Poetry with a purpose

Iztirar

by Murtaza Birlas

Published by Mumtaz Publishing, Lahore

Pp 136, Price Rs 150

by Dr Afzal Mirza

This is the third collection of poetry by Murtaza Birlas. His earlier collections entitled Teesha-e-Karb and Irta'ash were well received by the critics. From Faiz to Muhammad Ali Siddiqui poets and critics praised his poetry. 

Birlas was then a member of the country's bureaucracy and some of his detractors ascribed those comments to his bureaucratic clout. But they were proved wrong when after his retirement Birlas published Irta'ash. Now he has come out with his latest collection Iztirar. The days are gone when everyone who wrote anything about Birlas would quote his verse :

Doston ke halqe mein ham

woh kaj muqaddar hein

Afsaron mein shair haen

shairon mein afsar hein

(I am that unfortunate one among the circle of friends whom poets consider an officer and officers consider a poet)

Ever since his retirement in 1994, he is now exclusively engaged in writing poetry. There are many stories about him when he was in service. One of his officers wrote in his confidential report that "he takes more interest in poetry than his job." Another time when he was commissioner Bahawalpur he was driving the then prime minister from the airport to the town. The prime minister asked him, "Birlas Sahib, Ghalib ka koi achcha sa sheir sunaiye." Naturally Birlas was flabbergasted at the recognition he got as a poet, where he was being asked by the prime minister to recite some lines from Ghalib .

But he survived all these times serving in bureaucracy as well as writing poetry and working for the cause of Urdu language and literature. Wherever he served he organised all-Pakistan mushairas and Urdu conferences.

Birlas comes from Muradabad (Uttar Pradesh). After having done his Masters in Mathematics from Agra University he arrived in Pakistan in early 1950s. For some time he taught at the St. Danny's Cambridge School at Rawalpindi but later on joined the provincial civil service. During his career he served almost in every district of the country. I remember having seen him for the first time when he was a magistrate in Dera Ismail Khan and had come to Bannu to attend a mushaira in which I also participated. He was then a budding poet with long hair and always dressed in sheerwani.

He has been writing poetry now for almost half a century and following the development of his poetry during this period one can see how he transformed himself from the traditional poet into a poet with a purpose and a message. Luckily he enjoyed the friendship of almost every important poet of Pakistan. He accepted the influence of the progressive writers which can be found as an undercurrent in his poetry. However, he did not align himself with any literary movement. Maybe that was the requirement of his official position but he always declared that he believed in Pakistanism a la Ahmad Nadim Qasmi than any other 'ism'. When he was serving in Bahawalpur he sent me a magazine that carried his poem:

Jis ko qurban karein shah

bachane ke liye

Ham hein shatranj ki baazi ke

piyada Birlas

Aisi basti ko zameen chaat

liya karti hae

Zulm barrh jaye jahan had se

ziyada Birlas

(I am that pawn in the game of the chess who is sacrificed

To save the life of the king

That dwelling is swallowed by the earth

Where the cruelties exceed all limits)

Many years earlier he had written his poem Ghamzada Ajnabi which he was asked to recite in almost every mushaira. The poem had the typical progressive diction and he would recite it in a fiery manner. Interestingly that poem with its English translation has been included in the deliberations of the International Movement for Peace and he was invited to America to present it at the Movement's Washington conference.

Birlas is basically a ghazal writer and has written few nazms. The latest collection has his sixty new ghazals. True to his philosophy he does not largely discuss matters of heart in these ghazals and the theme is primarily the predicament of human being in the present social environment. Now it is the skill of Birlas that he manages to discuss issues in his poems without impairing their poetic beauty and reducing it to versification.

In 1947 Faiz wrote "Yeh daagh daagh ujala yeh shabgazida sahar". Like Faiz, Birlas is also unhappy that the benefits of independence did not trickle down to the common people and were usurped by the coalition of feudals and capitalists of the country. His sorrow is reflected in his poetry. His long association with bureaucracy has given him ample insight into this unfortunate state of affairs.:

Mujhe ki gayi hae yeh peshkash ke saza mein hongi

riyaetein

Jo qusoor maine kiya nahin

woh qubool karloon dabao se

(I have been offered concession in my punishment

If confess to the crime that I never committed)

and

Mujhe jo khalq kiya bezamir

logon mein

Mere khuda mujhe bas yeh

saza hi kaafi hae

(That I have been created among these people without conscience

My God! This is punishment enough for me)

Birlas is an optimist, but sometimes he gets desperate and says:

Yehi jo haal raha apni behisi

ka to phir

Khuda bachae jo farda meri

nigah mein hae basi

(If we continued with our present state of indifference

May God save us from the future that I foresee)

He is upset because nothing has changed after partition. Even 'democracy' could not solve the problems because it was dominated by the elitist class and the administrator behaved in the manner of colonial rulers. Birlas expresses his feelings in these words:

Urr rahe hein waqt ki raftar

se maghrib ke simt

Waqt-e-aghaz-e-safar jo teera

shab thi ab bhi hae

Naam is ka badshahat ho keh

ho jamhuriyat

Munsalik firyoniat masnad se

tab thi ab bhi hae

(We are flying with the speed of time towards the West

It is still the same darkness that existed when we had embarked upon the journey

We may call it kingship or democracy

The man at the helm of affairs still behaves as a Pharaoh)

After going through Iztirar one tends to agree with Dr Muhammad Ali Siddiqui that "the present collection of Murtaza Birlas's poetry is representative of all his poetic characteristics and the critics would agree with me that the beauty of a bouquet of flowers cannot be expressed by praising individual flowers. Murtaza Birlas is a poet of individual diction and style who is longing to create a better social order around him."

We hear that Birlas is also writing his memoirs under the title Apne zakhmon ka lahu which would give an account of his career as a bureaucrat and his experiences as a poet. It would be surely received keenly in the literary circles of the country.