For a writer of Amjad Islam Amjad’s stature, I had quite a few questions in mind when I walked into his house for our interview meeting. An hour later, when I walked out, the questions were still there, borne out of bewilderment. Is there such a thing as closure?
Born in 1944, Amjad Islam Amjad has delved into various genres of literature and excelled in each. He began as a poet but took to writing TV serials, screenplays, criticism and columns. Amjad may be known as “the poet of love”, but that is just one of the many accolades he has merited. Among various other awards and distinctions, he received the Pride of Performance in 1987 and the Sitara-i-Imtiaz in 1998.
“In our culture and society, men are not so expressive and rarely profess love for their wives”
He is tantalisingly elusive when it comes to discussing his love poetry and what inspired him to write with such eloquence on the subject. I ask him if he feels whether the meaning of love has changed over time. “The meaning of love hasn’t changed,” he says, “It depends on how big the window is, the one you are looking at love from. In youth, the meaning is different: it’s something unfamiliar, something new. With time, it is distributed among different relationships, but the main focal point is the same.”
In talking about the vastness of love and the many forms it can take, Amjad remembers the theme song he wrote for the television play Ek Mohabbat So Afsaane:
Khuwab kia kia chunay, jaal kia kia bunay
Mauj thamti nahin, rang rukte nahin
Waqt ke farsh par, khaak ke raqs par
Naqsh jamtay nahin, abrr jhuktay nahin
Har musafat ki duuri ka simtao hai
Jo kuch bhi hai muhabbat ka phelao hai
Amjad highlights a natural arc in his life and poetry. “In my early poetry, you will see some common elements of youth and love. After that, the shades changed and I wrote about the nuances of love and problems in life that occur with time. But there is one mystery in life that has left me perplexed: time. After love, this is the one thing that has haunted me most.” He seems to express his perplexity in the following translated verses from the poem “Zanjeer” (the collection is titled Zara Phir Se Kehna, 1982–1988):
But Amjad has also written extensively on social injustices. “It is no one’s birth-right to be wronged. My dominant colour is love, but it is not the only colour … different things inspire me,” he says. His earlier serials for PTV reflected society’s ills at the time. He gained popularity as a screenwriter with the drama serial Waris, which was broadcast on PTV in 1979 (and even dubbed in Mandarin in 1992). He received the prestigious President’s Special Award for this serial.
“Two things make life easy: patience and gratitude. If you attain something, be grateful. If you don’t, be patient”
Amjad recalls his visit to China. He asked them why they had chosen to dub the serial when China, as a communist state, was not bound by the menace of feudalism. “They said that 20 percent of their population had lived under feudalism; for them, it had nostalgic value. For Western capitalistic society, feudalism may not be an important theme, but for those countries that have gone through it, it serves as an important reminder,” he tells me.
“How far has Pakistani society come since the time Waris was aired?” I ask him curiously. Feudalism used to be a system, he says, “but now, it is an attitude. The feudal mentality is still prevalent. There are other forms of power, such as among businessmen and army generals, who have one thing in common: not giving the common man his rights.”
Some of the other drama serials Amjad wrote for PTV include Dehleez, Samundar, Waqt, Fishaar, Raat, Din, and Inkaar. Serials such as Inkaar and Raat drew on the theme of urbanization. Amjad believes that, while feudalism was a social evil he observed as an outsider, urbanization was a reality he lived through. The experience shaped his world, he tells me. He chose to highlight all the changes that come with urbanization: the switch from collectivism to individualism, education, personality clashes. “Urbanization brought with it some positive changes, but it brought challenges too,” he muses, adding, “We can see the family system breaking up and extreme competitiveness is on the rise. We are unable to create an individualistic society like the Western world because we are still attached to one another through religious and cultural values.”
Based on the success of his serials, one can safely say he has translated and mirrored all these challenges into his stories. “In every serial of mine, you will find a character who is fiercely attached to his values. He may be ostracized for his virtues, but he hangs on to them with tenacity. Because of this, the people associated with him also suffer. For instance, a virtuous man may be unable to fit into society because of his ethics; as a direct consequence, his children will suffer too. Parallel to this are the many issues of youth: within the same family structure you will see different reactions from children and I have always tried to show the challenges of our times,” says Amjad.
He believes the effects of colonialism have to be endured. “We were caught in the influx. Now we are trying to carve out our own identity. After two to three decades, our youth will have understood themselves,” he hopes.
Amjad wrote his last drama serial for PTV in 2000. “I don’t want to be known as an angry old man, but I feel PTV could have played a vital role in training writers and producers. PTV became arrogant after its success … Instead of thinking about the future, it created a formula and took things for granted. At the pinnacle of its success, PTV assumed that, if it had these writers and actors, it could keep churning out the same valuable talent,” he argues. “Miracles are not repeated,” adds Amjad. The power now rests in the hands of those few who climbed the corporate ladder, but who lack ethics or the proper training, he tells me.
Similarly, Amjad feels it is a no-win situation in Pakistan where theatre is concerned. “Commercial values dominate artistic values. If vulgar comedy becomes the norm, then theatre will deteriorate and we see that happening with more dance and less dialogue. We need more academics. Theatres need to be subsidized by the government. If someone wants to create and stage a play, the rents are so high that it becomes unaffordable to do so,” he says in some frustration.
He also laments the onslaught of channels, which he feels has contributed to lower quality and fewer ethics in the media. “The management hires half-baked writers who don’t fight for quality or values. I have suspended myself; I haven’t resigned,” he says bluntly. He is, however, currently writing scripts for two upcoming feature films.
Family commitments, extensive traveling and his writing mean that Amjad does not get as much time to read as he used to: “I recently read the excellent Mera Daaghistan by Rasool Hamzatov and a book on poetry by Ahmad Mushtaq.”
I ask him which poem is closest to his heart. He insists that favourites change with time, although two recent poems that have gained much popularity are about married love: “In our culture and society, men are not so expressive and rarely profess love for their wives.” He quotes from “Tumhe Mujh Se Mohabbat Hai”, which is dedicated to his wife:
Mohabbat ki tabiyat mein
Yeh kaisa bachapana kudrat ne rakha hai
Ke jitni puraani jitni bhi mazboot ho jaey
Issey taeed-e-taaza ki zaroorat phir bhi rehti hai
Yaqeen ki aakhri hudd tukk dilon mein lehlahaati ho
Nigaahon se tapakti ho dilon mein jagmagati ho
Hazaaron tarha se dilkash haseen haaley banati ho
Ussey izhaar ke lafzon ki haajat phir bhi rehti hai
Mohabbat maangti hai yun gawahi apney honey ki
Ke jaisey tifl-e-saada shaam ko ik beej boey
Aur shab mein barha uthey
Zameen ko khod kar dekhey
Ke pauda ub kahan hai
The other poem was written for his son Ali Zeeshan, and is part of the collection titled Aur Phir Yun Hua (Then, So It Happened, 2001–2004):
How can I tell him?
The moment of revelation hasn’t yet reached him,
But when it does,
He will have the same difficulty
In telling the same tale to his son,
For his son too will want to say his own thing,
He too will want to live in the new world,
In the new scene,
He too will want to flow on the surge
Of his own intoxication.
I couldn’t leave without asking the seasoned writer if he had a message for the new generation. “Don’t use the backdoor, no matter how attractive it is,” he quips, adding, “There are two things that will make life easy: Patience and gratitude. If you attain something, be grateful. If you don’t, be patient.”
Before leaving, I ask him to narrate a few verses from a particular poem. He smiles and tells me that someone he met a few days ago asked for the same one. “After many years, two people have asked me to recite the same poem. See how everything is connected?” he says with a glint in his eyes.
Ab jo dekhen to koi aesi barri baat na thi,
Yeh shab-o-roz, maah-o-saal ka pur-paich safar,
Qadrey asaan bhi ho sakta tha,
Yeh jo har morr pe kuch uljhe huye raste hain,
In main tarteeb ka imkaan bhi ho sakta tha,
Hum zara dheyaan se chalte to woh ghar,
Jis ke baam-o-dar-o-deewar pe veerani hai,
Jiss ki har subah main shaamon ki pareshaani hai,
Uss main hum chain se abaad bhi ho sakte they,
Bakht se amman ki raahen bhi nikal sakti theen,
Waqt se sulaah ka paimaan bhi ho sakta tha,
Ab jo dekhen to bohat saaf nazar aatey hain,
Saarey manzar bhi, pass-e-manzar bhi,
Lekin iss dair khayaali ka silaah kya hoga…
There are certain questions that never make it to their answers, but who better to portray the beauty of the unsaid than the poet? n
Author’s note: The translated poems have been sourced from Shifting Sands: Poems of Love and Other Verses. Introduction and selection by Baidar Bakht. Translation from the Urdu by Baidar Bakht and Marie-Anne Erki.
The author is a freelance journalist based in Toronto