Saturday, February 23, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Glimpses of Urdu poetry
Khushwant Singh

POET Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a stickler for rhyme and metre in poetry: If the lines did not scan, it was not poetry. He discounted blank verse. "It is like playing tennis without a net," he used to say. Taking cue from him, I believe that for tarjumah (translation) to be good, it must follow the pattern of the original, otherwise it is no more than an explanation of the poem. This is no easy task and takes hours going over a couple of lines with rhyming dictionaries, dictionaries of synonyms and antonyms to get close to the original. Fortunately English has a vast vocabulary and a painstaking translator can get the substance as well as a bit of the music of the composition.

Dr K. Hussain, an engineer now living in Bangalore, was smitten with Urdu poetry and decided to translate his favourite lines from 20 poets ranging from Meer Taqi Meer down to Ali Sardar Jafri. The result of his labours is Glimpses of Urdu Poetry: Guldasta, a bouquet of many hues (Nifah). Although the introduction is by T.P. Issar who translated Ghalib into English verse, Hussain opted for the easier task of doing it in prose. Its principal benefit is that it lucidly explains the meanings of verses which readers not familiar with the language would find difficult to comprehend. He should also have borne in mind that the only justification for making a new translation is that it improves on those already in existence. A prose version cannot make that claim. I give a few examples:

Stamping the police
February 16, 2002
Beer came before bread
February 9, 2002
Getting away from the world... to be in Goa
February 2, 2002
Coping with the death of a loved one
January 26, 2002
Count the blessings of old age
January 19, 2002
Vajpayee, the poet
January 12, 2002
When Indian writers meet
January 5, 2002
Behind the mask of a terrorist
December 29, 2001
An exercise in futility
December 15, 2001
The power of self-destruction
December 1, 2001
Jaipur and its Rajmata
November 24, 2001
Meting out humiliation as punishment
November 10, 2001
Women like her do not die...
November 3, 2001
The Karnataka-Canada connection
October 27, 2001
Making English an Indian language
October 20, 2001
Worshipping the mother of all rivers
October 13, 2001

Zafar, admi usko na janiyega

Woh ho kaisa hee sahib-o-fahim-o-zaka

Jisey aish mein yaad-e-Khuda na rahee

Jisey taish mein khauf-e-Khuda no rahaa

Hussain’s translation reads: Zafar, do not consider that person a human being, however wise or intelligent he may be/who does not remember God in pleasure and happiness/ And who does not fear God in vengeance or anger.

The same lines have been rendered earlier as:

Zafar know him not as man

However, a clever, wise benign

Who in pleasures pursuit forgets his God

In angers passion wrath divine.

Hussain has quite a few lines from Allama Iqbal. Among them perhaps the most quoted exhortation:

Khudi ko kar buland itna

Keh har taqdeer say pahley

Khuda banday say khud poochey

Bataa teyree razaa kya hai?

He translates it as follows: Elevate your self-esteem and dignity to such lofty height/ That even God shall ask the devotee/ Before every ordination/ Tell me what is your wish!

The same lines have been rendered earlier as follows:

Endow thy will with such power

That at every turn of fate so it be

That God himself asks of his slave

"Tell me, what is it that pleases thee?"

I do not mean to belittle Dr Hussain’s valiant effort to bring the best of Urdu poetry to those not familiar with it. He owes it to himself and his readers to try to render the lines he has chosen into verse.

Talking to a dead son

Nina Sood’s son Naresh (Kuki) died on April 16, 1987. He was only 28 and had been married a little over two months. He was a strapping young man who occasionally suffered bouts of asthma. One mild attack and he was gone. Nina was devastated and did not know how to cope with her loss. Her faith in God was shattered. Everything in the home reminded her of her son: his clothes, his working desk, footsteps coming up to her doorstep and mysteriously falling silent. She decided to put her grief on paper. The outcome is a deeply moving book about death and dying: Turbulence and Tranquillity (New Century). It is not a cheerful book to read and a grim reminder that death gives no advance notice, comes to people of all ages and remains an unsolved mystery.

Nina questions herself on the subject: "Death had cruelly brought a young man’s life to an end, a complete halt, but it also brought the commencement of suffering and agony. All the doors to joy, life and laughter had abruptly closed and there appeared to be only grimness, darkness and hopelessness combined with a sense of futility that encircled us. The colour from life had disappeared and the world had become shades of black. It became pitch dark as though the power supply had been permanently extinguished. There was not a ray of light that penetrated. A life had ended, but the torment had just started. No doubt the agony would change its shape and form, but would it ever end? This was not another exam you had suffered and endured where failure evoked, ‘better luck next time’. We, your family shared this examination. There was no consolation that life like the river flows forever. If there is rebirth, his soul would continue for eternity or infinity. The Holy Gita assures that ‘He is not killed when the body is killed’ and that ‘a man casts off his worn out clothes and puts on new ones’, but I knew only this son, this life.

"If you were to be born again, you would no longer be my son, the child I had lovingly raised and guided to manhood. In your ‘new clothes’ I would not recognise you and you might shun me causing greater pain. At this crucial period of my existence, rebirth failed to excite me and I could not help but feel that God had forsaken me. Where had I gone wrong to have my son taken away from me?"

Nina tried silence and found it soothing. She found crying "to release pent up emotions". She heard a psychiatrist who said, "the period of mourning should not continue after a year" but rejected his advice. "Mourning can be stipulated for a week, a month or a year but for the bereaved it is a lifetime."

Nina found that sharing others’ grief lessened her own. She writes: "The greatest reality of life is found in the funeral grounds or the burning ghats where eventually everyone, rich or poor, great or small, must halt briefly before travelling on that last journey to what we can only hope will be a spiritual opening to an eternity of serenity. For a while, after your death, I lacked the courage to attend a funeral; neither could I handle it nor face the harshness of it.

"Gradually and for which I am grateful, courage began to return and the realisation that there is no escape from truth — there is only acceptance and there is no other conceivable solution. It is not possible to flee the actuality and neither is it feasible to selfishly enshroud oneself into one’s private grief and escape from the world. Each individual suffers in varying manners and it is important to console and provide a support to comfort others in their time of need — often just to be available is sufficient; in helping others too one is unconsciously healed."

I recommend this book to those who have been afflicted by the loss of their dear ones.