Hashmi, (Aurangzeb) Alamgir
HASHMI, (Aurangzeb) Alamgir
Nationality: Pakistani. Born: Lahore, 15 November 1951. Education: University of the Punjab, Lahore, M.A. 1972; University of Louisville, Kentucky, M.A. 1977. Military Service: Civil Defense, Multan Cantonment, 1965–66: Certificate of Merit 1966. Family: Married Béatrice Störk in 1978; one daughter and two sons. Career: Instructor in English, 1971–72, and tutor of English as a second language, 1972–73, Government College, Lahore; lecturer in English, Forman Christian College, Lahore, 1973–74; visiting lecturer in South Asian languages and literatures, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1974–75; lecturer in English, University of Louisville, Kentucky, 1975–78; assistant professor of English, University of Bahawalpur, 1979–80; visiting lecturer, lecturer in English, English instructor, and visiting professor of English, Universities of Zurich, Fribourg, Bern, and Basel, Klubschule Migros, Berlitz School of Languages, and Volkshochschule Zurich, all Switzerland, 1980–85; associate professor of English, International Islamic University, Islamabad, 1985–86; visiting professor of English literature, Federal Government Post-graduate College for Men, Islamabad, Spring 1986; visiting professor of American and African literature, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Autumn 1986. Since 1986 professor and head of the department of English, University of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Muzaffarabad. Since 1988 research professor of English and comparative literature and literary editor, PIDE, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. Since 1988 course director, Foreign Service Training Institute, Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Islamabad. Assistant editor, The Ravi, Lahore, 1970–71; faculty adviser, Folio, Lahore, 1973–74; editor and broadcaster, English Magazine, Lahore, 1973–74; since 1978 foreign and consulting editor, Explorations, Lahore; guest editor, The New Quarterly, New York, 1977–78; corresponding and associate editor, Helix, Ivanhoe and Canberra, 1978–85; since 1979 regional representative, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Oxford; since 1981 staff reviewer, World Literature Today, Norman, Oklahoma; since 1981 editorial adviser, Kunapipi, Aarhus, Denmark; since 1981 staff contributor, Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature, Cambridge, England; member, editorial board, Crosscurrent, Hamilton, New Zealand, 1980–89; since 1982 associate editor and member of editorial board, Commonwealth Novel in English, Austin, Texas; contributing editor, Pacific Quarterly, Hamilton, New Zealand, 1982–85; member of the editorial board, Poetry Europe, Madras, India, 1982; since 1990 adviser, Journal of English Studies, Lahore; since 1990 editor, The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Commonwealth Literature; guest editor, Pakistani Literature, Islamabad, 1993. Founder, Townsend Poetry Prize, 1986. Since 1989 adviser, National Book Council of Pakistan, and chair, Standing International Conference Committee on English in South Asia. Since 1968 broadcaster, compere, commentator, lecturer, translator, and literary editor, Radio Pakistan; since 1988 compere, Pakistan Television. Awards: The University of the Punjab (Lahore) Scholar, 1970–72, and Certificate of Academic Merit, 1973; first prize, All-Pakistan Creative Writing Contest, 1972; Pakistan Academy of Letters Patras Bokhari award, 1985; Rockefeller Fellow, 1994; Roberto Celli Memorial award (Italy), 1994. D.Litt.: University of Luxembourg, 1984; San Francisco State University, 1984. Address: c/o Indus Books, P.O. Box 2905, Islamabad, GPO, Pakistan.
The Oath and Amen. Philadelphia, Dorrance, 1976.
America Is a Punjabi Word. Lahore, Karakorum Range, 1979.
An Old Chair. Bristol, Xenia Press, 1979.
My Second in Kentucky. Lahore, Vision Press, 1981.
This Time in Lahore. Lahore, Vision Press, 1983.
Neither This Time/Nor That Place. Lahore, Vision Press, 1984.
Inland and Other Poems. Islamabad, Gulmohar Press, 1984.
The Poems of Alamgir Hashmi. Islamabad, National Book Foundation, 1992.
Sun and Moon and Other Poems. Islamabad, Indus Books, 1992.
Commonwealth Literature: An Essay Towards the Re-Definition of a Popular/Counter Culture. Lahore, Vision Press, 1983.
The Commonwealth, Comparative Literature and the World. Islamabad, Gulmohar Press, 1988.
Editor, Pakistani Literature: The Contemporary English Writers. New York, World University Service, 2 vols., 1978; revised edition, Islamabad, Gulmohar Press, I vol., 1987.
Editor, with Les Harrop and others, Ezra Pound in Melbourne. Ivanhoe, Australia, Helix, 1983.
Editor, The Worlds of Muslim Imagination. Islamabad, Gulmohar Press, 1986.
Editor, Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English. London, Routledge, 1994.*
Critical Studies: "Hashmi's Poetry of Double Roots" by Janet Powers Gemmill, in Explorations (Lahore), 1980; "Is America a Punjabi Word?: An Assessment of Alamgir Hashmi's Poetry" by Kaleem Omar, in The Star (Karachi), 4 July 1985; "Alamgir Hashmi's Wandering Soul" by Hina Babar Ali, in Journal of South Asian Literature (East Lansing, Michigan), 23 (1), 1988; "Alamgir Hashmi's Poetry: Pakistan, Modernity and Language" by Bruce King, in Journal of Indian Writing in English (Gulbarga, India), 16 (2), July 1988; "'"Let's Celebrate': Alamgir Hashmi's My Second in Kentucky" by Michael Sharkey, in New Literature Review (Wollongong, Australia), 15, 1988; "A New Vision for Commonwealth Literature" by Eric Cyprian, in The Nation (Lahore), 23 November 1990; "New Literatures in English" by John Thieme, in The Year's Work in English Studies (Oxford), 69, 1991; "A Cross-Cultural Experience" by Muneeza Shamsie, in Dawn Magazine (Karachi), 2 October 1992; "Holding Language to Feeling" by Shaista Sonnu Sirajuddin, in Friday Muslim (Islamabad), 16 October 1992; "The Poems of Alamgir Hashmi" by Burton Raffel, in The Literary Review (Madison, New Jersey), 37 (4), 1994.
Alamgir Hashmi comments:
I started writing around 1962 and began to show my work to friends around 1964–65. My first book, The Oath and Amen, was a thematic collection subtitled Love Poems, though it contained a countermovement, "Distractions," in the last section, and I had indeed written by then at least as many poems that would be described differently. Love, nevertheless, is a theme and a quality that runs through my work as a question or an answer or the distance between them, the role and the play that it must have in personal relations and the world formed so. America Is a Punjabi Word followed several years' residence in the United States, which had increasingly become a second home. It is a lyric-narrative, a long poem on a short scale, and it explores the same concerns in a stretchable form and a new setting, language, and feeling being a further equation of relevance. My Second in Kentucky, containing much of my best work done till the end of 1977 (I moved the following year), has three divisions by setting, corresponding to three different movements in my life as in my book: poems in America, poems in Pakistan, and poems in America/Pakistan. My formal and thematic preoccupations are both represented well in this volume, as they were announced in the very first book. I have been interested in Eastern and Western verse forms, terms of speech, and details of reference that could deal adequately with my particular experience and the shape of my desire.
Moving to Europe in the late 1970s, necessitated by the martial law in Pakistan, proved to be a mixed blessing; one had to adjust now, additionally, to the appearance of freedom. I began to reexamine my Swiss existence and the overall human issues involved in light of my commitments and values. Two major books are from this period: This Time in Lahore and Neither This Time/Nor That Place. In both these I have generally dropped the traditional verse forms and tried to develop a vers libre drawing on the poetic resources of natural speech as far as my linguistic access would allow. Physical culture is, paradoxically, more limited than language; almost anyone may live in the latter. As I have personally moved house several times, many of my poems have been seen to be set in here, or there, or nowhere in particular, leading to appropriate observations and generalizations. Some of the poems in the books, in fact, have omissions and deletions of lines or whole stanzas so that the poetry could be kept in circulation in the face of censorship. Only the earlier published versions in the magazines and journals, or the author's own records in such cases, could help retrieve the objective text, which has been supplied in most cases by my collected poems, The Poems of Alamgir Hashmi. While I feel the particular facts of composition in all such cases would be crucial to interpretation, I blame only myself for foisting my own lifestyle on my poems. All these features—of form, language, theme, and setting—can also be seen in Inland and Other Poems, the last poetry book completed in Switzerland. My latest book, Sun and Moon and Other Poems, contains poems written in Pakistan, and I believe this work represents a turning point of a life in art in such forms as will not defeat the experience. One kind of exile has led to another and found its home in the only words and rhythms possible for it.
To sum up, I must say that I do not necessarily speak in my own voice, though the poems always do, that I use my own language but I am not (always) shy of fancying my neighbor's pretty idiom, that I have compromised my poetry's weight in gold to sustain its intrinsic value, and that I have searched for a place to belong to and tried to delineate its exact relations.
I have published several books since returning to Pakistan in 1988, and my work appears regularly in journals and anthologies and in the national press. It is important to me as a writer that my work is read in this country, while it is also gratifying to see the interest from abroad, because language must connect us. I continue to see man/woman in nature, in the world, and in the society with as much wonder as the fun of the world will elicit, though touched by a sense of the tragic, which is too personal—and, I feel, cosmic—to have a long span in any narrative. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that I write out of experience, that to live one needs more beauty than even truth. My work is one of celebration, analysis, and integration, looking out for possibility and seeking the joy that comes from the discovery of the common natural and human element across each Berlin Wall that has been built upon the foundation of our own inhibitions or fears.
I was trained as a scholar, and I have taught English and comparative literature for the past twenty-five years in North America, Europe, and Asia. My scholarly and critical work is part of my total experience as a writer. I find the practice of poetry enriches the critical understanding of literature, which I teach as a form of knowledge about being human and as a language to understand with pleasure.* * *
Although the philosophical and psychological themes of Alamgir Hashmi's mature poetry are universal, their development, form of expression, symbolism, and setting owe much to his years of study abroad, exile, and travel. Having been uprooted from Pakistan and displaced heighten his awareness of time and change, of the self isolated from others, and of alienation from the past. While his verse reveals the heritage of both the Urdu ghazel and of English poetry, Hashmi at first sought forms and language that translated and blended the two traditions into a personal style and manner. The attempt at following a bilingual muse was somewhat awkward and contrived in his first book, The Oath and Amen, published two years after he had traveled to the United States. America Is a Punjabi Word is concerned with language and the conventions of poetry in different societies. It amusingly juxtaposes clichés of the Orient with the stereotypes of the West. Such good-natured joking belongs to a period of youthful liberation and travel before rootlessness results in the sadness of being foreign, exiled, or deeply alienated. A comic surrealism parodies the American stereotype of being on the road as he travels throughout the United States with the perspective of a Pakistani journeying with a camel (his muse and foreignness). The United States is an alien country, and the essentially American is seen in a humorous analogy to the Islamic world: "I was in New York. //I went up an /updated pyramid." Language becomes a theme as both poetry and foreign lands make one aware of clichés, puns, loosely expressed thoughts, symbolism, emblems, language as arbitrary signs. Hashmi brings to the language and the nakedness of American poetry his own sensibility. He feels, like language, arbitrary, exiled from reality, a camel in America.
By the time of My Second in Kentucky the comic mask is often dropped to reveal memories and a quiet sadness; the poet is nostalgic for Lahore and his family but no longer at home in any place. "Of First Things," in its concern with the fragility of origins, growth, uncertainty of purpose, the difficulty of interpreting the flux of life, and the role of poetry in creating significance, can be read as an introduction to the volume. There is increasing obliqueness as modernist juxtaposition and the compression of the ghazel meet to create a highly poetic leaping sort of logic. Unusual expressions and purposely non-American English contribute to the feeling of exile and the ways in which language is associated with society and environment: "Shredded in the cold /winds of Kentucky for days, /women pass around incentive: /make bold." But the poems set in Pakistan also reveal a sense of distance. The four ghazels, although written in couplets, are neither classically rhymed nor poems of love. Their mood is autumnal and associated with Lahore, and they conclude with rejection: "This place is too old for me. /This sun is too old for me."
In contrast to the heroism of exile there is the temptation to return, to make peace, to give up the quest, to settle for the possible rewards of the prodigal son. The title poem of This Time in Lahore treats of such tensions and temptations during a visit home. But the poet notices that his father is unshaved, his mother greying, his own books worm-eaten and wet from the last monsoon, while the military is now in command. Unlike the earlier youthful joyfulness, This Time in Lahore has poems that celebrate the normality of failure, the impossibility of harmony. The poems are quiet, determined, with the calm, knowing voice of experience. The pleasures of life are not utopian or a return to the flock; they are, rather, the small joys of living and of domestic comforts under cloudy skies. The feeling that emerges is that, while it is confusing, life offers pleasures, and at the end of the day the poem itself is what is important. Such themes are the subject of "Poem in Pakistan": "I forget now what it was. /The poem is nevertheless."
The tensions of exile settle into locating the self at whatever place Hashmi happens to be. Many poems in This Time in Lahore refer to locations: "An Oriental Poet Dotes over Tuscany," "Khyber Pass," "Swans in the Lake," "Going to La Chute," "In the Hill Country." Hashmi's manner and style now seem at his command, and the writing flows naturally in a continuous movement as part of the thought. The concern with time and place, influenced by traveling and living for long periods outside Pakistan, is shown in the titles of several of his books: America Is a Punjabi Word, My Second in Kentucky, This Time in Lahore, and Neither This Time/Nor That Place. To live, to mature, to be conscious is to be alone. Love should help, but poetry is as much of an answer to the loneliness of existence as life offers. The muse incarnated as poem gives the comforts that women are expected to give. Being in the woods, hearing a quail, seeing attractive, strange flowers and animals, fantasizing about others, the poet can share the experience only with himself: "I had no one by me /to whisper the anticipation, /to say Yes, now I have seen one, /when I had seen; /but that was just as well. /I took my hand in my own hand."
Although later poems reveal religious desire, there is only the skeptical doubt of someone who knows that life is, to use the symbolism of "Prayer," a "dust-storm." Travel, age, time, storms, observing women, many cities and countries, foreigners, writing poetry—there is a pattern in the mosaic, a jigsaw puzzle that is found to have a coherent if somewhat centrifugal design. No place is the right place and no time the right time for wholeness, unity, continuity, Eden, but all places are the right place and time for experience, for consciousness, for poetry. The seven-part "Bahawalpurlog" brings together the vision scattered throughout these poems. The first four lines include the recurring themes, symbols, and motifs of "doubt," "dust-storm," "gray," and writing found in his later volumes. Even at Panjnad, where Pakistan's five main rivers come together and a place that should be a symbol for a new unity, a new national language, the dust storm blows, time silts the river, and the poet feels alienated from whatever unity Arabic might have offered. Language, like reality, exiles him from the unity of oneness, of belonging. The Christ story is treated in "A Life," the final poem of Neither This Time/Nor That Place, as having a rather different, skeptical symbolism from that common to Christianity: "And, when two faithful women looked to heaven, /only birds' casual droppings /seemed to waft through air /the signal of his death." History is filled with examples of those abandoned by both humanity and the divine.
In Inland and Other Poems such despondency is connected with the breakup of Hashmi's marriage and with the prospect of returning to Pakistan. He is alone in these poems, feeling a further isolation, usually in a romantic, picturesque place. He reads letters, comments wryly on books, and indulges in punning. There are fantasies about people discovered in newspaper stories, reflections on love and marriage, self-mockery about celibacy, memories of Switzerland. While the volume begins with dejection and the oddments of a life without purpose, it builds toward renewal as the stories become comic and playful again and the poet begins to identify with places in Pakistan and considers the possibility of falling in love once more. Still, one is left with a feeling of a life in a stage of transition, of going back to a homeland that is no longer home.
Actually, however, Hashmi's return to live in Pakistan proved to be a real homecoming not only to Pakistan but also to the world. Renewal of the connection with his homeland also brought with it a sense of belonging to the larger world characteristically absent in the earlier work. Sun and Moon and Other Poems, completed during the years after his return to Pakistan, thus ushers in a decisive new phase in Hashmi's poetry. He is no longer a poet of exile, writing as an outsider. Instead, he now writes from the inside, whatever the setting of his subjects, Pakistan, the rest of Asia, or the West. Accompanying this new sense of belonging, however, is a sadness, deeper than ever, that permeates the poetry. The sadness comes from personal grief or concerns about the state of affairs in Pakistan and in the world. "Sun and Moon," for example, expresses the loss of the happy time when his son, for whom the poem was written, was little and the family was together: "tears come down like a rain that strings all instruments /making new channels of grief in this poem /and across that continent of pain." Several poems, "For B" most poignant among them, recall a woman's love, now lost. Poems such as "Pro Bono Publico—in Pakistani English" and "Off the Wall" satirize the corruption and hypocrisy of the country's leaders. Many poems deal with problems of a universal scale, especially the destructive role of colonialism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as conveyed in "The Game Called Tripoly," "They Are Waltzing," "Napoleon's Clock," "Crusoe's Island," and "Winter Flight."
Despite the pervasive sadness, Hashmi's poetry here is free from bitterness about personal hurts or utter despair about the circumstances of the world. An awareness that happiness does not last and that history throughout has been an endless recurrence of human suffering gives Hashmi's outlook a tempered, stoic quality. He is, however, also aware that sorrow is often interspersed with periods of unalloyed happiness. In poem after poem, therefore, he sets his sights on the future, on "the interminable deltas of hope" for happiness to come: "Future is the only flower worth tending in this earth, /where I sow my words daily …" Hashmi's poetry, his mastery over its forms having grown hand in hand with its content, is at its lyrical best in these calls to happiness. For long an exile, Hashmi has thus come to have an assured home in a common bond with the world and its future and in the world of poetry.
—Bruce King and
Surjit S. Dulai