Syed Ahmed Esar

Rumi’s translator

Print edition : April 10, 2020

Syed Ahmed Esar. Photo: Sudhakara Jain

With the publication of his Urdu translation of Rumi’s Masnavi, 97-year-old poet and translator Syed Ahmed Esar feels that he has accomplished everything he set out to do.

WITH the recent publication of Syed Ahmed Esar’s magnum opus, an Urdu translation of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi’s extended mystical poem Masnavi, the 97-year-old Urdu poet and translator based in Bengaluru feels that he has finally finished everything that he set out to accomplish. If we add these six volumes to his past published work, the total comes to 19 books, which is a sizeable corpus for a man who said that before his first translation was published in 1997, he “never expected that there’ll be a single book in my name”.

The Urdu translation of Masnavi has been published by the National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language and is slated to be launched in Bengaluru soon. The nonagenarian, whose takhallus, or pen name, is Esar, which he has permanently suffixed to his name, has worked relentlessly on translating canonical Persian literary works into Urdu since he retired from the Indian Forest Service as the Chief Wildlife Warden of Karnataka in 1980.

It is appropriate perhaps that this elderly resident of the city lives in the oldest locality of Bengaluru. The jumble of narrow bylanes abutting Avenue Road in the foundational quarter of Bengaluru is called the pete area and was laid out during Kempegowda’s reign in the 16th century. Esar has lived in an ancient house in Sher Khan galli (lane) here since 1948. Belying his advanced age, Esar excitedly shows off the freshly printed six volumes of Masnavi that lie on his table before he launches into a story of how he became fascinated with Persian poetry.

Esar was born in 1922 in the garrison of Mysore Lancers, which is in Munireddy Palya in Bengaluru and still remains under the control of the Indian Army. His early life was spent in the garrison as his father was a soldier in this military regiment of the Mysore princely State who saw action during the First World War in Egypt. “He saved a fellow soldier from drowning in the Nile,” Esar said in English, adding that his father was a terrific swimmer. It was here while listening to a sermon as a child at the garrison mosque that Esar first heard a verse from Rumi’s Masnavi: “Tan bajaan jumbad, nami beeni tujaan/ Lekin az jumbee dane tan jaan badan” (“The body’s quickened by the soul, yet you don’t see the soul/ But by the body’s quickening know the soul.”)

“When I first heard this, I remained stupefied although I didn’t understand the deeper meaning of this verse at the time,” Esar said, recounting this life-changing moment from almost nine decades back. Esar was sitting comfortably in a lounge chair as he spoke and his published works were stacked in a tall tower in the table in front of him. A table next to him was piled high with a variety of 19th-century Persian dictionaries, the most distinguished of which was a three-volume dictionary of Arabic and Persian titled Furhung-e-Anandaraj, published in 1888 in honour of Ananda Gajapati Raj Maharaj, the princely ruler of Vizianagaram. The title page of the first volume was falling apart but the well-used set of dictionaries had clearly helped Esar in his mammoth translation as he handled them reverentially. The massive bookshelf behind him held an eclectic collection of books reflecting the varied interests of Esar. There was an Urdu translation of Plato’s Republic, a volume of poetry by Ghalib, exegeses of the Quran, Dominique Lapierre’s Freedom at Midnight, a book titled Sanctuaries and Wildlife of Karnataka and a book on the philosophy of Al-Ghazali.

It was as a child that he also began to read the poetry of medieval Persian poets like Omar Khayyam, Shams Tabrez, Saadi and Rumi. “Since the script of Urdu and Persian is the same, I would read the poetry even if I didn’t understand it completely,” Esar said, explaining his autodidactic learning of Persian. While in middle school, Esar was introduced to the work of Allama Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), whose poetry is steeped in philosophy, and he immediately fell in love with the work of this astounding poet. “When I was in college, I remember that I had copied his Asrar-e-Khudi [The Secrets of the Self] in entirety as I could not afford to buy the book itself, which had the very high price of Rs. 6!”

Esar, who continues to have a prodigious memory and can recite many Persian and Urdu couplets without a moment’s hesitation, says that he first started doing this during his long walks from his home in Munireddy Palya to Central College. Preferring to walk alone, he would repeat these verses as he walked. After his graduation, he joined the Forest Department and was even sent for an advanced postgraduate course to the University of Washington in Seattle in the United States. He spent two years between 1954 and 1956 in the U.S. before he returned home by ship. “It was a long journey, and I left on August 19, 1956, and reached Bangalore [now Bengaluru] only on October 19 via Southampton, London, Cape Town, Colombo and Madras,” he said.

He continued to work in the Forest Department and supervised kheddah operations to capture elephants. Considering his long career as a forester, he has many interesting tales from the jungles to narrate, including close encounters with tigers. His constant companion through his time in many of these lonely outposts in the wilderness of Karnataka was his Urdu and Persian poetry. “It was on September 17, 1977, when I was in the jungles of Sagar, that I translated my first Persian verse into Urdu, which was the 70th quatrain from the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam,” he said, recalling the moment when he embarked on his translations. “My mind was blown when I did this and I had to go to the [Forest Department’s] depot, but nothing registered in my head,” he continued. He finished the translation of 772 quatrains of Omar Khayyam within a year and picked up the work of Saadi and Hafez for translation. He continued translating Saadi and Hafez even after his retirement in 1980, but left this work incomplete when he was driven to translate the Persian poetry of Iqbal.

Challenging assignment

Iqbal’s deeply philosophical poetry is a challenging assignment for any translator, especially for someone already in his sixties, but Esar hurled himself into this project headlong and completed the translation of all his seven volumes by 1992. His first translation of Iqbal’s work, titled Payam-e-Mashriq (A Message from the East), was published in 1997 while the remaining volumes were published subsequently. These include Asrar-e-Khudi, Rubooz-e-Bekhudi (Hints of Selflessness), Javednama (Book of Javed), Zuboor-e-Ajm (Persian Psalms), Pas Chih Bayad Kard (What Should Then be Done?) and Armaghan-i-Hijaz (The Gift from the Hijaz).

Critics have commented that his translations retain the essence of the philosophy and the rhythm of the poetry, which is a complicated feat considering the profundity of someone like Iqbal. Notable admirers of these translations include Javed Iqbal, the son of Iqbal; Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, a leading Urdu writer; and Prof. B. Sheik Ali, the historian from Mysuru. A Japanese scholar of Urdu from Osaka University, T. Matsumura, has also relied on his work to translate Iqbal into Japanese. Esar’s work on Iqbal by itself could have been sufficient for most scholars of Persian and Urdu and had already, in a way, made him immortal in literary circles, but Esar was not done yet.

After completing his translations of Iqbal’s Persian works, Esar returned to his translation of Rumi’s work. Masnavi consists of 27,720 verses spread over six volumes. Translating this took up almost two decades of Esar’s life and with its publication, Esar has completed the goal that he had set for himself. In between his gargantuan work on the Masnavi, Esar has also translated and published the Persian poetry of Omar Khayyam, Saadi and Tabrez. He has also published a collection of his own poetry and an acclaimed autobiography which was published in 2014.

The Karnataka government presented him with the Rajyotsava Award in 2016, which is the second highest civilian honour in the State. He has been feted several times by the Karnataka Urdu Academy and a few of his books have received awards from the Urdu academies of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Considering his vast corpus of work and his wide contribution to the world of translation and Urdu literature, this limited recognition remains grossly disproportionate to his long career and prodigious output.

Mohammed Azam Shahid, an Urdu writer and journalist based in Bengaluru, said that Esar had done “commendable work which can inspire writers in the present generation” and blamed the north Indian bias in the Urdu world of letters for Esar’s marginalisation. “Esar’s work, translating from Persian to Urdu, has to now be taken forward and these works can be further translated into Indian languages like Kannada. Translations strengthen the multicultural legacy of our country, which is much needed in these times,” Shahid added.

People who know Esar well say that he maintains a low profile and has never sought public recognition for any of his literary feats. Through his interview, he said many times that he was “…a man from the jungles, Persian poetry accompanied me during my sojourns in the forests and I have done all this work without any expectations because of my love for language and poetry. I derived a deep sense of satisfaction from my work and it was also a lot of fun!”

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