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Woven with dreams

Print edition : Aug 30, 2019 T+T-
A delectable anthology of Urdu ghazals in Roman transliteration (and translation) of poets from the late sixteenth century to the present.

The noted 18th century poet Khwaja Mir Dard spent all his life in Delhi, unlike Mirza Rafi Sauda who left the city because of frequent Maratha attacks. Born in 1721, he passed away in 1785. In between, there were three major invasions of Delhi. In 1739, Nadir Shah raided the city on Eid, turning its lanes and by-lanes into rivers of blood. A little more than two decades later, Ahmed Shah Abdali attacked the city. And there were the depredations of the Marathas. Dard refused to leave the city. He, as Anisur Rahman states in Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi , was a “theoretician of the Muhammadi path and fashioned himself in the image of the Prophet Muhammad, appointed by God as His messenger on the earth”.

The fate of the last abode of this highly respected Sufi poet, whose expertise in music defined his tenor and metre, is not much better than the times he lived in. True, there is no armed invader today, but Dard’s tomb, at the junction of Old Delhi and New Delhi, sits amidst improvised urban dwellings, some grotesque, others merely inconvenient to passers-by. Goats graze around the tomb, boys play with marbles, some even try climbing the pole in the middle of the tomb. Dogs in the crowded neighbourhood slink around in the hope of pieces of meat thrown to them from the homes. The tomb seems to be a favourite haunt of drug addicts.

Odd as it may appear, two centuries ago Dard himself had spoken of the ephemeral nature of life and the helplessness of man. He wrote: “ Tohmatein chand apne zimme dhar chale/ Jis liye aai the so ham kar chale/ Zindagi hai ya koee toofan hai/ Hum to is jeene ke haathon mar chale… Shamma ki maanind hum is bazm mein/ Chashm-e tar aai the, daaman tar chale. ” (I put on myself many a blame, before I left/I only did for what I came, before I left/ Is this life, or a rough storm I suffer?/ In life’s term, I was life’s claim, before I left/I lived here like a lamp, as long as I lived/ With tears I came but earned shame, before I left.)

If Dard’s tomb is a sign of the times, Momin Khan Momin’s last resting place, which has couplets engraved on it, is a comment on the poet who was fortunate enough to learn under Shah Abdul Aziz, whose imprint can still be seen on the country’s madrasa education. Today, Momin rests in the dargah of Aziz’s father, Shah Waliullah, the 18th century Islamic reformer who is said to have been instructed by the Prophet to work for the uplift of the community. Momin, though, was a poet of romantic love. Anisur Rahman says: “The lover in his poetry is one of amorous disposition; he expresses his love along with lust, and sees lust as a part of life’s romance.”

Then there is the most unfortunate Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, who did not get two yards for burial in his beloved homeland. After the failed first war of independence in 1857, he was exiled to Rangoon, where he was denied even a ceremonial tomb. When the revolt failed, Zafar saw three of his sons and grandsons killed and their heads displayed at the Khooni Darwaza, not far from the Red Fort. Zafar learnt the intricacies of poetry under Shah Naseem, Zauq, then Ghalib. With the anguish that he experienced in his personal life, love for him was not without a hint of melancholy. For him, a heart that had experienced no sorrow could not know the depth of love. Rahman reminds us, “For him, composing poetry was cultivating a difficult art that called for perseverance and devotion. This also explains his choice of multi-syllabic lines and difficult qaafia and radeef.” Rahman reproduces a Zafar ghazal that talks of love and sadness: “ Baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi to na thi/Ab hai jaisi teri mehfil kabhi aisi to na thi ” (It was never so very hard to speak, but now/Your assembly was never so bleak, but now).

Between Dard, Zafar and Momin, Rahman gives us a slice of life. In reality though, they are only part of the life of Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi , a book so gently unfolding that you are persuaded to recall the opening of the petals of a flower, hour by hour, day by day. Here, the fragrance spreads page by page, age by age, poet by poet. A seasoned academic, literary critic and poet that he is, Rahman brings into play long years of using the pen as a brush. In his brief introductions to each poet, he acts like a room boy in a hotel who draws the curtains aside and opens the windows in the morning. Rahman, though, does not confine himself to merely opening the window to the poets’ lives; he paints their lives with his words. The poetry he chooses to string together this collection would have been read by millions already, but the treatment he gives to the poets can be done only by a handful.

He reserves his best when talking of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, a 20th century icon whose work continues to inspire Urdu lovers and those who read Urdu poetry in Roman script. With a delectable mix of ironies, Rahman writes of Faiz: “A torchbearer of the Progressive Writers Movement and a committed Marxist, Faiz was one of the few poets to strike a delicate balance between arts and ideas and emerge as an icon. He was a votary of free expression, democratic values and a world order based on sociopolitical justice. The stages of his development show how his craft matured—from romanticism to social realism, and then to a deeper awareness of the larger human predicament. Faiz exploited the traditional symbols of Persian and Urdu poetry to add new implications to them and broaden the frontiers of meaning.” Such brevity, such precision.

After such an introduction, Rahman springs a surprise. He chooses not to give us “ Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na mang ”. Instead, he dishes out, “ Aai kuchh abr kuchh sharaab aai/Us ke baad aai jo azaab aai (Let some clouds gather, let some wine flow/ Then come what may when I’m all aglow). Talk of a poet-critic’s idiosyncrasies!

Head over heart

Yet, Rahman presents a collection where the head rules over the heart. Taking off with metaphysical beginnings, wherein he gives space to the likes of Quli Qutb Shah and Mirza Mazhar, he changes gear effortlessly in the section titled “Towards Enlightenment”. It is here that he shows some of his best insights and sharpest wit as he takes the readers to the worlds of Mira Rafi Sauda, Khwaja Mir Dard and Mir Taqi Mir. It proves a healthy appetiser for the section “Romance of Realism” where he finds space for InshaAllah Khan Insha, Asadullah Khan Ghalib (he takes the title of the book from Ghalib’s couplet), Momin and Dagh Dehlavi, the Delhi poet who lies buried in Hyderabad. In a neat delineation he clubs Mohammad Iqbal with Jigar Moradabadi and Firaq Gorakhpuri in the “Advent of Modernism”: it is a choice that will raise a few eyebrows, as Iqbal fans consider him over and above such classifications.

Many more eyebrows will be raised over the inclusion/exclusion of some modern-day popular poets. However, for such naysayers, each of the poets included here will have many more nodding in agreement. Hence, no hard feelings in finding Bashir Badr Zehra Nigah, Ahmad Faraz, Nida Fazli and Shahryar under the same umbrella. As a poet, each has/had his/her own limitations. Yet each is/was capable of whipping up a storm, even to cajole the ennui-ridden to strive, to run. To Rahman’s credit, he has avoided including Javed Akhtar in the section. Many others, unable to discern between the ephemeral nature of film lyrics and timelessness of poetry, would have succumbed to the temptation. He deserves praise for the selection of poets in the Beyond New Poetics section, too. It is pleasing to see Perveen Shakir get space. It is a moment of vindication to find Aftab Husain here, and one of unalloyed joy to see Sarwat Hussain, who passed away at the young age of 47. Hussain lent simple words great profundity, enabling a common reader to experience the crests and troughs with the ease of a seasoned sailor.

So, is everything fair and fine with this book? Well, almost. While Rahman’s transliteration makes the cut, there are moments when one wishes he had used a different spelling for an Urdu word in Roman script. For instance, “ thhe ”. He spells it as the English word “the”. It is confusing. Same for words like “ baithho ” (sit down). Also, he does take a few liberties with facts of history, such as when he talks of Zafar’s sons having been hanged at Delhi Gate. It was both sons and grandson. And it was at Khooni Darwaza, not Delhi Gate. But these are minor blemishes.

It is disappointing to find Zauq missing in the collection, more so when his pupil Zafar is there. There seems no justice for Zauq in this world, in his lifetime, or even in death. A contemporary of Ghalib, Zauq would have had more accolades coming his way but for the brilliance of his younger rival. Then in death, his fate was worse than that of Dard. His last resting place in Delhi’s Paharganj area could not even be located! This for a man madly in love with Delhi, who wrote: “ Humne maana ki Dakkan mein hai bahut qadre sukha; Kaun jaaye Zauq par Dilli ko galiyan chhod kar .”

The worst was the lot of Mir Taqi Mir, who lived through some of the most stressful times in the history of Delhi, though he found solace late in life in Lucknow. But the city of nawabs has chosen to forget him. Today, a railway line probably runs over his burial place. Thankfully, Rahman reminds us of the criminal neglect.