Remembering Habib Jalib
By Dr Afzal Mirza
Sparks, MD

In one of his rare articles famous intellectual Dr Eqbal Ahmad highlighted the common greatness of Faiz and Jalib. He wrote, “Faiz and Jalib shall live in our collective memory and shape our consciousness long after the dictators have been forgotten. Their talents were not unique. Critically judged, Jalib was not a great poet. Several of his contemporaries had greater talent. Yet he shall be remembered more than most of them for his universal affirmations of life, and his uncompromising opposition to oppression and injustice. Faiz was the greater poet, no doubt, but he too had competitors, among them Rashid and Meeraji. Yet he has touched us as no modern Urdu poet has. If I were to explain his extraordinary power as poet l would offer first his qualities of humanity. These attributes Jalib shared with Faiz; and in this lay their common greatness.”
In his article Dr Eqbal has found genuine common ground between the two celebrated poets of the country who made a great contribution towards the awakening of masses in their own individual styles. The good poetry is always characterized by its appeal to the sensibility of its readers and listeners. Jalib was different from his contemporaries as his simple and emotional poetry directly appealed to the hearts of his audiences who would experience a unique emotional surge in their collective psyche. Those who would listen to his poems in public meetings were subjected to a strange emotive experience that would either charge them into high frenzy or move them to spontaneous tears.
Jalib was born in Hoshiarpur (East Punjab) in 1928 but spent his younger years in Delhi where he studied at the Anglo-Arabic School. Smitten by muse at an early age he adopted Jalib as his pseudonym ameliorating a classical Delhi poet called Jalib Dehlvi. Like all other poets, Jalib’s earlier poetry was characterized by romantic feelings. In 1947, when he was 19 years old, India was partitioned and like all other Indian Muslims he migrated to Pakistan. Initially he landed in Karachi and found a job as a proof reader in Daily Imroze Karachi at a very nominal salary.
In Karachi soon he got recognition as a budding poet with a beautiful voice who was invited to functions more to recite other poet’s verses than his own. In his book Gumshuda Loag Agha Nasir remembers of a function held at his College where Jalib was invited to recite Faiz’s poetry. May be at that stage he was shy of reciting his own poetry before the general public. But it was at a Mushaira held in Lahore in 1949 that Jalib recited his own poetry and stole the show. In his memoirs Chiraghon ka Dhuan Intizar Husain has mentioned of those times when many poets migrated to Lahore and Mushairas used to take place on almost every other day. The Mushaira I am mentioning was the Indo-Pak Mushaira in which Jigar Muradabadi and Jagan Nath Azad had come from India and Jalib and Zahra Nigah came from Karachi. It was actually a maiden appearance of these two budding poets in Lahore and both of them stole the show in the presence of well known Indian and Pakistani poets. In that Mushaira Jalib recited his famous ghazal:
Dil ki baat labon par la kar ab tak ham dukh sehte hein
Ham ne suna tha iss basti mein dil wale bhi rehte haein
Jalib so much impressed the audience with his rendering that he was asked to recite his poetry several times. May be it was this ovation that prompted him to shift to Lahore permanently. But Lahore of that period was full of literati and literary movements.
Those who think Jalib underwent a sudden transformation in his poetic diction after Ayub’s martial law forget that in his early days in Lahore Jalib used to regularly participate in the meetings of the Progressive Writers Association till the time it was banned by our pro-American government. Though the major content of his poetry was amorous and romantic but in lesser aggressive manner he would write verses with progressive content:
Kaliyan royein ghunche royein ro ro apni ankhein khoein
Lambi taan ke chaen se soyein iss phulwari ke rakhwale
However his style and content underwent a drastic change in 1959 when after Ayub’s martial law civil liberties were curtailed and the government came with a heavy hand on the progressive writers. While on one hand Qudratullah Shahab, Jamiluddin Aali, Ashfaq Ahmad and others tried to woo the writers to support the regime by joining the Writers’ Guild and arranging free trips for them within and outside the country, the government took over Pakistan’s independent newspapers and brought them under the umbrella of National Press Trust. The freedom of expression was curbed with a heavy hand of censorship. Jalib was a man of the street. He hated dictatorship in all its manifestations.
I remember that in a Mushaira held in Abbottabad in 1959 where Faiz was also present Jalib recited a purely romantic poem.
Rah e subhe ashqi mein kahin shaam a na jaye
Tujhe bewafa kahoon mein woh maqam a na jaye
But soon after that in a radio Mushaira held in Rawalpindi Jalib startled the organizers with his verses:
Kahin gas ka dhuan hae kahin golion ki barish
Shab-e-ahd-e-kamnigahi tujhe kis trah sarahein
The Mushaira which was being aired alive was switched off and the poor station director Syed Ataullah Kalim was penalized for this boldness of a harmless poet. After this he gave no respite to the regime as he started his tirade with full force. When the Ayub regime enforced their tailor-made constitution Jalib wrote his most popular poem:
Deep jis ka mahallaat hee mein jaley/Chand logon kee khushion ko lay kar chaley/ Voh jo sayay mein har muslehat kay paley/Aisey dastoor ko subh-e-beynoor ko/ Main nahin maanta, main nahin jaanta

(A lamp only in palaces lit/Shed light for a chosen few/Shade in which one has to fit/Such rites and lightless dawns/I will not accept; I refuse to know.)Translated by Khushwant Singh
The poem catapulted Jalib to national fame and then there was no looking back. The poem became very popular throughout the country as it represented the true feelings of the majority of Pakistanis. Around that time, in a mushaira at Jauharabad, the audience demanded from Jalib to recite this poem. He had just started off when he was stopped by Justice S.A. Rahman who was presiding over the function. Undeterred, Jalib shouted back, “You cannot stand between me and my audience,” and continued with his poem to the chagrin of the chief guest. In another incident it is said that West Pakistan Governor, none other than the dreaded Nawab of Kalabagh, invited film star Neelo to dance in front of a foreign dignitary. As she refused, the police was sent to bring her forcibly to dance, which led to a suicide attempt on her part. This incident inspired a poem by Jalib, which was later included by Neelo’s husband Riaz Shahid in his movie Zarqa. The song was:
Tu keh nawaqif-e-aadab-e-ghulami hae abhi
Raqs zanjeer pehan kar bhikiya jata hai
(You are not aware of the protocol of a king’s court. Sometimes one has to dance with the fetters on).
The song has since then become a classic of poetry of resistance.
The contribution of Jalib towards political awakening during the Ayub period was best expressed by Syed Sibte Hasan the noted leftist intellectual in these words, “The dictatorship of Ayub Khan will always be remembered for the fact that this dark period brought forth people like Justice Kayani and Habib Jalib. When the true history of this nation is written, then the world will know that these were the people who put life in the fading pulse of the nation at that time of fear and terror, when one was afraid even to breathe. What is this power that makes this gentle person fight against evil and insist on truth? In fact this power is due to the love of the people which lends bravery and enthusiasm to Jalib. Habib Jalib has sacrificed his self and his poetry for the common good of the people.”
Due to his daring revolt against the order of the day, Jalib was banned from official media but he remained undeterred. He rather started a tirade against the tyranny with more resolution. It reached its climax when Fatima Jinnah decided to contest elections against Ayub Khan. All democratic forces rallied round her and at her election meetings, Jalib used to recite his fiery poems in front of an emotionally-charged crowd. His most popular poem at that time was:
Maan kay paon talay jannat hai idhar aa jao
(The paradise is under the feet of the mother. So come into her fold).
Jalib became a celebrity and every opposition party tried to woo him into its fold. Jalib had friends among the top politicians of Pakistan ranging from Suharwardy to Bhutto. They say about Suhrawardy that whenever he would be in Lahore often he would invite Jalib and ask him to recite his poems, especially the verse he liked most:
Koi to parcham le kar nikle apne gariban ka Jalib
Charon janib sannatta hae weerane yad aate haen
In 1970 there was a wave of support for socialism and the rightist parties all got together to defeat the leftists. Jalib then wrote beautiful poems giving new secular meaning to their slogans. In his poem ‘Pakistan ka matlab kiya’, he wrote:

Roti, kapra aur dawa/Ghar rehne ko chhota sa/Muft mujhe talim dila
Mein bhi Musalmaan hoon wallah
Pakistan ka matlab kya/La Ilaha Illalah.
Amrika se mang na bhik/Mat kar logon ki tazhik
Rok na jamhoori tehrik/Chhorr na azadi ki rah/
Pakistan ka matlab kya/La Ilaha Illalah.
Khet waderon se le lo/Milen luteron se le lo
Mulk andheron se le lo/Rahe na koi alijah
Pakistan ka matlab kya/La Ilaha Illalah.
In the 1970 elections Jalib was offered a provincial assembly ticket by Bhutto provided he joined PPP, but Jalib declined the offer, fought the election on an NAP ticket and lost. Jalib had to face the wrath of all governments — no matter whether they were martial law regimes or quasi-democratic in nature. He, in fact, was not the compromising type and therefore Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship became a favorite topic of his poetry when the latter toppled Bhutto’s government and seized control of the country. One can’t forget his poetry that was circulated by word of mouth or by photocopies during Pakistan’s worst period of dictatorship.
Zulmat ko Zia, sarsar ko saba, bande ko khuda kya likhna
In a country where dictatorships are a norm the presence of a brave poet like Jalib is always needed to raise the morale of the people in the times of depression and despair.
Jalib died on 12th March 1993.


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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