One of the heart-wrenching images of the lockdown, etched on the nation’s memory, will be the waves of migrant workers around the country erupting on the streets of cities, travelling on foot — their meagre belongings in their arms, their families in tow; women and children, young and old — in order to reach their far-flung homes. With the cities, where they had earned their daily bread, under an unprecedented lockdown, they had lost their livelihood and stared at starvation. Their desperation, their plight was rather sordid. Sitting in the comfort of our homes, many of us thought hard about our privileges, and the deprivation of the underprivileged. Some of us sprung to action, providing relief to them, distributing food items. But as most of us moved on to staying safe at home, quarantine-cooking and being “together alone”, they walked and walked and walked — they were the other, and they were alone in the hour of crisis.
While many made it to their homes, some of them succumbed to the effort to put hundreds of kilometers under their feet, hungry and thirsty — they lost their lives in their effort to live. In one of the viral images on social media, a drawing shows scores of migrant workers leaving the city even as people in their balconies and on their terraces are clapping, clanging pots and utensils.
The sight of migrant workers walking away from cities, with the wretchedness of their lives and their vulnerability exposed, put the social inequality — the ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor in the country — in sharp focus. The plight of the poor — their abuse and exploitation — has been explored a great deal in Indian literature, perhaps more so in Urdu poetry. Urdu poets, especially the romantics and the revolutionary, have raged against the treatment meted out to the poor and often exalted the have-nots by writing about them in glorious terms.
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In the pre-Independent India, Allama Iqbal, better known for his exploration of the individual self (khudi) and addressing the Almighty directly in his poems, tells the Creator: Tu qaadir-o-aadil hai magar tere jahaan mein/ hain talkh bahut banda-e-mazdoor ke auqaat (you’re powerful and just but in your world/the lot of the labourers remain utterly bitter).
In his long poem, Husn Aur Mazdoori (Beauty and Labour), Josh Malihabadi (1898-1982) begins with the vivid image of a spinster working restlessly under the sun. She is grinding gravel and as she does that, her bangles tinkle. The rhythm (saaz) of her tinkling bangles, Josh writes, is filled with an uncertain soz (burning or). Flecks of dust sit on her cheeks, and her hair is stained with soil. In the veins of the pebbles run the blood of her adolescence that is getting absorbed in the blood-dripping sun. Clouds of sorrow hover on her delicate face and her two cheeks are like shrivelled flowers. “Cheethadon mein deedani hai roo-e-ġhamgeen-e-shabaab/abr ke awara tukdon mein ho jaise maahtab (the face of her sorrowful youth in rags is worth observing/it’s like moon in the wandering clumps of cloud).”
Looking at this image of the poverty-stricken country girl makes a plume of smoke rise up in the heart of the poet who argues that her delicate hands are not meant for grinding pebbles. Terming her as the “life of joy”, he writes that it was not fair that the sky should subject her to such gruelling work in order to make ends meet. Her face was meant for the “bed-chamber of joy”, but her poverty had chosen her to suffer “the fury of fate”, writes Josh.
In another of his poem, Kisan, Josh showers several epithets on farm labourers. He terms them as “irtiqa ka peshva (a frontrunner of evolution)” and “tehzeeb ka parwardigar (the nourisher of culture)”. It is thanks to his toil that the “garden of indulgences” flourishes, and it is in his dark hands that the “candle of civilisation” is placed. “Jis ke baazu ki salabat par nazaakat ka madaar/jis ke kas-bal par akadtaa hai ghuroor-e-shahryar.” Around the strength of the farmer’s arms orbits elegance and it’s on his power that the ego of the king/possessor swaggers. A farmer drowns in the soil, letting his soul run along the field, taking the rhythm of the faded particles by surprise, writes Josh. Upon a farmer’s touch, the mistress of earth, like the adolescent moon-faced beloved, takes turns in her sleep, he writes.
Jameel Mazhari (1904-1979), who looked upon Iqbal as a mentor and guide, in his heart-rending poem Mazdur ki Bansuri (The Flute of the Labourer), begins with this line: mazdoor hain ham, mazdoor hain ham, majboor the ham, majboor hain ham (We’re the labourers, we’re the labourers; we have always been helpless, and helpless we remain). Mazhari goes on to state how labourers were the “oozing wound” in the “heart of humanity”.
The poem, told in the voice of a labourer, is steeped in despair and some sort of surrendering to his fate. He realizes, for instance, that he is destined to provide a fillip to the businesses and lend radiance to the faces of the rich. The light that fills the court of the world, he tells himself, owes its flame to his burning heart. “Muḳhtaron par tanqeedein hain, be-chaargiyaan majbooron ki/sookha chehra dahqanon ka, zaḳhmi peethein mazdooron ki/woh bhookon ke an-data hain, haq un ka hai be-dad karen/ham kis darvaaze par jaaen kis se jaakar fariyad karen (The desperation of the helpless is a critical commentary on those in power/the dried faces of the farmers, the injured backs of the labourers/they are the masters of doling out hunger/the oppression and injustice is their right/but what door shall we knock on? To whom shall we complain?)” the labourer laments.
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Inspired by Mazhari, Asrarul Haq Majaz (1911-1955), who is widely seen as the Keats of Urdu poetry, wrote Mazduron Ka Geet (The Song of the Labourers), also in the voice of a labourer. “Go aafat-o-gham ke maare hain/ham khaak nahin hain taare hain/is jag ke raaj-dulaare hain/mazdoor hain ham mazdoor hain ham (though we are buffeted against distress and sorrow/we are not motes of dust, we are stars/we are the chosen ones of this world/we are the labourers, we are the labourers),” says Majaz’s narrator in the poem.
Like Josh, Jan Nisar Akhtar (1914-1976), too, wrote a beautiful poem, Mazdoor Auratein, dedicated to the working-class women, contrasting their poverty with the privileged ones. The poet says that for these women, their toil was both their saaz and raag, and wonders if, in their song, too, there was a fire that was raging. In one of his short poems, Kisan, Kaifi Azmi (1919-2002) writes about farmers as being forever defeated, caught in the bloody claws of debt (qarz ke panja-e-ḳhooni mein nidhal)”.
Ali Sardar Jafri (1913-2000), in his poem, Niwala, writes about a child who was born in a kholi (slum) and has since then lived in its “dark heart”. The child’s mother works in the silk factory and the father spends his days amid the constant whirr of a cotton mill. Jafri forsees the child’s future and writes that he, like his parents, is also destined to be sarmaye ka nivala (a morsel of capitalism) when he grows up. When he will be out of the kholi, he will also become a cog in the wheels of big factories. “Apne majboor pet ki ḳhaatir/bhook sarmae ki badhaaega/haath sone ke phuul uglenge/ jism chaandi ka dhan lutaega/ khidkiyaan hongi bank ki raushan/ khoon us ka diye jalaega (forced by his own empty stomach/ he will fuel the hunger of the capitalists/hands will spew flowers of gold/the body will shower the wealth of silver/the windows of banks will light up/his blood will be the fuel for the candles),” writes Jafri.
Some contemporary Urdu poets, like Farhat Abbas Shah, believe that the struggle of the working class will be the harbinger of the much-awaited “new dawn”. Shah, a popular Pakistani poet, writes: “Cheene gaye beant niwalon se seher hogi/Mazdoor tere haat ke chaalon se seher hogi (the countless morcels of snatched food will bring the dawn/O labourers, the bruises on your hand will bring the dawn)”.
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