“Each ray of sunshine is seven minutes old,”
Serge told me in New York one December night.
“So when I look at the sky, I see the past?”
“Yes, Yes,” he said, “especially on a clear day.”
(“Snow on the Desert”)
That the sunlight holds the past for seven more minutes as if it is a keeper of memory, excites Agha Shahid Ali for whom history is home – the beloved’s campsite – where he sings and sings. A quintessential nostalgist, with his beloved Kashmir as the measure of all beauty and longing, Ali remembers more than his own exile in his poetry. His is a cosmic nostalgia that takes history itself as idiom. This nostalgia, braided together in the literary tropes he inherited from the Western and Eastern traditions, transcends culture, reflecting in the vastness of sky and desert: the New York sky shows him the past, the realm of un-chronicled time; the Arizona desert teaches him to desire like Majnoon, that Perso-Arabic archetype of eternal longing and pursuit. In the embrace of this expansive memory, Ali pieces his mosaics through constant translation, recalling the varied textures of the literatures and landscapes he calls his own, but he finds that many particularities belonging to his native culture cannot be pieced together coherently due to the absence of a lexicon, a backstory, in English. By attempting literary translations of Urdu verse, and explaining the nuts and bolts of the ghazal, Ali builds a new literary lexicon, one that is fueled by and filtered through his own nostalgia.
By explaining the nuts and bolts of the ghazal, Ali builds a new literary lexicon
Agha Shahid Ali’s nostalgia is a crucial force because his purpose is not just to remember but to record the intricacies of a culture under the threat of erasure in occupied Kashmir. His belief in memory as material for coining a new language is so great that he welcomes even the apparently untranslatable. In an interview (titled “Walking between the Raindrops with Agha Shahid Ali”, June 29, 1997) with an Indian newspaper, he states: “The superstitious mountains of Arizona are not the Karakoram Range or the Hindu Kush mountains, but there are so many similarities in mythic structures around the world.” Finding the patterns of similarity is of course as important as finding the differences, as he goes on to say in the same interview: “Two moments juxtaposed to show that neither can be compared to the other or anything else. But that juxtaposition creates a kind of translation, a kind of crossover.” Translation, seeing one thing in terms of another, even in its incomparability, is Ali’s way of enlarging a personal moment, to relive it in its more poignant, expansive, cohesive form, an aspect that informs his work as an intermediary between cultures.
Referring to a poem of his, he describes this impulse to capture multiple ‘dimensions’ in a poem: “This cry to be remembered and the language to be remembered, seen in terms of my friend’s death, acquired other dimensions. Edward Said talks about a contrapuntal rhetoric, which means that you read something with several things happening simultaneously. It’s not just the death of a friend, a simple elegy, but the death of tribes, the death of landscapes and the death of a language. All these things happen simultaneously to create a density.” This referential simultaneity is precisely how Urdu poetry, based on the Perso-Arabic-Indic network of metaphors, elliptical, allusion-rich, works: a fact that further complicates and intensifies Ali’s urgency to generate poetry that embodies the confluence and contrast of the two rich (and sometimes divergent) traditions he belongs to – his “simultaneous love of Urdu and English.” He says: “Neither love is acquired; I was brought up a bilingual, bicultural (but never rootless) being.”
Agha Shahid Ali’s work enacts translation as historical moments, cultures, personae and landscapes cross thresholds continuously and almost ecstatically in all his collections of poetry; yet, one can detect disappointment or a sense of loneliness. Call it poetic anxiety if you will, about the esoteric breadth he is attracted towards and capable of (insofar as his Eastern aesthetic spirit and knowledge and experience are concerned) and the limitations posed by having to explain Eastern allusions to contemporary American readers: his primary audience. He addresses this concern quite articulately in his prose, and in a tone that has a hint of angst, in his introduction to The Rebel’s Silhouette, a collection of translations of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry: “To have to introduce Faiz’s name, to explain who he was, seemed an insult to a very significant element of my culture.” Ali, who is obviously hurt by the fact that a renowned world poet such as Faiz is completely absent (as is Urdu poetry on the whole) from discussion, proceeds to introduce both Faiz and Urdu’s great pride, the ghazal form, to American poets. Ali’s own inclusive spirit allows him to pour his angst into this loving and patient cultivation – a cultural translation large enough to hold his cosmic nostalgia, pliable enough to move back and forth effortlessly between two disparate traditions, subtle enough to genuinely move the reader.
Ali teaches the Western reader how to decode South Asian aesthetic gestures that have been centuries in the making, how to read hybridity, how not to feel lost in its abstract, elliptical spaces, rather how to fill them with the nostalgia that he amply and eloquently details in his work: Kashmir’s heartbreaking beauty, its rich artistic heritage, colonial history and life under occupation. What vivifies his theme as well as his personal idiom is the way he successfully imports Urdu’s poetic sensibility. He does so by incorporating (in poems, translation or commentary) Urdu poetry’s distinctive tropes captured in works of Ghalib, Faiz, and the ghazal-singer Begum Akhtar – works of significance to a culture that is threatened in Ali’s conflict-ridden birth country and is virtually unknown in his adopted country. Ali effectively lays the groundwork for a literary lexicon that encodes and communicates his native cultural memory in contemporary American literature.
Ali teaches the Western reader how to decode South Asian aesthetic gestures that have been centuries in the making
Ali describes himself as an architect of nostalgia in his delightfully candid account of how he approached Faiz in a letter: “Besides asking for permission to translate him, I told him that I would be taking liberties with the originals. But what I really did was to bribe him with a sort of homecoming. I reminded him that he had, years before my birth, stayed in our home in Kashmir. I created nostalgia” (The Rebel’s Silhouette). What, after all, could be more disarming and persuasive to a poet than nostalgia? There was no doubt in Ali’s mind that the memory of his home in Kashmir and recalling the sound of Begum Akhtar’s voice singing his ghazals would warm the legendary Faiz Ahmed Faiz to his younger peer. And he was right.
Agha Shahid Ali admires Faiz’s robust, modern style, rooted firmly in tradition but departing with a finesse and a force that responds with brilliance to global concerns – for which reason it carries over to English successfully, although frustratingly for Ali, it does not translate in all the ways he deems critical. An example is the translation of the poem ‘Mujh say pehli si mohabbat’ (‘Don’t Ask Me for That Love Again’), of which Ali writes:
“But how to point out to exclusively English speakers that the moment when what they see as merely exotic is actually challenging the ‘exotic’? In ‘Don’t Ask me for the Love Again,’ Faiz breaks radically from Urdu’s usual manner of looking at the ‘beloved’, asking that his social commitment be accepted as more important than their love.”
A Prison Evening
Translation from Faiz Ahmed Faiz by Agha Shahid Ali
Each star a rung, night comes down the spiral staircase of the evening. The breeze passes by so very close as if someone just happened to speak of love. In the courtyard, the trees are absorbed refugees embroidering maps of return on the sky. On the roof, the moon – lovingly, generously – is turning the stars into a dust of sheen. From every corner, dark-green shadows, in ripples, come towards me. At any moment they may break over me, like the waves of pain each time I remember this separation from my lover.
This thought keeps consoling me: though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed in rooms where lovers are destined to meet, they cannot snuff out the moon, so today, nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed, no poison of torture make me bitter, if just one evening in prison can be so strangely sweet, if just one moment anywhere on this earth.
Ali is right in suggesting that in order to truly appreciate Faiz’s use of the classical trope of the ‘beloved’ how he “turns it against itself,” one would have to be well-versed in Urdu poetics: this poem being an important instance of Faiz’s revolutionary recasting of tradition, both stylistically and thematically.
Ali’s many attempts to experiment with the ghazal form – that definitive poetic enterprise of the Urdu canon – resulted in great insights into Urdu poetry and Urdu poetry in English translation. Working on translations of Faiz, Ali is very well aware of the limitations of this task as well as the subjectivity of choices or the trade-offs that this task must entail: “Will something be borne across to exclusively English readers through my translations? I also hope that those who know both languages will find moments of literal fidelity to Faiz as well as in those moments (of fidelity, I insist) when I am unfaithful. As for purists, I hope they will be generous and welcome the times when I had no choice but to adjust, especially in the ghazal, the letter of Faiz’s work – a letter to which I have visceral attachment. But only in the original Urdu.”
Ali says, “Sometimes explanation is the best way to translate…”
The “visceral attachment” that Ali mentions is exactly the paradoxical hinge of his work as a translator. He recalls how Urdu poetry entered his psyche: “I must have then begun to internalise Faiz, repeating to myself the Urdu original… Without any clear understanding of the lines, I somehow felt the words, through their sounds, through my father’s rhythmic, dramatic voice.” On one hand he is under the spell of pure nostalgia, finding in Faiz’s poetry ghosts of his own past; on the other, he teaches himself to appreciate, on a cerebral level, the technical mastery of Faiz’s work, the transformative quality of his craft. Rather than settling on a single method of translation, Ali employs a dual, even dichotomous approach as a translator. He holds on to the innocence of nostalgia as a compass guiding him to get the translation right in some instances, in others he relies on a carefully studied approach of translating Faiz’s Urdu into English. He states that he has not followed any particular model of translation. Instead, he has allowed each poem to dictate to him how it wants to be translated. As a result, some poems take the kind of lyrical leaps that Faiz takes, while others are almost prosaic. Ali says of the latter: “Sometimes explanation is the best way to translate… I had to fill in the elliptical moments…” This seems to be especially true about Ali’s translation of Faiz’s ghazals; he unpacks the condensed verses in an attempt to serve the original better by contextualising the content and acclimatising the tropes to English; what he loses in intensity, he gains in clarity. At times, Ali uses this approach even in poems that do not have any perceptible ‘elliptical moment’, such as Faiz’s famous untitled verses ‘Raat yun dil mein’:
raat yuuN dil meN terii khoii huuii yaad aaii jaise viraane meN chupke se bahaar aa jaae jaise sahraaoN meN haule se chale baad-e-nasiim jaise biimaar ko bevajah qaraar aa jaae
Consider the translation by Agha Shahid Ali:
At night my lost memory of you returned
and I was like the empty field where springtime, without being noticed, is bringing flowers;
I was like the desert over which the breeze moves gently, with great care;
I was like the dying patient who, for no reason, smiles
And the translation by V.G. Kiernan:
Last night your faded memory filled my heart Like spring’s calm advent in the wilderness, Like the soft desert footfalls of the breeze, Like peace somehow coming to one in sickness
Neither translation measures up to the original in freshness, partly because the verses (amongst Faiz’s best known and sung by major artists in the ‘Urduphone’ world) are sonically driven. Kiernan’s version, however, is truer to Faiz in the way it captures with economy (just as in the original) the sense of sudden peace: a feeling that stitches together three different scenes (spring in the wilderness, breeze in the desert, relief to the sick) with the simple spontaneity of “like.” The dominant feeling in Faiz’s original poem is the furtive, sudden way in which the beloved’s memory transforms him. That feeling is less vivid in Ali’s version.
Don’t ask me, sweetheart…
Translated from Faiz Ahmed Faiz by Agha Shahid Ali
Don’t ask me, sweetheart, for the love we’ve had before. I had then thought – As long as you’re here, my life would flourish; when I had your grief, grief of the world didn’t matter. You were the one who kept the world in eternal bloom, but for your eyes, what else is there for me in the world? If I have you, I’d have the destiny in my hand. That was not to be, though I wanted it so. Many other woes in the world besides love, many other comforts, besides our togetherness …
Ali’s translations of Faiz’s poems such as ‘Evening’, ‘A Prison Daybreak’ and ‘August 1952’ are exceptionally well done as they preserve Faiz’s voice to a great extent. The poem ‘Before you came’ is perhaps Ali’s most successful work of translation, as he meets Faiz’s lyricism with elegant phrases such as ‘a color at the edge of blood’ and ‘the road a vein about to break’. The world of this powerful poem is colored with the beloved’s absence, a moment not unlike the present, when we recently witnessed the loss of Agha Shahid Ali’s childhood home in the devastation brought on by floods in Kashmir – his beloved lost forever.
Ali, who performs translation as a prism for cultural memory, guiding readers through his heritage, who teaches us history and how to honour it, Ali who breaks our hearts with poems of loss, who celebrates with nostalgia, whose name means ‘witness’, was fortunate not to be here to witness his Rajbagh home submerged in the very waters he loved, his precious letters, photographs, books destroyed; one beloved outdone by another. An exquisite antique shawl with the map of Srinagar woven into it (a work that took over twenty- seven years for a famous artisan to finish) damaged in Srinagar Museum, is reminiscent of Ali’s mapmaking of an endangered culture; these ‘threads of Kashmir’, the sunken home, have already been turned into an unforgettable song by Ali. And we are the fortunate recipients of an inheritance enlarged and enriched in literature.
Freedom’s terrible thirst, flooding Kashmir, is bringing love to its tormented glass, Stranger, who will inherit the last night of the past? Of what shall I not sing, and sing?
Shadab Zeest Hashmi is an American poet of Pakistani origins. Her poetry, written in English, has been translated into Spanish and Urdu