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Remembering Taufiq Rafat (1927-1998)

A personal note on a great poet

by Khaled Ahmed

Poets live beyond the fading of memory and surpass the judgments of prose. It is possible that written things die because they are judgmental, soiled by the temper of times and prejudices of those that live in temporal flux. Our times have been strongly tinged by opinion about things rather than things themselves; the presentation of reality is in fact an iteration of doctrines, dredged from the past or fashioned anew by the exigencies of power. Opinion is often described as the interpretation of reality that helps us supersede the past and arrive at a new understanding of things. But where Taufiq Rafat lived and wrote poetry in English, opinion pushed us backward rather than forward. His poetry negates the tyranny of opinion.

In 1978, when I found myself back in Lahore—without a job after leaving the Foreign Service—I discovered that Taufiq had moved from Rawalpindi to Lahore as well. His furniture business was still intact and he could afford to live off Maratab Ali Road, the “posh” area. He spoke Punjabi, was carefully rustic in his speech and behavior, hiding the mastery he had over English. Poetry must have been a very secret activity, something that probably went on as he talked to you in Punjabi, making fun of the new received wisdom about having a small family. At least once a week, I took my family (that I could no longer support) to his house and had dinner with him amid much good cheer provided by the indomitable Rehana, his wife, and Taufiq’s numerous but extremely interesting offspring.

That is the memory that is uppermost in my mind perhaps because those were my bad days and Taufiq was generous. I had known him from my time at Government College, when he used to encourage us poetasters not to give up but write in de-orientalized English. I think poetry springs from one’s early insufficient acquaintance with language. Taufiq told us that poetry, far from being a vague expression, depended on un-frilled precision. I still have a poem of mine that he corrected by hand to make it lean, something that has taken me long years to understand.

Taufiq’s poems were published in the literary-political journal Encounter, where his work often accompanied that of Kaleem Omar. Kaleem was quick-witted, a little intolerant of our undergrad gushings in verse, but he deferred to Taufiq as il miglior fabbro (the better smith) and it was a relationship that I looked at with admiration. Both were interested in our not giving up English versification but wielded the scalpel and cruelly eviscerated what was English poetry in the I-fall-on-the-thorns-of-life-I-bleed tradition. The two had gathered around them young poetry-writing pupils: Shuja Nawaz, Athar Tahir, Alamgir Hashmi, Ahmad Rashid, and others I can’t recall. Later, Shuja, Athar and Alamgir were to become well-received practitioners of English verse with books that actually sold at home and were acknowledged abroad. After I had written an introduction to Shuja’s volume for the Oxford University Press in 1997, the only correction he wanted was an acknowledgement of the influence he had absorbed in his formative years from Taufiq. Athar was the most loyal of Taufiq’s pupils even in the years of the latter’s twilight.

Kaleem’s tributes to Taufiq’s poetry and person tell us today of the depth of their friendship. The duo had emerged from a trio that also contained Khawaja Shahid Hosein, who had dried up as a poet after First Voices. Both deferred to Maki Qureshi in Karachi and saw great merit in her work. Kaleem was brusque and used satire as a corrective; Taufiq was patient, conscious of a new Pakistani idiom he was nurturing. Taufiq patiently collected all the juvenilia written in Government College Lahore, painstakingly put it right and published the collection, announcing the beginning of a new era of poetry-writing in English. Versifying in English was no longer a lonely business covering up adolescent guilt.

Taufiq put Pakistan on the Commonwealth map after Zulfiqar Ghose wrote one well-received book of English verse, then took to writing novels, and faded away in Latin America. Taufiq was conscious of Indians writing English verse across the border and had read Dom Moraes and Nissim Ezekiel. Around that time, a teacher of English at GC had written an article in The Ravi criticizing those who dared versify in English. Another teacher had claimed that English poets could not be understood by students in GC because of the cultural barrier.

In 1977, I used to catch a wagon from the Foreign Office in Islamabad to go see Taufiq at his office in Pindi. I saw him supervising his contractors and artisans as a businessman who betrayed no sign of his poetic temperament. He was completely businesslike. He was unsentimental in private life, too, just as he abhorred poeticisms in poetry; like the furniture he made, his poems beautifully dovetailed, without any joints protruding with overflowing emotion. As a rueful poetaster hooked on Dylan Thomas, I loved his early imagery, which he soon got rid of in favor of the line and the rhythm.

Somewhere deep down inside himself, Taufiq must have been thinking of us, of life, of his family whom he loved so unconditionally. Somehow, no one could ever reach him. He was secured against any more hurt by his ‘distance.’ He had turned off the world. And those of us who still lived in it felt the cruel pathos of it as we sat in front him and talked. Taufiq was not only a good poet, he was also a good man, and that is saying a lot in our day.

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