Melody of Consciousness

Raza Naeem on how Zehra Nigah is the voice of our conscience

Melody of Consciousness
Zehra Nigah, who turned 83 on the 14th of May last month, begins her first volume of poetry Shaam ka Pehla Taara (The First Star of the Evening) with a couplet by Ghalib in which a wish for the renewal of the “Law of Joy” is revealed. This is not a novel wish – humans have been busy for thousands of years in attempting to administer the Law of Joy. But Zehra Nigah’s own verses are witness that here and there, on the margins of the Law of Joy, the anecdotes of the sorrow of existence are chronicled and the commentaries of the sorrows of the heart are written. If the Law of Joy is the desire for life, then the sorrow of reality is life itself. These very desires and realities dissolve within sensory experiences to become the art of the poet. Otherwise,

“Whither love and romance, whither separation and union

Still, now, people long for life”

The contradiction between the desires of the Law of Joy and the realities of life is indeed the moving force and the alluring secret of life itself. This continuous struggle gives humans the courage to live and shows them the way to a desired destination,

“A light of hope, an eternal determination

Dancing in the darkness of life, onward to the destination”

Even today when the world is involved in a grave tussle between life and death, some writers are so busy stitching up their own wounds that they do not see the relationship between the sorrow of self and the sorrow of the world – quite similar to a bird which imagines the sky to be standing on its claws. They indeed imagine their personal sorrows to be the centre of the world.

Zehra Nigah and educationist Arfa Syeda

As far as she is concerned, what is that love which cannot embrace the whole of humanity? What love is it that is captive to the individual? And what is the reality of the sorrow which does not take in the sorrow of the entire world?

But Zehra Nigah’s worldview and truth is very different to those described above. She sees and feels the sorrow of the individual within the perspective of the sorrow of the age. As far as she is concerned, what is that love which cannot embrace the whole of humanity? What love is it that is a captive to the individual, and what is the reality of the sorrow which does not take in the sorrow of the entire world?

“The whole life is lived in the world’s sorrow

Only then your grief gives way to the morrow”

This consciousness and feeling of the sorrow of the world indeed is both a poet’s commodity of life and wealth of art. This sorrow is that spiritual relationship which now torments Zehra Nigah, becoming the anguish of her native land, and then compels her to identify with those slain by injustice in various regions of the world – Vietnam, Bengal, Balochistan and Iran. Thanks to this “blessing of sorrow”, this “wealth of pain”, the memory of departed friends and relatives is refreshed and a passion of love for one’s progeny emerges. Like all mothers Zehra Nigah, too, loves her children dearly, although when maternal instinct becomes the very disposition of the poet, then the tone of love and fidelity in its lyricism becomes very intense. She begins to see the children of Vietnam as her own and loves their talk and tiny innocent wishes:

Seen here among leading voices of the era - alongside Zehra Nigah are Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi, Habib Jalib, Ahmed Faraz and others

“But when will this roof overshadowing my village turn blue?

When will stars shine over it?

And when the milky clouds of my imagination appear?

And when will the particles of bright sunshine come in my fist?

When will I, too, kiss the gusts of wind by running in the fields?

And when will I touch with my hands the coolness of the moon?’

Memories of home, too, trouble Zehra Nigah when she is away from it. Perhaps she feels the tragedy of the homeland with greater intensity owing to this distance. And then the material effect of the distressed condition of that place is more realistic. She says that,

“Where a seal of silence is stamped on the lips

Talk about this very company, if you can 

The lamps of tears are luminous at every step

Talk about the dawn in the homeland only after you extinguish them”

How many bright dreams had Zehra Nigah seen and with how much restlessness had she waited for the dawn of freedom? But,

“Why O night of separation, why did this happen

We were awaiting dawn, but the night saddened”

This night is so long and gruesome, indeed.

The children of the land were told platitudes about the sovereignty of the masses and vows and promises were made, but when the time came for fulfilling them, it became known that:

“The name Shahryar is now commonplace

The adherents of the heart cannot find a place

A hundred griefs that in his hand lies the stitching of every wound

Whose protection offers not a single faithful chord”

Zehra Nigah is not disturbed by the gallows – in that this is an ancient tradition and suits the insane,

“Should they wish to live the insane will do anyways

What to fear in the presence of the gallows?”

She, too, is not afraid of expressing loyalty, and things have come to such a pass that:

“Now the pleasure of seeking has stalled owing to passion

And see, the expression of loyalty loses one’s reputation”

But she does fear lest the nation become accustomed to darkness and begins to adopt death, mistaking it for life,

“Oh God this continuous call of death, this gloom

Lest it suit the hearts beset by doom”

That is why she challenges:

“O Glass-makers, do something, for the house of mirrors

Hadn’t parted from the cheek such, so vexed with colours”

And when every corner of the house of mirrors watches on in a fragmented state, what importance do the quarrels over language, the poor, nation and race hold? Zehra Nigah is a participant in our sorrows, even far away from home. If we shed each other’s blood for the sake of language, she says with great affection and in a very gentle manner:

“Corpses have no country

The dead have no language

In the silence of the ruined home

The calls of mourning are the same

The tone of wailing the same

The calls of crying are the same

This unity of pain indeed is the destiny of us all’

Zehra Nigah is the minstrel of love and fidelity. This same relationship of compassion is her rule of conduct and the source of her emotions. The sorrow of the world and the sorrow of the heart are the two currents of her sensory experiences; and her artistic personality is their confluence. She sees, as mentioned earlier, the sorrow of self within the perspective of the sorrow of the world. That is why in her verse the narrative of the sorrow of the heart is brief and the narrative of the sorrow of the world is very long.

“The tale of the sorrow of the world was long, so I narrated

The tale of the sorrow of the heart is brief, what to say?”

I am not a poet so it is difficult for me to say how Zehra Nigah initially selects the metre of verses for her poems – whether her imagination, topic and passion automatically become the metres of the verse or she chooses the metres herself depending on the nature of her thoughts and feelings. Whatever the situation, there is great harmony in her topics and metres.

Zehra Nigah and Faiz Ahmad Faiz

The destruction of human life and dignity is a tragedy of the entire human race. For this, there is no limitation of East and West, North and South; nor is it bound by race, nation, religion, community and homeland. In fact, it is the issue of every person. The poets of an older generation felt this tragedy with regards to Ethiopia and Spain and the destruction that they suffered at the hands of Fascist great powers in the 1930s. A newer generation received these wounds from Vietnam, Bengal, Balochistan, etc.

These poems of Zehra Nigah are the voice of human conscience. Wherever human personality is wounded or human dignity is trampled upon, her sympathetic heart is hurt.

Zehra Nigah is seen here with Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ahmad Faraz

But her narrative of the sorrow of the heart is too brief, even according to her. She has narrated this, too, with great skill. For her there is no mourning over days past. Instead, the delicate and intoxicating moments of memories have been shaped into songs of happiness. Or the expression of self has become accountability of the self.

Today when a hue and cry over the accountability of others holds sway in Naya Pakistan and the censors have taken over the duties of angels, and nobody sees the splinter in their own eye; Zehra Nigah has introduced us to the idols concealed in our sleeves.

May she live long and prosper, and keep doing so, as is her wont.

Note: All translations from Urdu are the author’s owz

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He has written on and translated the selected works of Ismat Chughtai, Fahmida Riaz, Razia Sajjad Zahee, Kishwar Naheed and Zehra Nigah. He can be reached at:

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979