By Dr. Khalid Sohail
You can love him, you can hate him, but you cannot ignore him because he would not let you do that. He will push you and confront you and challenge you and provoke you until you react, until you give him attention. He loves attention. For him, even negative attention is better than no attention. He hates to be ignored. He hates to be dismissed. He loves himself like a narcissus and wants others to love him and if they don't love him then he hates them and wants them to hate him. Even when they are hating him, he feels good as he is being affirmed and not overlooked or ignored or dismissed. He does not want others to be indifferent towards him.
He loves strong reactions, intense emotions. He enjoys drama, rather melodrama. Everything he does has a dramatic quality to it. He shared with me that people told him that he should have been an actor rather than a poet. His melodrama gets him into trouble and he loves to be in trouble. He likes to be in the centre of controversy and to achieve that he challenges every literary , social, religious, moral and sexual taboo that he comes across. That is why he is the most controversial personality of the Urdu world. That is why he named his collection of poems Nailing Dark Storms. He loves to be in the eye of the storm.
T o understand the Saqi Phenomenon on the one hand we have to understand the evolution of Saqi's personality and on the other hand the dynamics of the social, cultural and religious environment he grew up in. The Saqi Phenomenon is the outcome of the interaction of two extremes: the outcome of the interaction between an extremely suppressive culture and an extremely rebellious personality , the interaction between an extremely hypocritical society and an extremely outspoken and cruelly honest character; when two extremes clash there is always a spark and in Saqi's case, he turned it into a flame, into a raging fire and that fire is burning everything and everybody it comes across. Some people feel that the fire might burn Saqi himself more than anybody else. He might be his own worst enemy. It might be like the fire of alcohol he consumes excessively every day and experiences blackouts... a dangerous proposition. He might
transform himself into ashes. Rushed cremated himself after death while Saqi might cremate himself while still alive. Fire has been a prominent metaphor in his poetry.
Eik dauzakh tha mere seenay mein
Urdu Poem jis sey chehra mera munawwar tha
Sirf aag peeta hoon jistarah se jeeta hoon
Us tarah se jeene mein uljhanaein bahut see hein
When I ask people their opinion of Saqi, I get wide range of reactions. On one extreme is the group that says,
"Saqi is a genius."
"he is the most original of all modern Urdu poets."
"Saqi is carrying the torch lit by Rushed and Meera ji."
"The history of Urdu poetry will be incomplete without mentioning Saqi's name."
"We are proud to have known and met Saqi."
On the other extreme is the group that says,
"Saqi is insolent and abusive. He is impudent, contemptuous, impertinent and insulting."
"Saqi is vulgar and obscene."
"He should be ashamed of what he writes."
"There is more drama than poetry in his writings."
"He is the anti-hero of Urdu poetry."
"If Saqi had not written a word, Urdu poetry would not have missed anything."
And then there are others who have realized that he is the only one who can curse and swear at the so-called saints and sadhus and pundits and reformers of art and literature and social morality and expose their hypocrisies and bigotries. He is the only one who can dare to say THE KING IS NAKED.
In spite of Saqi's harsh exterior he has a heart of gold. He is like an orange -bitter peel, sweet pulp.
Underneath his provocation and making fun demeanor, he is a loving and caring and kind and affectionate and generous human being. He will give his shirt off his back for his friends. But he can sacrifice his love of friendship for the love of literature. He will not [ praise a third-rate poem just because his friend wrote it. He is
I candid and honest in his appreciation of poetry. He will not sacrifice his love of literature for anything in the world except one...his love for his own self. He loves himself more than he loves literature and believes his love for himself is also because he is the best living Urdu poet But he does not seem fully sure of it so he
has to keep on asking and proving and challenging and quoting his friends again and again. He has a superiority complex which sometimes seems a reaction of his self-doubts and insecurities. He has not yet reached a stage where he can trust his poetry to speak for itself. He has to blow his own horn not only privately but also publicly. He still has not reached a stage where he can let his admirers like Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi and Mushfiq Khawaja praise him in their writings; he still needs to keep on quoting them
again and again. He is afraid that he might not be remembered. He wants to make sure he has a following like Faiz, Rushed or Mira Ji whom he appreciates and criticizes for different reasons. Some wonder whether he can accept the same honesty and criticism from others as he dishes out to the whole world. Saqi says, "Yes." Others have their doubts.
All the lovers of Urdu poetry are convinced that Saqi is a great poet and will be remembered in Urdu literature for a long time. The only one who does not seem fully convinced is Saqi himself.
After spending a day with Saqi and interviewing him for a couple of hours, I stayed in Saqi's spell for a few days. I realized that Saqi has more depth to his character than it appears on the surface. It seems ironic that he is himself a distraction from people getting in touch with his deeper self. His overwhelming personality and constant talk make it very difficult for others to have a meaningful dialogue with him. I was lucky to have a detailed interview with him which helped me understand some aspects of his personality and poetry. I wonder whether he ever lets his dear ones share their silences with them.
Saqi's love for animals had always been a mystery. It was helpful to know that his father who was a veterinary surgeon provided an Atmosphere for Saqi to mingle with cats and dogs in his formative years. Those experiences left lasting impressions on Saqi's personality. There is also an element of guilt. For Saqi to
Accompany his servant to the pond to drown tomcats in bags was a significant event in Saqi's childhood. Saqi identifies with the animals, with the underdogs, with the victims. One can see a relationship with Kafka's story Metamorphosis ...a metaphor of modern literature and life.
Saqi was quite honest, open and candid about his sexual experiences which is very rare these days. Most writers and artists from the East are very secretive. They remember the fate of Josh Malihabadi who got into deep trouble after publishing his biography Yadon Ki Barat and being open about his homosexual encounters. Saqi did not hesitate talking about his promiscuous life in England, sharing the story of a sexually starved man of a sexually inhibited Eastern society overindulging in the sexually open atmosphere of the Western world. I was surprised that the phase only lasted for three years. I was further surprised to know that Saqi has been faithful to his wife and monogamous for thirty years. I think his marriage provided some anchor to his restless soul, otherwise I would not have been surprised if he had had a nervous breakdown like his mother. After Saqi's interview I had a desire to interview his wife in detail to find out how she coped with him for thirty years. Most people have hard times coping with him for thirty hours. I have a lot of respect for her even without meeting her.
Even the anchor of his marriage, a stable job and permanent residence could not save him completely and he became an alcoholic. He told me that his daughter, who is an addiction counselor, suggested that he see a therapist but he turned her offer down. Maybe like Virginia Wolf( he believes that therapy is 'the rape of the mind' and like Edvard Munch worries that by getting rid of his eccentricities and idiosyncrasies and insanities, he might also lose his creativity.
Saqi was also open in sharing how he was spoiled and pampered as a child. He himself wished that he be disciplined at a young age and that might have brought some balance in his life. Saqi's rebellious personality is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it gives him courage to challenge every tradition and taboo and
cliché but on the other hand pushes those people away who might have learnt a lot from him and he would have learnt a lot from them. People get nervous coming close to him because they aren't sure when he would blow the whistle. I myself had been nervous for a long time to meet him and interview him. I was encouraged when he wrote me an affectionate letter praising one of my short stories. I am even nervous sending him this interview and essay, unsure of his reactions.
I do admire his honesty and openness which is becoming a rarity in a hypocritical Eastern society but I am also aware that his honesty can be cruel too. Saqi is unpredictable but we can be sure of one thing. People might find his company exciting or traumatic but they will never find him boring.
I have no doubts in my mind that Saqi will be remembered for a long time. I am not sure though whether he will be famous or infamous. He belongs to the club of the Oscar Wildes and SH Muntoes of the world.
I feel fortunate to have spent some time with him. He is not a character one can ever forget.