Art for God’s sake

By

Shahzad Abdullah

|

PUBLISHED
January 16, 2022


KARACHI:

Of all the forms of literature to delve into creatively, poetry remains as daunting to create as it is often times to comprehend. It is perhaps due to this inherent predicament that any reader might endorse how Of Kings and Nobilities reads like a novella albeit written entirely in satirical verse.

The bard of this travel sized repository, B J Sadiq was born and raised in Pakistan and later in his scholastic pursuits attended the University of Cambridge, residing at Hughes Hall where he received the sprinkling of inspiration from his elusive muse; “she wasn’t kind enough back then”, which also inspired his pen name, B J Hughes. He opens the volume with a blanket disclaimer and how he “aims to educate and entertain”. The writer’s proclivity for history is evident within the text, almost immediately.

“I have always been an avid history reader and have always wondered at the role history plays in moulding our present, and so this poem is a return of more than ten years of general reading; and conversations I have had with men who bear the rare gift of reflection.”

Sadiq’s story expounds upon the inner tumult of the eponymous Bard, “the Laureate, / Married, charming, a middle-aged sage,” in conversation with his version of God, the “highest of the high kings in the country of Araboth, beyond the seven skies.” – a dialogue that spans nearly 2,000 years of historical importance. In conversation with the reader as much as the Almighty, he attempts to cleverly disguise his novice poet status by bequeathing all responsibility to his God in the first place; that God demanded this conversation, going as far as to detail how he wants to be spoken to. Speak to Me in Satire, he says, with each chapter addressing at least one pivotal historical figure on the latter’s request: “So tell me how did the kings and nobility of the dust fare? Did they make me proud, or was it a nightmare?”

It is not the first time that laureates have communed with Divinity or artefacts of a similar nature to wax about their unique observations. Sadiq, albeit competent enough to take this on, but a Dante Alighieri he is not. He describes in streaks, the shocking and shameful acts dotted around in history to visually illuminate the immorality and folly of the perpetrators:

“But such is the whirligig of time, Deeds done to please some harrowing taste, May leave foul thrones in pantomime. When kingdoms rule not by love but by haste, And find contentment in avarice and plunder, Do they still laugh to their graves I wonder?”

The writer labels the modern era as the “age of anxiety” and in addressing the residents of the anxiously induced, his humour, comes with an undercurrent of tolerance. The Bard’s God states:

“I didn’t divide you by creed or colour, There’s certainly something amiss my fellow, About this whole affair of men killing each other, Because one’s too fair, the other’s too dark…”

There is much to be said about being mindful – the author seems to realise that a good chunk of his audience, or perhaps a substantial percentage will be rolling their eyes and he encourages readers who experience the effect of “cerebral inconveniences” from the verse novella to take a break in “better indulgences” if they begin to find the text cumbersome. Something tells me the majority might have.

The world can always do with another John Milton for our “age of anxiety” to explain man’s fall from grace, or another ‘poet of the East’ to justify God’s ways to man. But with luminaries of the stature of Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Milton, history is particularly thrifty.

In far more notable epics, Shikwa (Complaint), Jawaab-i-Shikwa (Reply to a Complaint) and Paradise Lost, the poets have featured a resentful Man to analyse some of the most soul-shattering moments: Man’s fall from grace, his expulsion from Paradise by a Creator defied. Grave subject matter, this ‘art for God’s sake’ where the decline of man takes a religious view: him straying from the right path.

Whenever a poet/writer goes off to poke fun at the hubris of “mere mortals” there is a strong inference of a heavy-set God Complex. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but one should definitely have their bearings set right when they pursue to do so, or the effort in entirety ought to be better left alone. But if there is any way to spin an epic from a momentous catalogue of historical events, reflecting upon the character of Man who shaped them, seemingly neglectful of the Divine Plan in his all-consuming ‘war for earth’, it can only be through the prism of jest.

B.J. Hughes’s satirical epic Of Kings and Nobilities, while wearing Shikwa’s grand aspect of engaging God and Man in a dialogue, eludes the religious by putting human history centre-stage, employing hilarity to extract wisdom from human foibles.

Rooted in the classics, it is most definitely ‘art for art’s sake’, but if one is to take God’s word for it – “verse my dear is nothing but a dress of thought” — it also seeks to edify by way of wit and wisdom. More immediately, it is fine poetry simply for the joy of it, delivered through playful lyrical flourishes woven with astute observations on history.

A British-Pakistani poet’s lens is a unique asset to possess and perhaps because of this, it is inevitable to find parallels in a work that, while seeking to soar on its own strengths, stays true to the tradition of the classics. For that aspiration alone, the work is admirable, one might even go as far as to say ‘worthy’ – in the manner few contemporary Pakistani works of poetry are for such ambition. But the parallels drawn are, by no means, meant to equate it to, or give the impression of it being a classic. For that, it must stand the test of time (no one hold their breath).

For now, though, it is satire that manages to be equal parts serious and sagacious. Quoting John Dryden, the poem’s epigraph promises to deliver droll humour and wit aplenty: “To tell men freely of their foulest faults;/ To laugh at their vain deeds, and vainer thoughts.”

Credit should flow where it is due, and at the heart of the epic is truly, an endearing portrayal God – not judgemental, not spectacularly righteous, not apathetic – just indifferent – communing with a Bard risen from the grave who finds himself in the Creator’s august company. God comes across as avuncular, with an eccentric, indulgent mien, eager to be entertained by Hughes. Or perhaps a little bored, weary of His own creation? The Bard, called upon to “speaketh somewhat above a mortal mouth”— as the poet Ben Jonson puts it — pours out his muse, ad-lib, for the Almighty fleeting amusement.

There is nothing by way of dark prophecy, but Hughes does, like Milton, draw on the Greek tradition to enact historical theatre. In rhyme and metre, though, the epic owes more to Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage than the blank verse of Paradise Lost. Indeed, its sensibility is entirely English, whose literary canon and influence it bows down to in marked reverence.

The impression that Cambridge left behind on the writer speaks in volumes – “corrupted by an English education and a voracious appetite for world history.”

But while English may hold a certain appeal for the Bard, his God prefers Greek:

“But bard you seem too inclined towards the English tongue, Can’t blame you, they controlled all commerce, Of the world after all. Though their language is still young, And sweet sounding when you tune Milton’s verse, But of all languages it doesn’t quite pique, My interest as does the Greek.”

Again, plenty of instances that break the fourth wall – doubts and uncertainties if his work is worthy of the best of publishers. “I write this at a time when books aren’t popular, The thought of the subject occurred while playing bridge, With a certain dilettante who sounded jocular, And had no love of books, though himself from Cambridge. I grew confident as that made my lays less ignoble, Meaning my scribbles may sit at Barnes and Noble.”

Quickly, though, he builds his case with a certain confidence (read clinical delusion) that “[his poem] could be the finest from his soil”, stating, as always, with self-deprecating humour, that he wrote the epic “so that some simpleton in a land very far/ should say “what an incredible writer you are.” Doubts get displaced by confidence, the facetious by the grand, the ridiculous by the subtle. Philosophical observations sit comfortably alongside the eccentric, humour with wisdom: “For life’s journey indeed was more tiring than life/ But life’s such, it harms more and mends little/ Which explains why man in faith’s so brittle.”

To say the epic draws solely from the English tradition would be ignoring Hughes’s own Eastern poetic sensibilities. This comes across when the Bard says Persian should be the language of heaven, and God, with His universal love for arts, is partial to Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib:

“Oh Ghalib, of most beloved Delhi, I still see him with his scotch and his quill, Scrawling away the horrors of his city’s catastrophe, And the ordeal of King Zafar, who’d lost Victoria’s goodwill, And my dear, no writer may learn at a university, The treasures his pen bleeds through adversity.”

Both a bit of riddle and response, the Bard’s dialogue tells of a king or a noble, a philosopher or a poet, of events from their lives, anecdotes culled from history, to jog the memory of the ancient God who always comes up all knowing, but familiar “Ah!”

In that sense, Hughes’s epic is also a nod to the storytelling culture of the East — whether on the road or in the court — taken to high heaven to amuse the Almighty. But God — the sire, the king of kings — is no naive listener. Familiar with the feats and follies of men, He even has a few favourites among them: Socrates, now a chief in heaven’s finest college; and Iqbal, whom the Almighty in His vast eternal solitude, muses over often.

Of Kings and Nobilities is a grand undertaking no doubt. An exercise of irony. Check. A God with flair for poetry. Check. And the sheer confidence of a mere mortal to put the words in His mouth. Audacity, Check. Ultimately though I have nobody to blame but myself. The Bard himself is protected by his blanket indemnification. Lived and learnt, now where are those “better indulgences”?

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