“I’m on a roadside perch,” writes Ghalib in a letter, “lounging on a takht, enjoying the sunshine, writing this letter. The weather is cold…,” he continues, as he does in most letters, with a ticklish observation or a humble admission ending on a philosophical note, a comment tinged with great sadness or a remark of wild irreverence fastened to a mystic moment. These are fragments recognized in Urdu as literary gems because they were penned by a genius, but to those of us hungry for the short-lived world that shaped classical Urdu, those distanced from that world in time and place, Ghalib’s letters chronicle what is arguably the height of Urdu’s efflorescence as well as its most critical transitions as an elite culture that found itself wedged between empires (the Mughal and the British), and eventually, many decades after Ghalib’s death, between two countries (Pakistan and India).
I write this on a winter day in California. It is Mirza’s two hundred and twenty first birth anniversary. There is a nip in the air and the sunlight is filtered through my carob tree; my notes, scribbled in Nastaliq, are dappled and illuminated by sudden flashes as the branches sway. Isn’t Ghalib’s Delhi a labyrinth of dappled alleys, a dream leaping from rooftop to rooftop, getting a stealthy taste of the saffron-cream dessert known to be prepared here under a full moon and left overnight to set in winter dew— a heady mix of in-the moment-sensations that vivify memory— rising with the city’s nimble frangipani, its famed red sandstone and marble minarets, returning reliably like its homing pigeons. Read more »
In Tian Shan mountains of the legendary snow leopard, errant wisps of mist float with the speed of scurrying ghosts, there is a climbers’ cemetery, Himalayan Griffin vultures and golden eagles are often sighted, though my attention is completely arrested by a Blue whistling thrush alighting on a rock— its plumage, its slender, seemingly weightless frame, and its long drawn, ventriloquist song remind me of the fairies of Alif Laila that were turned to birds by demons inhabiting barren mountains.
The sense of enchantment is powerful and not entirely unexpected. “Ay Pari” (Oh Fairy!), sung by the Badakhsan Ensemble, I imagine as a song sung in a human language in response to the eloquent whistle of the thrush, really a fairy under a spell. The word “fairy” in English may have been derived from the ancient Zoroastrian Persian “pari:” the first mythic creature I remember from lores and lullabyes and the television show Alif Laila (Arabian Nights) in Urdu. The song, in an eastern Persian dialect, comes from the heart of the Pamir mountains— the range that not only joins the Tian Shan in Kyrgystan to the north, and to the south, borders the Hindukush the mountains of my childhood in Pakistan, but the source of the famed river Oxus or Amu Darya—the drainage area of which was once the space between the empire of Genghis Khan, and over a thousand years earlier, of Alexander the Great. Read more »
Majeed 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.
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.
I write to you of folding, tucking, burying side by side. The silk you worried the centuries into being, has arrived; bolts of it. But when we opened the trunks, all we saw was a smooth tongue: Urdu's cascade, a shimmer in ruins. We had to snap shut and lock your decorous viscera, counting only what sells in the market.
Most days, it is over fifty degrees; memories steal away easily. Guards in their fat stupor don't notice them your side of the border.
Pakistan— land of the thirsty, land of skipped beats: half an oscillation, an unfinished verse. India throbs behind us: Its many drums, torn kites and squalor. To both, dust returns again and again, the powdered ghost of goodbye the British viceroy's last plane.
I write to you of a crazed goat leaping across the stretch of No Man's land— no larger than a cricket pitch. A cawing here, a rustling there; the air weighed down by cannons. Another goat, its ears shaking as it grazes under a dwarf tree, will be the first to hear warplanes.
Miles and miles of rice paddies on both sides of the border, roofed by rancor; Hindu gods bathed in milk on one side, on the other, terraces where we wait for the green-domed country carved for us. I write to you of the armor you forgot to pack, the missing tools. Your silk, dear dead, is a rheumatic sleep fingering a new tangle of history.