Those who know and love Urdu poetry and literature recognize Dr. Ludmilla Vassilyeva’s name immediately. She is someone who, along with other notable non-native Urdu-scholars such as Dr. Frances Pritchett of Columbia University, the late Ralph Russell, and Natalia Prigarina, author of the seminal “Ghalib: A Creative Biography”, has done a tremendous amount of work in popularizing Urdu poetry and literature internationally. In addition, she was Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s interpreter and travel companion during his numerous sojourns in the Soviet Union over the course of 17 years from 1967 to 1984. She observed Faiz’s life and poetry from a privileged vantage point and also became a close friend. She has a PhD in Urdu and has written extensively (in both Russian and Urdu) on Faiz and Iqbal. She has also done translations of the poetry of Ghalib, Iqbal, Firaq, Josh, Majruh, Majaz, Ali Sardar Jafri and Faiz in addition to the prose of Qurratulain Haidar, Abul Kalam Azad and Joginder Pal, among others. Her book ‘Faiz Ahmed Faiz: Hayat aur Takhliqaat’ is the first literary biography of Faiz and was published to great acclaim by Oxford University Press in 2006.
Dr. Vassilyeva was recently in Lahore as a guest of the second Aalmi Urdu Conference. She sat down with us for an in-depth interview.
Q: In the context of the downfall of Urdu, do you think the decline of a language is related to political turbulence in the region where it is spoken?
LV: I would regretfully have to answer that in the affirmative. We’re all aware of the tragic status of Urdu as the State’s handmaiden in the politics of the subcontinent before and since 1947. In the International Urdu Conference an entire session was dedicated to the issue of the increasing substitution of the Urdu lexigraph with Roman Urdu. The very fact that such an issue was raised in an international conference bears testimony to the seriousness of the situation. Very few people in Faiz sahib’s city- and by that I mean Lahore, since I associate it much more strongly with Faiz than Sialkot- are aware that he translated much of Iqbal’s Persian poetry into Urdu. There are many who revere Iqbal here and through Faiz, they can now come even closer to Iqbal’s verses. I believe that as long as this passion for Urdu poetry is alive in these parts, Urdu as a language would not die. However it’s equally imperative not to confine Urdu to poems and mushairas alone.
In Russia, whenever Pakistani diplomats and dignitaries are invited to deliver speeches and attend get-togethers, they always speak in English. Compare this with the Indian guests- (former Indian PM) Vajpayee was recently visiting for instance- and they can always be heard delivering speeches and speaking in Hindi. My friend, David Matthews, who teaches Urdu in London, once recounted how he’d accompanied a group of students for a mixer at the Pakistani embassy and all through the evening they didn’t hear a single word uttered in Urdu. He couldn’t help being dismayed when his students asked him with sardonic surprise which country’s embassy he’d brought them to.
[quote]Pakistani diplomats and dignitaries always speak in English whereas Indian guests deliver speeches in Hindi[/quote]
Q: What is the significance of this disconnect in your opinion?
LV: I think it is related to politics in a way. I am not at all against the English language. However that is no reason to abandon your own native language. If you go to a foreign country, there is no harm in having discussions and holding debates in the language that is established there but if you are visiting as a representative of your country, you are duty-bound to speak in your own mother tongue.
Q: What do you think is the reason behind the international status that English enjoys as a language?
LV: I think the establishment of an internationally recognized, common language is only to be expected with rapid globalization. But of course there are political underpinnings at work here as well. If we look at the history of the subcontinent, Urdu was the established language here till the end of the 19th century. In their letters Grierson and Gilchrist wrote to the Governor-General that Urdu was not only the language which the masses spoke but also a national consolidating force. And this was something the Bristish exploited to their advantage in Fort William College, by telling the Hindus to use the Devangari script while writing and excluding any Persian and/or Arabic words they came across. This was the ultimate manifestation of their ‘divide and rule’ motto, so of course the issue of language was ultimately tied to the vagaries of the political landscape at the time.
[quote]Nowadays they associate Urdu with Islam but I completely disagree [/quote]
Nowadays they associate Urdu with Islam but I completely disagree with that position. It is my firm belief that Urdu is not the language of Muslims or Hindus only; it is a language of the combined civilization of the Subcontinent- at least of its northern constituencies. It is only when we start producing these rifts based on ethnicity and religion that the real problem starts.
In countries like Russia, China and Japan, English is as foreign to us as Urdu. And since there are equally good interpreters available for both, I see no reason why the visiting Pakistani dignitaries should prefer English over their own mother tongue.
[quote]The appeal of Faiz’s words was such that even his staunch enemies swayed to the rhythm of his words in the privacy of their homes[/quote]
Q: Tell us a little about the process of translation that you employ during the course of your work
LV: If it is a nazm, a word-for-word translation is done by people like me, those who have a grip on Urdu. We then have a face-to-face session with the poet so we can work together to incorporate the closest approximation of the rhyme and meter of his work into the translation. As I mentioned before, Russian and Urdu share a common style of thought, so it’s relatively easy to make the transition between the languages without letting the meaning get lost in translation.
Ghazals are relatively difficult to translate. Their metaphors and adaptation are much more complex. I believe very strongly that it is not possible to translate a ghazal, especially one in Urdu or Persian, into a language that doesn’t share its poetics. In Russia, we have a very exhaustive process of translating ghazals, which we call academic translation. We first do a word-for-word translation of the ghazal, through transliteration and transcription, which is followed by several academic sessions in which linguistic experts shed light on the meaning, explanation and context of each word and metaphor used in the ghazal. It’s common to see the literal translation of a ghazal with individual, contextual explanations spanning well over two or three pages.
Q: What made you write a book on Faiz?
LV: To be honest, I never intended to write it. That was mainly because of Mira (Mira Salganik – Faiz’ first translator in Russian and close friend). When I was approached to write one, I initially declined, saying I could not think of doing it unless I had Mira’s permission. Faiz was her domain. They (Mira and Faiz) were friends, but more importantly it was Mira who introduced him as a poet in Russia by putting his name before the Central Committee (of the Politburo-the supreme decision-making body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). This was happening at the time when Faiz was serving his first prison sentence in Pakistan (1951-55). Mira successfully managed to launch him as a poet in Russia and when she turned down the proposition to write the book, I took it up myself.
LV: About three to four years, since I’d started from scratch. I found plenty of resources to work with. My house is brimming with Faiz’s books and his works. Faiz sahib used to visit Russia for extended periods of time. Back then I was working for the Urdu Service of Radio Moscow. With Mira and I away at work and no one else to keep him company, he used to grow extremely bored, holed up in his hotel room. So whenever he was in town, he used to say to me, “Arrey baitey, take me to your house.” So I used to pick him from his hotel in a taxi – none of us had cars in those days – and take him to my house. There, I cooked for him and made sure he was comfortable before I left for work. He always used to get busy writing one thing or the other while he was there. When I got back from work, he used to leave again in a taxi for his hotel. And then I used to leaf through his day’s work, to see what he’d been writing all day. I used to gather all those bits and pieces of paper and tape them together. I still have all those scraps of writing saved up.
There was great fanfare surrounding Lenin’s 50th death anniversary. ‘Nawai Lenin’, a compilation of poems from all around the world written in Lenin’s honor was being published. It featured Iqbal’s “Lenin Khuda Kay Huzoor Mein” (Lenin in the presence of God) as well as poems by progressive Hindustani poets like Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Makhdoom and others. Faiz sahib was asked to write something for it as well. He tried for a while, writing something, tearing it up and re-writing. He eventually gave up in exasperation. You see Faiz couldn’t write on demand. But the Central Committee put its foot down. They would not send ‘Nawai Lenin’ for publishing, they said, unless it included something written by Faiz- the first Asian poet to receive the Lenin Peace Prize award. So Faiz eventually gave in and wrote his famous “Murgh-e-Bismil Ki Maanind Shab Tilmilayi” about the eve of the October revolution.
There was another incident I didn’t mention in my book. Faiz had once come over to my house as he so often did when he was in town and as usual he was writing something. He gave it to me before he left and asked me not to show it to anyone until he’d spruced it up the next time he visited. It was his famous ghazal ‘Aakhir-e Shab’.
[quote]He looked it over and exclaimed, “This is a good ghazal! Who wrote this?” I told him he had[/quote]
Two years passed before he came again. I gave the ghazal to him reminding him of his intent to brush it up for publishing. He looked it over and exclaimed, “This is a good ghazal! Who wrote this?” I told him he had. (laughs)
There was a verse in that ghazal,
“Lams-e jaanaaN liyey, masti-e paimaana liyey
Hamd-e Bari ko uthey dast-e dua aakhir e shab”
He asked me whether he should use ‘Lams’ (perception) or ‘Aks’ (reflection) and I exclaimed “Aks! Aks!” He’d crossed over ‘Lams’ and wrote ‘Aks’ in its place before he left. Later when he showed me the ghazal that was included in his compiled works, ‘Merey Dil, Merey Musafir’, I thumbed through it to find “Akhir-e Shab” and saw that he had used ‘Lams’ after all. He was just being nice to me before, but I still have that piece of paper on which he’d crossed out ‘Lams’ and written ‘Aks’.
Q: You mentioned before that in your eyes, Ghalib, Hali, Iqbal and Faiz are the continuation of the same chain. How do you think a great poet is born or made?
LV: I think a truly great poet is the product of his circumstances, the need of the times. What makes a great poet is not exactly something which can be quantified or categorized. It is like Iqbal says,
“Bari mushkil se hota hai chaman meiN deeda war paida”
A great poet, a true Seer, is a representative of his times. He is born when the time is exactly ripe for him to come forward and stand for his era through his poetry. Faiz was a poet of few words. He has not written a lot, even then there is not a single chapter in the history of the subcontinent that has not been reflected in Faiz’s poetry. Before the turmoil surrounding 1947, his poetry spoke of love, of romance.
“Mujh se pehli se muhabbat merey mehboob na maang”
After 1947, he wrote of his country, of the world and everything he wrote clicked instantly with the masses. He was sparing in his words, but how well he spoke them! The inqilaab chanting, thundering firebrands departed with Josh. Faiz’s call for the truth is much more dulcet and soothing and has transcended far greater boundaries. This is something I quoted in my book as well, that the appeal of Faiz’s words was such that even his staunch enemies used to recite his verses and sway to the rhythm of his words in the privacy of their own houses. I believe that is the truest test of a great poet.
All the truly great poets rise from the troubles that embroil their people and their times. Take the Soviet Union. The atrocities of the Tsarist regime produced the likes of Pushkin and Lermontov. In Pakistan, you had Faiz. Going back further in history, even Ghalib was the product of his circumstances, since that was a time when the old world order was crumbling in on itself to usher in a new world.
Q: It was NM Rashed’s death anniversary recently. How do you like his poetry?
LV: I like it a lot but I can’t help but think of it as being something singularly unique and eccentric as well. It is Faiz however, whose metaphors and poetics I find much more appealing. It might be because I find myself more inclined towards classical poetry. It is much closer to my heart. Rashed’s poetry is more universal, more modern in its approach, particularly his work with free verse. I think his style of thought is more influenced by the West and its ideals. Nonetheless I find Rashed quite intriguing.
Q: Are you familiar with the works of more contemporary Urdu writers?
LV: I haven’t read a lot of recent Urdu literature but I’m very fond of Ahmad Faraz, Nasir Kazmi and Kishwar Naheed.
Faiza Hameed is a final year medical student at King Edward Medical University, Lahore
Ali Madeeh Hashmi is a Psychiatrist and a trustee of the Faiz Foundation Trust. He can be reached at email@example.com
Second Aalmi Urdu Conference, Lahore, October 12-13, 2013
“We don’t respect … our national identity. We say hockey is our national sport but prefer cricket; we call Jasmine our national flower but spend millions each year on buying roses; Urdu is our national language but we accord more importance to English.”
Dr. Atash Durrani, linguist.
The Second Aalmi (International) Urdu Conference at Avari Hotel, Lahore on October 12 and 13 was graced by notable litterateurs from all over the world, including India, China, Bangladesh, Russia, Kyrgystan, Turkey, Canada and the United Kingdom. The conference was titled “Urdu ke hal-talab masail aur nai nasl” (“Solvable Problems of Urdu and the New Generation”) and comprised three sessions.
The opening session focused on the academic aspect of language by discussing the increasingly alarming replacement of Urdu lexigraph by Roman script on the internet; succeeding sessions focused on issues of wider sociopolitical relevance like the status of the Urdu language in India and the part played by the electronic media in the degradation of language. Each session was presided over by a panel of eminent scholars, writers and poets and moderated by equally distinguished linguists. Intezaar Hussain, Dr. Ludmilla Vassilyeva, Asghar Nadeem Syed, Dr. Asif Farrukhi, Dr. Noman-ul Haque, Shameem Hanafi, Dr. Shah Muhammad Murree, Dr. Najeeba Arif and Professor Sehar Ansari were among the many distinguished speakers gracing the occasion.
Most linguists expressed the very valid concern that the number of people who can write in Urdu was diminishing by the day. With the advent of the internet in every home and media taking up increasing portions of the time and attention of people, it was imperative, the speakers said, to not only take Urdu script in its original form to the internet but also to condemn the practice of replacing Urdu words in electronic media with English ones. “Even poets like Raees Amrohvi had used English words such as ‘TV’ and ‘Pen’ in his poetry,” Dr. Ashfaq Hussain, from Canada pointed out, “…excessive use of English words cannot be allowed. The media must search for Urdu words before settling for words from other languages.”
Guest speakers also probed the disconnect between a people and their language. Dr. Thang Mung Shung, Director at the Centre for Pakistan studies in Peking University, and the recipient of Sitara-e Khidmat and Sitara-e Pakistan observed, “Unlike Pakistanis, Chinese people do not feel ashamed of speaking their national language. That is what keeps the language alive and flourishing. It is regrettable that many Pakistani writers and critics, who are supposed to be the guardians of Urdu, tell me that my spoken Urdu is too bookish and not understood by the common people.”
However many speakers shared the belief that like all languages, Urdu too must evolve and keep up with the times by being allowed to be more inclusive and accepting of a new, expanding vocabulary. Putting this issue in a historical perspective, Dr. Shamim Hanafi said, “Muslims were responsible for the demise of Urdu in India and they are the ones who must fix it now. The language needs all the help it can get to regain its vigor.”
That just might be the only way to turn things around.