By Sirajul Haque Memon
In the History of every language some names stand out as the pioneers and leading lights of literature. After Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, Shaikh Ayaz is the next most outstanding and important poet and a literary phenomenon. His contribution to Sindhi literature, both quantitatively and qualitatively, stands out as a beacon of excellence and brilliance. His output is simply awe-inspiring. He has to his credit 50 published works of poetry and prose and to the best of my personal knowledge he has left behind three unpublished manuscripts of poems and the third volume of his autobiography.
It is not only the excellence of his diction and form in poetry but also its content. He experimented in almost every genre, both classical forms of doha, dihira, bait, kafi and wa’I, forms which had almost become extinct after Shah and Sachal Sarmast.
These forms have now regained their grandeur and elegance and every major poet of Sindhi language now feels almost a compulsion to follow the path taken by Ayaz. In the modern forms of verse based on meter, he experimented in all the major genres that exist in Persian and Urdu languages. Apart from ghazal and nazm (including free verse) he also experimented exquisitely in exotic forms like sonnets, haikus and prose poems. Nothing was beyond his reach and he gave a brave new eloquence to every form of art that he practiced. The greatest achievement of Ayaz was his total mastery over the dialectal subtleties, the inner rhythm and lyrical exuberance of the language. He gave new meaning and content to otherwise quite plain words. He used to tell me that Sindhi language has imbibed five thousand years of varied experiences of culture and civilization and, therefore, it had the capability as well as the capacity of expansive expression. Shah Latif Bhitai was his role-model and like him he gave new content and semantic subtilities to ordinary words. Shaikh Ayaz was one of the most well-versed and well-read persons specially in the field of literature of the east and the west. He had read almost all the great poets of all the major languages of the world. Some he had read in original like the Persian, Urdu and English literature while he read the best of Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali, Greek, Latin, Russian, German French and Spanish literature in translation. It was always a delight to sit with him and listen to his selections from Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Rilke, Lorca, Mayakoviski, Rumi, Hafiz, Quratul Ain, Kalidasa, Vidyapati, Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz and other major poets of the world. In one of his books in prose, he has recorded his impressions of these great names of world literature. He has also copiously quoted thought - provoking pieces from the best of the great philosophers, poets and intellectuals of the world in his two volumes of autobiographical sketches. He was conscious of the fact that the great poetry and literature of every language contributed to the collective and civilizational development of the people. Having experienced the delights, the emotional uplifting and cathartic effects of great literature, especially the poetry, he consciously tried to achieve the same greatness and superb sublimity. I can say, without fear of contradiction, that he did achieve the greatness which he aspired. He became a role model for poets and writers of Sindhi language. His influence on the poets and writers of his own, as well as later generations is over-whelming and far-reaching. Every one in Sindh in the field of literature affectionately referred to him as ‘ustad.’ There is another aspect of Shaikh Ayaz which is equally important and that is the social and philosophical content of his poetry. He was a thorough-bred radical humanist, a socialist in the Fabian tradition and a nationalist in the tradition of all great antagonists of imperialism and colonialism. Before the partition of the subcontinent, he stood by the freedom fighters. His elegy on Dodo in the context of Sindh and of Bhaghat Singh in the context of the subcontinent are among the most moving pieces of that genre of poetry. After partition, he accepted Pakistan as a fait accompli and as his homeland. But within Pakistan he was a great believer in federalism and the rights of all nationalities on an equal footing. It was in this background that he took up the cause of anti-one-unit movement in Sindh. In the late 50s and early 60s his new poems became almost an anthem in every political gathering for the rights of Sindh and its people. Because of his poems, the anti-one-unit movement gathered such momentum that even politicians like G.M. Syed and Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan, who were in the forefront of the movement were a little wary because the youth of the province were becoming too rebellious. It was a similar case when he took up the stand in favour of amity, peace and harmony between Pakistan and India because he thought that it was suicidal for the people of both the countries to keep on confronting each other and fighting unnecessary and costly wars. His hymns for peace between Pakistan and India landed him in jail twice. His books were proscribed. The incarceration did not deter him from following the path he had chosen for himself as a writer, as a poet and as an intellectual. He lashed out at the dictatorship of the time and lambasted the efforts made to silence him. In one of his famous poems, which has attained an almost classical stature, he says: would you achieve in imposing silence upon me, are thousands of Mansoors who would continue to defy you! He was also against the military action in East Pakistan and actively participated in the efforts to solve the problem on the basis of the principles of democracy, mutual understanding and tolerance. Some of his pieces on the East Pakistan tragedy are very moving and agonisingly disturbing.AYAZ WAS a humanist in the truest sense of the word. Universal brotherhood of mankind was his creed. He was so averse to religious obscurantism, exploitation of the poor and downtrodden that he was castigated by some lobbies as a communist and a heretic. But I know that he was a deeply spiritual individual. He was a great believer in co-existence and an intimate rapport between Urdu and other national languages of Pakistan. His contribution to Urdu poetry is also of great quality and calibre. His collection of poems Bui Gul Nalai Dil and other pieces published in various journals of eminence qualify him as a major poet of Urdu as well. His magnum opus, however, is the translation of Risalo of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai into Urdu verse, which has not only made the message of Shah Abdul Latif — a message of love, compassion and universal brotherhood — accessible to the Urdu-speaking community but also made the Urdu and Sindhi speaking communities living in Sindh come together to understand and share the pathos of Sindh. He knew most of the luminaries of Urdu literature on a personal level and had been a participant in the Progressive Writers Movement. Later, he was an active member of the Pakistan Writers Guild. Sibte-Hasan, Faiz and Josh were his personal friends. Qudratullah Shahab, Aali, Ahmad Nadeem Qasim and almost all the major writers of Urdu recognized his merit and paid rich tributes to him whenever an occasion arose. Ayaz was a versatile genius. He was a lawyer by profession. He had a roaring practice in the field of criminal law at Sukkur. He travelled a lot to attend his cases. He came to know the sociological rigidity of the tribal and feudal society in Sindh which resulted in cruelty and violence. He saw cruelty and violence at close quarters and it made him aware of the emotional instability of the people involved in criminal cases. He wrote some fascinating short stories based on true facts and various tribal and feudal customs like karo kari. He established a personal rapport with his clients who would then open their hearts to him. He understood their emotional turbulence, their romances, their tribal loyalties overshadowing their compassion and above all the angularities of human relationship. This he used as his raw material for his short stories and autobiographical sketches. He was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of Sindh University by Z.A. Bhutto. He brought a substantive change in the academic atmosphere of the University and almost compelled the teachers to undertake research in their respective fields of knowledge. He would encourage them to publish their dissertations and lure them to go abroad on scholarships for improving the quality of their academic skills. After retirement from his profession, he shifted from Sukkur to Karachi. It was during this period of retirement that his output increased. He had a stroke and then a heart attack. He would laughingly say that he had fought the angel of death by showing him the volumes of poetry that are yet to be published. Sindh, and indeed Pakistan, have lost a great son. He rose like an everlasting meteor on the intellectual and literary horizon. After Faiz Sahib, the death of Ayaz is an irreparable loss for Pakistan.
Like all great poets, writers, scholars and intellectuals Shaikh Ayaz was at times misunderstood, misinterpreted and misjudged not only by his die hard adversaries, but by his admirers as well. Intrinsic meaning in his poetry and prose had an aura of profundity and always surpassed the apparent meaning of the words he used in his compositions. Surrounded by controversies and shrouded in mysteries, Shaikh Ayaz was an enigma. More than thirty years before he embarked upon his eternal journey into the unknown on Sunday, 28 December, 1997 he had become a legend in his lifetime. He then had produced remarkable literature of resistance to wage a gruelling war against the dictator Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan. In the final analysis his pen proved mightier than the sword. Thereafter, the world saw the emergence of a totally different Sindh imbued with defiance:many voices shall thou silence, dictator! am not alone, but many. For some Shaikh Ayaz was a saint, and for others a sinner; for some he was a believer and for others he was a non-believer; for some he was a patriot and for others he was a traitor; for some he was a mystic and for others he was an atheist. He was always vehemently and emotionally debated and discussed. You may like him, or you may not, but to ignore him was inconceivable. To understand Shaikh Ayaz is to first understand his thought process and consciousness. An enormous vocabulary does not turn a poet into a great poet. It is something else that elevates a person from the ordinary to the realms of reverence. A highly receptive sensibility, penetrative perception and persuasive eagerness to understand the ethos of the political, social, cultural and economic conflicts in proximity transform a poet into a great poet, and a writer into a great writer of his time. A poet of paramount prominence must pronounce his opinion with convictions: the pearls he carries, not pelt him with stones, the minstrel will not return. The partition of India had a traumatic bearing on the prose and poetry of Shaikh Ayaz. Enduring pathos became a hallmark in his expression. He became the poet of suffering humanity and arose above petty politics. He was not concerned with the creation or disintegration of a country, but what plunged him in unbearable agony and pain was the division and separation of people, separation of friends and loved ones. To give vent to his feelings, Ayaz drowned in anguish and wrote profusely. Never before had Sindhi literature experienced such volcanic force steeped in tragedy.in a battle field, front of Narayan Sham, am I to kill him!(Narayan Sham was a childhood friend of Ayaz, and a remarkable poet, and had migrated to India after partition. He passed away a few years ago). Thus, Shaikh Ayaz was hounded by those who are infested with a perverse desire to sit in judgment on other people’s conscience and consciousness. For undemocratic and sick minds Ayaz was a traitor; he was incarcerated. The One Unit, sinister and political fiends in the history of Pakistan (1956-68) left a deep and everlasting impact on the soul of Shaikh Ayaz. He was not prepared to accept Sindh as sabiq , (former) Sindh; for Shaikh Ayaz, Sindh was a living entity; Sindh could not become sabiq under any pretext. And then, an anthem for a living and vibrant Sindh echoed throughout the region: land of the country called Sindh, , I bow before thee, , adore my forehead thy soil. Vicious campaigns of slur and hatred were unleashed against Ayaz. He was censured for arousing separatist tendencies among the youth of Sindh. He was incriminated for infusing a movement for Sindhudesh, and revolt against the federation. He was accused of farming hatred against the State and was charged with sedition. By then, Shaikh Ayaz had become a household name in Sindh. By temperament Shaikh Ayaz was anti-authoritarian. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto did not want to pick trouble with Shaikh Ayaz, and he became instrumental in his appointment as Vice Chancellor of Sindh University. Ayaz was not an educationist. By no stretch of imagination was he an administrator. He was genuinely and naturally inclined as a poet and had digested the classical literature of English, Sindhi, Urdu, Hindi, and Persian languages. Soon he entered into disagreement with the students and the University teachers. The years Ayaz spent at the University tarnished his image. He came lonely, sad, and forlorn and went into oblivion for sometime. And thus commenced the final phase in the turbulent life of the great poet. There was something strange, inexplicable about Shaikh Ayaz. He composed poetry in the modern times, but in his diction he had established a spiritual link with Kabir, Kalidas, Rumi, Milton, Keats, Farid, Bulhay Shah, Sachal Sarmast, and Shah Latif Bhatti. One often wonders whether he was their disciple who had put on a mysterious cloak and had surmounted the phenomenon of timelessness to be with us! I do not know. Those of us who claim to have known Ayaz intimately, in fact do not know him. After Shah Latif Bhitai, Shaikh Ayaz was bestowed with enormous vocabulary to express the complexities of life in multiple forms with effortless ease and simplicity in his expressions. And, after Sachal Sarmast, Mansoor Hallaj of Sindh, Shaikh Ayaz was the bold, brave, and fearless poet who during the closing years of his life wrote of direct communion with his Creator.... the true essence of a mystic sufi!