May Day 2023: How Urdu poetry highlights the struggles of working-class

How Urdu poets, from Allama Iqbal to Ali Sardar Jafri, shed light on the hardscrabble worlds of the working class

migrant workers
A group of migrant workers walk to their native places amid the nationwide complete lockdown, on the NH24 near Delhi-UP border in New Delhi on March 27, 2020. File photo: PTI

In Allama Iqbal’s poem Lenin (Khuda Ke Hazoor Mein)/Lenin (Before God), Vladimir Lenin, the Russian revolutionary leader who played a pivotal role in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, tells the Almighty: tu qadir-o-aadil hai magar tere jahaan mein/hain talḳh bahut banda-e-mazdoor ke auqaat (Omnipotent, righteous, You; but in your world/Hard indeed are the labourers’ hours).  In the poem, published in 1935 in his collection Baal-e-Jibreel (Gabriel’s Wing), one of the most significant Urdu poets of the 20th century alludes to the struggles of the working-class individuals who, despite being endowed with talents and abilities, are constrained by the structural inequalities and limitations imposed by the unjust society they inhabit.

In yet another poem in the collection, Farman-e-Khuda (The Divine Order), God urges his angels to wake up the oppressed and downtrodden of His world in order for them to shake off the shackles of poverty and oppression, overcoming the barriers of class: uthho meri dunya ke ghareebon ko jagaa do/kaakh-e-umaraa ke dar-o-deevaar hila do.

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It is in the latter poem that Iqbal’s oft-quoted, revolutionary lines figure: Jis khet se dahqaan ko mayassar nahi rozi/us khet ke har khosha-e-gandum ko jala do. Iqbal, who wrote several nationalistic and patriotic poems, including Sare Jahan Se Accha, is referring to the fields where the poor labourers toil day and night, but still struggle to make ends meet. In these lines, God is ordering angels to burn down the fields of the wealthy, who exploit the poor for their own profit, and create a new system where everyone has equal opportunities to prosper.

Tired faces, wounded backs

Urdu poetry has a long-standing tradition of capturing the essence of human experiences, emotions, and societal issues. Like Iqbal, several Urdu poets have shed light on the hardscrabble worlds of the working class — their struggles, aspirations, and resilience. Among the various themes (husn/beauty or ishq/love, for instance) explored by Urdu poets, the portrayal of labourers and the plight of the working class holds a significant place

Through their evocative nazms (poems), poets like Jameel Mazhari, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib, Sahir Ludhianvi, and Kaifi Azmi gave a voice to the marginalized and highlighted the societal injustices faced by the labouring class. Their poetry serves as a catalyst for social change, urging us to recognize the value of labour and advocate for the rights and well-being of workers.

Jamil Mazhari’s powerful Mazdoor is a powerful expression of the plight and struggles of the working class. The poem opens with a declaration of the speaker’s identity as a worker, someone who is not only powerless but also compelled to work due to their circumstances. The speaker goes on to assert his common humanity with others, underscoring the irony of the situation where their sweat and labour go into producing the wealth of the rich, who then use that wealth to light their lamps in temples and homes. He also speaks of the workers’ contribution to society, the very foundation of its marketplaces and its beauty in the form of colourful faces and lit hearts. The speaker proudly claims the workers’ role in illuminating the world with their burning passion and desires.

The workers’ experience of being rejected and marginalized by the very society they serve is also mentioned. The speaker says that their labour is seen as expendable, and they are left out in the cold, while the rich enjoy the luxuries of life. He also dwells on the unchanging nature of the workers’ plight, how they suffer in extreme weather conditions, while their needs for basic necessities like clothing are often ignored.

He presents a poignant image of the workers’ children playing with dust and mud, while dreaming of a better future, but their aspirations are often crushed under the weight of their poverty. The speaker reminds the readers that workers are not only human beings, but they also have hearts that are capable of empathy and generosity. They pray for the gods and hope for a better life, even when their present circumstances are bleak.

He lays bare the reality of the workers’ lives, their dry and tired faces, their wounded backs, and their struggle for basic human rights. The speaker acknowledges that the world is not just unfair but actively works against the workers. “Mazhab ka irada bhi un ka, dunya-e-siyasat bhi un ki/Paband hamein karne ke liye sau rahein nikali jati hain/Qanoon banae jate hain, zanjirein dhalai jati hain/Phir bhi aghaz ki shokhi mein anjam dikhai deta hai/Ham chup hain lekin fitrat ka insaaf duhai deta hai.” The speaker says that those in power use religion and politics to manipulate and control the working class. They create rules and regulations, and use chains and imprisonment to suppress the voice of the workers. Despite this, the working class remains quiet and submissive, but Nature’s justice demands fairness.

A morsel of capitalism

In his poem Nivala (Morsel), Ali Sardar Jafri highlights the plight of child labourers, who are forced to work in hazardous conditions in factories and mills. The poem depicts a child who is born into poverty and is forced to work in a factory at a very young age. The child’s mother works in a silk factory, while the father is busy working in a cotton mill.

The poem describes how the child’s life revolves around the factory and the constant struggle for survival. The child’s innocence is lost due to the harsh realities of life, and the child is forced to grow up before its time. The child works in the factory day and night, dreaming of a better life and a brighter future.

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The poem talks about how the child’s labour contributes to the wealth of the factory owners, while the child remains hungry and deprived of basic necessities. The child’s hands will produce gold and silver ornaments, but the child will never be able to afford them. The factory will have electricity, but the child will not have access to it.

The poem highlights the child’s vulnerability and the constant fear of exploitation. The child is a victim of the system that exploits its innocence and uses its labour to make a profit. Ye jo nanha hai bhola-bhala hai/sirf sarmaaye ka nivala hai/puuchhati hai ye us ki khamoshi
koi mujh ko bachaane vaala hai (This little one is innocent and naïve/Only a plaything of the wealthy/His silence asks me. Is there anyone who will save me?)
The child’s silence can be seen as a metaphor for the voicelessness of the oppressed, who are unable to speak out against their exploitation.

Iqbal ends Lenin with: “Kab doobega sarmayaprasti ka safina?/Dunya hai teri muntazir-e-roz-e-makafat. (When shall the ship of capitalism flounder?/Your world, your day of wrath, lord! stands and waits.)

He had perhaps hoped that capitalism, a flawed economic system that prioritizes profit over people and the environment, will eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions and that a more just and equitable system will emerge in its place. The day of reckoning, when those who have oppressed and exploited the working class will meet their nemesis is perhaps yet to come, but come it will. Urdu poetry, with its rich tapestry of emotions and social consciousness, is also a receptacle of that hope.