The Liminal in Urdu Literature

ye dhoop kinārā shaam dhaley

milte hain donoun waqt jahan

jo raat na din

jo aaj na kal

Faiz’s Jab Teri Samundar Aankhon Mein opens in a place illuminated by a fading sun, as its last rays of the day filter through the evening sky. They meld with an approaching darkness, casting orange hues on the horizon. Twilight shines on this place and such is the nature of twilight that it illuminates, but only fractionally. Darkness is replacing light. The day is morphing into night, and yet it is neither of the two. Jo raat na din, Faiz says so himself. This time then, unmistakably, is that of dusk. As a visual experience, there is nothing extraordinary about this time of day. It is a common sight, banal and unexceptional in its regularity. On the surface of it, it is nothing more than just a time of day. Visually, it is just the transition of the day from one appearance and form to another. We experience it every day in the orangeness of the horizon. It is when we return to our homes, much like birds flocking to their nests. Consumed by the lives we live, we often let the ordinariness of dusk underplay its specialness. In other words, the everyday-ness of dusk often papers over the uniqueness of its characteristics.

But surely, Faiz is not talking quite literally about a specific time of the day. What place then, is this? And what world is it from? A place here can be of two worlds; the external which we experience as material and tangible around us, and the internal, concerning the multitudes that lie within us. Urdu poets have historically been notorious for their adeptness at metaphorization. The poet, through this act of the metaphorization, seeks to make meaning of the everyday, or even the natural rhythms that we so often lose sight of. Poetry then, as literary form, has sought to bare the writer’s soul and endeavoured for life in the fullness and richness of image, metaphor and allegory.

Faiz’s use of dusk is clearly metaphorical. The place he is describing then, is within him. The dusk on the horizon, is an in-between that is tangible, capturable even, manifesting in the changing colours of the sky. The “dusk” of within, however, cannot be glimpsed as easily. It manifests, not as a melange of colours breaking out on the horizon, but as a raging torrent of emotion and sentimentality. In matters of what is within, the state of in-betweenness becomes much harder to define. I am writing, then, not about Faiz, but about the metaphor that sets the tone for this ghazal. This essay, then, is not just about dusk. There is another metaphor we are all quite familiar with, equally relevant and equally common in its use. I am talking here about seher: the time of dawn. Together, they become shaam o sahar. On the face of it, they mean and denote intrinsically opposed phenomena. Dawn exists conversely to dusk, placed as they are at opposing temporal nodes, signalling the beginning of different parts of the day. Shaam o sahar: one brings day, the other night. As one marks the coming of light, the other signifies its going away.

Why then, are dawn and dusk mentioned together in the Urdu metaphor? Even as referents of opposite times, they are brought together by one common characteristic. This is the quality of being in the middle; of not being exactly this or exactly that. What is common about dawn and dusk and even shaam o sahar, is how intrinsic ambivalence is to them. This ambivalence, articulated as the transitoriness of a transformative juncture, is in fact what produces and defines them both.

Even as Faiz here seems resigned to a sense of nostalgic melancholia in this ghazal, other works of his take a more optimistic view, using the metaphor of the dawn to indicate a brightness of future and cause for hope. Subh-e-Azadi is a good example.

Freedom is an accomplice to dawn; a time of day when the first specks of sunlight begin to shine through the darkness and from whereon the day only gets brighter.

The usage of dusk and dawn as liminal metaphors is not exclusive to Faiz, as poets and writers alike, have vested it with meaning. This metaphor has been, in fact, deeply implicated in the struggle against British colonialism. Dawn (in opposition to dusk) was often used by progressive writers to symbolize the end of samraaj (imperialism). From a condition of stifling bleakness, Faiz writes with a nevertheless hopeful optimism:

Lambi hai gham ki shaam magar shaam hi to hai

Long as the dusk of sorrow may be, it is in conclusiveness, impermanent, and if we know anything at all about dusk, we know that it is inevitably followed by dawn. Faiz possessed the strong ability to meld the personal and political through his poetic style. He became famous as a political poet. Other, purportedly “less political” forms of poetry unfold quite similarly. Mirza Ghalib, to whom Urdu poetry and prose both are inextricably indebted, wrote in Aah Ko Chahiye:

Shama jalti hai har rang mein sahar honay tak

(The light burns in every colour until it is dawn)

Khamosh Ghazipur, another behemoth of Urdu poetry, wrote:

Har shab-e-gham ki sahar ho ye zaruri to nahin

It is not necessary that every night of grief should end in dawn. As previously mentioned, the metaphor of shaam and seher occupies a central place throughout Urdu literature, whether in the oral tradition of dastaan, the lexically intricate ghazal, or the sprawling Urdu novel. Twilight in Delhi is another important novel by Ahmed Ali, co-founder of Progressive Writers’ Association. He crystallizes the age of Mughal and British ascendancy in the very same metaphor of twilight time, using it to symbolize the impending darkness of samraaj. At the same time, Partition produced a very political expression of this in-betweenness, articulated in satire, gloom and anxiety. It is notable that this liminally symbolic literature of Partition found expression not just through dawn and dusk metaphors, but through other aspects of in-betweenness too.

Manto, scathing and unabashed in his critique of the social and political paradigm, articulated his own anxiety of Partition in his story Toba Tek Singh. To encapsulate the madness of the event, Manto invented Bishan Singh, the raving lunatic, who having uttered a series of unintelligible sentences, died in the no-man’s land that lay perfectly between India and Pakistan. This no-man’s land is Toba Tek Singh, belonging to neither Pakistan or India. Bishan Singh’s madness exemplified Manto’s own split state of mind, as he himself was under pressure to pledge allegiance to either of the two countries.

Qurratulyn Hyder, another behemoth of Urdu literature, grounded her own cosmopolitan perspective in the articulation of characters that undertook long, arduous journeys, and were, by virtue of this journeying, in a state of constant transformation. The character of Mansur Kamaluddin from her novel Aag Ka Darya, with his notebook of memoirs, engages in his own assimilation into Hindustan, and from vilayati (foreigner) to Hindustani. He travels far and wide within the land, meeting and engaging with its richly diverse population, and is thus transformed through the act of journeying. He hears stories, the complexity of which befuddles him at first, This wondrous, curious traveller, then, is the articulation of Ainee Appa’s own anxiety, produced in the fracturing crucible of Partition.

The concept of being transformed through the journey has no lack of parallels in both the material and fictional (if such a distinction must be made) history of South Asia. Urdu itself has undergone extensive transformation as a language, taking on elements from Persian, Sanskrit and Arabic in its heterogenous making. In its cultural and linguistic kaleidoscope, it contains elements of various thought and belief systems. One among many here is Sufism, which itself is culturally composite, and more relevantly, has influenced the outlook of various Urdu poets and writers. Every system of religious belief has its own mode of conceptualizing the self, and by extension, its relation to the rest of the world. To use a more familiar metaphor, there is an intimacy between the world outside and the “multitudes that lie within.” The journey invoked by Qurratulyn Hyder, is then, both literally and metaphorically, also a concept central to Sufism and the mystic’s aesthetic. Literally, it has historically been articulated in the transnational journeys that Sufi ascetics undertook, settling down in different parts of South Asia. Metaphorically, it is what Persian theologian Al-Ghazali referred to as the journey of the heart, articulating it as a process of transformation for the world within.

It was not just practitioners of fiction that were influenced by the Sufi ethos. Its range of influence was widespread, constituting a common currency for different anticolonial revolutionaries and political thinkers. The philosopher poet Muhammad Iqbal’s writings are strongly rooted in a Sufi idiom, as were those of Abul Kalam Azad, among many others.

This is not to say that all these people were practicing Sufis or can be placed within the Sufi tradition, but rather serves to explain the deep entrenchment of an ideological framework and the extent of its popular appeal. The primary intention here is to show a sense of continuity between these different traditions and how poets, novelists, and politicians alike, appropriated similar ideas within the ranks of Urdu literature to produce different continuities. The individual self is in a constant state of transformation, as each moment is marked by change. Much like Sufism, Buddhism too found a common currency in Urdu literature.

Qurratulyn Hyder’s use of a Sufi-Buddhist idiom in her writing is quite common and can be found within her sprawling literary works. In Aag ka Darya, it is Sarvam Dukham, that famous Buddhist utterance, that echoes throughout the course of the novel. While it claims the universality of human suffering, it also undergirds the momentary nature of existence. Buddhist elements are also seen to strongly influence the conception of liminality in Urdu literature (adab). Urdu writers, specifically of the 20th century, took a special interest in drawing upon the Buddhist repository of knowledge and representing it through their works, perhaps because amidst the increasing communalization of India and the unfolding madness of partition, it seemed like the only sensible way forward. References to Buddhist tradition are both direct and indirect. Firaq, Iqbal, and Chakbast, all eminent Urdu poets for instance, paid their tribute to Gautam Buddha.

Dawn and dusk, as temporal nodes of transience, can find a certain parallel with the Buddhist doctrine of universal momentariness. In this way of thinking, life becomes a succession of creation and destruction cycles, defining the state of journeying for the individual. In more political and historical terms, such a way of thinking contravenes national, ethnic and even provincial borders. By taking liminality as the staple of existence, it calls for a decentering of the truths that we religiously ascribe to and are fervently obsessed with. Sectarian conflict, minority violence and provincial hatreds are all guilty of this. It provides a different way of engaging with religious and ethnic others in our community and through the conception of a self that undergoes interactive transformation, allows for a more tolerable outlook. Writers like Faiz and Hyder represent the split-self existence that emerged out of a violent, bitter partition. In the present world, their way of thinking provides certain insights for our communally fractured times.

The writer is a graduate of LUMS.