Reading Rahi on Life’s Mystery and Quest

Scores of his verses can find a place in any good anthology of world literature
Prof Rahman Rahi
Prof Rahman RahiSpecial Arrangement

Imagine a team of Nobel winning writers visiting Kashmir. Whom would they have loved to interact with, or who could have prepared a presentation on Kashmir’s literary legacy for them? Rahi is my answer.

If Rahi had been more widely translated and projected in international languages, he would have been a strong candidate for Nobel Prize. Scores of his verses can find a place in any good anthology of world literature.

Arguably modern Kashmir’s most important poet, Rahi may be best read as a cosmopolitan poet who adopted (post)modern idiom to express what is most important in local tradition, at least at poetic plane, and bears reading with the best contemporary poets across cultures.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Albert Camus (whom Rahi treasured) declared that a writer’s duty is twofold: “the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance against oppression.”

We find in Andre Gide a statement “An artist offers experience not doctrine.” One may restate both these points by saying that a writer or artist is one who chooses life/beauty/order against death/ugliness/chaos. Rahi fundamentally celebrates life and is skeptical of different constructions or meaning schemes woven around its mysterious halo.

Both these points may help us in responding to popular critiques of Rahi in Kashmir. One image that describes Rahi’s life and universe – his mystery, his longing, his Question, his silence – is Iqbal’s Lala’ay Sehra. Rahi’s work describes human condition as perpetual travel to a destination not clear and our task as struggle to be ourselves, to unfold and to take one’s share of “silence and heartglow, rapture and grace.” It is in a way summed up in his poem titled “Zindagi” (Life).

In his poem “Zindagi” (translated in English by Hameeda Bano) we read: “A child wonderstruck/At the first lesson in school,/From a multifarious/ambiguous tome!/In Python’s mouth/Ruby flashes forth flames, / It is a bubble rising from the bosom/ Of the dumb ecstatic lover of dreams.”

This is mystico-romantic heritage – celebration of mystery, of innocence, of wonder, of childhood, of virginity of nature, of feminine receptivity to other – summed up and one finds here romanticization of wonder that we find in great poets, East and West. The Romantics have especially made this point well known. See the title and introduction and conclusion of Abram’s book Natural Supernaturalism.

Rahi celebrates this natural supernaturalism and that accounts for certain eerie atmosphere of many of his works. He recalls Coleridge in his invocation of the supernatural though he would be averse to taking a transcendentalist turn.

A magic realism suffuses his work. What distinguishes Rahi and postmodern poets in general from more mystically informed Persian/Kashmiri mystic poets is acute sense of frustration and failure in enjoying life and its joys to hilt due to transience of life. Bedil, in contrast, has found his salvation in the interior life and doesn’t hanker for what can’t be granted by the order of the worlds.

Rahi is poet because he wants to live. Meaning of life if any is in writing poetry. Rahi has stated this theme at many places. One recalls Bedil again for making the point about holy vocation of poet in Holderlin and Rahi. Writing is an act to bridge the gulf between himself and the Beyond. Bedil has proposed an “answer” to nihilism by suggesting circumambulating the kaaba of text and text within texts until one is consumed by this created word and world that ceaselessly seems to recede and created anew.

A text, even if it is entirely full of meaning, can be edited or added to: Silence/ Is a text from which one cannot pick and choose (S. R. Faruqi’ s trans.).

Silence is the answer that Rahi also proposes in this poem and elsewhere as well. Silence tastes heavenly and resolves all questions including the question of immortality and reconciles one to life in all its hues including its seeming transience and death. Since Rahi was fascinated by mystic poets but couldn’t fully embrace their detachment and participation in the higher rhythms of Life/Spirit contributing to more melancholic tone of his major poems. Rahi was closer to “secular” mysticism of major modern writers and, like Beckett, couldn’t witness or actualize, for himself, the glory of a mystic.

Rahi like great Persian poets such as Hafiz and Bedil doesn’t trade in any grand vision or narrative of Truth. Neither does he claim to have found his Love. God remains somewhat of an enigma as does Meaning/Heaven.

Rahi’s seeming skepticism about final questions such as existence of God or life after death may be understood in terms that such mystic philosophers as Bedil and Khayam, or Bugbie and Wittgenstein have proposed. Rahi’s religion is an approximation of Rumi’s religion – as was, self avowedly, Faiz’s.

Few know that prophets don’t claim (discursive) knowledge of things high but emphasize mystery and humility and that “man has been given but little knowledge. Philosophy also doesn’t claim to know wisdom but seeks to prepare one for love of wisdom. Here is how Heschel sums up what the Biblical prophets declared.“I said, I will be wise, but it was far from me. That which is, is far off and deep, exceedingly deep. Who can find it out ?” (7 :23-24) . “Wisdom is beyond our reach. We are unable to attain insight into the ultimate meaning and purpose of things. Man does not know the thoughts of his own mind nor is he able to understand the meaning of his own dreams (see Daniel 2 :27) .”Beware lest we say, we have found wisdom” (Job 32 : 13). “They who travel in pursuit of wisdom, walk only in a circle ; and after all their labor, at last return to their pristine ignorance.”

Now read Rahi: “The illusory goal, / Dark jungle of evening, / Steps into nowhere, / This is the dilemma, this the agony of life.”

Rahi deploys Socratic questioning and suspends affirmation in expressible terms and foregrounds little understood Prophetic awareness of the Question:

One may here recall popular Urdu verse “zindagi terae masoom sawaloo sae pareeshan hu mei” (O Life, I am troubled by your innocent questions) and Heschel’s explication of the Abrahamic or Judaic insight: To quote Heschel: “Indeed religions and mysticism don’t identify a particular goal of life. For them life is goal with all its enigmas and its agony is to be embraced and therein lies secret of its splendor.” The Prophets have unanimously taught, in Heschel’s words, that  the existence of the world is a mysterious fact. Referring not to miracles or startling phenomena, but to the natural order of things, they insist that the world of the known is a world unknown; hiddenness, mystery. What stirred their souls was neither the hidden nor the apparent, but the hidden in the apparent; not the order but the mystery of the order that prevails in the universe… We may succeed in solving many riddles; yet the mind itself remains a sphinx. The secret is at the core of the apparent; the known is but the obvious aspect of the unknown.

Given philosophy’s beginning in wonder as we find in Plato and its culmination as well in wonder as Whitehead noted and given literature is a project of defamiliarization as Russian formalists would phrase it and mysticism as treasured discovery of the station of wonder as Ibn Arabi has shown and religion understood as awareness of the divine beginning with wonder as Heschel notes, one may appreciate Rahi’s ecstatic surrender before life’s mystery and incomprehension.

Religion is the result of what man does with his higher incomprehension. Even science, despite rationalism’s veto, is not ready to do away with mystery and wonder. Einestein rightly noted that the most treasured things is mysterious. Plank explained in his Scientific Autobiography it in some detail:

The reason why the adult no longer wonders is not because he has solved the riddle of life, but because he has grown accustomed to the laws governing his world picture. But the problem of why these particular laws and no others hold, remains for him just as amazing and inexplicable as for the child.

He who does not comprehend this situation, misconstrues its profound significance, and he who has reached the stage where he no longer wonders about anything, merely demonstrates that he has lost the art of reflective reasoning (Plank, 1949: 92-93).

“No illumination,” remarks Joseph Conrad in The Arrow of Gold, “can sweep all mystery out of the world. After the departed darkness the shadows remain.” Heschel further notes that “The world is something we apprehend but cannot comprehend. Significantly, the Hebrew word ‘olam that in post-Biblical times came to denote “world” is, according to some scholars, derived fromthe root ‘a/am which means to hide, to conceal. The world is itself hiddenness; its essence is a mystery.” Heidegger’s explication of Being converges with the same insight. Rahi as a poet or artist is faithful to the tradition that acknowledges Mystery in the First Principle. Now read Rahi:

“The illusory goal,/Dark jungle of evening,/Steps into nowhere,/This is the dilemma, this the agony of life./Life is a whirling flame/Flashing like a red rose/A darkening glare of beams/Visible as a glistering sun.”

Rahi doesn’t touch immortality theme but its longing and seeming absence informs much of his work. This theme is conspicuous by its seeming absence contributing to the intensity of longing and celebration of earthly life in the poem. “Just a little lifting of the curtain/And the vivid scene of resurrection, /It is the Rabab of/Self-muffled musings.

For the students of Persian and Urdu poetry all this is familiar. Music struck by the Other is what the life of self should aspire to. (Youthful Rahi’s ghazal “ad na mae roudum panes tam” echoes it).

Another familiar theme is attention to transience and chance that life is. We find in Sadi, Hafiz and other all great poets allusions to this theme. “Reading the pages of destiny at midnight/Under the blood-burning lamp,/At dawn, life is but/A stodgy random choice./ Lie in ambush for the lion/In a thorny bush,/Life is but a dance/Upon a ditch.” Another universal theme is fana and baqa given by Rahi in his inimitable style and choice of imagery. Mansoor is a hero and moth a martyr of Beauty called higher life. And its cost is trading the soul. ‘Kissing the gallows, the frenetic lover/Embraced life,/Breaching the set path/A hot pursuit of retribution.”

Life doesn’t yield any final meaning. Everything here is a play of signs. All signposts leading to Nowhere. Life’s enticements and charms allure us but then what do we find? More movement, Derwiesh’s journey from pre-eternity to post-eternity, as Hafiz would put or “her dem ravan hae zindagi” as Iqbal would put it.

Now see Rahi: “Life is a torment that entices/With soothing allurements” “Without, a vivifying jungle/Within, a volcano/Life is a dream of the ascetic,/Mad after nymphs.”

One finds Nietzschean echoes in Rahi (who has acknowledged influence of Nietzsche and who has translated parts of Thus Spake Zarathustra, in his embracing of life without judgment, in its totality, its mystery and terrible beauty although his emphasis on love is something un-Nietzschean.

Masses live and die for life but saints die for what ennobles life. In certain respects such as writerly ethic and commitment to values that ennoble life has eluded great writers.

Rahi had no sanguine estimate of himself and was candid enough to acknowledge his guilt. This may or mayn’t be enough to redeem him in the considered view of some critics but his poetry does redeem us and his work did help redeem Kashmiri language. That is a great achievement. His commitment to language and art was unfaltering.

Post-script: Rahi’s postmodern or skeptical aspect is further developed in hitherto little noticed work of Rahi’s colleague and arguably our most celebrated postmodern contemporary poet, critic and literary historian, Shafi Shouq.

His romantic/quasi-mystical legacy is getting unfolded in the work of Shahnaz Rasheed, Majrooh Rasheed and some younger poets. His work in literary criticism finds worthy inheritors such as Abir Bazaz.

While Rahi taught most of the best of contemporary writers and inspires the youngest lot that has better exposure to world literature the most, his presence shall grow in years to come and future generations will write proper tributes.

Now that Rahi’s shadow is no more, we can have better estimate of his achievements and limitations. Rest in peace Rahi who taught us how to weather life’s turbulence, to endure death or be consumed by love, to kiss hot embers and smile.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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