Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

May 10, 2019

This collection of poems was published in hardback by Aakar Books, Delhi in 2019 with strong endorsement from Professor Harbans Mukhia, Professor Emeritus of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

December 23, 2018 ·

Some superb poetry of protest by Anjum Altaf who identifies himself as a South Asian living in Lahore. Poems inspired by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Anjum Altaf was Professor of Sociology in Lahore and Karachi. First published in India by LG Publishers, a subsidiary of Aakar Books, Delhi.

January 15, 2019 ·     

A great poem inspired by Faiz Ahmad Faiz and triggered by “attacks on JNU students and faculty in 2016 and dedicated to them” by Anjum Altaf, Professor of Sociology and “A South Asian residing in Lahore.” From his collection Transgressions, published by Aakar Books, Delhi, 2019.

The collection is now available online from North America, India, and Pakistan.

North America:
https://www.amazon.com/Transgression-Poems-Ins…/…/938372336X

India:
https://www.ibpbooks.com/transgressions-poems-inspired-by-faiz-ahmed-faiz/p/37995
https://www.amazon.in/TRANSGRESSIONS-Poems-Ins…/…/938372336X

Pakistan:
https://www.libertybooks.com/TRANSGRESSIONS-Poems-Inspired-by-Faiz-Ahmed-Faiz

Feedback and comments would be very welcome.

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The Sun That Rose From the Earth

February 22, 2018

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s The Sun That Rose From the Earth: Insights into the world of Urdu poetry in the Late Mughal Era

By Kabir Altaf

South Asians continue to be fascinated by the Mughal period. Whether one sees this period as the origin of North India’s high culture (the view of most Pakistanis and partisans of the Islamicate culture) or as hundreds of years of slavery under the Muslims (the view of the Hindu Right), it is clear that the Mughals remain central to India’s history and to the country’s conception of itself. This period was also the time when there was a great flourishing of the arts, including music and poetry. For example, it was during the reign of Muhammad Shah “Rangila” (r. 1719-1748) that khayal gaiyki—presently the main style of classical vocal music in North India—was developed. Some scholars also state that it was in Muhammad Shah’s time that Urdu replaced Persian as the language of the Mughal court. What is without question is that the 18th and 19th centuries were when Urdu poetry reached its heights and when the works of authors such as Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) and Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) were created.

It is the lives and works of these poets which forms the core of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s collection of novellas, The Sun That Rose From The Earth—the author’s own translation into English of his Urdu work Savaar aur Doosre Afsane. The three major stories–“Bright Star, Lone Splendour”, “In Such Meetings and Partings, Ultimately” and “The Sun That Rose from the Earth”—are about Ghalib, Mir, and Mushafi respectively. Faruqi is known as the “grand old man of Urdu literature” and received the Padma Shri from the Government of India in 2009. His novellas reflect his vast knowledge of Urdu poetry and the culture that produced it.

“In Such Meetings and Partings, Ultimately” is one the longest stories in the book and revolves around Mir Taqi Mir’s romance with Nurus Saadat, a courtesan from Isfahan. The title comes from one of Mir’s verses from his first divan (1752), which Faruqi translates as follows: “In such meetings and partings, ultimately/ Lives are lost. There is no end to Love/And Beauty never relents.” The story ranges from Armenia—where Nurus Saadat’s mother, Labiba Khanam, is orphaned and becomes a courtesan, to Isfahan, and finally to Delhi, where Mir meets Nurus Saadat. Since she is a courtesan and is contracted to another, her meetings with Mir must remain secret. She is also dying of consumption and eventually she pushes Mir away so that he will not have to deal with the grief of her death.

Faruqi is a master at physical description and at describing people’s clothes (which reveals his immense knowledge about the cultural details of the period). Here is his introduction of Mir: “He was twenty-two, twenty-three years of age, tall but slim. His wrists were strong and broad, his eyes, red with sleeplessness—or was it drink?—were still commanding, full of character, though it could be seen that they could twinkle with humour when the occasion demanded. His beard was not long or dense…” This physical description is followed by a paragraph on Mir’s clothes, which begins: “He had a short, light, full-sleeved tunic on his upper body. It was called nima, or angarkha, depending on the style. The nima was worn waistcoat fashion. The fabric was woolen, russet coloured. It was called banat, but it was not of the best quality and its russet was now fading somewhat. Under the nima he wore a long woolen tunic. His trousers were of Aurangabadi mashru…” (Faruqi 250). Though such long descriptions tend to slow down the narrative pace, they are invaluable for giving one a sense of the period.

Another noteworthy aspect that Faruqi gets across is that it was not only Muslims who were involved in the creation of Urdu poetry. One of Mir’s close friends is Rai Kishan Chand Ikhlas, an Urdu poet in his own right. Similarly, the narrator of the story about Mushafi is Darbari Mal Vafa, whose father, Kanji Mal Saba, was a Persian poet and a student of Mushafi’s. The fact that Hindus are shown as being involved in the creation of Urdu and Persian poetry gives the lie to the modern Hindutva version of history that the religious majority was deeply oppressed under “Muslim” (really Mughal) rule. Faruqi’s book is thus an essential corrective to the revisionist myths of today’s India.

The book is filled with Persian and Urdu verses, though these suffer from being sometimes awkwardly translated into English. However, this is my limitation as a reviewer of being unable to fluently read the Urdu version of Faruqi’s book. Probably, the verses would have more power there. In the English version, they sometimes get in the way of advancing the plot.

Overall, The Sun That Rose From The Earth provides a fascinating look at Delhi at the beginning of the long Mughal decline. It is a must-read for those with an interest in Urdu poetry and culture.

This review appeared first on Brown Pundits and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Kabir Altaf received a B.A. in Dramatic Literature from George Washington University. He has studied Hindustani classical vocal music and is currently teaching Music History at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

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Faiz – 3: A Twist in the Tail

December 30, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

My interpretation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Kuttey was published on 3 Quarks Daily on December 30, 2015 (here).

Why

Not even dogs
Go as quietly as these men

Battered and bruised
Idle and begging
Homeless and hearthless
Stabbing each other o’er scraps
Starving in silence

Why

What myth is it
That keeps you
Divided
Amongst yourselves
That keeps you
Blind
To your strength

The original (in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman) can be seen here.

Over the course of a life there are many who nudge you in one direction or another but very few who entirely alter its trajectory. In my experience I can count four, all encountered between the last two years at school and the first two years in college.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz made me see the world beyond myself in a manner at once appealing and hopeful. Since then, Faiz has become a kind of Bible-substitute in all the manifestations of sight and sound.

Three poems – Kuttey, Bol, and Tanhai – retain a particular association because my son knew them by heart around the age of two. It was a party-stopper of the time when, leaning innocently over the shoulder of one of the parents, he would startle an unwary guest with an imperious ye galiyoN ke awaara bekaar kuttey or bol ke lab azaad hain terey. Our doubts as to whether he was a typical hafiz or knew what he was talking about were set to rest when, on one such occasion, he pointed to a departing friend with an unforgettable woh ja raha hai Bundu bhaii shab-e gham guzaar ke.

My fondness for Kuttey, for this and other reasons, notwithstanding, I continued to rethink the poem over time. For one, I did not feel it had been entirely fair to dogs. For another, and more seriously, I tossed around the issue of agency. This was not a well-articulated concern at the time Faiz was writing but since then we had been introduced to the notion by the growing critique of post-colonial theory. Early accounts in the theory conveyed the impression that the colonized were like putty to be pushed this way or that entirely at the whims and machinations of the colonists. The evolving critiques had challenged this depiction arguing that the colonized too were endowed with passions and interests and acted in their own welfare as they saw best – in a word, they also had agency in the vocabulary of the theory.

The final couplet of kuttey ran headlong into this issue. After asserting that the downtrodden could own the world (yeh mazluum makhluuq gar sar uthaye/to insaan sab sarkashii bhuul jaye) the poem concludes with koii in ko ehsaas-e zillat dilaa de/koii in kii soii huii dum hila de. This external koii, emblematic of the early Marxist vanguard, had become problematic towards the end of the twentieth century – it was the issue of agency.

My rendering of the poem frames this issue of agency in perspective and asks what it might be that keeps the wretched of the earth from acting in their interest. Among the possibilities in this regard are the various powerful myths that shape our lives and convince us that we are living in the best possible world. As one example, it is quite remarkable that only now has economic inequality even begun to be talked about as an issue of any importance in mainstream economic theory and public policy.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz continues to inspire. It remains for us to take that inspiration forward into our own times. I am convinced that is how Faiz would have liked us to honor his legacy.

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Faiz – 2: Bangladesh – An Apriplum

December 19, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Remembering is one thing; not forgetting another. One of the dates we should not forget is December 16, 1971.

My contribution to not forgetting is an attempt to capture the spirit of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Dhaka se Waapsii par, a poem Faiz wrote a few years after the event.

As I have written before (Faiz – 1: The City), I am not attempting a translation, something virtually impossible to manage from Urdu into English. Faiz Sahib’s words in this regard provide the best counsel (in Faiz Ahmed Faiz on Daud Kamal):

“Translating poetry, even when confined to a cognate language with some formal and idiomatic affinities with the original compositions, is an exacting task, but this task is obviously far more formidable when the languages involved are far removed from each other in cultural background, rhythmic and formal patterns, and the vocabulary of symbol and allusion as Urdu and English.”

I lean more towards the sentiment expressed by the John Washington, a translator from Spanish (here). Do keep in mind that he is saying this about prose, not poetry:

“Translating is an act of decontextualization, of deracinating a work and attempting to replant it in foreign soil. The act leads to crossbreeding, to mutation, and to the exposure of unintended or unrecognized aspects of the original—to apriplums and other strange flowerings.”

My own test of a credible translation is very simple: It has to stand on its own as a poem in the translated language – whether it is good or bad is secondary.

An example that should make this clear is the Faiz poem Nazim Hikmet: ZindaaN se Ek Khat which is a translation into Urdu of a poem in Turkish by Nazim Hikmet. If you give just the text of the Urdu version to a reader he or she would consider it an original poem in Urdu without any inkling that it was translation from a foreign language. The critical judgement as to its literary merit as an Urdu poem remains a separate issue.

Going from Urdu to English, as Faiz had warned, is virtually impossible – the cultural background, the rhythmic and formal patterns, the vocabulary of symbol and allusion are all alien to each other. Just the structure of the sentence (Subject-Object-Verb in Urdu versus Subject-Verb-Object in English) presents a major hurdle. Consider the rhythm of the following lines from Faiz’s Aaj Baazaar MeiN Pa ba JaulaaN Chalo:

dast afshaaN chalo, mast-o-raqsaaN chalo
khaak barsar chalo, khuuN badaamaN chalo
rah takta hai sab sheher-e jannaN chalo

It seems impossible to reproduce the rhythm that relies so heavily on the repeated verb ending in a language in which a sentence ends with the object, not the verb.

The one thing I would stay away from is to attempt a line-by-line translation but that seems to the norm in almost all translations of Faiz I have seen.

Take Daud Kamal, for example, regarded highly as a poet in English. Some of his translations (in O City of Lights: Faiz Ahmed Faiz – Selected Poetry and Biographical Notes edited by Khalid Hasan. Incidentally, the volume includes a translation of Dhaka se Waapsii par by Khalid Hasan) reflect that strength but there are others where he too gives in to the problem I had mentioned in the earlier post – translating as if Urdu speakers were looking over the shoulder and sitting in judgement.

Consider these lines from Faiz’s celebrated Subh-e Azaadi:

kahiiN to ho ga shab-e sust mauj ka saahil
kahiin to ja ke ruke ga safeena-e dil

Now consider the translation:

Surely, the night’s turgid sea will breathe its last
On the inevitable shore.

Surely, the boat of the heart’s agony will somewhere
Come to a stop.

These lines only become meaningful if one knows the original. For an English reader not familiar with Urdu/Persian/Hindi, “the boat of the heart’s agony will somewhere/ Come to a stop” would convey some literal sense but I doubt if it would pass for moving verse.

Consider this from Tum Apni Karnii kar Guzro:

ab kyuuN us din ka zikr karo
jab dil tukRe ho jaaye ga

And the translation:

Why talk about that day
When the heart will be broken into pieces

The Urdu ‘dil tukRe ho jaana’ conveys a different sense than ‘breaking the heart into pieces’ which is also quite unpoetic in English.

Given these pitfalls that even established poets in English fail to negotiate, it seems prudent to write a poem in English conveying the spirit of the original than to attempt a literal translation that does not resonate with a non-Urdu sensibility.

This is a very long prelude to presenting my version of Dhaka se Waapsii par which appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly on December 19, 2015 (here). Your critical feedback on the poem and on the travails of translation in general would be greatly appreciated.

Bangladesh

So often
I have said it to myself
I wish to say it to you
It should not be difficult
But it is

Do you sense
What I am trying to say
And
Why I cannot say it

Feelings are feelings
Words, words
So much is lost on the way

What would it take
To trust again
To feel
Without the need
To say

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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

Look
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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Reflections on Lost Times

August 1, 2014

By Ibn-e Eusuf

Father was like that. Eager to have us learn everything, oblivious to details. Busy, busy. Shunting trains by day, learning French by night. Mother never said much, went along mostly.

Handed over to a music teacher or somesuch. Eight or thereabouts. No Sa Re Ga. Right away on to aye maalik tere bandey ham tuu ne zarrey se keeRaa banaya or somesuch. Closet evolutionist. Wept. Mother gently requested change of tune. Merey maalik bulaa le madeenay mujhe. About death and dying. Final requests, etc. Nothing doing. End of music hall career.

Still, thanks and all. Never forgot bulaa le madeenay bit. Coming in handy now. Understand all about politics. Aatey umrah jaatey umrah. Mountain of rye. Mice. Roared. Wind ke jhonkoN se. Pudeenay ke bagh. No offence. miaN khush raho ham dua kar chalay. Farsighted bastard. Somepeople know it all. Should have stayed with him. Might have been PM now. Other way blocked. Father said only duffers went into forces. Mother agreed: only one in entire family.

Handed over to very short Maulvi saab. Nine or thereabouts. Went through the text twice. Didn’t understand anything. Quarreled every day. Molly saab said duad mother said zuad. Molly saab fed up with food. Me fed up with duad-zuad. Third time got bored. Gave up halfway. Never went back. End of religious career. Could have eliminated some heathens. Earned hasanas. Hosannas? Gone to jannah early. No bukbuk of longmarch to Islamabad. Tantrums of Imran Khan. Missing Aunt Jemima. Pancake.

Handed over to Mohd Shafi painter. Ten or thereabouts. Lived in servant quarters. Carrying on with Bibbo next door. Accompany to Friday prayers. Garhi Shahu mosque. First time. New shoes stolen. Never went back. End of second chance. Unsolved mystery. Bakistan ka matlab kya. Whatever. Jo bhii. More heathens saved. Mohd Shafi made wooden box with name painted on top. For secret stuff. Now lost.

Handed over to Ijaz sahib. Real artist. Eleven or thereabouts. Bad at art. Failing at school. Art teacher Choosy mad yelling caning. Six of the best. Takhti wala skool me jaenga darakht ke neechey baithenga. Ijaz sahib trying all. Nothing works. Lines all crooked. Everyone resigned. End of art career. Picasso made crooked lines. Crooked lines not bad. Crooked good. More crooked the better. Things one learns too late. Life.

Handed over to Mehtab. Caddy. Twelve or thereabouts. Picked up fast. Excellent on fairway. Excellent on green. Daily practice. Hitting long. Lost father’s favorite red ball. Big fight. End of golf. End of golfing career. Forest for trees. Wood. Wooden headed. Live and learn. Don’t fight over little things. Little things seem big when little. Big folks mostly little. Live and learn.

Not handed over anymore. Given up. Teens or thereabouts. Did alright. Passed school passed college. Read Wilde stayed sober. Read Russell Why I am not a Christian etc. I doubt therefore I am. Mother read GhalibMirSauda. More doubt. No more same I. Faiz. PostmenoN ke naam. Girlfriend gifted origins of family and private property. World turned upside down. Pak sar zameen. Things not what they seem. Hain kawakib kuch nazar aatey haiN kuch. Bogey shunted to branch line. 786 Down.

End of college. Big fight. Want to study literature. Write poetry. Mother’s dream CSP. Commissioner. King of the district. Orderlies etc. Father MA English from GC. Handed over to father’s best GC buddy. CSP. Secretary of somethingortheother. Writer as well. Big pow-wow. Verdict. Only duffers study arts. Hath meiN hunar hona zuroori hai. Bad times. Bhutto idiot. Screwing up civil service. Lateral entry. Duffers.

Entered engineering university on high merit. Everyone proud. Many DN duffers. Headpiece full of straw. Real rulers. futtey. phitte munh phitte munh phiite munh e un e un e un. ATTESHA! Present arms. Gather alms. ghutliyoN ke daam. Baang. Whimper. Thusss. Hell on earth. Voted best English writer. Pansy. Wrote blasphemous poem for magazine. Turned down. Wrote obscene poem for magazine. Turned down. Wrote angry poem for magazine. Turned down. End of writing career. Obscenity ok. Manto. Ismat. Lihaaf. Before Zia. No more. Obscenity everywhere. Not much smut. Vanilla obscenity.

Frustrated. Selfhanded over to female. Twentyone or thereabouts. Life’s lesson. Never be frustrated. Too late. As ever. End of career. Dead end. End dead.

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Pitying the Nation

May 15, 2012

By Hasan Altaf

One of the few reliable characteristics of the institutions of the government of Pakistan is that they will only rarely stick to their mandates, that they will only occasionally consider themselves bound to fulfill their theoretical functions – the idea of the “public servant,” for example, seems to have passed ours by entirely. Given that the results of this tendency are so frequently destructive, or at best neutral, we should look kindly on Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa’s recent bout of poetic inspiration at the conviction of Prime Minister Gilani for contempt of court. It’s easy to say, as the prime minister’s lawyer did, that judges should refrain from adding poetry to their judgments (“especially” their own; maybe Iqbal would have been acceptable?) and just make their decisions and let that be that, but in a country where that is so rarely that, a little bit of riffing off Khalil Gibran is hardly the end of the world.

“Pity the Nation,” Justice Khosa’s addendum to the court’s decision, has struck quite a chord. (more…)

Learning Urdu

February 21, 2012

By Hannah Green

Everything starts to look like Urdu if you spend enough time staring at Urdu words trying to get them into your head. The script is fluid. Some letters can squiggle tightly or stretch long, sometimes letters stack on top of one another and sometimes they go side by side. It is this fluidity that makes Urdu so enthralling to look at, but also very difficult to learn to read. I’ll find myself squinting at a word in one of the more artistic fonts, wondering if a dot should attach to the loop on its right or the notch on its left.

Of course, the reason that I have these difficulties is that, for me, the language learning process is backward. Someone whose mother tongue is Urdu would have learned the vocabulary before trying to learn to read it, so they’ll know which interpretation of a dot makes a real word and which makes one that doesn’t exist or doesn’t make sense. Urdu writing also only includes about half of vowel sounds, and I ache for the native speaker’s instinct to know what these missing sounds are just by looking at the text. (more…)

The Changing World of Urdu

November 20, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

‘Urdu has changed from the Urdu of Mir and Ghalib but that simply proves it is a living language.’

That was one of the comments I received on earlier posts (here and here) about the past and future of the language. At one level, it is a statement of the obvious – nothing ever stays the same. At another, it invites a host of questions: What is the nature of the change? Who owns the language now? What functions is it serving?

Such questions could be answered by survey of Urdu speakers. A canvassing of urban centers would suffice in Pakistan since Urdu is not a regional language and hence not spoken widely in rural areas. (The situation might differ in India.) An organization like the National Language Authority could design the exercise but is unlikely to do so for any number of reasons. The best we can do for the moment is to rely on personal knowledge to generate longitudinal case studies going back almost a hundred years. (more…)

Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

March 6, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

In response to a question asking why Faiz Ahmad Faiz was so much more popular then other, clearly ‘better,’ poets, I had argued (here and here) that we should enjoy poets on their own terms and not bother overmuch with ranking them. Comparisons being difficult, I used a metaphor from music to suggest some of the ways in which poets differ – while Faiz could be considered a poet of the vilambit, Ghalib was one of the drut, and it makes as little sense to compare Faiz and Ghalib as it does to compare a vilambit to a drut.

I am aware that the argument can be pushed: Can we not compare poets of the vilambit or of the drut to elucidate what might be involved in such comparisons? (more…)