Ibn-e Maryam, the son of the Virgin Mary, is a recurring figure in Urdu poetry. Sometimes appearing as an icon of fortitude, sometimes as the healer and provider of succour and mercy, Isa Masih, as Jesus Christ is called in Urdu, is the embodiment of love that Iqbal describes as hararat li nafas-ha-e-masih-e-Ibn-e-Maryam se (“the ardour of love’s breath taken from the Son of Mary”). Perhaps the most often-quoted reference to Ibn-e Maryam is by Mirza Ghalib who called out to the saviour in this enduring couplet: Ibn-e Maryam hua kare koi / Mere dukh ki dawa kare koi (Let there be a Son of Mary / To find a cure for my grief)
And there is Ghalib again invoking the life-giving figure of Christ in this lesser-known couplet: Lab-e-Isa ki jumbish karti hai gahvara-jambani / Qayamat kushta-e-laal-e-butan ka khwab-e-sangin hai (The lips of Christ quiver like a rocking cradle / Apocalypse is the terrifying dream of the killing of the jewels of the beloved).
Darshan Singh Duggal wrote an entire poem entitled Ibn-e Maryam describing Jesus as rooh ki azmat ka aina (“the mirror reflecting the greatness of the soul”), ahinsa ka payami (“the messenger of non-violence”), the one who gladly wore the crown of thorns upon his head: Teri himmat muskurai ranj-o gham ke daar pe / Tera azm-e sarfaroshi rooh ke maidan mein (Your courage smiled at the scaffold of grief and sorrow / You had the courage to lay down your life in the field of life).
The Urdu poet, forever subversive, forever looking for new ways to invoke old icons is irresistibly drawn to the figure of Christ on the cross as this verse by Saif Zulfi demonstrates: Phaila tha masih-e-waqt ban kar / Simta to saleeb ho gaya hai (When he scattered he was like the Messiah of his Time / When he gathered, he became a crucifix).
While there appears to be little poetry on Bara Din (as Christmas is known among Urdu speakers) or specifically on the birth of the infant Jesus, there’s plenty that draws from the various incidents of the life of the Messiah. Painting a vivid picture of the Prophet giving the Sermon on the Mount, Mohammad Alvi gives a new spin to the story of the Benedictions. Asking the assembled faithful how they can reap if they have not sown, how can they gather if they have not scattered anything, Ibn-e Maryam in this re-telling bids his followers to bury their sacks of ill-deeds for, perchance, they might bear delicious fruit from the trees of their good deeds. And it so happened: …Log apne makanon ki janib / Gunahon ko laade / Badhe ja rahe thhe / Aur tiley pe tanha khada Ibn-e-Maryam ajab lag raha tha (And the people were going towards their homes / Laden with their sins / And standing alone on the mount / The Son of Mary was looking so odd).
And, in the face of all odds, here’s Khalid Karrar holding on to the hope of a second coming: Hum abhi tak muntazir hain / Ab hamein kamil yaqin hai / Ibn-e-Maryam laut aayenge / Humein zinda uthainge (We are still waiting / We have absolute faith / That the Son of Mary will return / And raise us from the dead).
And here’s Kaifi Azmi wondering what would have happened to the world if this Son of God had not appeared amongst men for who, save he, would have gladly climbed the cross: Tum Khuda ho / Khuda ke bete ho / Ya faqat aman ke payambar ho / Ya kisi ka haseen ta?hayyul ho / Jo bhi ho mujh ko achchhe lagte ho / Mujh ko sachche lagte ho (Are you God / Or the Son of God / Or are you simply the messiah of peace / Or are you a beautiful figment of someone’s imagination / Whoever you are, I like you / You seem true to me).
But the greatest sense of ownership by far comes from Mustafa Zaidi who says: Mere maathe pe jhalakta hai nadamat ban kar / Ibn-e-Maryam ka woh jalwa jo kalisa mein nahin (Like the patina of penitence, it glimmers on my forehead / That lustre of the Son of Mary that is not found in any church).