TSC Interviews | Hasan Mujtaba

Hasan Mujtaba is a Pakistani poet and journalist living in America in exile, as his work on the persecution of Hindus in Sindh earned him the wrath of his country's government. His poetry collection Koel Sheher Ki Katha has been recently released, with a foreword by journalist and novelist Mohammad Hanif. He spoke to The Sunflower Collective's Abhimanyu Singh at length about his work, his experience of exile, his love for Allen Ginsberg's poetry, and the murder of Sabeen Mahmud, his friend, among other things. Here are the edited excepts :

                                                                Source : wire.in

AS: Could you tell us the exact circumstances in which you decided to go into exile in the US? It appears that you were there to receive a prestigious award following which you decided to stay back?

HM: State and non-state actors were after my blood because of my journalistic work. I was an anti-military establishment journalist, poet and writer, and was also a nonconformist Sindhi, and openly bisexual in today’s Islamic Republic of Pakistan which I call as Intelligence Republic of Ghaibistan (the land of the disappeared). The last assignment I was doing as a journalist in Pakistan was on the state of Hindus in Sindh in the backdrop of India-Pakistan relations. So, in the words of the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz,"Every road that goes from here leads to the slaughter house." To escape death threats owing to my published work, I wanted to flee the country and take refuge anywhere in the world that respected human rights and freedom of expression. Invitation from the US to receive my Excellence in International Journalism Award from the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University came out of blue. I took it as a life jacket. America proved to be a promised land for my safety and freedom.

AS: Exile seems to play an important role in your poetic worldview. Could you elaborate on what it is that exile does to a poet? Have you come to terms with it, as the poem in the video seems to suggest?

HM: I did not come to America as an economic refugee but as a political exile. Pull and push factors between my country which I left behind and the new country where I arrived would really play buzkushi with me. It ripped me off every day and pieced me together in my dreams every night. That is why most of the poetry I wrote here revolves around exile. I think any poet and writer who has to say something which puts him into real hot waters must have a country of exile. But this is the beauty of America that it gives you a great opportunity for assimilation. Unlike your country, here you don’t have to look above your shoulder. Or you lend your ear to your doorbell.It is the rootlessness: walking between your country of origin and what Rushdie calls the imagined homeland; your country of origin evaporates into a metaphor.

AS: Do you intend to ever return? What is it that you miss the most about Pakistan? Do you think the murder of Sabeen Mahmud marked a new low?

HM: Well, I return every second or third night in my dreams in my sleep. I have made America my home but Sindh exists somewhere else. I want to return one day like Gabriel Garcia Marquez returns in his ‘Clandestine in Chile’. Or, only after my death, in the form of my ashes to be scattered onto Sindhu, the river Indus. So far, I don’t intend to return. I will return when the country really starts to respect human rights and stops killing Sabeen Mehmuds. Her killing was a political but state sponsored assassination which of course has sent the country into its lowest. Everyone close to her knows well Sabeen was killed because she hosted a seminar on Baluchistan. Talking on Baluchistan differently than the official line of the State means inviting death for yourself.Of course, I miss my friends, my parents who are ageing, people and places I visited. I wish I could revisit them again. And the people I fell in and made love with.

AS : The poem in the video pays an ode to Allen Ginsberg. Tell us about your relationship with his work and why do you think he remains relevant?

HM: I was in my late teens when I was captivated by a single line of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl that I read as a passing reference in a book that I had bought from a used book cart in my city Hyderabad in Sindh. The line was: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….”I was so amazed by the writings about Allen Ginsberg and the Beat generation that I went to the local library of the erstwhile American Center and got his collection of poetry Howl. Later, I was fascinated by his Indian Journals and other works. It made me think he was to India like Ravi Shankar was to America. He was, I thought, up to building bridges between eastern philosophy with western civilization, especially American sub-culture and literature. I developed an image of America in mind that was in Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. When I came to America, he was still alive. My friend Ifti Nasim (who died in July 2011,alas, men of his ilk take centuries to be born in Pakistani and Muslim societies; He was a poet, and a gay rights activist in main stream LGBT movement in America) came to America in mid 1970s and had a chance meeting with Allen Ginsberg. I had then read him in American libraries and heard about him a lot through Ifti. This was Allen Ginsberg who did not only change the culture and every day slang of America but even influenced my generation in the East or subcontinent of South Asia. I stayed around Columbia University. I would hang out with my other exiled friends like Zafaryab Ahmed and another in a famous bar called West End near Columbia University, and in the Greenwich Village where Allen Ginsberg and his comrades used to hang out. And with my American sociologist friend Amy Donavan in the Greenwich Village. There were other personalities like Edward Said I saw in Columbia and Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn. Yet, it was a different America. Different Greenwich Village. The world was different in pre-September 2001 period, till terrorists attacked America. To me, America meant poetry of Allen Ginsberg and New York. It is from the stairs of the New York Public Library, right on the Fifth Avenue, that I saw the Hare Rama Hare Krishna parade. And I saw a man towards the end of the line in the parade looking like Allen Ginsberg. I did relate that all to the giant American poet and his spiritual connection to India, and to myself in America and back to Sindh to the streets of Schwan and all. It unfolded to me like the opening of floodgates of Deja vu sort of feelings, and thoughts . It really swept me away from across the Atlantic to Sindh, from Hudson to Sindhu and the sub-continent. I return with the poem dedicated to Allen Ginsberg.

AS: Could you tell us a little about your new collection? Who are the poets other than Ginsberg that inspire you? What role does Sindh play in your poetry?

HM: “Koel Shahar Ki Katha” ( A tale of cuckoo’s city) is a collection of Urdu and some Punjabi poetry (as I write poetry in my native language Sindhi , Urdu, Punjabi and little in English as well) consisting of poems I wrote during my years of exile in New York. It has been published by Saanjh Publishers, Lahore with a foreword by my friend and novelist Mohammed Hanif. Though I have made America my home, Sindh is the center of gravity of my poetry. It includes a poem about my exilic experience in New York City though. My book begins with an ode to Allen Ginsberg and ends on a poem against Mumbai attacks titled “Zia-ul-Haq talking from his grave”. May be you will find it a little different from the traditional and modern Urdu poetry. There are some cuss words. There are curses against generals and dictators. There is a poem against killing of children in the mosque of Rawalpindi in the name of God. There is a poem on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto; Benazir Bhutto of my poetry is different than the Benazir I would love to criticize in my journalistic writings. Of course, there are love poems based on the theme of love for both man and woman, including my own favorite poem written on missing a beloved, ‘That boy with the name of Yosuif’. I have made my own kind of Sindh in America: Sindh in exile. There is a poem in Punjabi on sale of the house of Amrita Pritam that was I have heard razed to ground, with a plaza to be built over its site. And there is a ‘song of missing persons’, about the people who were made to disappear at the hands of military in Pakistan: the Baluchs and the Sindhis. There was a poem against Taliban which my publisher refrained to include in the collection. Besides Allen Ginsberg, I am deeply influenced by the great Sufi and Sindhi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, and, doyen of Sindhi poetry Shaikh Ayaz( Shaikh Ayaz would have been a Nobel Prize Laureate if he had found a translator befitting his poetry), Imdad Hussaini, Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, all classical masters Mir Taqi Mir, Ghalib to modern day Urdu poet Gulzar, Afzal Ahmed Syed, Fehmida Riaz, German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, American poets Silvia Plath, Charles Bukowski, Maya Angelou, and Punjabi poets great Sufi Bulleh Shah and today’s Najam Hussain Sayed, Kabir and Rumi and my own beloved friend and Sindhi poet Hasan Dars who died young; new promising voice Amar Sindhu is in the list of poets I have madly fallen in love with all my life.         

AS : The Amhed episode involving the clock shows America might be dealing with rampant Islamophobia. Does it colour your everyday existence?

HM: This is an unfortunate incident but Ahmed is lucky he wasn’t a Sindhi, a Hindu, and living in Sindh under Pakistan. I know a Hindu engineer who tried to invent an electronic gadget was harassed and hounded by the military spies. Another brilliant engineer Ashok Kumar is still missing on charges of a wireless found from his office since 1973. A Hindu journalist who was mistakenly included in a group of reporters visiting the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant came under intense investigation. However, as a Latin American proverb goes,“exile is a cow which sometimes gives poisonous milk.” So sometimes here in America, unfortunately, everybody does experience attitudes, treatment, or even discrimination by everyone else on basis of his or her color of skin, religion, national origins, faith, sect, culture, nationality, race , sex or sexual orientation on everyday basis on every level in a very crude or unseemly way, although that’s not what America is all about. It’s unlawful and unconstitutional in America . As far as Islamophobia is concerned, there is a thin line between it and the Islamo-fascism the world is facing these days. But I am optimistic the world will be a livable place for everyone again.

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