Jaun Elia, the witch of Lahore and a room full of fans
By Zainab Imam
KARACHI: When late poet Jaun Elia was visiting Lahore once, one of his fans organized a mushaira in his honour, which was attended by the glitterati of the city. Singing legend Noor Jehan was there as well. Elia’s niece Shahnaz’s husband introduced them. Noor Jehan asked the poet if he recognized her. He said that he did not, to which she responded, ‘I am the witch of Lahore’. Chicha Jaun’s swift and uncompromising answer was: ‘Well, if the witches of this city are this beautiful then I could settle here for life’.
These anecdotes and others, from family and fans, was how contemporary poet Jaun Elia was celebrated as part of The Second Floor’s Urdu Poetry series on Sunday. The programme was a low-key, informal session that started with poet Irfan Sattar’s nostalgia. Sattar used to visit Jaun regularly to show him his work. “Once I went to read out one of my poems to him,” Sattar told the audience. “He said he really liked what I had written but told me that despite all the talent he believed I possessed, I couldn’t become a well-known writer. Though his word was like the word of God for me, I still ventured to inquire why. He responded, ‘kiunke tu sunni hai’ (because you are a Sunni Muslim).” The audience laughed in appreciation of what seemed an answer tinted with sectarian bias but for the fans who understand him, they know this response was anything but. As Jaun’s grandson Zafar Masud puts it, this was Jaun’s way of sending across strong messages lightly. In this case, all Jaun was trying to say was that Shia-ism had more poetic inspiration than Sunni-ism and that Sattar should study it deeply.
Fan Peerzada Salman, who has translated some of his poems to English, lamented that the poet did not receive the timely recognition he deserved, especially in a world where vacuous pop stars become celebs in a jiffy.
Relative Mumtaz Saeed described Elia as “a master of his craft”. “You cannot pick out in any single verse a place where he has gone wrong or his words make little sense,” he said. “Most people felt Jaun was a non-serious, irresponsible man. But that isn’t true. I knew him for almost 40 years and probably know every moment of his professional and personal life.”
Elia’s next compilation ‘Lekin’ would be available in another six months. There are two other compilations, ‘Shayad’ published while he was still alive, and ‘Yaani’ that was published posthumously. “Jaun’s works all have one-word titles because it was his wish,” he explained, adding that he was also planning to publish one of the epic poems in the form of a separate booklet because, he felt it would be injustice to that piece of genius to put it with other pieces.
Jaun’s niece Shaista recalled how Chicha Jaun would immediately sit the children down after they returned from school and read his latest work. “After he was done, he would ask if we understood the poem and if we said yes, he would say, ‘Great. That means every idiot would understand it’.”
Grandson Kazim recited one of Elia’s most-loved poems, the anti-capitalist ‘Do Awazein’ (Two Voices). This work landed Elia into a lot of trouble, as he had to flee to escape orders of immediate arrest. He wrote it while he still lived in India and recited the poem for the first time at a mushaira in Delhi.
Elia passed away on November 9, 2004, and though completely coincidental, the date set for this gathering was close to his third death anniversary. Elia was in his early seventies when he passed away at a relative’s home in Karachi. He was married to famous writer Zahida Hina and has three children. He is buried in Sakhi Hasan graveyard in Karachi, while he remains alive and breathing in the hearts of his admirers.
The Second Floor is a social-entrepreneurship initiative that was established early this year and believes in change through public discourse and art. They began this series of remembering Urdu poets last month and, according to the organizers, the next episode could be dedicated to either Mir or Musavi. The entry fee is Rs 100 and books are available for sale in the bookshop. Working hours for the café are from noon till midnight, except Mondays.