Friends and family of Punjabi poet Irfan Malik gathered at the South Asian Free Media Association office on Saturday night to celebrate his poetry and works.
Malik is suffering from Alzheimer’s that has affected his language and communication skills. Once well-versed in four languages of Punjabi, Urdu, English and Swedish, the poet has been left with only his mother tongue, Punjabi, and has lost the ability to read, write or understand other languages. Having first symptoms of his health condition about 13 years back, Irfan Malik was diagnosed with logopenic aphasia, language impairment, in 2015.
Speaking at the gathering called, Beyond Words, Punjabi poet and scholar Mushtaq Soofi talked about some distinct features of Irfan Malik’s poetry, calling him one of the few Punjabi poets having urban sensibility.
“Irfan Malik is purely an urban poet. He doesn’t carry the baggage of rural Punjab. He has got only Lahore (in his blood from him) because he was born, bred and raised in Lahore without any influences from the rural Punjab. That’s why his poetry of him, in his imagery and emotions, is poetry of an urban citizen, carrying newness. He writes about images of urban life (of Lahore), its streets, roads and flora and fauna.”
Mr Soofi pointed out that there had been a recurring issue with Punjabi that in its writers and intellectuals would think of only villages when talking about Punjabi culture.
“It’s there in the media, in the newspapers. I was in the PTV whenever there used to be any talk or discussion about Punjab or Punjabi, the people would think of rural images like wells, artifacts, pitchers.”
I have pointed out that even the designers (of book covers etc) would also think on this pattern. However, the reality was that Punjab had an over three millennia long urban history, starting from Harappa, he added.
“There is another side of it which is that the village folks remained connected with their language (Punjabi) and culture for various reasons. On the other hand, in cities, education spread after colonialism, which created a disconnect with the native languages and their negation. The urban population would think in either Urdu or English.”
He added that there were very few urban Punjabi poets until very recently despite the fact that one of the biggest Punjabi poets Madho Lal Hussain was a Lahori.
Punjabi poet Raja Sadiqullah read out an essay on Irfan and his poem on him. In his essay about him, he said “Irfan Malik has a sense of wonder in him, which flows into his poetry about him. “He has given me surprises on many occasions. First time, when he wrote one-liner or two-liner poems in his book of him before leaving a page blank. When asked about it, he said poetry needs space.”
He said that born in Dabbi Bazaar of the walled city of Lahore, Irfan wandered in the narrow streets of the city and grew up there. He said that every poet remains alone despite having all the company around him. Irfan kept his journey into the wonders of the Mall Road and its lights, Sadiqullah said. He talked about the poet’s move to Europe and then the US, saying his nature of wonder took Irfan to other countries, including Sweden, and their open cultures from him.
He said that Irfan Malik was not a poet of mere craft as he did not use rhythm and rhyme and was not afraid of adopting new techniques.
At the end, he recited his poem Alzheimer’s, written about Irfan Malik and his health condition.
Irfan’s friend Shahid Jamal remembered that time in the 1970s when he, Irfan Malik and a couple of other friends belonging to the left started a literary organization called Naey Ufaq. Talking about Irfan’s poetry, he said besides his rebelliousness and politics of him, he had a special regard and love for traditional relationships that many of our friends in the left ignored. Reciting a poem of Irfan written on his father by him, he said the poem was symbolic of what he felt about his family by him. “Irfan has written about all his experiences of him in his poetry of him, including on those relationships which we consider mere traditional,” he added.
After the military coup of Gen Ziaul Haq and toppling of the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government, Irfan Malik joined the underground Communist Party. He got quickly disappointed with it and moved to Sweden with his wife from him. However, he kept writing Punjabi poetry wherever he went.
Irfan’s Swedish daughter Arianna spoke about how he met her mother for the first time and was the only Pakistani man in a Swedish town for years. What’s heartbreaking is that the father and the daughter need a translator even to communicate as she does not know Punjabi, the only language Irfan now understands.
Poet Hasan Mujtaba in a video message from the US, recited a poem by Irfan. Amar Alam also read out her English poem by her while Amna Buttar recited his poems by her.
Irfan’s poetry books include Wich Jagratay Sutti Tangh, Akath, Noon Ghunna, Dooji Aurat and Chhanday Aggay Kaiser.
Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2022