Translations from Urdu: Three Poems by Majeed Amjad

by Ali Minai

299190_10150747706740262_6590189_nMajeed Amjad (1914 – 1974) is considered one of the most important modern poets in the Urdu language. He was born in Jhang, which is now in Pakistan, and spent most of his life in the small towns of Punjab, away from the great literary centers of Urdu. Perhaps this was one factor in giving his poetry a distinctive style and idiom that is impossible to place within any of the mainstream contemporary movements in Urdu poetry. Amjad's style is characterized by striking images, unexpected connections, and a very personal voice. He had a challenging life, with financial insecurity, domestic problems and literary frustrations. His philosophical and introspective nature drew upon these challenges to create a unique mixture of sweetness and bitterness that makes him one of Urdu's most original poets. Starting out with traditional forms, Amjad experimented extensively with new ones, and much of his later poetry is in free verse.

I have chosen to translate poems by Amjad because, despite the acknowledgment of his stature in literary circles, he is not as well known among general audiences as his great contemporaries, Faiz and Rashid. I chose these three poems based purely on personal preference, though they are also quite representative of his work. In particular, they capture his characteristically mysterious allusions, where he seems to refer to something particular without specifying exactly what it is, leaving the reader to infer multiple scenarios. Personally, I find this to be both aggravating and interesting – and a very modern aspect of his work, occasionally bordering on the surrealistic. The poems also have a lot of psychological nuance, which was another distinguishing feature of Amjad's poetry.

In the original, the first two poems are in metered verse and the third in free verse. While I have tried to follow the general structure of the poems, I have not attempted to translate strictly line by line, preferring to capture the thought rather than the form. In this sense, the translation is not literal, though it is quite close with minimal reinterpretation of metaphors, etc. As with all translations, it is impossible to capture all the nuances of the original. I just hope that the translated versions have sufficient interest in their own right and convey some of Amjad's uniquely mysterious, imagistic and elegiac style.

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Poem 1: Superficially, this poem starts out as an elegy on the grave of some unknown poet, with the usual symbolism associated with such poems. But as one reads on, it becomes clear that this is not about any particular poet at all, nor is it an elegy. It is rather a fierce critique of that poetic tradition – long dominant in Urdu – that seeks to create art for art's sake, and has little time for the actual lives of individuals and societies. In this, Amjad is making the same point that many of his Progressive contemporaries – notably Faiz – made about the received poetic tradition in Urdu. But Amjad's allusive and imagistic style contrasts strongly with the explicit protests found in the work of the Progressives. The build-up through this poem culminates lines that send chills down the spine.

Amjad has been called a poet of brutal realism. In some of his poems, this realism is explicit, but here it is couched in a more symbolic – perhaps more appealing – form.

Voice, Death of Voice (1960)

No ornate ceiling, nor canopy of silk;

no shawl of flowers; no shadow of vine;

just a mound of earth;

just a slope covered with rocky shards;

just a dark space with blind moths;

a dome of death!

No graven headstone, no marking brick –

Here lies buried the eloquent poet

whom the world implored a thousand times

to speak out,

but he, imprisoned by his fancy's walls,

far from Time's path,

oblivious to the lightning upon the reeds,

drowned himself in the breast of a silent flute:

a voice become the death of voice!

Here, in this place, lies buried the soul

whose gentle fire

could only find form

in words of ice.

A line of blood was drawn across the world,

but not a drop of it fell upon the page

of his sensitive scripture.

The tyrant's sword reaped a harvest of heads,

but not a line from this tragedy was written

in his testament of sorrow!

Long ages of misery called out, sobbing,

but no echo of their sobs lingered

within his edifice of words.

Mountains quivered, the heavens shook,

but his thought's conventions could not lift

the veil of illusion.

Here lies buried that body, a legend of dust,

the heart whose own pulsating sadness

remained unwritten.

Here, in this heap of rotting bones

lie buried the moments not turned to poison,

or voice of sorrow.

Here, turned to crumbling stone, are the hands

that could not pluck sparks

from the tears of ages.

Today, somewhere beneath these ashes,

That throbbing stream of quick blood

is but a vein of rock;

that fire swirling in Life's storms,

the art that sold out the virtue of its pen,

all dust from a shroud.

For all the mountainous mass of moth-eaten myth,

a question still clamors for an answer today:

What should men do

when the brutal armies of tyranny steal the light

from the eyes of heaven?

Now this question is the whisper of worms

within this dark grave;

the sound of Death.

This grave mocks all eternal resolutions

swallowed by the angry monsters of oblivion

that govern Fate.

O travelers emerging from Fate's swirling gloom,

erase this grave with your feet as you pass

upon the Earth!

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Poem 2: This poem, even more allusive and indirect than the first, expresses the inchoate sense of foreboding that the complexities of the modern, increasingly urban and connected world instill in many mind – perhaps most minds. The poem is drenched in the expectation of something terrible that cannot be named, cannot be grasped, but is very real nevertheless. Poems like this represent a psychological complexity that is rare even among modern Urdu poets, but not in Amjad's work.

Particle of Soul (1963)

Concealed within the oceans of our lives,

deep in the heart lie strange apprehensions!

Sometimes, in the echoing of the waves,

we hear the sound of an impending storm.

But who can know the truth of this deep link,

this inheritance of darkness within our minds,

the toxic sense that can perceive

the dark moment swirling in the air?

Who knows where in this knot of body and soul,

behind these liquid bars of blood,

where – somewhere in this tangled chain –

is the link whose muffled rattle brings forth

a mysterious thought for me today?

Suddenly, I am afraid!

O world of mystical connections!

This fear too is a prison without walls,

a gift of your populated cities.

Your gift, this power to sense impending doom!

Your fear, the fruit of this unknown connection!

I – a particle of soul in these strange arrangements –

am in your grasp, the grasp of your fear;

in the bounds of your bonds; in your sanctuary!

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Poem 3: This poem differs both in style and ethos from the first two. It is somewhat nostalgic, but notably less dark than the other two. Using a very concrete image, it does make a deeper political point that can perhaps be related to the immediate post-colonial experience. Amjad wants to celebrate the fact that what his generation dreamed of as children has become real for the children of the next generation, but he also cannot help noting that the new streets built by the pretentious people of the past have now become broken by wear. Perhaps that reads too much into the poem, but with Amjad, one can never be completely sure of the poet's intentions. Indeed, there are other lexical allusions in this poem that are hard to translate and that I have chosen not to dwell on for the fear of complicating things too much.

Parade of Flowers (1968)

You walk today upon the broken pavement of these streets.

Children, come, let me tell you the story of pleasant Januaries years ago.

This pavement was new then…..

Every morning, people in long coats would come out to stroll on the street,

their faces, like loaves of bread, bent down to us,

but we would just talk and keep walking.

Then they would stroll over to us,

and laugh pretentiously, and ask:

“Little ones, don't you feel cold?”

Carrying our heavy book-bags

and our clean writing tablets,

with buttonless collars tucked into torn buttonholes,

we would fill our eyes with the cold of sharp winds

and, still walking, would stiffen and say,

“Of course not! What cold?

We are not cold at all!”

Children, we are the same age as these bricks you walk upon now.

In the cool morning breeze, your uniforms row after row

are the garments of new possibilities.

O you who walk in this parade of fresh flowers,

do you know that watching you from the sidewalk

are those whose childhood was spent dreaming the lives you live today?

Poet: Majeed Amjad

Translated by: Ali Minai

Originals translated from “Kulliyat-e Majeed Amjad”, Al-Hamd Publications, 2003, Karachi.

Poem 1 – sadaa bhi marg-e sadaa: pp. 358-361

Poem 2 – rayza-e jaan: pp. 415-416

Poem 3 – phoolon ki paltan: pp. 496-497

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