Order out of chaos

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

Quiver by Javed Akhtar, poems and ghazals translated from Urdu by David Mathews, HarperCollins Publishers, India; pages 251, Rs.350.

WHO but Javed Akhtar would have taken Mother Teresa head on:

On the one hand you sympathise with the oppressedBut on the otherYou are not abashed by their oppressor?But this is true,How dareI ask you such things?If I ask,Then I shall have the responsibilityfrom which so far I have escaped.Perhaps it is better to keep silent,And if there is anything to say,Let me say this one thing:Mother Teresa!I cannot deny your greatness.

Quiver, in its English avatar, was released in New Delhi recently, with much fanfare by the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, our latest icon, and Amitabh Bachchan, our enduring icon.

I came to Javed Akhtar's poetry late in my life. I am not acquainted with his film work. His wife, the vivacious and beautiful Shabana Azmi, I know a little and much enjoyed the English film in which she all but over-shadowed Shirley Maclaine.

Javed Akhtar's volume is adorned by an autobiographical essay, 121-124 pages long, in which he both reveals and conceals himself. For the first 30 years of his life, being uprooted had become a normal condition. Then Bombay, after a false start, gave him his break, initially as a script-writer, and then followed poetry. I know about his political affiliations and of them. They constantly appear in his ghazals and verses.

The translator's introduction tells us much about Akhtar's art, craft and life. Quiver or Tarkash is overflowing with deep love, emotion and social indignation. His outrage at injustices is apparent throughout the volume. And philosophy is not missing.

I am not competent to judge the quality of the poems (after all I am reading them in translation) but I have enjoyed them, and was deeply moved by several of them. Here and there he turns the passing into the everlasting. in some there is a hint of erotic communion - or am I mistaken? Some appear simple but carry complex propositions. Did Akhtar find the finest part of his nature and its fulfilment after meeting his second, lovely wife or before? He says he was born a poet, but started writing poetry late.

Poets may not rule the world, but the very best (and Akhtar is from the top drawer) do touch the most significant parts of our lives, they create order out of chaos (in a few words) whether in the self or in society, or in knowledge or in the arts. But enough of tautology. Now over to Javed Akhtar who is only in his mid-fifties and has miles to go...

My house has been surrounded with high buildings,I have been robbed of my share of the sun today.

* * *

All of us are just one step from happiness,In every house we always seem to lack one room.Interesting, but never truthful, you and me!We seem quite good, but we're not good at all you see.It may take endless time to reach a distant goal,But slipping back does not take any time at all.

"Hunger" is about his near destitute days in Bombay, prior to his hitting the jackpot.

I see a pipe, I see a tap,But why then is the water hard?It seems as if a blow is thrustAgainst my stomach.Now I feel I might faintAnd sweat engulfs my bodyI have no strength leftThree days today!Three days today.I was very clever then,And you were very cunning too,First we thought it was a gameNow you love me, and I love you.

The translator has quite obviously done a first-rate job. He knows Urdu as well as it is possible for a foreigner (actually the Republic of Letters recognises no such label) to know. And he understands the complex simplicity of Javed Akhtar's poetry. Here is a discerning comment:

"In Urdu Poetry, especially in the ghazal, of which twenty-three examples are found in this anthology, words such as gham (grief), dard (pain), khalish (pricking), aafat (disaster), and tanhai (loneliness), are almost obligatory. The concepts of firaq (separation) and its opposite, the unattainable visal (union with the beloved), have always been part of the tradition."

A word about R. K. Mehra, the head of HarperCollins, India. He comes from a book-loving publishing family. He also owns Rupa. Quiver is beautifully produced.

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