by Ayesha K Sadozai
The Pakistani poet, scholar and mystic Omer Tarin, needs no introduction to the cognoscenti of fine literature from South Asia (in particular India and Pakistan). At a time dominated by (mostly) peurile fiction in English emanating from these countries, which is made much of by commercial publishers and hack-critics paid to advertise these 'literary wares' , Tarin remains one of the few literary figures unmoved by the mass market and commercial 'success', and continues to produce elegant and moving poetry, in keeping with the rich traditions of both East and West that he inherited from an earlier generation of Pakistani poets such as Taufiq Rafat, Daud Kamal and Alamgir Hashmi.
In more recent years, some of Tarin's work had come in for critical attention at various levels, in Pakistan, the UK, USA and elsewhere abroad; although it is seriously deserving of deeper and fuller study and research, not only by virtue of its poetic merit and uniqueness but also for the sake of the significant mystical strain that impregnates most of this body of work(M.A Khwaja,1999) and helps it attain a higher, more serious level, conveying 'philosophical' lessons for us, in a sense (ibid). Encouragingly, Tarin himself has recently given a few rare interviews, referring to some of his work and ideals; and even more encouragingly, a couple of new academic research studies at university level have emerged from the UK, tackling the language and imagery of his poetic collections, ''a Sad Piper'' (1994) and ''Burnt Offerings'' (1996).
However, one of his collections, ''The Anvil of Dreams'' (1995) has not been much discussed or analysed critically, and this collection contains a poem entitled ''Safar-Namah'' (Persian: lit, ''Travelog'') which is especially worth considering from a critical point of view, since it points the way, by a process of evolutionary writing, towards Tarin's longer epic poem of 1997 i.e. the ten cantos of ''The Harvest Season of Love Songs'' which has been compared by some with Walt Whitman's ''Leaves of Grass'' and by others with Pablo Neruda's ''Canto General'', in range and reach. Of course, these cantos, rich with allusion and a wealth of erudite knowledge, at times rather difficult for ordinary readers to comprehend, are beyond the scope of this brief analysis. Yet, by briefly viewing the (comparatively) smaller poem ''Safar-Namah'' from the earlier collection we can deduce something of what has gone into the ''Harvest Season''.
As the Pakistani critic and scholar Dr Tariq Rahman remarked (Review, 'The News' Islamabad, Pakistan, December 1996) the title ''Safar-Namah'' reminds us somewhat of Omar Khayyam's ''Kuza-Namah'' (Tale of the Pots) , and Omer Tarin, being well-versed with the range of English as well as Urdu and Persian poetic traditions, might possibly have had this in mind to some extent in his own ''retelling of the essential tale of the human condition'' (ibid). It is significant to note here too, that the long poem is subtitled ''or Man's History as Animal'', also seemingly suggestive of this 'condition'.
Whether this is indeed the case or no, Omer Tarin's ''Safar-Namah'' brings to us a large panorama, one plentifully endowed with the many embellishments of a fertile mind, laid out and organized in four general sections -- Section 1, ''Danaku''; Section II ''Baal's Temple'', Section III ''The Great News'' and the final section, or conclusion, No IV, ''Cr Havoc!''. Each section has a central theme or idea (Mason, 2009) , a pattern that we see repeated in the later volume of the ''Harvest Season'', and all the sectional themes add up to an overall pattern or ''clear statement of intent'' (Mason, ibid).
The poem opens with the description of an ancient demi-god or tribal diety of sorts, of Tarin's own invention, called 'Danaku'. Danaku is depicted as a 'Miacid' i.e. belonging to the ancestors of the dog, or canine family or species. Thus, from ancient times, men--people, humans--are seen to be worshipping 'rutting animals' and by and large, not too different from such beasts or creatures; very far from the ideal of the 'superior' human of reason and ideals. These humans, from earliest times, seem to think mostly only of themselves, of their crass material wants and needs and desires. They are willing to sell all, their honour, their 'precious daughters' too, for the fulfilment of their wants. For
on the high rock of Altai--
'Give sacrifice, sacrifice your daughters...
for the silt-rich waters , those that feed your
And in response, the hypocritical human priests, with their eternally false morality and empty cant, vehemently agree
''So our daughters shall be prostitutes,
Brought and sold,
the measure of our riches''.
Apart from the obvious spiritual-moral 'message' here, we are also vouchsafed an insight into the exploitation of womanhood through history, one way or the other. In the second portion, we move forward from the general materialism of Section 1 to the issue of the abuse of the femininity at the hands of 'pimps' i.e often menfolk but also other women, who pander to male fancies and fantasies, the dominant discourse and power-- on the one hand, we have the prostitution of women carried out at Babylon and similar old cities, centers of obscenity, at Baal's temple, or by the ''Ishtar Gate'': and ironically enough, 'contrariwise' , we also have another sort of 'sacrifice' and abuse of women i.e. that practised by the Greeks (as represented by the virgins at Delphi) and the Romans (the Vestals) where instead of being flaunted and sold in one form, female sexuality is supressed and hidden and subjugated and 'sold' in another way, or sense.
These, and other examples of human 'bestiality' lead us eventually to 'The Great News' (Section III) whereby we are made aware of the 'living thread' of a unified and universal system that exists, and has always existed, which offers us 'purity'--a spiritual and inner balance and conduit, which raises us to the highest levels, makes us 'ultra-human' and even more than human, perhaps. This is the ideal that ''poets and saints'' have 'conjured' and 'promised' -- that can be achieved if we but set out to, eschewing the crassly material. Here, frequent references and recourse is made to the various spiritual-mystical traditions and works of not only the great Sufi masters of the past, but also to other traditions of spiritualism. We have allusions and references to the Quran, the Bhagvad-Gita, the Bible; to various writings of Western poets such as Byron (The Destruction of Sennacherib), Shelley (Ozymandias, The Revolt of Islam), Ezra Pound (Cantos), TS Eliot (The Waste Land) and others.
Of the Sufi sages of the South Asian 'tariqahs' (ways/paths) the most obvious and frequent references are to the poetical works of 'Baba' (Sheikh) Farid ud Din Ganjshakkar (rerefernces from the ''shlokas'') and to the ''Heer'' story of Waris Shah.
With the great saint Farid of Pakpattan, he also sings ''Farida ja lab tha nehu, kia lab ta kurha nehu'' (''Farid, where there is greed/lust, [then] love is false'') and that is an essential conviction of Tarin, repeated often within different contexts and perspectives. Love -- in its larger, all-encompassing, universal sense, including all humans and creatures, within a 'circle of possibility' --is all. It is both means and end, as in the case of Waris Shah's heroine, Heer, who travels via her love for Ranjha (Dheedo) to attain the Love of the Creator. Thus, Tarin, too, brings us all within the circle of that love and suggests its infinite potential and power.
Yet, again--alas! In the last section, No IV, ''Cry Havoc!'' , Tarin brings us full-circle, back to the material and bestial human nature and ways, that ignore and turn away from this existing treasure of true love and devotion, to follow the thorny paths of ignorance, lust, greed, all that debases us.
Thus the ''Safar-Namah'' completes its travel or journey and brings us back to where we started off from. It lays out a full-fledged message and way for those who can understand and follow and submit. For that is the authentic Sufi 'system' of teaching, via a non-linear way , yoking together different realms of thought, presenting both inward and outward illustrations that may bring 'bolts of enlightenment' ('Tajalli') to those who are receptive and have the 'capacity' (Shah, 1971). ''The poet in [Omer] Tarin seeks meaning in the vicissitudes of existence...'', says poet-scholar Ejaz Rahim (1995), ''...and [he] has the ability to delve within, in search of a deeper view of life [which]...combines with the metaphysical imagination''.
Another Pakistani critic Inamullah, comparing Tarin's art to TS Eliot's quotes Peter Jones, ''If TS Eliot's 'The Waste Land' (1922) was ''just a piece of rhythmic grumbling''..[then] ..Tarin's ''Safar-Namah'' is an even more sonorous grumbling, indeed a lament, a Jeremiad'' (2001). To some extent, like his early poetic mentor Taufiq Rafat, Tarin is also steeped in Sufi lore and in many of his poems (''Safar-Namah'' being an excellent example) ancient tales, history, and literary-poetic allusions evolve and develop into metaphors for 'lived experience' (Mason, ) . Yet, in many respects, Omer Tarin's evinces a greater degree of depth and insight. Also, unlike Rafat, he is not at all concerned with an ''audience of clapping apes'' (Tarin, 1998): those who can, may make what they can, out of Tarin's work. In fact, he himself cites a famous anecdote of the Sufi saint of Sindh, Sheikh Shah Inayat of Jhok, who was one day at his prayers, when a visitor came there. This visitor was detained by the saint's followers and later, on being allowed to meet him, read out a line in Persian ''Dar i dervishan darbaan nebayad'' (There should be no doorkeeper at the door of dervishes); to which Shah Inayat replied ''Beshayad ke sag i duniya neyayad'' (It is allowed, lest the dogs of the world enter). You must then, be sincere and worthy to enter this poet's mystical world, for his vision is intractable and poetically vivid.
On such a foundation, poems like ''Safar-Namah'' rest, and shine forth for us in the darkness.
1. Inamullah, S. , Review of 2001, citing Peter Jones on TS Eliot, in ''Fifty American Poets'', London 1979.
2. Khwaja, MA , ''The Poet as Spiritual Being: Omer Tarin's 'Burnt Offerings''' in 'Sungut' journal, Autumn 1999.
3. Mason, P. ''Omer Tarin's A Harvest Season of Love Songs, an appraisal in the light of Islamic mysticism'' ; Unpublished MA (English Literature) thesis, London U, UK, 2009.
4. Rahim, Ejaz. Foreword to ''The Anvil of Dreams'' poems by Omer Tarin; Islamabad 1995. 1st ed.
5. Rahman, Dr Tariq. Review, ''The News'' Islamabad, Pakistan, 6th Dec 1996.
6. Shah, Idries. ''Thinkers of the East'', London, 1971.
7. Tarin, O. ''Why do I write?'', article, ''Union Gazette'', Government College, Lahore, Pakistan, 1998.
* This critical note was originally published in 2013, in ''Ellipsis'' literary magazine. Ayesha K Sadozai is of Indian origin, presently studying for her MA in English literature, with a specialization in South Asian literature in English, in Vermont, USA.