A large round moon hung in the sky but its glow was overpowered by the market’s evening lights. I turned my gaze away from the tikkiwala’s tawa. The smell was powerful enough in itself. If I allowed it to join forces with the sight of tikkis frying in desi ghee, it would overpower my resolve. I had all but escaped when a voice called out: “Amitabha, arre bhai Amitabha! Where are you running off to?”
I turned to find Vishwanathji standing by the tawa, with a small wooden spoon clutched between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand raised in my direction. “What a coincidence!” he said. “I was planning to call you when I got home. Will you have some tikki?”
The dying embers of my willpower said no. My vocal chords emitted “Yes.”
“So,” he began, after the details of my order had been conveyed. “You have translated Muneer Niazi.”
“Only the ghazals,” I said, as if trying to diminish my offence.
“Why?” he asked.
“The nazms were too difficult to translate,” I replied.
“No, no,” he said. “I meant to ask, why did you translate any of it in the first place?”
“Umm, well, you know, it was…”
“You shouldn’t have done it. Undo it if you can.”
“Why Vishwanathji?” I asked, genuinely curious. Like any author whose book has just been published, I was hoping for praise and bracing for criticism, but not really expecting anyone to ask my book to retrace its steps and return to non-existence. “Are the translations bad?”
“How can they be any good?” he asked. “Tell me, how have you translated this one:
ghup andhere mein chhipe soone banon ki aur se
geet barkha ke suno rangon mein doobe mor se”
I wrestled my phone out of my pocket and started scanning through my email looking for the manuscript.
“Poets should remember their lines by heart,” Vishwanathji pronounced, as he scraped the last crumbs of tikki off his plate.
“I am not a poet, Vishwanathji,” I said. “I am just a translator.”
“Hmpf,” Vishwanathji said. “So, a translator is not a poet?”
“Here it is:
from the deserted dark forests come the strains
the peacock drenched in colour sings songs of the rain”
“Ha!” said Vishwanathji. “Just as I thought!”
I felt my heart sink. Even the sight of a plate with my tikki, as drenched in sweet chutney as the peacock in the couplet was drenched in colour, did little to raise my mood. Nonetheless I took it. But rather than beginning to carve it, I just held it in my hand and looked askance at Vishwanathji.
“I turned to find Vishwanathji standing by the tawa, with a small wooden spoon clutched between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand raised in my direction.”
“Look, Amitabha,” he said. “It is not your fault. Let’s take just one example. The word geet is so filled with resonance in our language. Just say it out loud and it will reach deep into the hearts of each one of these people you see around you. Someone will think of the movie Geet Gaata Chal, someone will remember Kareena Kapoor playing a girl called Geet in a movie. Someone else will think of something else. How can the word “strains” achieve the same effect, even in those like you who grew up speaking English?”
“But…,” I said.
“Don’t strain yourself to answer that,” he said, laughing at his poor joke as he tossed his empty plate into the garbage. “Even in England no one has the kind of relationship with the word ‘strain’ as we have with the word geet.”
There was really no way around this argument. I sighed and returned to the plate of tikki in my hand.
“You know,” Vishwanathji said, “when we first moved here you could hear the peacocks calling day and night. That’s why they named it Mayur Vihar. Now only the name is left. The peacocks have gone. Even the darkness is not that dark any more. The ghup andhera is now just an andhera.”
I looked down at my phone again. My eye fell on another couplet. “There used to be an ancient sign on this shore,” I read. “The current of the river washed it away.”
Vishwanathji’s face broke into a smile. He put an arm around me. “I met him, you know, Muneer, when he came to Delhi. I don’t remember which year it was, maybe in the 1970s or 1980s. Pathans are a handsome lot, but he was exceptional. What looks! What a personality! And with a wife half his age.”
“I have spoken to her on the phone many times,” I said. “Naheed Begum. It was really difficult getting the contract signed. She was keen on it, but it is impossible to send either paper or money across the border.”
“Yes,” he said. “The only things we can send are poetry and love.”
I started at this statement, an irrational fear gripping me. “Vishwanathji!”
“You are right,” he said. “Such things cannot be said in public anymore. If I say it out loud, someone may arrest me. Shall we try it?”
He stepped into the middle of the street, cleared his throat and said in a loud voice: “I love Pakistan because a thread of poetry connects my heart to its people.”
Luckily, just as he began speaking, a Swiggy rider went roaring past and the first part of Vishwanathji’s statement got drowned in the racket.
“See, nothing happened! You were scared for no reason,” he said, but I could see that his breath had quickened.
Taking some money out, he handed it to the tikkiwala. Then, casting a meaningful look at my yet-to-be-emptied plate, he said: “Shall we go?”
Tossing the rest of the tikki into my mouth in one shot, I hurried to catch up with Vishwanathji, who was in an unnatural rush to get away from the scene of his crime. A couple of hundred metres away the row of shops ended and he slowed his step.
“I don’t know when this darkness will give way to light,” he said, catching his breath.
“When the colours of spring settled on the garden, then I saw,” I replied. “When the bitterness in my heart relented, then I saw.”
Recognising the original in my translation, he smiled wanly and nodded, like he had recognised an old friend who had gone bald and turned grey. “I am over 80 now, Amitabha,” he said. “The bitterness in these hearts is not going to relent in my lifetime.”
He walked through a wicket gate into the DDA park separating Supreme Enclave from Amar Jyoti Kunj. Seeking out a bench in the least lit part of the park, he gestured to me to sit next to him. Then he brightened up with an effort and said: “Forget these morose thoughts. I haven’t even congratulated you yet on having this translation published. Very good, very good. Are you planning to publish it in Pakistan as well?”
“I sent it to a publisher there,” I said. “She liked it but refused to publish it. Everyone here knows Muneer in Urdu, she said. No one will want to read an English translation.”
Vishwanathji chuckled bitterly at this. “That’s the difference between them and us. Here our English-speaking elite doesn’t even spit on literature in Hindi.”
“That’s not completely true,” I said, feeling affronted.
“Look, don’t take it personally,” he said. “Take me for example. I have published 9 or 10 novels, won various awards and what not. Kursi ka Swayamwar is reprinted every second year. But only two of my books are translated into English. And both by foreigners.”
“Hindi-English, India-Pakistan, Indian-foreigner,” I burst out. “I’m sick of politics!”
Vishwanathji raised an eyebrow.
“Sorry, Vishwanathji, I didn’t mean…”
“Already weary of politics?” he asked, a smile breaking over his face. “You can’t even be 50 yet. But yes, now I know why you translated Muneer Niazi.”
“Why?” I asked, suddenly realising that I myself didn’t quite know the answer.
“Look, Amitabha,” he began, and then he paused, took off his glasses and wiped them with the corner of his kurta. “How do I say this? We are all very committed to the idea that injustice must go from this world, to this idea that if we stop struggling for one moment we will betray the trust that the oppressed have placed in us. But it tires us, this struggle, and, wearied, we turn towards beauty, try to refresh ourselves with the beauty of the world. Didn’t Muneer say
dasht-e-baraan ki hawaa se phir hara sa ho gaya
mein faqat khushbu se us ki tazaa-dam sa ho gaya?”
(its breeze brought me back to life, this desert rain
its fragrance was enough to make me feel new again)
I bristled: “He also said
burn this stonehearted city to the ground
then scatter its ash where it can’t be found”
“Then Vishwanathji leaned back into the bench and closed his eyes. “Look up,” he said.”
“Good response!” Vishwanathji chuckled. “But not good enough. Faiz would have suggested that the city be torn down brick by brick and resettled under a new sky.”
“Muneer is not Faiz,” I said, struggling to keep my tone even.
“And that is why you love him!” Vishwanathji concluded triumphantly.
“No, no,” I said, beginning to feel a little irritated now. “The reason I translated him was that I was looking for a new way of writing in English.”
“What were you planning to do with this new way of writing in English when you found it?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I thought I would write a novel with it.”
Vishwanathji laughed harder at this than he had laughed all evening. “Very good, very good,” he said, when he recovered. Then, mischievously, he asked: “So, how is the novel proceeding?”
Now, I smiled too, the smile of a schoolboy who hasn’t done his homework.
“I knew it,” he said. “You haven’t written a word, have you?”
“No,” I said.
“Listen, Amitabha,” he said. “Your problem is that you don’t want to choose a side. You are a writer of prose but spend your time reading poetry. The language of your heart and soul is English, but you wander about in Hindi and Urdu.”
“No, no,” he said. “It’s not a bad thing. If everyone in the world chose a side the world would be a more impoverished place than it already is. But even dervishes have to find a place to sleep at night, my friend. Some limits should not be crossed.”
“You are right, Vishwanathji,” I said. “I will call my publisher and ask her if she can unpublish the book.”
At this, he put his arm around me and squeezed my shoulders. Then he leaned back into the bench and closed his eyes. “Look up,” he said.
Up in the sky the moon had reached the highest point in its evening’s journey. The characteristic yellowness of a Delhi winter moon had given way to a sharp white that was bleeding into a dark blue.
“Tell me, Amitabha,” Vishwanathji said. “How did you translate this one:
neel-e-falak ke ism mein naqsh-e-asiir ke sabab
hairat hai aab-o-khaak mein mah-e-muneer ke sabab?”
Somehow I felt like I had known all along that I would have to answer this question before the evening ended. I looked down at my phone and read:
“like a silhouette imprisoned in a sky of blue
earth and water are in awe of the brilliant moon”
“Dhut!” he exclaimed. “You discarded the most valuable thing in that she’er. You discarded the poet’s name.”
But there was something in the way he said what he said that made me feel that he was trying to tell me that this failure was more valuable than whatever in this world passes for success.
Amitabha Bagchi is a novelist. His recent work is Lost Paradise (Juggernaut), a volume of translations of the ghazals of Muneer Niazi (1922-2006), a poet from Pakistan who wrote in Punjabi and Urdu. Vishwanath is a celebrated Hindi novelist from Bagchi’s DSC Prize-winning novel, Half the Night is Gone (2018).