writings of politicians and newspaper columnists is precisely this human perspective, as if these people do not have the foggiest idea that riots are primarily a human problem. If it has been made into a major problem, then this is the consequence of exploitation by political rogues and of their insatiable hunger for political power. The entire struggle of the contemporary artist/writer is against this cunning, self-delusional, inhuman, cold, and phony society. In the midst of this commotion he is trying to somehow protect his human qualities and values because he knows that the source of his art is none other than his own human self. If this self becomes twisted or warped, he too will turn into an instrument of this brutal society, producing nothing better than journalistic trash. Instead of succumbing to political ideals, parties, and movements, he tries to formulate his own ideal where he can deter-mine the values of human existence. He wants to preserve the living aspects of his emotional, spiritual, and instinctual life from the influence of the political and social pressures that are determined to destroy them. This is not walking away from lifeís struggles, rather it is setting those struggles on the right course. There was a time when both our liberal-minded lawyers and politically savvy critics used to laugh at these lines of the poet Ḥāfiz̤:

rumūz-e maṣlaḥat-e mulk khusravāñ dānand
gadāʾ-e gōsha-nashīnī tō Ḥāfiā makhurōsh

(1969–7o, 218)

Subtleties of the empire’s affairs–kings know;
You, Ḥāfi, a beggar who sits alone in a corner,
don’t you shout!

However, the contemporary artist/writer fully understands the significance of these lines. If the field of action unfolds into a deathly rampage of power-crazy people, it is entirely preferable that he embrace the values and relationships that are dear to him and seek the peace and quiet of a cloistered life. Never has an artist/writer been able to stop a society on its way to destruction, but he has been able to preserve those ideals, memories, and experiences which would have surely been annihilated had he given up his secluded life to join the mob of crazies. Such a character in the artist/writer is not exclusive to our own time, indeed it has always been the same across the ages. Hence, what we call the history of human culture is defined by the creations of the cloistered artists/writers. These creations enshrine the finest experiences of human existence and–having been expressed through the medium of color, musical harmony and rhythm, word, and dance–they have reached us in the form of a long tradition. Thanks to this tradition, we have managed to preserve some remnant of values in a world filled with violence and superficiality. What are these values? Millenniums of cultural evolution have slapped so many artificial layers upon them that it has become impossible to even find a clue to the fundamentals that define man. If we scrape all the layers off, he is reduced to merely a biological entity, functioning through a con-glomeration of basic instincts, which, if nothing else, are at least human. This is precisely what prompted Muḥammad Ḥasan ʿAskarī to make the facetious remark that he infinitely preferred looking at pictures of nudes over reading short stories about the intercommunal rioting of 1947. Looking at nudes was, at the very least, a human thing to do. The mind of a person who reads pornographic novels or looks at obscene pictures is, by comparison, healthier and more human than the mind of a person who pores over Savarkar’s2 and Golwalkar’s3 books and looks at the pictures in Mother India.4 That obscene novels and nude pictures excite his sexual instinct can hardly be denied. But, however wrong such arousal might be, the perusal of the writings of a biased and highly communal mind inevitably transforms man’s humanity into a nauseating abstraction. Today as we witness an upsurge of linguistic and communal prejudice and of Fascist forces gathering ever more power around us, a profound sense of vulnerability settles into our hearts. In this vulnerability we see an unambiguous and painful reflection of the death and destruction of all our cherished dreams. These are not dreams of unrestrained pleasure and limitless happiness, but of simple human relationships that characterize a living society. A heightened form of these relationships is the one between a man and a woman. Born purely from their innate attraction for each other, it obliterates the smallest trace of otherness and promotes, instead, a sense of togetherness, intimacy, awareness, confidence and cooperation between them. Perhaps this is why Yeats perceived sexual love to be the most attractive refuge from the general atmosphere of political anarchy around him:

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

(Yeats 1997, 356)

In other words, whether war, politics, prejudice, or hatred–none stands any comparison to the embrace of a beautiful young woman. The embrace, in its highest form, is emblematic of the human relationships that result from living together, trusting someone, pledging to live and die with that someone. It is these relationships that receive the severest blow in communal rioting, and it is mutual trust that suffers most. After all, it is in the trust of one’s neighbors that one feels safe and sleeps peacefully. But, today, numberless people are killed as they sleep:

abī maiñ ap gẖar mēñ rahā tẖā
abẖī maiñ gẖar be-gẖar gayā hūñ
abẖī lōgōñ milkar khush hūvā tẖā
abī lōgōñ ḍartā pẖir rahā hūñ

(ʿAlavī 1995, 327)

Moments ago I was fast asleep in my home;
Moments ago I was made homeless.
These are the very people it pleased me to meet;
These are the very people I now fear.

Can there be an experience more dreadful than that a man should fear the very same people he sees every day, shops for his daily necessities at their stores, hugs or scolds their children? Relationships of blood and bonds with the land are the very marks of human society; their loss renders man a living corpse. It is these characteristics that contemporary man is beginning to lose, slowly but surely. His greatest problem today is none other than human relationships: as a human being, how does he relate to other human beings? what is the nature of his relationship with them? Otherwise we all live under the pretense of human friendship. So, it would seem, this robe has finally been slit open. But exactly what shape is our body and our soul underneath:

utār pẖēñkūñ badan pẖaṭī purānī qamīṣ
badan qamīṣ baṛẖkar kaṭā pẖaṭā dēkhūñ

(ibid., 343)

Let me tear off the old tattered shirt from my
to see a body more tattered and torn than the

Or how relationships have been severed in an instant:

maṭṭī tō kaččī hai lēkin
adyōñ kā rishta pakkā hai
pal bẖar mēñ kyā ūṭ gayā hai

(ʿĀdil Manṣūrī5)

Surely the earth is raw, it is weak,
but the bond is centuries-old–and firm;
how it has snapped in an instant!

When the only connecting link between two individuals is death and murder, man is confronted with such unbounded despair that only death can relieve him of it. And it is the confrontation with death that produces self-awareness in him. The protagonist in many Hemingway stories is freed of all bonds and his true essence becomes revealed to him precisely at the moment he comes face to face with death. Now the decision whether to live or die, or on what conditions, should he decide to live, will have to be made by him and him alone because until he confronts death he doesn’t become himself but remains divided.

yahāñ tō āʾīnē āʾīnē haiñ
mujē ūñō kahāñ par kẖō gayā maiñ

(ʿAlavī 1995, 321)

Mirrors–everywhere here
Look for me, where am I lost?

It is death that presses the scattered elements of the world into a unified whole. In its presence man is compelled to choose between life or extinction.

ma nē bẖī apnī maut dēkẖā qarīb se
aur is baʿd jīnē ḥasrat na kar sakā

(ibid., 350)

I, too, witnessed my death from up close
And then felt no longing to live.

One who cannot entertain a longing for life after coming face to face with his mortality, is truly freed. This freedom is akin to the Sufi’s gnosis which they attain only after experiencing the extinction of their individual egos (fanā). A world fashioned by political poets, a society founded upon banditry and plunder, exploitation and brutality that shackles everyone, the structure of our values, saturated with toxic hate, contempt, and moral cunning–all these fall off an artist at one fell swoop, transforming him into a caring and compassionate human being who cares for others and is able to feel their vulnerability. In place of hate, contempt, and anger, an anguish is born in him that resonates with limitless human sympathy.

aurōñ kē gar jalā kē qayāmat na kar sakā
gẖar jal̄ gayā magar maiñ shikāyat na kar sakā


By burning down others’ homes he couldn’t
bring down the heavens–
My house too was reduced to ashes but not even
a complaint escaped my lips.

Those who had come to set fire to the house had not the slightest idea that

gar mēñ ta kyā jō mirā ġam u ġārat kartā

(Ġālib 1989, 137)

What was there in the house that my pain
would’ve ruined it.

But, of course, the sense of futility swelled manifold after the rioters had set the house on fire:

tī tō sahī par āj pahlē itnī ḥaqīr faqīr na tẖī

(Ṣiddīqī 1955, 100)

It was there though never before so weak and

The pyromaniacs couldn’t see what the poet could: both were victims, both utterly ruined, those who torched the house and he whose house was torched. Both were facing the fundamental torments of life. The arsonist too had walked out of his house–no less desolate and dreary– leaving a slew of unresolved conflicts behind. For the moment, though, he had turned his back on his frustrations and worries, as he walked out, matches in hand, to set another house of sorrow on fire. How can one complain about such a man! or even contemplate revenge at such a level of depravity! So the artist cannot even put such human feelings as hatred and revenge to use; instead, he is wracked by a terribly strange feeling of suffocation:

us mujẖē tabāh hiyā is bāvajūd
dō čār din bī us main nafrat na kar sakā

(ʿAlavī 1995, 350)

Though he ruined me
I couldn’t hate him even for a day or two.

“Couldn’t hate”–not because of some moral excellence, but simply because who was there to hate.

mujē diyā na kabī mērē dushmanōñ patā
mujẖē havā laṛātē rahē jahāñ-vālē

(Zafar Iqbāl 1962, 78)

The world never gave me a clue to my enemies
and made me fight with the wind all my life long.

The people who’ve come to kill him are not really his enemy–they’re just a collection of unfamiliar, unknown, invisible, and utterly abstract faces. Lifeless political robots. An invisible contagion of disease and epidemic. They can destroy you, but you cannot hate them because they remain invisible. One sees only men of flesh and blood, whom one can trust:

apnē sē ba kē tujẖ pe mujẖē eʿtimād tẖā
afsōs bẖī mērī ḥifāat na kar sakā

(ʿAlavī 1995, 350)

I trusted you more than I trusted myself
Pity–even you failed to protect me.

One can, of course, feel sorry for such a man, but hate him one cannot. In other words, the artist is facing a situation where a normal human response just won’t work. Indeed, the situation is so extraordinary that he is dazed, no longer able to exercise his faculties to determine the nature of his emotional reaction. His internal and spiritual struggle was already too wrenching to begin with, now he must also face a nonhuman struggle provoked by the actions of insane men. How well the spiritual and material anguish comes together, and how the dirge of one’s spiritual shattering merges into the elegy on the disruption of one’s external and material life in the following lines:

masjid shahīd hōnē ka ġam tō kiyā magar
ik bār bẖī maiñ us mēñ ʿibādat na kar sakā

(ibid., 350)

The gutted mosque did sadden me, but alas–
I couldn’t pray there even once.

For the individual, his awareness of leaving the mosque unattended was already serious enough to precipitate a veritable spiritual and cultural cri-sis in him; he must now add to this the further irony that the rioters destroyed it precisely because they thought it was a well-attended venue. Man’s true predicament was that he was drifting away from the mosque, which was hence becoming desolate on its own.

Muḥammad ʿAlavī’s poetry on the communal riots depicts a man who has suffered a terrible jolt and, in the dizzying aftermath, has become estranged from his roots but is, nonetheless, still engaged in the hopeless struggle to reconnect with those roots. The most salient characteristic of this poetry is its portrayal of a mind that has been scorched beyond limits, and, therefore, chooses to express its sensitivity in concrete and specific experiences, rather than in general statements. Here, sensitivity does not denote making a plea in the name of a love for humanity, or carefully balancing the scales. This is because the very nature of communal riots has undergone a drastic change, and the communal madness of the majority is thirsting for blood, forcing Muslims to think, in the words of poet Nūn Mīm Rāshid,

ai khu
āj apnē ābā sarzamīn mēñ
ham ajnabī haiñ
hadaf ha nafrat kē nāvake tēzojāñsitāñ kē

(1957, 108)

O Lord,
today in the land of our ancestors
we are strangers,
the butt of hatred’s archer–of sure aim and life-

Not only is their condition reminiscent of a wounded animal surrounded by hunters, they are also being made to feel as though they are deadly beasts that had better be exterminated mercilessly. Bhartification [i.e., Indianization], personal law, across-the-border loyalties–all mere excuses to justify the religious bigotry that is lodged deep inside these Abstract Men who thrive on politics. The entire society is turning into a political abstraction and, likewise, views the entirety of the minority as a political abstraction. This grossly inhuman situation has brought the artist to the brink of limitless despair. The only way to neutralize it is for him to pre-sent himself and the human values of which he is constituted to those who have lost perception of those human values. It is not a question of begging for mercy in the name of humanity, but rather a question of presenting one’s wounded humanity with all its tragic agony just so that people might realize that he who was slain at the height of spring was a flourishing man. However, the Political-Abstract Man and the man in the fullness of his possibility have drifted so far apart that no channel of communication is left open between them. After his permutation into a political being, an artist simply cannot think about Bhartification, personal law, and four wives. Neither can a Political Man understand, like an artist, the personal conflicts of an ordinary person or empathize with his afflictions and his emotional and social conundrums. If a man must stand guard outside his door with a gun in hand simply in order to go in and shoot down his three young daughters in the event that rioters attacked his house–so that they would at least die with their honor intact–in the face of such situations that stretch man’s patience and spirit to the breaking point, to say that all this mess is the consequence of your marrying four wives and being disloyal to the country simply makes a dreadful situation downright ridiculous. What else can an artist, besieged by this tragic ridiculousness, do but say:

abī rōyā abẖī hañsnē lagā hūñ
tō kyā sačmuč maiñ pāgal gayā hūñ

(ibid., 321)

I was just now crying, and now laughing.
Have I gone mad–truly?

Self-pity, wailing and weeping, or indifference–none will help an artist face this situation. The collision he is experiencing is swiftly carrying him toward perfect self-awareness. Man is a victim of his own contradictions, his emotional frustrations, and his spiritual dilapidation, capped by the contradictions, violence, cunning, and affectation of the society in which he lives. Thus the artist is cracking up from within and without. Only the search for a suitable weapon with which to confront this situation could help him keep his fragmented self together. Such a weapon is contempt; however, its expression in the poetry of ʿAlavī and others has so far remained underemphasized. By contempt I mean a contempt full of zest and brio, the kind which Caligula expresses in the eponymous play by Albert Camus:

This world has no importance; once a man realizes that, he wins his free-dom. And that is why I hate you, you and your kind; because you are not free.

(1958, 14)

In other words, the artist reenters the domain of existence (vud) after experiencing extinction (fanā). Now, though, he accepts life on a wholly new condition, which does not negate but confirms life. He does not accept to live on the terms dictated by the Abstract Man. And he is able to proclaim, as he stands at the edge of a cliff peering down into the abyss of nonbeing: “The world you’ve fashioned has no importance at all. Now I know this, and am therefore free, and choose life freely.”6 On human and biological bases he is–a robust and fulsome man–at war with an entire society founded upon artificiality and deceit, with its darkness so bereft of intensity that it resembles the pale darkness of a sickly, decaying and waning night:

akē tā ki āvāz dētā
utartī rāt tanhā lāṛā maiñ

(ʿAlavī 1995, 321)

I was all alone, who might I have called for
I fought with the waning night all on my own.

This is so because in the age of Abstract Man communal riots too have acquired an abstract form. In the obscurity of the societal fog a man whom we can hardly make out kills another man whom he doesn’t even know or recognize. This has rendered the act of killing and plunder so mechanical that one can scarcely feel any natural human reaction to it, such as anger at these inhuman actions, or pity and sorrow at such a tragic event. Without a consciousness of good and evil, even man’s crime and sin lose all their capital of human significance. He just picks up a spear and drives it straight through the heart of a living person, in exactly the same cold, unfeeling, and mechanical fashion that he makes love. He has no interest in the warm body, writhing in the heat of passion. Per-haps, in a way, he even fears it. To him the parabolas, the tautness of a young healthy female body, drowned in the nectar of Sanskrit lyrical poetry, are nothing more than mere geometrical lines and circles. Sadly, in our society the perusal of dāstāns and Koka Shastra is seldom for any reason other than to excite one’s own sexual desire, certainly not to learn how to arouse the other body. We don’t maintain a record of our sexual life; nothing like a Kinsey Report is available. But were such a report ever constructed, all the deceit of our sexual morals would become exposed. Perhaps then we would understand that kissing has absolutely no purchase in our sexual conduct, nor female orgasm any significance. Our acts of killing and lovemaking are simply forms of masturbation: drab, meaningless, cold, mechanical, and self-centered. A man who cannot see the sudden gleam in the eyes of his partner during the sex act, or absolute dread in the eyes of his victim when he kills him is masturbating in the darkness. If he would see the victim’s agony and dread and still proceed with the killing, then we could perhaps say that this was a blow administered by a man, not by the blade of a guillotine. By a lost and anguished man who perpetrated a meaningless and profitless murder, so movingly expressed by Munīr Niyāzī in the poem:

tēġ lahū mēñ ḍūbī tẖī aur pēṛ khushī jẖūmā
bāde bahārī čalī jẖūm jab us mujẖē dēkẖā
gāyal naz̤rēñ us dushman aisē mujẖ taktī
jaisē anhōnī kōʾī dēkī in kamzōr nigāhōñ nē
ye inṣāf baʿd mēñ hōgā kyā jẖūÅā kyā saččā
kaun yaqīn sē kah skatā hai kaun burā kaun
aččẖā hai
lēkin pir bẖī ēk bār mērā dil bẖī kāñpā tẖā
kāsh ye sab kučẖ kabẖī na hōtā mēñ dukẖ
sōčā tā
gāyal naz̤rēñ us dushman gahrī sōč mēñ kẖōʾī
jaisē anhōnī kōʾī dēkī in kamzōr nigāhōñ nē
kaun hūñ maiñ aur kaun tẖā vo jis par hōnī
vār kiyā
kaun tā vo jis shakhṣ maiñ bẖarī bahār
mēñ mār diyā

(1983, 80)

The sword had drowned in blood, the tree ha
swayed in ecstasy
The spring breeze had sailed with abandon
when he looked at me.
The enemy’s wounded eyes were staring hard at
As though those dimming eyes had seen some
impossible thing.
What is false and what is true–that will be
decided later
For who can say with certainty who is good and
who bad.
Still, for one brief moment, a tremor rocked my heart:
If only none of this had ever happened–I had
painfully thought.
The enemy’s anguished eyes were lost in
fathomless thought:
As though those dimming eyes had seen some
impossible thing.
Who am I? and who was he–assaulted by the
The man whom I’d killed at the height of spring?

This is the true human situation! It’s been an animal, and even a human instinct to try different methods of relaxing the opponent at the time of combat. Face-to-face combat is more human for this reason, unlike the battle in which gunshots are fired from a distance or bombs dropped from high altitudes, because such encounters foreclose every possibility of human communication. Countless good poems have been written about war and bombardment, but a pilot who drops his lethal payload on a silent city from up high in the dead of night, still awaits a poem such as ‘Mērē Dushman kī Maut’7 (The Death of My Enemy). How can such a poem be written about these rioters who round up all the men, women, and children, herd them into a small room, yank off its corrugated tin roof, douse it with gasoline and then torch it, burning the occupants alive; kill more than a hundred occupants in a single čālī; and, after peace is established, spew out learned sermons about communal rioting. In journalistic pieces just about every progressive and secular intellectual has only this to say: all this mess is because Muslims marry four wives, follow their own group, and refuse to recognize Hamid Dalwai8 and Chagla9 as their leaders. Nobody ever talks to those young widows who wake up screaming in their sleep, ‘Don’t kill him! Please don’t kill him!’ After the riots communal parties take out a massive procession to protest against rising inflation, but, in fact, it is to have a celebratory march over their victory in the recent killing. All the enlightened people immediately start praising the procession to high heaven. Not one among those who kill indiscriminately in the dead of night, nor those who look the other way at those killings in their journalistic articles drafted in broad daylight and mentioning only the national stream, cry out in agony and say: ‘kaun tẖā vo jis shakhṣ maiñ bẖarī bahār mēñ mār diyā’ (who was he I killed at the height of spring). This handful of words is a proof of the last few remaining bits of humanity. This murderer is an infinitely better individual than the Political Man who doesn’t himself kill, but does create the conditions which prompt a man to divest himself of his humanity and engage in spilling blood. The Machiavellis of our age, totally bereft of all creative, spiritual, and esthetic impulse, have no qualms about getting thousands of innocent people murdered with impunity, validating their actions by blaming the death of their victims on the fallacy of the latter’s ideas and misguided political actions. Rather than show remorse at the death and carnage, they prefer to give speeches in town halls, arduously locating the reasons for the killing of women and children in the Persian script, Urdu language, four wives, Tughlaq and Ghori Sultans, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the Khilafat Movement, and the practice of donning burqas. Take a hard look at this man, because today, through his many books and articles, he is trying to subvert the entire history of a people, bending over backwards to convince them that their present misery is the inevitable consequence of the insane and shameful deeds of their forefathers. He has lost the ability to empathize with the pain and suffering of others.

In T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, the four knights, after killing Becket, address the audience and provide the justification for their heinous act with compelling logic. Keep in mind that in the spiritual levels Eliot has assigned to Thomas Becket, the chorus women and the knights, the latter occupy the purely animal level. They give profoundly logical speeches, show Thomas Becket to be full of hubris and of himself, and consider his murder a political and national necessity. They say:

No one regrets the necessity for violence more than we do. Unhappily, there are times when violence is the only way in which social justice can be secured. At another time, you would condemn an Archbishop by vote of Parliament and execute him formally as a traitor, and no one would have to bear the burden of being called murderer. And at a later time still, even such temperate measures as these would become unnecessary. But, if you have now arrived at a just subordination of the pretensions of the Church to the welfare of the State, remember that it is we who took the first step.

(Eliot 1963 [1935], 82)

At their animal level, what the knights fail to perceive is that Thomas Becket’s entire struggle was precisely against taming this pride and self-conceit. His greatest temptation was the most dreadful form of pride, namely, the pride of martyrdom, and he fought against that temptation as well. The discourses of the four knights reveal a mind utterly incapable of understanding the mind of another. Our age is not unaware of the moral consequences of justifying violence as a political necessity. Eliot’s knights make full use of political reasoning and the entire cadence of their speeches is saturated with diplomacy, not much different than the political commentators’ speeches in the wake of My Lai. Read this sentence of one knight with a minor variation of words and the meaning will become as clear as day: ‘At another time, you would condemn the victims of My Lai Vietcong by vote of Parliament and execute them formally as traitors, and no one would have to bear the burden of being called murderer.’ So all that happened, happened on account of suspicion, while, in fact, there was no room for suspicion. The statements made by political commentators after the riots wouldn’t have differed much, namely, the minority was disloyal to the country. It needs to be Bhartified. During Baroda riots posters demanding ‘Leave Hindustan!’ sprang up everywhere. Just about everyone was complaining that they’d become sick and tired of Muslims, and newspaper columnists too were touting Muslim narrow-mindedness, religious fanaticism, backwardness, hooliganism, isolationism, insistence on their own personal law, and how all these went against the welfare of the country. ‘But, if you have now arrived at a just subordination of the pretensions of the Church to the welfare of the State, …’ These political commentators are as incapable of understanding the raging mental conflicts of an ordinary Muslim as the knights were of understanding Arch-bishop Thomas Becket’s spiritual turmoil. An ordinary man’s mind remains a closed book to a political being. When life’s problems appear daubed with political color, they metamorphose into political issues. It is only art and literature that have the capacity to express the problems of life and create the man in whose eyes we can see the gleam or fear, and meet with him at the purest human level. How many characters are there in Urdu fictional literature that anyone would want to kill as Muslims? Hardly any. But one would be hard pressed to find a single Muslim in the political histories being fabricated today that anyone would want to leave alive. One cannot foist the image of a people arising from political histories on even a single member of that community, because man is not merely a political entity. Our society is in the clutches of a man who has become divorced from human instincts and emotions. Such a man erects concentration camps and gas chambers, commits genocide, raises private armies, and murders culture and language. This accomplished, he then, like Eliot’s knights, justifies his actions in journalistic pieces and political books. What can an artist feel before such a man except a sense of anguished helplessness:

ik bẖīṛ hai andẖī čalī ātī hai
ik tēġe aqārat hai ke lehrātī hai
ik jañgal ug rahā hai lamḥa lamḥa
ik būnd bačī tẖī bahī jātī hai

(Fārūqi 1977, 48)

A crowd, surging forward blindly
A sword of hate that keeps swishing in the air
A jungle that grows every instant
A drop, just a drop was left, it too is flowing away.

How can one even begin to talk to this blind crowd, this geometrical jungle, this maze of lifeless lines! A drop, just a drop of blood which you had somehow saved from the merciless incivility of time’s dehumanizing forces, saved it from turning into bitter and turbid water, how will you save this bright drop of warm blood from the swishing sword of naked hatred? No poem can be conceived about this blind crowd. In vain is poor Sulaimān Arīb10 trying to get it across to this sight-deprived crowd that heís lost all hope in them, in the humanity of humans, in those who slice off women’s breasts and rape mothers and sisters with impunity. One despairs when there’s hope. But what can one hope for from the ever-growing jungle of Abstract Men. One who masturbates before women can hardly be expected to show any regard for their breasts. The man who tears the posters with pictures of beautiful women in the name of religion and morality is the same man who, again in the name of religion and morality, lobs off their breasts. How can the artist address a society so filled with cunning and self-deception? If the other shows regard for his human state, one can talk to him making humanity the point of reference. But how can he when the other is so devoid of human decency. The only course left open for the artist/writer is for him to clench his teeth and let the shaft of grief penetrate down into his heart, and to rivet his eyes in a protracted vigil on the scene of devastation unfolding before his eyes with its cargo of burned habitation and disfigured and charred bodies:

āñdī nē girā diyē gẖarōñdē sārē
nannẖī guṛyā be-ḥijābī dēkẖūñ

(ibid., 47)

The dust storm has felled all toy-houses
How must I see the little doll in all her

And keep on witnessing, in dazed immobility and pain.

ʿĀdil Manṣūrī’s poem ‘Khūn Mēñ Latẖṛī Hūʾī Dō Kursiyāñ’ (Two Chairs–Bathed in Blood), peerless and easily one of a kind among poems on communal riots, does precisely that, in its remarkable restraint, in its ability to maintain a quiet melancholic and mournful cadence all the way to the end-line in what sounds like a dirge about the poet’s self and his people–all of which give the poem its extraordinary intensity and tenderness. At no point does the timber of the poet’s voice become loud or shrill, or the tide of emotions overflow. Its style is that of melancholy eyes and clenched lips–simple like a tribal dirge, filled with the soul-wrenching desolations of Greek tragedies, and refreshingly free of self-pity, of wailing and lamentation, accusation and blame or sneering and of the kind of self-righteousness that makes poems about communal riots so banal. In other words, the poet doesn’t consider himself separate from or better than the riot-makers, or that he is following the Straight Path (ṣirāt-e mustaqīm) and can look down with contempt upon those who have deviated from it. His mental state is preeminently that of total bewilderment, of unspeakable dread over what has happened and is happening, his inevitable fate in all distressing periods of history. One will find the same painful bewilderment frozen in the wrinkles of the old woman’s face who, at every turn of human history, rummages through piles of ashes in the gutted dwellings, with her dull eyes and tremulous hands, looking for the scorched bones of her loved ones. Her eyes have, on the one hand, a tragic resignation that provides the strength needed to endure heavenly calamities, and, on the other, a sense of bewilderment because the dreadful gruesomeness of what she sees is beyond all conception of terror:

Every horror had its definition,
Every sorrow had a kind of end:
In life there is not time to grieve long.
But this, this is out of life, this is out of time,
An instant eternity of evil and wrong.
We are soiled by a filth that we cannot clean,
    united to supernatural vermin,
It is not we alone, it is not the house, it is not the
    city that is defiled,
But the world that is wholly foul.

(Eliot 1963 [1935], 77ñ8)

This terror, beyond all conceivable limits of time and space, finds its most lethal expression in King Lear, and especially in the scene in which Lear enters bearing the corpse of his most loved daughter Cordelia in his arms (‘How must I see the little doll in all her nakedness!’) and cries out in pain, ‘Howl, howl, howl, howl!’11 This very cry of Lear is transmuted into a quiet lament, a mournful dirge in ʿĀdil Manṣūrī. There is neither complaint, nor even a whiff or remonstration. Like Lear, ʿĀdil evinces no interest in the enemies or their death or their character. Once a man has been robbed of his most prized possession, he loses all interest in those who robbed him of it. Like the old woman who rummages in the debris of gutted dwellings for the bones of her loved ones, he too gathers what has been robbed, burned down, and slaughtered as an eternal symbol of wounded humanity, and lovingly recites its elegy:

khūñ mēñ latī hūʾī kursiyā
shuʿlōñ kī raushnī mēñ vaḥshi āñkẖōñ
rāt kī gehrāʾīyōñ mēñ maujzan
ajnabī baṛẖtē hūʾē sāyōñ shuʿūr
nīm-murda ye čāñd
kōʾī dōshīza kā jaisē adkaÅā pistān
aur us par khūn mēñ latẖṛū hūʾī kursiyāñ
maiñ ab ÅūÅā huvā āʾīna hūñ
ēk dō, pāñč, pandra, das hazār
mērī in lāshōñ kafnāʾēgā kaun
naʿraʾ-e takbīr meḥrābōñ dūr
mērī in lāshōñ dafnāʾēgā kaun
čashme shabbēdār khvābōñ dūr
dūr shuʿlē
aur shuʿñ mēñ čamktā ik makān
aur shuʿlē
aur un mēñ khūn mēñ latī hūʾī kursiyāñ
haḍḍīyōñ sar uÅẖātā ye dẖuvāñ
ye duvāñ ajnabī sā lag rahā
tirē ajdād
bū mirē ajdād
pẖēlā gayā
tīrgī mēñ jugnūʾōñ jagmagātī nōk har sangīn

āsmāñ par tiktikī bāndẖē hūʾē
raushnī muntaz̤ir āñkẖēñ udās
band kamrōñ kī fiẓā mēñ sīlanī sāñsēñ udās
aur udāsī parōñ darmiyāñ
khūn mēñ latū hūʾī dō kursiyāñ

(Manṣūrī 1970, 6)

Two chairs bathed in blood
The crowd of beastly eyes in the glow of flames
The thought of alien, advancing shadows
swelling in the depths of night
This half-dead moon
like a maiden’s breast slashed in half
and the two chairs over it, bathed in blood.
I–a shattered mirror now:
one, two, five, fifteen, ten thousand–corpses all
My corpses–who will shroud them?
The cry, ‘God is Great!–far from the arches
My corpses–who will bury them?
Far, far away from the dreams of an ever-wakeful
Flames leaping far into the distance
A house shining in their glow
and two chairs bathed in blood.
The smoke, there, rising from the bones
the smoke that feels so strange
has wafted everywhere
the scent of your forefathers
the scent of my forefathers.
In the darkness, the point of every bayonet–like
flashing fireflies
Eyes frozen in a stare at the sky
waiting for reassuring light
moist breaths–despondent in stuffy rooms
and amidst the wings of despondency
two chairs–bathed in blood. !

-Translated by Muhammad Umar Memon

Works Cited

ʿAlavī, Muḥammad. 1995. Rāt Idar Udar Raushan. Gandhinagar: Sāhitya Akāḍamī Gujarat.

Brecht, B. 1998. The Threepenny Opera. In his Collected Plays. Vol. 2. Translated by Ralph Manheim and John Willett. London: Methuen Drama.

Camus, Albert. 1958. Caligula and Three Other Plays. Translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Eliot, T.S. 1963 [1935]. Murder in the Cathedral. London: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Fārūqī, Shamsuír-Raḥmān. 1977. Čār Simt kā Daryā. Lucknow: Kitābnagar.

Ġālib, Mirzā Asaduíl-Lāh Khān. 1989. Dīvān-e Ġālib. New Delhi: Anjuman Taraqqī-e Urdū, Hind.

Ḥāfiz, Khvāja Shamsuíd-Dīn Muḥammad. 1969–70 [=1348]. Dīvān-e Kohnaʾ-e Ḥāfiz. Edited by Īraj Afshār. Tehran: Intishārāt-e Ibn Sīnā.

Iqbāl, Zafar. 1962. Ābe Ravāñ. Lahore: Nayā Idāra.

Manṣūrī, ʿĀdil. 1970. ‘Khūn mēñ Latẖṛū Hūʾī Kursiyāñ.’ Shab Khūn 4, no. 44:6.

Niyāzī, Munīr. 1983. Kullīyāte Munīr. Lahore: Maktabaʾ-e Munīr.

Rāshid, Nūn Mīm. 1957. Īrān Mēñ Ajnabi aur Dūsrī Nazmēñ. Lahore: Gōshaʾ-e Adab.

Ṣiddīqī, Mukhtār. 1955. Manzile Shab. Lahore: Nayā Idāra.

Yeats, W.B. 1977. ‘Politics.’ In The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Vol. 1, The Poems. 2nd ed. Edited by R.J. Finneran. New York: Scribner/Simon & Shuster. 356.

*’Fasādāt aur Fankār,’ from Vāriṡ ʿAlavī, Tīsrē Darjē kā Musāfir, Muntakhab Tanqīdī Maẓāmīn (Jodhpur: Amit Prakāshan, 1981), 230ñ52. Annotation and translation of Urdu poetry are by the essay’s translator.

1. In the absence of any reference in the Urdu original it is difficult to locate the source of the quote; however, it appears as an epigraph to W.B. Yeats’s poem ‘Politics,’ which is quoted by Vāriṡ ʿAlavī on the following pages.

2. Vinayak Damodar ‘Veer’ Savarkar (1883ñ1966) was a fierce Indian nationalist who propounded the doctrine of Hindutva and was linked to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by Nathuram Godse.

3. Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar (1906ñ73), a champion of Hindu militancy and fundamentalism, he was the chief of the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh. He strongly advocated that Indian Muslims should either adopt Hindu culture, civilization and language or live in perpetual subjugation to Hindus.

4. A Bombay-based magazine devoted to the promotion of communalism.

5. Reference to published source not available.

6. This is a translation of the Urdu translation of the quote by Vāriṡ ʿAlavī.

7. The poem just quoted.

8. A secular Marathi Muslim who advocated modernization, liberalization, and integration of Muslim communities in India. In his book, Muslim Politics In Secular India, he exposed the communal politics of Islamic fundamentalists and said, ‘unless Muslim communalism is eliminated, Hindu communalism will not disappear.’ He believed that a uniform civil code was the only answer to guarantee fundamental human rights for all Indian women. His Marathi novel Indhan (1965) is viewed as a classic of Marathi and pan-Indian fiction. He died at the age of 44.

9. Mahommedali Currim Chagla (1900ñ81) was the first permanent Indian Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court. After his retirement in 1958, he served as the Ambassador of India to a number of countries, including Ireland, Mexico, and the U.S.A. He was an ardent supporter of the transformation of Indian Muslim society and its Personal Law.

10. Sulaimān Arīb (1922ñ70) was an Urdu poet and editor of the monthly literary journal Ṣabā (Hyderabad, India).

11. William Shakespeare’s King Lear 5.3.57.