"I Am a Poet of Workers and Peasants": Working-Class Poets of Pakistan

By Memon, Qalandar Bux; Yousaf, Zeeshan | World Literature Today, November/December 2013 | Go to article overview

"I Am a Poet of Workers and Peasants": Working-Class Poets of Pakistan


Memon, Qalandar Bux, Yousaf, Zeeshan, World Literature Today


The sky bore witness, the earth too cried, Someone passed in splendour, someone else passed away.

- Josh Malihabadi

Like Sufiand progressive poets, today's Pakistani working-class poets stand with their class in daily toil and struggle, enlightening it, highlighting it, and enriching it.

Pakistan is a vastly inequitable society. The elite-an oligarchy consisting of military generals, feudal landowners, and statesponsored industrialists-live in mansions, import nannies from the Philippines, import luxury cars, wine, and champagne. Living apart from the workers of their land and factories, their existence is one of splendor. The poor- peasants and workers-live in poverty and daily die in poverty. It is widely agreed that at least 60 percent of Pakistanis live below the poverty line of $2 a day, and 22.6 percent live under $1 a day. Two dollars is roughly 200 rupees. Today, in the market, 12 bananas were selling for 90 rupees. A liter of milk varies from between 70 to 90 rupees depending on one's location, and a kilo of rice costs 165 rupees. Therefore, it is no surprise that 44 percent of those under five in Pakistan are stunted and 32 percent are underweight.

Stunted and malnourished Pakistanis are also its labor force. 57.2 million women, men, and children work: 43 percent in agriculture, 20.3 percent in industry, and the remaining 36.6 percent in other services. Eleven million children work in the country, with nearly half of these working under the age of ten. Further, since the 1970s, millions of Pakistanis have migrated to take up working-class jobs in the Middle East and the UK-often taking jobs that locals refuse to do-and earn vastly lower pay than the locals for the same jobs. Statistics don't tell the whole story. The typical Pakistani worker moves from urban to rural, industrial, and farmwork both frequently and with fluidity. Peasants often move from rural areas for months at a time to urban industrial sites, only to return a few months later with a few thousand rupees saved up for the yearly wheat harvest. Thus the Pakistani working class is simultaneously peasantry and working class, and its poets are the registrars of its sufferings and resistance.

The life and work of Arif Shah is illustrative. Arif Shah was born in a working-class family in 1948 in Faisalabad, Pakistan's biggest industrial city. At the age of twelve he ran away from the poverty of home to earn a living. After wandering around for a while, he began driving a horse cart in the town of Toba Tek Singh. "I was the youngest coach driver in the city," he told me. A few years later, he migrated to Muscat, but he couldn't find a regular job there and soon returned, enrolling in the military. The 1960s and 1970s were fevered with leftist revolutionary momentum. Leftorganizations had played a leading role in overthrowing two dictators during this period. Arif Shah began to recite his poems at political rallies. His superiors in the military were not happy with his political activities. They were further dumbfounded with his refusal to partake in operations in what was then East Pakistan (today Bangladesh), where a national independence movement was being brutally put down by the military.

Court-martialed and dismissed from the military, Arif Shah has spent the rest of his life wandering from one laboring occupation to another: sometimes in factories, sometimes in fields, sometimes as a studio hand or an actor in Lollywood (Pakistan's film studios based in Lahore), and sometimes as a security guard. Always writing and storing experiences, he recited his poems wherever people would listen, between shifts at tea-stalls, on the job to workers around him, and at Sufishrines and at political rallies. "I feel happiest reciting at tea stalls sitting with workers . . . literary gatherings do not suit my type of poetry," he told us. Arif Shah is emblematic of the working-class poetry of Pakistan. Terse, written in local vernaculars (Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Saraiki, Balochi) as opposed to the official and state-promoted language of Urdu, recited in informal gatherings rather than formal literary gatherings, seldom written down but remembered orally and passed on as such. …

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