Nepali Times
Southasia Beat
Bol! Speak up!


In the Southasia beyond India, Mahatma Gandhi is increasingly regarded as 'Indian'. For many a Nepali citizen, the Sakyamuni Buddha is by now a 'Nepali'. By the same logic, Lalon Fakir would be restricted to being a Bangladeshi and Rabindranath Tagore an Indian.

Borders that delineate the countries of Southasia also have taken on the function of assigning civilisational figures to individual nation-states, even though the personalities who inhabited Undivided India, for example, should be part of the humanistic heritage of Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka as well as the post-colonial, present-day Bharat. Development theorist and practitioner Akhthar Hamid Khan, who moved from Comilla to Karachi to organise the people of the Orangi slum, should be regarded as our common mentor. The same for Eqbal Ahmed, the great humanist and scholar born in Bihar and domiciled in Islamabad.

Noor Jahan was 'the pride of Pakistan' but also of the rest of us. MS Subbulakshmi was 'the nightingale of India' but also the songstress of all Southasia. When the great mystic and musical genius Pathan-e-Khan of Multan passed away a few years ago, the loss was of a jewel of our common heritage but few in India or Bangladesh knew enough to mourn his passing. Pakistan today should be putting out postage stamps to commemorate the achievements of mathematician Srinivasa Ramajunan and Bangladesh on the writing genius of RK Narayanan.

But that is not how things are working out and we continue to categorise people according to where they lived before Partition. There is even less likelihood that those born after 1947 in our increasingly polarised societies will be regarded as Southasian even while remaining citizens of their own countries.

Mirza Ghalib was a great citizen of undivided India, and is described in a Pakistani website as 'one of the greatest poets of South Asian history'. Allama Iqbal provided the seed of the idea of Pakistan, but he was also what one could be called an 'Undivided Indian'. This trajectory brings us to the question of how to regard Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the great poet of love and revolution and inheritor of the legacy of Ghalib and Iqbal. As a passionate writer of ghazals and someone who fought the British with the weight of a great classical heritage, Faiz should be an icon today for Indians, Bangladeshis and Nepalis. His legacy, however, is increasingly restricted within the frontiers of Pakistan, where his protest poetry still inspires.

At a time when Nepal is rapidly 'becoming Pakistan' in terms of autocratic rule and the loss of civil liberties, some cultural activists decided that Faiz must be introduced to the Kathmandu audience. The oldest generation of Kathmandu's educated would have appreciated Ghalib and read Iqbal. But even they would not have known Faiz. As for the succeeding generations, Faiz might as well not have been born.

This was the logic behind the staging of the program Faiz: Abhibyakti ko Haq (Faiz: The Right to Expression). This being an evening in tribute to an Urdu great, the Persian haq was used in the title instead of the Sanskrit adhikar. The event was organised in a hall whose name-Baggikhana-has Urdu associations. Nepalis, however, have lost even the little ability they once had to understand Urdu. As Bollywood films gradually relinquish Hindustani in favour of Hindi, even that route of access to the Urdu labaj has evaporated. The organisers of the Faiz program, hence, had to provide translations of the poems.

And what poems they were, played out from old tapes and new CDs, as sung by Iqbal Bano, Nayyar Noor and Tina Sani! Intesaab is a poem about a homeland that resembles a dejected forest of yellowing leaves, inhabited by people in need of empathy, including prisoners of conscience, tangawallahs, railwaymen, exploited women, abducted children and the peasant farmers. Hum Dekhenge, as sung by Iqbal Bano became the anthem against the dictatorship of Zia-ul Haq, and tells of a time to come when the meek shall inherit the earth, when palaces shall crumble and regal headgear shall slip.

But Bol as rendered by Tina Sani and also sung live to his own music by Kathmandu artiste Aavas (see pic) was the song of the evening , catching the fancy of the audience of writers, poets and journalists at a time when the cultural world of Kathmandu is acting strange in its silence. For those who understood the history of the country and of the neighbourhood, what Faiz wrote against the British in his India (see free translation below), resonated in Kathmandu in the year 2005.

Speak up, for your lips are still your own
Speak, while there is still the time
Speak, while truth still lives
Speak, and say what you have to say.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)