Urdu Literature

The time traveler’s life

13 June 2013

Here’s something I wrote in TFT about Intizar Hussain saheb’s legacy, his life, and his significance.

Intizar Hussain’s nomination for the Man Booker International Prize has finally placed him on the map of global literature, something that should have happened long ago. Intizar Sahab is Pakistan’s foremost Urdu prose writer who has retained his excellence in storytelling for decades and has also evolved in the milieu that Pakistan, the country of his choice, provided him.

There are many sides to Hussain: storyteller, journalist, public intellectual and mentor to many a writer. His wide-ranging oeuvre – novels and short stories, columns and memoirs – chronicles the unresolved questions of identity, location and migration. Hussain’s novel ‘ Basti‘, epitomizes the conflicts and contradictions of human existence that Intizar Hussain has pursued throughout his long literary career.

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With Raza RumiWith Raza Rumi
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Hussain was born in 1923 in the village of Dibai, located in Uttar Pradesh. His early years gave him an exposure to the classical literatures of Arabic and Persian, leading to his exploration of The Arabian Nights, among other tales; and the work has had no small part in making him a modern avatar of the dastaan go (traditional storyteller) of yore. Hussain completed his education in Meerut and by the time he had finished his Masters degree, the partition of India had broken storm-like and left him unsettled. Thus began a never-ending process of Hijrat (‘Migration’ in the Islamic sense) that is the underlying current in much of Hussain’s creative imaginings, eventually growing into a universal metaphor for the human condition. Hussain has explored this experience from every angle, including the famed Hijrat of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from Mecca to Medina.


Poetic resistance to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s murder

22 August 2012

As a young student I obtained a tattered copy of ‘Khushboo ki Shahadat’ from an old bookstall in Lahore’s Urdu bazaar. This was the mock glasnost era of General Zia-ul-Haq when he had allowed a handpicked legislature to function under his authoritarian control as Chief of Army Staff. In those days we grew up with polarized notions such as democracy cannot function in Pakistan and thus dictatorships were essential; or that Bhutto was the greatest leader Pakistan had but he asked for his death at the hands of a tainted judiciary. Thus Bhutto was a mythical figure hated by Zia’s cronies, of which there was no shortage in that era, and loved by his “ignorant, treasonous, and misled supporters”.

So you can imagine that picking up a collection of poems regarding the death and martyrdom of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was not an easy feat for a confused middle class teenager. As I brought the book home and started to read the poems, my first impression was that of the deep commitment and bond the poets were sharing with their readers for a fallen hero who was not even accorded a decent burial in his village somewhere in the Sindh province. Of course this was also the province that resisted Zia valiantly and bitterly and continues to challenge his hypernationalism, which ironically was popularized by Mr Bhutto during his turbulent career.

My copy of the collection is still buried somewhere in the heaps of books that will not be read given how fast Pakistan is turning into an anti-knowledge and anti-culture land of zealots. But as they say, great literature rarely goes into oblivion; and so this volume of poems has been published several times under the three beleaguered PPP governments. More importantly, the celebrated academic and translator Alamgir Hashmi has edited a volume of translations and had it published as “Your Essence, Martyr; Pakistani Elegies”. The extraordinary creative outburst at the time of Bhutto’s judicial murder in April 1979 appears and reappears; it is a wandering ghost of history. Bhutto’s legacy, controversial for sowing the seeds of contemporary Islamism and jingoistic nationalism, as well as his stellar refusal to bow down before the military dictator, lives on.

Bhutto’s memory now is a collective anguish for the Sindh province of Pakistan as it has been re-invoked by a line of “martyrs” from his family. The cult has therefore turned into a folk tale of injustice, betrayal, murder and popular redemption. 33 years later his son-in-law rules the country and re-invokes the tale of martyrdom as a political cause. ‘Your Essence, Martyr’ is also important as a work of literature, for it continues the literary tradition of Marsiya and Noha, elegies composed for the martyrdom of the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) grandson and his companions who were slaughtered at Karbala in the 8th century. The great Urdu poets Mir Anees and Dabir elevated this literary form to its heights in the 19th century. The modern Urdu poets of Pakistan took this tradition many steps further by composing elegant and politically poignant poetry for Bhutto.

These poems were read out in “small private gatherings in homes or whispered to one another in cafes”. The preface of this book also notes “martyrdom is a leitmotif in these poems”. Some of them were composed “under the poet’s full name, but many of these poets used pseudonyms or their real initials dissembling anonymity or at least an identity to possibly serve as a rouse against the torturer’s whip and the hangman’s noose”. Indeed this volume documents a “deed against tyranny”. For this reason alone, it is no ordinary collection.

Your Essence, Martyr is a slim volume. It presents 70 translated poems, competently rendered into English by Rafey Habib, Faruq Hassan and David Matthews. I only wish that the original Urdu were also included in the volume for bilingual readers.

Almost all poets of the contemporary era contributed to this volume. From Faiz Ahmed Faiz to Ahmed Faraz and from Zaheer Kashmiri to Josh Malihabadi. I had forgotten about Rasul Bakhsh Palejo who later became a PPP opponent; he also wrote a moving poem entitled My Brother.

Faiz’s famous tarana “Hum dekheinge” is included here and Faruq Hassan has done a remarkable job of capturing its innate elegance and simplicity. The translated title of this anthem, nowadays abused by rightwing movements and characters, has been translated as “God’s Name Alone Will Abide”.

“When we the righteous people,
Outcasts from Harem,
Will be seated on the throne;
And from the Ka’abah of God’s earth,
All idols be banished,
All crowns tossed out,
All thrones let fall.”

Not unlike this collection, Faiz was also reinventing and recreating Muslim traditions. The Mohammediyan revolution of the 7th century had led to the restructuring of tribal society in Makkah where a black slave was asked by the Prophet (PBUH) to mount the Ka’abah and give the call for prayer.

My personal favourite since my younger days has been Ahmed Faraz’s “Phir bhi kaisa sakta haye” and David Matthews’s translation does immense justice to the original:

“In the streets the smell of gunpowder,
Or is it blood that perfumes the air
There is one journey on which
Not the feet but the Heart tires
Everyone’s arms are frozen;
Everybody’s body is burning”

There are poems by Farigh Bokhari, Shohrat Bokhari and Javed Shahin, which are written with a tremendous sense of grief and pathos that is not always conveyed by the translations. But this one by Javed Shahin hit me as I read it again:

“April is the cruelest of all months
Flowers grow in this month
And the land takes on a new shape.

But that is a real old story, For now it is the month of the death of colour and fragrance

And the martyrdom of flower

It is a month of transforming brides into widows

And of taking the braves to the scaffold”

Shahin plays with the April metaphor, which had traveled from T S Eliot into the oeuvre of modern Urdu poets. By expanding and reimagining the metaphor, he creates exceptional verses.

Palejo’s poem is the most heartwarming. Unlike the other poets, his style is folksy and etched into the Sufi traditions of Sindhi literature and therefore it stands out. Ironic that his son recently held a rally against Bhutto’s surviving party in power, three decades after Palejo Senior wrote these lines:

“Brother, my dear brother
Till the end of time,
You will live in our hearts.
I swear by my country,
I swear by the tears
Which were shed by your father and mother,
And by the whole nation at your burial,
That we, in our thousands,
Will walk the same path you did
And not let your place be vacant
We in our thousands have given our word
To destroy your murderer and free our country”

Palejo’s reaction to Bhutto’s murder is nationalistic and vows revenge and independence. Not surprisingly, after the death of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, similar feelings erupted in Sindh and her husband the incumbent president now had to say ‘Pakistan Khappay’ and discourage the separatist path.

Bhutto therefore is both a symbol for democrats as well as the most vital source of inspiration for Sindhi nationalists. Only a man of his stature, contradictions and immensity could have gained such a place in people’s hearts and poetic metaphors.

Zahir Kashmiri, the eminent poet and political activist, takes Bhutto’s murder back to the greater anti-establishment narrative within Muslim history:

“Again the lips of Mansur opened with Ana’l Haqq!
Then he wildly departed to the rope and the gibbet
We, who are compelled to follow the path of Mansur,
Have a special tie with the daring of plain speaking.”

Your Essence, Martyr: Aurangzeb Alamgir Hashmi (Plainview Imprint ISBN: 978-969-9670-00-82011)

Published”>August 03-09, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 25

Karachi Literature Festival: The great divide

20 February 2012

The third Karachi Literature Festival concluded recently. I am posting a short piece of mine which was published by the News on Sunday. Another report that I wrote for TFT can be found here. Faiza S Khan’s review is most interesting. Another review by Umair found it sterile and comments on the technocratic discussions that took place on ‘national’ issues. And a comprehensive round up at DAWN’s Books & Authors magazine here.

“When our lives are written about in the English language, the books become best sellers,” thundered Pakistan’s rebel poet Kishwar Naheed at the Karachi Literature Festival. This was a session where I had the rather undeserved honour of introducing and talking to Naheed and the other master poet, Iftikhar Arif. She added that there was little emphasis on quality as the books you were supposed to buy at the airports for light reading were now ‘high’ literature. This was an oblique, yet unambiguous reference to the Pakistani writing in English. The two worlds — “native” and English — remain quite separate in a manner that Kipling had envisioned. English writing from Pakistan has received global attention and is celebrated at festivals across the globe. Yet how many Pakistanis have an idea of what it is all about? This is an uncomfortable question that we need to ask and perhaps keep on asking.

The Karachi Literature Festival has now evolved into a serious annual festival where writers gather and interact with thousands of readers each year. To be fair to the organisers, they have been mindful of the principle of inclusiveness from the very start. Asif Farrukhi, an eminent writer (who is my actual role model for his supernatural powers to write, edit and think with a full time job) has been organising the “regional” side of the literary ramblings at the festivals. Big names such as Fahmida Riaz and others are given due acknowledgment by holding sessions with them. Yet, the emphasis, for obvious reasons, is on the universe of English writings — both by Pakistanis and foreigners. This year, Vikram Seth, William Dalrymple, Hanif Kureishi, Shobha De, Anatol Lieven and several others attracted much attention by their readers, fans and critics. There were a few sessions on Urdu and regional languages’ literature but it was obvious that the attendees were not always the same.

As a young woman confessed at the festival, “I hardly read Urdu, but do you consider Initizar Husain a great writer?” Despite the shocking nature of this statement, I was hardly surprised. The apartheid that exists in Pakistan’s education system marginalises the local and the vernacular compared to the more market-oriented, global English. Aside from its potential “benefits,” English language, for some, remains an odious status symbol. A colonial legacy, a preserve of the postcolonial elites, and a stepping-stone for entry into the deliberately constructed, globalised monoculture. (more…)

Taj Mahal – a poem by Sahir Ludhianvi (reposted)

25 October 2011

Today is Sahir Ludhianvi’s death anniversary. Am reposting this poem for the readers.

Sahir Ludhianvi’s immortal poem Taj Mahal has always fascinated me. It takes a most unconventional take at this beautiful monument where the poet protests at the choice of a romantic rendezvous.

Today, I found a lovely translation of this poem. I am reproducing it below – but first a few lines from Urdu:

Yeh chaman zar yeh jamna ka kinara yeh mahal
Yeh munaqqash dar-o-deevar yeh mehrab yeh taaq
Aik shahanshah nay daulat ka sahara lay ker
Hum ghareebon kee mohabbat ka uraya hai mazaaq

Taj Mahal

The Taj, mayhap, to you may seem, a mark of love supreme
You may hold this beauteous vale in great esteem;
Yet, my love, meet me hence at some other place! (more…)

The lives of others

29 July 2011

By Raza Rumi

The first half of the 20th century witnessed a transformation in Urdu literature with the emergence of the short story as the choicest medium of literary expression, reflecting the shifting contours of Indian society. Urdu was not a communal language then. The Muslims and Hindus of pre-1947 India preferred the language for its subtlety, richness and aesthetic qualities. This was the age of Prem Chand’s realism, the romanticism of Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishna Chandar, the irony and brutal directness of Ismat Chughtai and Manto and of course the prescient visions of Ghulam Abbas.


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Coffee House By Irfan Javed Sang-e-Meel Publication, Lahore, 2011 Price Rs. 400

The art of storytelling and creating ‘real’ characters was a huge shift from the idyllic, escapist and courtly expression of the 18th and 19th centuries. These new storytellers were children of Syed Ahmad Khan, Hali, Shibli and the modernists who modernized the Urdu idiom and brought it closer to the people and their evolving everyday dialect, now interpreted as Hindustani. The 20th century was also a time of ideological upheavals and movements inspired by the October 1917 revolution, leading to the creation of the first Communist state. Therefore, the realism of later writers like Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi was inspired by the literary debates on what literature ought to be doing and saying. This genre of short story gradually gave way to post-Partition traumas and the emergence of other styles that relied on symbolism and allegory, especially when Pakistan was pushed into martial rule in the 1950s. (more…)

The tragic story of Urdu

29 July 2011

By Raza Rumi

What makes translating Urdu literature a rare indulgence has also kept it closeted from global appreciation.

Ralph Russell, the legendary British scholar of Urdu literature, whose tireless efforts to explore the Byzantine layers of Urdu will always serve as a reference point for global Urdu-walas, once summed up the eternal dilemma of achieving a perfect translation of Urdu literature into English. He pointed out that the work of Indian and Pakistani translators suffered from a lack of command in either language. “The English-knowing products of what in India and Pakistan are generally called ‘convent schools’ have acquired their nearly (but not quite) perfect English at the cost of losing full command of their mother tongue,” he wrote in 1996.

This is not to say that translations of Urdu literature have not been accomplished. In fact, there are many 20th century writers whose works have been translated by competent men and women. Key examples are the translations of the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai. Their poignant and non-conformist writings have found a wide readership in predominantly English-reading Indian middle classes and western readers attempting to understand the nuances of South Asia’s literary output. The contribution of The Annual of Urdu Studies – edited by Muhammad Umar Memon and published every year from the US – has been immense in this regard. Some writers and poets whose works have been translated include Abdullah Hussein, Patras Bukhari, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ghulam Abbas, Hajra Masroor, Premchand, Qudratullah Shahab, Intizar whose contribution and devotion to the translation of Urdu literature remains unparalleled and who has provided fine examples of literary translations, leaving out no major contemporary Urdu writer. His academic journal, The Annual of Urdu Studies, continues to publish translated works from Urdu every year.

Literary magazines are a great introduction to young and fresh voices in Urdu. One can observe a constant process of experimentation in language and expression. Short story writer Ali Akbar Natiq, one of Urdu’s most important new voices, and Mohammad Khalid Toor, who is critical newly- rediscovered voice, have been introduced to readers by Urdu literary magazines. (more…)

More on Fahmida Riaz

30 March 2010

Thanks to Isa Daudpota  who sent me the text and the translated poems after he had heard Kamila Shamsie talk about her..

Fahmida Raiz, who graduated from Sindh University and married in 1965, has published several volumes of poetry. During the Martial Law regime she was editor and publisher of the magazine, Awaaz. In all, fourteen court cases of sedition were filed against the magazine, one of which (under section 114A) carried a death penalty. She escaped to India whilst on bail, with her husband and tow children, where she lived for seven years. She worked as Poet-in-Residence at Jamia Millia, an Indian university, during this period.

She has translated Erich Fromme’s Fear of Freedom and Sheikh Ayaz’s poetry, from Sindhi into Urdu. Since the restoration of democracy she has returned to live in Pakistan and served as Director General of Pakistan’s National Book Council in Islamabad when Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party was in power. (more…)

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