INTERVIW BY Dr. Khalid Sohail
When I think of all the Urdu poets and writers that I have met over the years, the most formal was Mamoon Aiman. When I met him in New York, he was wearing a white sheervani, a black Jinnah cap and special khosa shoes. He had a paan in his mouth and his deevan in his hand. It seemed as though he had just arrived from Lucknow. He loved to follow all the traditional etiquettes of mushaira. On the other end of the spectrum was Munir Niazi from Lahore who was wild and melodramatic, at times drunk and disorderly. He seemed more of an actor than a poet. When I met Wali Alam Shaheen for the first time nearly twenty years ago, I was surprised to see him wearing an expensive suit and a silk tie and carrying an impressive leather briefcase with all his poetry books. He looked more of a university professor or a president of a multi-million international business company than an Urdu poet. He came across as a shy, quiet and reserved man. He reminded me of Mushtaq Ahmed Yousafi, our banker and humorist Urdu writer and Sharib Rudaulvi, Urdu professor and critic as they are all soft spoken, serene and stable. They are all quite modest unlike poets like Saqi Farooqi, who are narcissistic and keep on blowing their own horn all the time.
Whenever I visited Shaheen in Ottawa, I found him a loving husband and a caring father. He seemed a dedicated family man who had discovered a balance between his creative and family lives. Unlike many immigrant Urdu poets I know, who have been struggling most of their lives, Shaheen has found the best of both worlds, the creative as well as the professional, the artistic as well as the materialistic.
Shaheen’s successes and accomplishments in his personal, professional and literary lives are all the more impressive when we find out that he had humble rather tragic beginnings in his formative years. When I interviewed him for my book Literary Encounters he told me that he was born in Bihar. He shared a few glimpses of his childhood in these words, “ …what I saw as a child was poverty all around me. The village I grew up in was destroyed in the name of Pakistan even before Pakistan came into existence. My house was burnt down and my mother and brother were killed in 1946 because my village had voted in favour of Pakistan in the 1945 referendum. I was only five or six years old at that time and I have suffered a lot since then. My father lost his business and his interest in life and his family. After that what I saw was poverty, dejection, depression and a very pessimistic outlook on life. The very fact that we survived in spite of everything gave us a different perspective on life. I hardly had my sense of childhood or boyhood. I became a man at a very early age. Even in school I used to teach other students to make enough money to survive.”
It is not uncommon for children who face such traumas and prejudices to become angry, but it is amazing to see in Shaheen a peace loving person who does not show any signs of bitterness. Psychologists say that traumas in life either make us bitter or better. Obviously Shaheen chose the better option.
After the tragedy in Shaheen’s village, he moved to another village with some of his some family members to be safe and secure. That was the time many bodies were burnt alive or thrown in wells. After a couple of weeks even that village was attacked and Shaheen had to move one more time to another area where Muslims were in the majority and a Muslim nawab was in power.
While Shaheen and his brother were barely surviving like two lost souls, they received unexpected help from a wealthy man, the local nawab. It was like a miracle, a miracle performed by the generous and kind nawab. Shaheen shares the story in these words, “ Chaudry Nazir-ul-hasan, a well known worker of the Muslim League was the nawab of that area. He was well respected in Bihar. He built nearly two hundred temporary houses for homeless families. He provided them with food, shelter and other necessary things from his own resources. It was a wonderful gesture on his part.
One day during our stay there, my older brother, who was playing outside, met the nawab. The nawab inquired about the well being of my brother. My brother told the nawab that he was in grade seven and his younger brother was in grade one. The nawab asked him if he and his younger brother wanted to study there. He said, “Yes”. So he replied, “ From today onwards you and your brother are my responsibility”. He talked to my family and they all agreed. So the rest of my family went back but we two brothers stayed with the nawab who provided a room for us in his second mansion and arranged for our food and other necessities. We got admitted into the Islamic High School. I was enrolled in grade two.”
It is amazing to see how at the time of political and social crises the best and the worst of people come to the surface. While some kill their neighbors in the name of God and religion others offer their love and support to strangers because of their humanistic attitude.
When I asked Shaheen who became the source of inspiration for his artistic, creative and literary talents he shared the following story,“ There was a qawaal in our village. One of his arms had been cut off in 1946 by Hindus. Being a qawaal he had to play the harmonium. He was a wonderful qawaal but he was not an educated person. His memory was so sharp that he had hundreds and hundreds of qawalis memorized. He would pick up his harmonium, play the keys with one hand, and harp with one foot, it was magical. He was a good performer and was invited to perform by other villages. …One day that qawaal came to my house and asked if I could write down all the qawalis for him. He wanted to keep them in one place. He was also worried that if he lost his memory he might lose all his qawalis. I agreed. So whenever I had spare time I would go to him. He would give me a big brown paper and a pen or an inkpot and a holder to write. He recited qawalis from his memory and I wrote them down for him as well as I could. I did that for a long time; once compiled; the collection became a large book. I was charmed by words. I guess it is a minor event but when I look back I see that working with the qawal was a good experience for me. I realized even then that words are very powerful, and I believe that words that are made into poetry are more powerful than words that are not poetry.”
It is amazing how Shaheen at an early age fell in love with words and poetry and then started composing his own poems. As a teenager he started attending the poetry gatherings. Unfortunately he was not accepted with open arms. When he shared his first poem he had an unpleasant experience. He shared, “ There was a guy who was a well known figure of that city in the crowd. He stood up and said, “ yeh nazm chori ki hay” [it is a stolen poem]. It was an awkward situation. I told him my poetry is my own creation.” Luckily the man who objected realized his mistake. “Three days after that incident that guy came to my hostel and said, ‘ I came to apologize. I saw your poem in the magazine with your name. I am very sorry for what I said.”
Shaheen had to struggle hard on many fronts in his life but he had the dedication, stamina and patience of a marathon runner and finally succeeded in different aspects of his life. He had a special talent in mathematics and statistics and received his Masters degree at the young age of twenty and became the youngest lecturer at the age of twenty-one.
Alongside being successful in his academic pursuits Shaheen was also lucky to have a supportive and intelligent wife. She was also well educated. He stated, “ She did her B.A. and taught in Dacca. Then she did her M.A. in Urdu and became headmistress in a school. She was working twelve hours a day, holding down two jobs and also trying to study.” Since Shaheen and his wife worked hard and worked together they did their best to create a nurturing and creative atmosphere at home. Shaheen is a fortunate writer who is not criticized by his family, for his literary activities and his love for books. He shared, “I have four children who are grown up now. Everyone praises his or her own children. I usually say, “Children are like ideas, your own are always wonderful.” My wife and children are very supportive of whatever I do. They don’t put too many demands of a domestic nature on me and they leave me alone. They understand my obligations. My wife is cooperative in every sense of the word. An ordinary wife would not like to see books everywhere in the house. She knows that I spend a lot of money on books…Usually people would be resentful but my family members aren’t.” I do not know very many writers, artists or poets who can say the same about their spouses and families.
After moving to Canada he chose to live in Ottawa and work for the Government of Canada. He shared in his interview that he worked as a policy adviser in the Freight Programs division of Transport Canada. His work involved performing statistical and economic analyses and advising the department on policy issues concerning grain transportation and handling in Canada. I wonder how many of his colleagues knew that that they worked with an accomplished poet. I wonder whether living in Ottawa Shaheen is surrounded more by civil servants than bohemian artists and poets.
Shaheen grew up in a conservative, traditional and religious family and community but because of having a creative personality he chose to follow the trails of his own heart and mind rather than the highways of tradition. He shared his philosophy in these words, “I followed religion as long as it did not contradict my logic. I didn’t follow things that didn’t make sense to me. Although I had limited logic still I listened to it. I always questioned things and that attitude was significant to me.” For a poet and an intellectual it is crucial to keep on asking questions and searching for truth. He knows that the journey is more important than the destination.
When I asked Shaheen what he was committed to in his life, he responded, “I am not committed to any party or philosophy, but I am committed to myself. When I say that I am committed to myself, I mean that I portray things the way I like to see them or the way I see them. That’s my commitment.”
It has been my impression that Shaheen is very committed to raising his voice against all kinds of injustice and prejudice and discrimination, as he is peace loving poet and a humanist at heart. He has experienced the worst kind of prejudices in his own life and would like to see a world where justice would prevail. He shared a very powerful story of his childhood, “..One day I went to the river where Hindus used to come and gather water in their earthware (ghara). There was a boy of my own age who was carrying a ghara. When I touched that ghara he started crying. That boy happened to be a Hindu and he knew that I was a Muslim. He cried and screamed, “ A Muslim boy has touched my ghara.” His mother came running and threw the ghara on the ground, broke it and then demanded money for me to replace it. I didn’t have anything to give her.”
Such experiences have made Shaheen very sensitive to all kinds of prejudices and discriminations. He stated, “ Injustice wherever it occurs is injustice. The war in Vietnam was an injustice, communal rights in India and the break up of Bangladesh were all injustices.” No wonder he dreams of a world where people from different cultural and religious backgrounds would be able to live in peace and harmony. Shaheen does not like human beings to suffer and he wonders who is responsible for all the human suffering and why can we not live in a harmonious world. He asks in one of his poems,
Why do we have to suffer so much?
one part of the world to another?
Why is the nature so cruel?
Why is God so negligent?
Why couldn’t the life be easier and nicer?
I believe it is not only Shaheen but many other writers, poets and philosophers all over the world who struggle with the same questions and hope that our tomorrows will be better than our yesterdays.
Shaheen has been creating poetry for nearly forty years. His first collection of poems rag-e-saz was published in 1966 in Dacca. Since then he has been regularly writing and publishing in Urdu as well as in English. Shaheen has made valuable contributions in introducing Urdu literature to the Western world. I am confident that the history of Urdu literature in Canada would be incomplete without acknowledging Shaheen’s contributions. I welcome him today in Toronto and congratulate him on his new collection of poems, his new baby. I have heard that the older people get the more precious the new baby becomes. I am so glad that Shaheen, like many of his contemporaries, is not experiencing creative menopause.