The battle of Karbala has undergone a major historical, legendary and metaphorical transformation over the years. In the sub-continent as early as ~1100 AD, the Sufi thinker, Chishti portrayed Karbala as a struggle between evil and virtue, as the essence of faith, raising it above the sectarian divide. Poets during the heyday of the influence of the Progressive Writers’ Association and later further metaphorically raised the event above religion, region and time using it as a symbol of an epic struggle between good and evil, justice and injustice and even painting it in a socialist hue. There are examples of such use in mohammed iqbal, maKhdoom, ali sardar jafri, shaz tamkanat and most powerfully in josh malihabadi.
zindagi aur maut – josh malihabadi
This is a powerful musaddas and is my favorite especially because I had the pleasure of hearing it from Josh in 1965, when I was visiting Karachi. The musaddas has 86 stanzas each of 3 she’r. Josh develops his theme in five streams. The first three streams are entirely secular.
anaa 1-13. Josh opens very powerfully describing the human ego. He takes 12 stanzas to describe love of self, sense of self preservation and transitions beautifully in the 13th stanza to describe how this strong ego leads to a desire to live, no matter what.
zindage 14-28. These are lyrical and metaphorically rich and draw upon Farsi, Urdu and Hindi imagery to paint a beautiful, energetic and enjoyable picture of life lived to its fullest. In stanza 28 he transitions seamlessly into how fearsome and ugly death is …
maut 29-39. Josh takes up the theme of the destruction and sorrow that death causes. The power and beauty of his lyrical language continues and the ugliness of death parallels the beauty of life.
sarkashi 40-50. Starting with stanza 40 Josh transitions beautifully into suggesting that because of the teachings of Mohammed, death became more beautiful than life. This is NOT a praise of some imagined afterlife, but a very clear statement that death “on your feet” is preferable to “life on your knees”. This stream continues beautifully through stanza 50.
husain 51-58. Stanza 51 begins with describing Husain as the epitome and exemplar of this preference of “death in resistance” to “life with submission”. Lyrical praise of Husain is carried through stanza 58.
sabaq 59-78. Stanzas 59 through 78 make beautiful statements about lessons of resistance to be drawn from the story of Karbala, occasionally tiresome, sometimes inciteful.
asr-e-hazir 79-86. The concluding portion of stanzas 79-86 calls upon Husain to help with struggle against the present day “Yazid”. This was written at the height of resistance against Ayub Khan and I don’t know what political impact, if any, it had. The language is inciteful to the point of being totally outmoded, but is still linguistically and metaphorically rich.