Keeping The Words Alive


Maangey Allah say bas itni dua

hai Rashid

Main jo Urdu mein Vaseeyat

likkhoon beta parh lay

All Rashid asks of Allah is just one gift:

If I write my Will in Urdu, my son

will be able to read

This gloomy prophecy is likely to come true: even Muslim fathers may soon have to write their vaseeyat in Devanagari or in the regional languages for their children to make sense of it. The brighter side of this is the spate of books on Urdu poetry being published in English, Devanagari and Punjabi. Leading the pack is Dr K.C. Kanda of Delhi University. His latest works include a full length biography, with poems translated in English, of Bahadur Shah Zafar and another of selection of poems of the great poets: Glimpses of Urdu Poetry. Though his translations are not in verse, they are accurate. Alongside every translated piece is the transliteration of the original. Those wanting to try their hands at rhyming have a veritable gold mine opened to them.

Then there is T. N. Raz of Panchkula, Haryana. For the first time, a lover of Urdu poetry, Kulwant Singh Suri, of the Lok Sahitya Prakashan of Amritsar, has published two of Raz’s compilations in Gurmukhi script: biography and couplets from the pen of Asadullah Khan Ghalib and a selection of couplets on different subjects — love, envy, hatred, drinking — entitled Ranga-rang Urdu Shairee. I am not ashamed to confess that I am thoroughly enjoying reading Ghalib and other Urdu poets in Gurmukhi. Ghalib can be very obscure and his penchant for using Persianized composite words like qaid-e-haayaat-e-bando-gham — prison of life and shackles of life — often makes him hard to comprehend. The absence of punctuation marks like commas, colons, semi-colons, question-marks or full stops in all our languages adds to problems of comprehension. These have been introduced in the Gurmukhi version. Raz explains them lucidly, which makes him a joy to read.

The latest addition to the list of missionaries of Urdu is S.S. Bhatti of Chandigarh. He has compiled contemporary Urdu poetry: Contribution of Poets of Punjab. He has selected eight Punjabis of recent times, who have made significant contributions to Urdu poetry. Last, and perhaps of the least importance, is your humble servant. Between Kamna Prasad and myself, we have produced Celebrating the Best of Urdu Poetry. Starting with Mohammed Rafi Sauda, I have ended with Kishwar Naheed and Zehra Nigah of Pakistan. We have bits and pieces of all the best-known poets like Zauq, Zafar, Ghalib, Momin, Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I now await with some trepidation what Urdu scholars will make of my versification.

The second assumption, that Urdu is exclusively a language of Muslims, can be dismissed easily. Neither Kanda, Raz, Bhatti, nor Kamna (including myself) is Muslim. Nevertheless, we love Urdu with the same passion as most devout Muslims do. All that needs to be done to ensure that Urdu never dies out is to write it in Devanagari, Gurmukhi or scripts of regional languages and make it a compulsory subject for students of literature in schools and colleges.

An image in the mind

When the jacket of a book does not reveal much about its author, the reader has to conjure up his image in the mind. This is somewhat easier in the case of poetry than of prose or fiction. Most poets cannot help exposing their inner feelings, particularly if they have been disillusioned by love or have broken marriages. I found that out reading the first anthology of poems, Across the Divide, by Ranu Uniyal. All she divulges about herself is that she was born in Lucknow, studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University, before going on to Hull University as a Commonwealth scholar, and has written on Anita Desai and Margaret Drabble. At present, she teaches at Lucknow University. From her name, I can guess she is a pahaari Brahmin. I’ve no idea how old she is, single, married or divorced or if she has children.

About her first impression of being in a British University, she writes in the title poem:

I know I am a foreigner in this country

Yet how swiftly I unlearnt

Namaste and wheeled in Hi!

That cool ambience with which I ignore

Those I wish not to exchange words with

I just walk by with an indifferent air.

My long legs, in black-ribbed tights

Spread easily over cans of lager.

Another poem, “Apparition”, is about falling in love: “Now that you have become/ a presence/ everywhere/ in and out/ out and in/ the air is heavy/ with the burden of our smiles./ The streets do not smell the same/ They stretch at endless nooks/ and my feet are afraid of being worn out./ The walls and bricks suddenly haunt me/ and I with a chest soaked in guilt/cringe at every corner/ afraid you’d know/ I have lost my face/and can find it nowhere.”

A few lines from a poem entitled “What you will tell about disillusionment with life”:

I know of a day/that shed its light/craving for the dark to hold/the sepia autumn grief/of a worn out leaf/that had once been green.

I know of a man who/loved her truly/but bowed to the winds that held her fragrance/ and whisked him/away to another.

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