I can’t tell you about the first time I met Irfan Malik. But I can tell you that I always called him Irfan Malik. He was visiting my mother at our house in Shadman, Lahore, on his return flights from Boston. We would listen to music, and he would recite his poetry to my parents and encourage me to read mine.
He was fond of correcting people’s rhyme schemes and metrics (which persist even now that words have eluded him), but he’ll eventually tell you to get rid of imitation altogether. Who became a great poet by being a traditionalist? Irfan Malik was the only one of my parents’ friends whom I could comfortably call by his full name. He was one of those people who never treated children like children.
Like any good storyteller, Irfan has the patience that helps him get along with children. Sunita Gill, the director who has also known Irrfan since she was a child, sent a beautiful video message, in which she said, “It is an honor to have your life imprinted on my life.”
Recently, his partner, Amna Battar, came to Lahore to make sure he’s settled, say goodbye. She and I organized an event, Beyond Words, at SAFMA to celebrate Irfan’s collection: Eight Anthology and Punjabi translation of the work of his friend Gösta Friberg. We wanted to do it while he could still enjoy it. He attended all his fellow poets and leftists from Lahore. Friends and collaborators from Stockholm, Cambridge and New York sent video messages to be played at the event. The writer’s friends recited Irfan’s poetry, and many poets such as Raja’ Sadiqullah and Hassan Mojtaba recited poems inspired by Irfan. There, with his daughter Ariana at his side, in a room full of people who loved him, amid a celebration of his work, I almost felt like he remembered who he was….
Irfan is in the last stages of dementia and logical aphasia. Amna was a professor of geriatrics at New York University when they first met. As she tells her, he read her a poem and she was in love. At that time, symptoms first started and they both believed that love and literature could conquer anything. And so the poet, who was losing his words, fell in love with a doctor who was treating the disease that was stealing them.
On a trip to Lahore during the honeymoon period, he first told me about it, referring to it simply as “thorny“(The Beloved). When he had dinner with Amna in my apartment a month ago, I asked him who she was and he said:bender(Monkey). What hasn’t changed is the way he looks at him, the way he cuddles his kids, his sense of humor and his willingness to carry a musical tone.
We had coffee on the rooftop after dinner and Irfan recalled, in silent fine detail, the many adventures we had had when he helped me move into my place of university, in a strange city. It took five minutes and a lot of help from me and Amna to tell the story: The Red Sox played a game; it was raining; We couldn’t find parking. My mother (whom he referred to as my sister) was having a seizure. He said I had a lot of bags; I said I’ve been carrying my whole life. Amna and I were shocked – reliving a memory of 11 years so accurately was amazing.
In Boston, Irfan, a writer and colleague replacing Lahori, became the person to call when college wasn’t bringing out the best in me. In 2011, during my freshman year, I went to see him at a bar in Cambridge. His father died a few days ago in Lahore, and he was not there. On his way to meet me, he got lost and arrived very late and was confused. By the time I had it back up to grieving, the dementia was starting to show. Once he got his directions, he took out a piece of crumpled paper and read a poem he had written for his father, lamenting the unpaid debt he owed.
During my time in college, Irfan continued to deteriorate. His symptoms were initially misdiagnosed as the consequences of a mini-stroke. He was diagnosed with dementia only when the aphasia became noticeable – he stuttered and struggled to find English words. Doctors concluded that he would lose his languages in the order in which he learned them. When he told me, we spent the whole night contemplating the existence of a speechless writer and trying to imagine a worse fate. We weren’t quite right, because when I see him now I know that love doesn’t need language, it doesn’t need music or humor.
Malik was born, or so the tale goes, in the Dubai Bazaar within the Walled City. He once explained to me that he has deep roots in Lahore, and you can tell he can’t pronounce the letter. I don’t remember the exact reasoning, but it was something about how sound waves moved in the terrain of ancient Lahore that shaped people’s tastes in a certain way – they couldn’t pronounce the palatal consonants correctly. The word was not friendly to Irfan Malik, long before all other words turned against him.
It’s hard to find a linear thread for this story, especially after hearing so many versions of it. Most of the time I’ve known him, Irfan Malik worked in the IT department at Harvard University. But he was always primarily a poet, choosing his mother tongue, Punjabi (the only language he now left), as his medium. But, as his friend and fellow Punjabi poet and professional, Mushtaq Sophie, said in Beyond Words, Irrfan has always been a poet of the city. This, according to Sophie, is what makes Irfan unique in Punjabi literature, which survived in the villages but was left by the cities.
But Irfan’s story begins and ends only in Lahore. Over the course of his life, he will remain cosmopolitan. He lived in many cities, but he carried with him his native language and the timeless spirit of Lahore, which I would look up to whenever I felt unsettled in Boston. But he was also influenced by Lorka and Neruda, and added the flavor of modern poetry to Punjabi urban lyric poetry.
Imprinted on that native language the music of all his other languages, and subconsciously superimposed on the map of Lahore maps of all the other cities in which he lived, even if the lines are now beginning to fade. It’s urban poetry, yes. But it tells the story that was never told, exposing shame beneath the facades of chastity and moral rectitude – and so effortlessly and so reverently that it no longer feels ashamed. His view of the Mall is for someone who knows what lies beneath the surface, almost instinctively.
Irfan’s poetry is not shy about romance, titillation, or even vulgarity and ugliness. I am among many when I say I am the best to have known him as a person and as a writer.
Two weeks before the SAFMA event, Sophie Lahrfan read one of his own poems that he was thinking of reciting at the event. Irfan, at the moment, not recognizing his friend or his poem, told Sophie that he thought he was a very good poet. Laughter broke out in the room, for although Irfan the poet did not remember writing the poem, Irfan the critic still knew it was good.
The author is a writer and academic based in Lahore