Poetry in Parliament

At a poetry recital, a video of which is available on YouTube, Urdu poet Rahat Indori recollects an incident from the Emergency (1975-1977). At a mushaira one night, Indori had declared: “Sarkar chor hai (The government is a thief).” The next morning he got a summons from the local police station where the officer asked him: “Did you say last night the government is a thief?” “Yes,” replied Indori, “but I didn’t say which government — whether of India or Pakistan or the US.” The police officer interjected: “You think we are idiots? Do we not know which government is a thief?” Indori has for long been famous for his visceral political poetry and his words echoed in Parliament last week during a spirited critique of the government.

First-time Member of Parliament Mahua Moitra from Trinamool Congress, in her debut speech on Tuesday, rebuked the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance by listing the seven signs of early fascism in its actions. She ended her speech by quoting a poem by Indori, “Agar khilaaf hain hone do (If they are against, let them be)”. Moitra quoted the last two lines of the ghazal:

“Today’s masters of the throne won’t be 
here tomorrow,
They’re tenants, it’s not their right divine.
Everyone’s blood is mixed in the soil here,
Hindostan is not your father’s, nor mine.”

In a House overwhelmingly tilted in numbers towards the Treasury benches, Moitra stood her ground despite jeers from the MPs of the ruling coalition and her spunk won her plaudits, at least on social media, for days. While Moitra has now presented herself as a strong voice of the Opposition, there is also renewed interest in the works of Indori, with many sharing his videos on Facebook and Twitter.

Mahua Moitra quoted Rahat Indori during her maiden speech in Parliament
Indori was born as Rahat Qureshi and has taught Urdu at Indore University. He has also written lyrics of songs such as Munna Bhai MBBS and Mission Kashmir. But he is probably best known for his romantic and political poetry. I was introduced to his ouvre by my friend Maaz Bin Bilal, whose collection Ghazalnama is forthcoming in August. For those of us who cannot read nastaliq (the script for Urdu), the only way to access Urdu poetry is through translations such as Maaz’s. (The lines I have quoted above are from his translation.) Another one that I really admire is “If the Messiah were to Side with Pain”:

“If the messiah were to side with pain, what will happen?
If traditions of tolerance freeze up, what 
will happen?
These lakhs and crores who pray five times 
a day,
If they really turn vendors of terror, what 
will happen?”

But does political poetry have any value at all? W H Auden seemed to have provided a summary answer: “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making” (“In Memory of W B Yeats”). But perhaps in our times when even parliamentarians are heckled with chants of “Jai Shri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman” — also used by frenzied mobs as they lynch citizens from minority communities — perhaps poetry does serve as an effective tool of resistance. 

However, poetry is a double-edged sword, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi discovered on Wednesday. While critiquing Opposition leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, he quoted these lines: 

“Ta umr Ghalib ye bhool karta raha, 
dhool chehre pe thi, aaina saaf karta raha 
(His whole life Ghalib made this mistake, 
the dust was on his face and he was cleaning the glass)”

The incorrect attribution, however, was immediately pointed out by senior poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar, who tweeted: “The sher that the prime minister saheb has quoted in his Rajya Sabha speech is wrongly attributed to Ghalib in the social media. Actually both the lines are not even in the proper meter.” His speech writers would do well to check original sources next time rather than depend on social media. And, if they have any doubt, they can at least ask Moitra, now also known as a connoisseur of poetry. />

The writer’s novel, Ritual, is forthcoming this year



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