October issue 2006

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 18 years ago

Mahmood Jamal’s Sugar-Coated Pill: Selected Poems gives a sense of different aspects of the South Asian experience. From the problems of colonisation, to the problems of migration, alienation, the marginalisation of minorities, political problems, and even the complexities of romance, Jamal gives us all. With contexts as new and relevant to the modern world as Islamic extremism, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and the increasing fear and discrimination of minorities, especially Muslim ones, Jamal offers up fresh subjects that are pertinent, politically and socially, to the modern reader.

And that’s not all, either. Jamal has his traditional moments. His poem ‘Ghazal,’ poeticising the cruelty of the unnamed “she,” with its reference to the “moth,” the “dark curtains” of her “hair,” “Leila,” and the “wilderness,” seems as though translated from Ghalib. The structure, too, echoes the Urdu couplet. Another poem, inspired by Faiz’s Ham Ke Thahre Ajnabi, is called ‘Song’ and is an interesting mix of ornateness and minimalism. Particularly memorable is the line, “I force a smile / at your hello / I’ll stay a while / and then I’ll go / I cannot stay?” The Sugar-Coated Pill ends on a translation of Iqbal’s Bachon Ki Dua or “Child’s Prayer.” Quite unexpected, for a book that starts with an intensely minimalistic, political poem, ‘You and I.’

In fact, that is what he is best at. Angus Calder, Scotland-based journalist, historian and literary critic, to whom the introduction of this book is credited, says of him that he is an “outstanding political poet.” In fact, the entire selection is reminiscent of Faiz. ‘Two Women’ is a particularly poignant piece about the “poor getting poorer” and “the rich getting richer.” And the title poem, ‘Sugar-Coated Pill’ has some distinctly socialist undertones.

‘Apples and Mangoes’ is a wonderfully humorous poem in the form of a conversation between a few intellectual sorts, a professor from SOAS, a ‘liberal host,’ a social worker from Battersea, a pale, bespectacled revolutionary and an artist. A mango is under close scrutiny, and for each of these people it symbolises something close to their hearts and lives. The poet, however, in the end, gives us his own perspective on the subject. One that must link mangoes with apples: some mangoes taste like apples though they look like mangoes. “A cross between an apple and a mango,” the professor finally comes out with a solution that ties up the poem and yet comes as a surprise.

Mahmood Jamal is not fussy with form. The Selected Poems is an amalgam of different structures, some of which are lovely to look at as well. The stanza bends easily to the will of the words instead of the other way round. Not only is free verse employed but certain very complex forms that produce varied rhythms that are in keeping with the feel of the poem. Form is not only a tool for Jamal, but as with any gifted artist, it is designed to create pictures and sounds to the reader. The short poem, ‘Objectivity’ (“On a dark night / Only when you turn the light out / In your room / Can you see beyond / the window pane.”) appears as though a sentence of prose was broken up over the lines, yet is lyrical and fraught with profundity.

The Sugar-Coated Pill contains many other masterpieces of modern literature. Jamal’s verse, despite his rich use of irony, symbolism, and other such techniques, is bold and outspoken, making statements far more important than mere literary ones.

Hani Yousuf started her career at Newsline Magazine in 2006. Since then, she has completed a Master's in Journalism at Columbia University and reported and written for magazines and newspapers in Germany, the US and the South Asian region. She is now a PR consultant, based in Karachi.