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Jaun Elia (1931-2002): The Famous yet Unknown

02 Apr,2022 05:38 PM, by: Ashif Shamim
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Known for his unconventional poetry, he was a poet and scholar who lived and died a revolutionary anarchist. Jaun Elia is regarded as one of the most celebrated Urdu poets of the 21st Century, perhaps even surpassing the fame and craze of Mirza Ghalib in this era.

His unique style of poetry revolved around power of love and destruction. He would turn the mushairas (poetry symposia) into magical events, dazzling the crowd and throwing them into frenzy.

Elia’s life was an interesting mix of his casual lifestyle, addiction to drinking and smoking, hatred for religion, Marxist ideas, blunt statements, admiration for Mir Taqi Mir, frivolous remarks on Mirza Ghalib’s poetry, and a forever conflict with most of his contemporary poets, mostly because of his caustic remarks on their supposed lack of knowledge and style of poetry. He found meaning in the meaninglessness of life; doubt in the existence led to a morbid fascination for death. His simple diction for such complex ideas stung his audience and shook their presumptions about life, death and existence.

Born and raised in Amroha to an illustrious family, in western Uttar Pradesh, Elia shifted to Karachi 10 years after Partition. He was a man who believed in open intellectual dialogue and discourse. For him, a nation could only achieve prosperity by removing social taboos and introducing quality education. He migrated to Pakistan in 1957 and settled in Karachi. His father Allama Shafique Hassan Elia, brothers Rais Amrohi and Syed Muhammad Taqi were also great scholars and writers of their time.

His religious views could be well explained in his famous verse:

Youn jo takta hai aasmaan mein tu–Koi rehta hay aasmaan mein kia?

(As you look up to the sky–Does He reside in the sky?)

His political views were inclined towards Marxism and he would often describe himself an anarchist too. He was one such poet who all his life carried the legacy of old-time poetry and combined it with the feelings of common man. Jaun Elia as rightly put by Salim Bokhari, editor of ‘The Nation’ was the most misunderstood poet in his lifetime.

Jaun was fluent in English, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Sanskrit and Urdu. He had a great command on different languages. He was probably the only person in Pakistan who knew Hebrew as he directly translated booklets of Ikhwanu Safa from Hebrew to Urdu. Despite all his intellectual abilities, Jaun chose common day language to express his ideas. Simplicity of expression and intellectual bitterness were the two top qualities of Jaun which differentiated him from other scholars of the region.

Blowing up the established order of the common man’s mind with his biting paradox was another striking feature of Elia’s poetry that characterised his ability to shock and awe. He took pleasure in challenging the patterns of human mental behaviour by bringing up its habit of maintaining two contradictory ideas simultaneously, one of which was conveniently locked up in the subliminal mind.

Elia was cruel only to be kind. It is painful when illusions are destroyed and truth stares us in the face, but it eventually leads to a reawakening, renewal and rebirth of the mind. The individual lost in the mechanical practices of everyday life, and the crown of individuality buried deep inside him, was what Elia wanted to restore, no matter how ugly and bitter the truth.

The melancholy bred radical nihilism in Elia, which made him weary not only of the purposelessness of the world, but also of the existence. He wanted to stop breathing in the suffocating self and turn life into 'un-life.'

Elia was one of the few who achieved greatness in both poetry and prose. His preface to ‘Shayad’ is a masterpiece of prose and he also wrote extensively on the history of Arabs before Islam, world religions, Islamic history and Muslim philosophy and translated several books from Persian and Arabic into Urdu. Farnood, his only published work of prose, is a collection of essays, the topics in it range from Mutazila [a school of Islamic theology] and civilisation to time, space and the 21st century. A candid and colloquial style, simple language, expression so succinct to be almost terse, and, above all, his humour characterises his writing. Elia’s prose was a strong mouthpiece of rational thought, independent inquiry and scientific method sweeping aside the trash of bigotry, orthodoxy and social injustice.

However prominent Elia’s frustration, anger, poignancy and tendency for self-destruction appeared in his poetry, he is most relevant today as an apostle of enlightenment in the wilderness of obscurantism, hypocrisy, inhumanity, tyranny of traditional thought and scourge of illiteracy. His knowledge about the western philosophy was not an ordinary one, he gave the references of the work and philosophy of Kant, Dante, Freud, David Hume, Imam Ghazali, Urfi, Voltaire, Plotinus, Tolstoy and many others in his book titled ‘Shayad’.

As all would die, so did Jaun Elia. During the last 40 years Death stared in his face many a time but he kept on eluding it. Elia’s stature in Urdu poetry has largely been determined. Critics and masses have hailed him as one of the finest Urdu poets of all times. The world of literature will get to know more about him as the time passes by.

Below are a few couplets by Jaun Elia in Urdu along with its English translations that are my personal favourites-

Maiñ bhī bahut ajiib huuñ itnā ajiib huuñ ki bas

ḳhud ko tabāh kar liyā aur malāl bhī nahīñ

I am strange—so strange that I self-destructed myself and don't regret it.

Shayad mujhe kisee se muhabbat nahi huee

laikin yaqeen sab ko dilata raha hoon main

Perhaps I haven't fallen in love with anyone,

but at least I convinced them!

Kal ek qasr-e-aish me bazm-e-sukhan thi Jaun

Jo kuch bhi tha wahan wo ghareebo ka maal tha

Yesterday there was a poetry symposium at a royal palace

Everything there belonged to the poor

Itna ḳhali tha andarun mera

kuchh dino to ḳhuda raha mujh mai

How empty was my inner self

Even God resided in me for a few days

Apne andar hansta hun mein aur bohatt sharmata hoon

Khoon bhi thooka sachmuch thooka aur ye sab chalaaki thi

I laugh inside myself and very abash too. I spit the blood and really spit, but it was all the cleverness

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Critical Script or its editor.

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