Posts Tagged ‘City’

Faiz – 1: The City

November 30, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I ‘wrote’ a poem, The City, which appeared on 3 Quarks Daily on Monday, 30 November, 2015.

The poem is reproduced below followed by comments on its genesis, connections with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and some reflections on translating poetry.

The City

My city bedecks itself in fetters

The carefree walk
The careless talk

No more

The head held high
The feet unbound

No more

No more
I trust

Light from dark
Wine from blood
Joy from mourning

Flowers in my city
Wilt into the dust

After the Paris attacks, Brussels went into a lock-down that continued for a number of days. Faiz’s poem Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho (Look at the City from Here) came to mind and seemed to speak to the situation.

But how could one convey the sense of the poem in English? This brought forth the dilemma of translating poetry. Personally, I am skeptical it can be done especially if it were intended for an audience unfamiliar with the language of the original. (See this essay by Dick Davis on why this may be so: On Not Translating Hafez.)

A poem is not the sum of its words. It is not a vehicle to transfer meaning. Rather, a poem evokes feeling, sentiment, and mood. If I were to annotate the dictionary meaning of every word in a poem, the outcome would not be a poem. For a translation to work, it has to be a poem in its own right. And, this is what makes the task extremely difficult because the images, metaphors, idioms, and rhymes that work in one language do not carry over into another – they may for neighboring languages like Urdu, Hindi and Persian but not when the transition is from Urdu to English or Japanese. A translator must have near native proficiency in both languages to be able to find meaningful parallels. An example would be the metaphor of the owl which would make translating the following Urdu couplet into English very tricky:

har shaakh pe ulloo baitha hai
anjaam-e gulistaN kya ho ga

(an owl is perched on every branch
what will be the fate of the garden)

Going the other way, one could consider the opening lines from ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ by Keats:

St. Agnes’ Eve – Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl for all its feathers was acold;

The Urdu reader would certainly wonder what prompted the poet to choose the owl to open his poem with.

Recently I wrote a set of posts on Urdu (here, here, and here). In the commentary on the posts, I set out a challenge for the readers. It was to translate the following lines from Faiz into English for a reader not familiar with Urdu:

sabza sabza suukh rahii hai phiikii zard do-pahr
diwaaroN ko chaaT raha hai tanhaaii ka zahr

No one has responded yet but you can give it a try. Victor Kiernan has translated them as follows:

Listless and wan, green patch by patch, noonday dries up;
Pale solitude with venomed tongue licks at these walls

And Agha Shahid Ali, a very fine poet in the English language, has essayed the following translation:

On each patch of green, from one shade to the next,
the noon is erasing itself by wiping out all color
becoming pale, desolation everywhere,
the poison of exile painted on the walls.

Both these versions convey some of the meaning of the lines from Faiz but, in my view at least, they are literal translations and not English poems. What does ‘the noon is erasing itself by wiping out all color’ convey to an English speaker who does not know Urdu? And what does ‘Pale solitude with venomed tongue licks at these walls’ call forth as an image for the same reader? The intensity of loneliness is captured powerfully by the metaphors used by Faiz but English must have its own metaphors that better reflect the aesthetic of its history and culture.

As I see it, the self-inflicted problem of most translators of Urdu poetry into English is that they seem to be doing so for readers familiar with both languages and, furthermore, as if the Urdu readers were constantly looking over their shoulders to judge their faithfulness or lack of it to the original. This predilection, in my view, has limited the appreciation of as major a poet as Faiz Ahmed Faiz in the non-Urdu speaking world.

Why would an Urdu reader need to read an Urdu poem in English when he/she has access to the much richer original? A translation is meant for those who do not know the language of the original and for them faithfulness matters relatively little. What matters is if the emotion, the spirit of the original, carries over and gives some inkling of what the poet was trying to convey in the original. In order to do so, the translation into a foreign language has to be a poem in its own right, good or bad being a secondary issue, consonant with the cultural and literary aesthetic of the target language. The venomed tongue of pale solitude licking the walls stutters on this count. It only works for those who are familiar with the lines in the original.

For myself, one without native proficiency in both languages, I wouldn’t even try and attempt to translate a poet like Faiz whose poetry is laden with context-specific images which breathe life into the emotions he so successfully evokes. Rather, I do away with as much of the imagery as possible and convey the bare-bone skeleton which remains to be dressed with the clothing of images. Hopefully, the skeleton would suggest to the non-Urdu speaking reader what the poet is trying to do and his/her own imagination would furnish the appropriate images and metaphors from his/her particular aesthetic milieu.

This is what I have attempted with ‘The City.’ I would not be so bold as to claim it a translation of Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho. ‘The City’ is a poem in English inspired by Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho for which the latter serves as a point of departure. It is for readers to say to what extent I have succeeded in capturing the spirit of the original.

For those who are interested, the poem by Faiz is reproduced below in Roman script (it can be read in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman scripts here):

YahaN se sheher ko dekho to halqa-dar-halqa
Khinchi hai jail ki soorat har ek samt faseel
Har ek rahguzar gardish-e-aseeraaN hai
Na sung-e-meel, na manzil, na mukhlisi ki sabeel

Jo koi tez chaley rah to poochta hai Khayal
Ke tokne koi lalkaar kyuN naheeN aayee
Jo koi haath hilaye to Wahem ko hai sawal
Koi chanak, koi jhankaar kyuN nahiN aayee?

YahaN se shehr ko dekho to saari khalqat meiN
Na koi sahab-e-tamkeen, na koi wali-e-hosh
Har ek mard-e-jawaN mujrim rasn ba gulu
Har ek haseena-e-raana, Kaneez-e-halqa bagosh

Jo sayay duur chiraghoN ke gird larzaaN haiN
Na janey mehfil-e-ghum hai ke bazm-e-jaam-o-saboo
Jo rung har dar-o-deewar par pareshaaN haiN
YahaN se kuch naheen khulta yeh phool haiN ke LahU

– Faiz (Karachi, 1965)

A translation into English by Naomi Lazard is as follows:

If you look at the city from here
You see it is laid out in concentric circles,
Each circle surrounded by a wall
Exactly like a prison.
Each street is a dog-run for prisoners,
No milestones, no destinations, no way out.

If anyone moves too quickly you wonder
Why he hasn’t been stopped by a shout.
If someone raises his arm
You expect to hear the jangling of chains.

If you look at the city from here
There is no one with dignity,
No one fully in control of his senses.
Every young man bears the brand of a criminal,
Every young woman the emblem of a slave.

You cannot tell whether you see
A group of revellers or mourners
In the shadows dancing around the distant lamps,
And from here you cannot tell
Whether the color streaming down the walls
Is that of blood or roses.

(Source for the transliteration and the translation by Naomi Lazard is here.)

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Karachi is a Small City

November 15, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

City size is back in fashion as a variable of interest and this time bigness is being viewed as an advantage. This is quite a change from the perspective that prevailed for years when countries, specially developing ones, were decidedly anti-urban and wished to retard migration to prevent cities from increasing in size. Size was seen as a handicap and served as an excuse to explain away the problems of big cities. How should we see Karachi in this new perspective?

Of course, well-managed big cities have been around for a long time – Tokyo, New York and London are obvious examples. But somehow it was felt that such success could not be replicated in developing countries. (more…)

What is the Future of the City in South Asia?

October 5, 2008

By Anjum Altaf

This is a very broad and brief overview of the past, present, and possible future of the South Asian city. It raises a number of points each of which can be discussed in much greater depth in future posts depending on the interest of readers.

Any discussion of cities in South Asia has an inspiring point of departure. Almost 5000 years ago, Mohenjodaro was probably the most advanced urban settlement in the world. It had a planned layout with a grid of streets laid out in perfect patterns. Wastewater was disposed through covered drains that lined the streets and were sloped such that the water never stagnated and it was treated before being discharged into the river.

South Asia has rarely been able to provide that level of urban planning and efficiency since. It is worthwhile subject to explore (later) why that might be the case.

Let us fast forward to the South Asian city of the present. It leaves a lot to be desired in terms of livability and urban services; virtually no one would consider these cities unproblematic and it is no wonder that they are thought of only in terms of the problems they pose. Once again, the reasons for this dismal state of affairs need to be explored and we shall do so at another time.

Given what we know of the present, what can we say of the likely future of the city in South Asia?

Many people look at the now developed cities of the West as models and hypothesize that the South Asian city would follow the same trajectory of urban reform. London, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, was an unlivable city with death rates higher than in the surrounding countryside. Dickens captured its degradation for history; Engels did the same for Manchester.

Conditions were more or less the same in all the major cities – Paris, Milan, New York, Philadelphia – all were ravaged by epidemics and unhealthy living conditions. One book that captures the period very well is Naples in the Time of Cholera 1884-1911 by Frank Snowden (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Today all these cities are amongst the most attractive places in the world having undergone major urban reforms that transformed them beyond recognition. Will South Asian cities follow the same trajectory with a lag?

We think not for a number of reasons. Very briefly, the urban reform movements in the developed cities of today emerged out a set of peculiar circumstances. First, the state of technological development was such that the easy segregation of rich and poor residents was not feasible. Think of the absence of automobiles and suburbs and bottled water. The list of distinguished citizens who fell victim to disease in these cities at the time included ministers and prime ministers.

Second, and very ironically, experts of the time believed an incorrect theory of disease transmission (the miasma theory), which held that epidemics were spread by foul odors emitted by decaying effluent carried by the air.

The urban reform movements in these cities were therefore led by the elites of the day (physicians, business leaders, etc.) who feared for their lives and businesses. They had the ability to force legislative changes and allocate resources to investments in environmental improvements related to sewerage and sanitation. The impetus for the eradication of slums and the design of wide boulevards in Paris were direct consequences of these peculiar factors.

This set of conditions does not exist any more in the developing cities of South Asia today because of advances in both technology and medical science. Technological advances have allowed the rich to physically segregate themselves from the poor. Thus, instead of improving as a single entity, each South Asian city has split into two – the rich enclaves and the poor slums.

At the same time, the discovery that disease is spread by germs not polluted air has shifted the focus from collective sanitation reforms to protection of the individual through immunization. The rich have thus also isolated themselves from the diseases of the poor. As a result, there is no powerful lobby of influential citizens behind urban reform that benefits the entire city.

So, is the South Asian city doomed to a schizophrenic and split future? Perhaps, but there is a now a new dynamic that portends a possible new trajectory in the years to come.

The new wave of globalization and privatization sweeping the world is structured more around a fierce competition amongst cities than among nation-states. In some respects, Bangalore and Bombay have become more relevant to business than India as a country. And this new competition amongst cities has put a premium on their livability and civic order. This creates a possible new opening for those who have so far been excluded from the benefits of urban life.

The new development mantra is that cities are the ‘engines of growth’. Cities are actually investing money in improving their efficiency, competitiveness and livability. The process is most advanced in East Asia where cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok are investing not only in traditional infrastructure but also in social infrastructure like museums and opera houses to become attractive to global capital and the footloose experts of the knowledge economy. (See an illustration of the ambitions of cities in the new China.)

This points to a possible trajectory for cities in South Asia reflected in the ‘Bombay First’ initiative. But one must be just as cautious in extrapolating casually from East Asia to South Asia as one was in extrapolating from the Europe of the past. For one, most of the cities in East Asia are characterized by much more ethnic homogeneity than is the case in South Asia. For another, migration from rural to urban areas has been strictly controlled in China for decades.

Cities can just as easily become hotbeds of conflict as engines of growth. It is easy to forget the fact that as recently as 50 years ago, there were major urban riots in the US; that there are major issues related to identity politics in a city like Mumbai; and that a rapidly industrializing city like Ahmedabad has been the home of violent ethnic cleansing. Even in China, the experience of Lhasa indicates that matters can be considerably more complex than they appear.

The reasons for these pathologies in South Asian cities can only be understood through a comparative historical analysis. One of the best is included in Sunil Khilnani’s book, The Idea of India (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1997):

Unlike in Europe, where city air was expected to loosen the stifling social bonds of traditional community and to create a society of free individuals, the cities organized by the Raj’s policies reinforced contrary tendencies in Indian society. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, caste groups, paradoxically began to emerge as collective actors and to conflict with one another in the city itself, the putative arena of modernity…. The rise in Bombay of a movement like the Shiv Sena should therefore hardly occasion surprise…

Deeper analysis is also needed to understand the nature of recent urban growth and development in the industrialized countries. Many inner cities in the US were, and are, decaying while growth is coming from exurban or edge cities giving rise to new issues in an age of higher energy prices. In Europe, one can see the emergence of new strains in cities like Paris as the percentage of immigrants rises – a trend likely to continue given demographic disparities.

In China, too, a significant proportion of the economic output till very recently was coming from Town and Village Enterprises located away from the big cities. Now, with the easing of migration restrictions to the big cities necessitated by a market-oriented economy, there could be something different in the future. Edward Friedman (Is China a success while India is a failure? World Affairs, Fall 2004) claims that “China’s Calcutta-like poverty is hidden away in the marginalized countryside. In India it has exploded into the cities, a dynamic just beginning in China.”

For all these reasons, it is important to not be complacent about the future prospects of the city in South Asia and to question the premises of the new development mantra. At the same time, it is equally important to think of what might be needed to actually turn the South Asian city into an engine of growth in the globalizing world and to lift its marginalized and excluded citizens out of the poverty that has been their fate for so long.

This is a birds-eye view of the history and prospects of the South Asian city. At this stage it leaves out many issues that need attention and also does not elaborate the politics of the urban reform strategy that is implied by the analysis. The post has also focused only on the major metropolitan cities while issues in secondary cities and small towns are quite distinct. Sunil Khilnani is very perceptive in noting that L.K. Advani’s 1990 ‘padyatra’ focused largely on the smaller new towns for good reason.

Sunil Khilnani provides one of the best entries into the study of the South Asian city. Readers should also refer to the October-November 2008 double issue of Himal magazine that is focused on urban issues and includes snapshots of 15 cities in South Asia.

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