Intimations of Ghalib

Professor Guy Rotella’s on Intimations of Ghalib (Orison Books, 2018), M. Shahid Alam’s sublime new translation of the great poet’s Ghazals.

I first encountered Ghalib in the early 1970s. I was in graduate school, studying poetry. Then, as now, I had no Urdu. The medium of transmission—translation—was Aijaz Ahmad’s Ghazals of Ghalib, from Columbia University Press. It comprised versions of ghazals by W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Mark Strand, and others, all of them working from Ahmad’s literal translations and supplementary comments. My interest (probably slaking along the way some ersatz thirst for the supposedly exotic) was more in the American poets I admired than in the original poems they tried to bring into English. Merwin, Rich, and the rest were driven to Ghalib, or so I thought, by their quest for alternative models to the high modernist masters they were trying to shed or shred, by their search for remoter precedents to replace nearer ones they needed to reject.

ghalib-front-coverThe ghazal is united by form (two-line units, rigorous patterns of rhyme and refrain) but discontinuous in theme (each two-line stanza is distinct and separable from its fellows). The ghazal is also oral and performative, even in some ways interactive. And, however much it is steeped in tradition, at least in Ghalib’s hands, it feels intensely personal. This must have seemed an antidote to imaginations trained on, then sick of the thematic and other unities of British and American poems, of the primacy of print, and of the then still thunderous man-date to write impersonally that had begun as a revolt and become an orthodoxy. There’s irony in this: the ghazal belongs to a master-apprentice tradition bound not only to technical rigor but also to stern commitments to inherited and formulaic sets of images, characters, and motifs. But it’s an irony lightened by the ghazal’s roots in oral performance and by the at least apparent likeness of its discontinuities to the surrealist, deep image, and other, often foreign styles American poets in those days were trying out and trying on. At a time of cultural upheaval, when America’s inherited colonial war in Vietnam was being prosecuted and protested, Ghalib’s particular circumstances might have resonated, too. He was an impecunious aristocrat in a still only nascently nationalist India; he lived at the tag end of a dying Mughal dynasty increasingly beholden to British colonial rulers who were capable of monstrous reprisals to repress and punish rebellion; he could seem to have made a separate peace. A faithful but non-sectarian Muslim, Ghalib was also wittily, irascibly irreverent and more in tune with ecstatic Sufi sensuality than more conservative Islamic asceticism, as much given to the pleasures of love affairs and wine as to those of the strictest poetic craft. Even Ghalib’s more than Keatsian precocity—many of his finest poems were written by the time he was 19—might have seemed a recommendation in those youth-besotted days.

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Re-Membering Toba Tek Singh: Looking for Manto

Between works censored for “obscenity” and those pirated and then censored for nationalism, which censorship is more obscene?

by Huma Dar

Sa'adat Hasan Manto
Sa’adat Hasan Manto

In today’s edition of Dawn.com, Jan 1, 2012, the renowned feminist poet, Fahmida Riaz has an article, “Understanding Manto,” about Urdu literature’s enfant terrible, Sa’adat Hasan Manto.  This year will mark Manto’s birth centenary.  Thank you, Fahmida Apa, for writing this moving tribute!  Sad indeed is the day when Pakistan cannot or does not publish Manto’s work, uncensored, unedited.  Despite justified indignation, knowing our “guardians of morality and piety,” it aches my heart to confess, I am not surprised.

Ironically, the “Indian pirated edition”—even if we overlook the immense ethical difficulties with the issue of piracy, and the direly-needed resources that were (and are) thus withheld from Manto and his family—is still no guarantee of accessing the “original, uncensored text.”  Christine Everaert in her book, Tracing the Boundaries between Hindi and Urdu: Lost and Added in Translation (Brill, 2009) painstakingly records many elisions, omissions, and additions in just a few of Manto’s stories as they’re carried from their original Urdu to the [pirated] Hindi versions.  Some of these transformations are, of course, to ease the transmission of the literary register in Urdu to Hindi; others to simply make things more palatable for Indian nationalism.  (Please especially see the Chapter II of this book for many examples…)

4. Ghazal from Ghalib

translated by M. Shahid Alam

Only a few come back to us in roses and tulips.
Many more lie buried, dust on their sleeping eyelids.

By day, the daughters of Pleiades play out of sight.
At night, they lift their veils in ravishing display.

My eyes pour blood on this night of savage partings:
two lamps I have lighted to sanctify love’s sorrow.

I will make them pay for the years of torment, if
by chance, these darlings play houris in paradise.

He shall have sleep, perfumed air, silken nights,
if you untie your jasmine-scented hair in his arms.

I have no use for your coy approaches to the divine.
Past your schools and creeds, we worship God alone.

If Ghalib were to keep this up (he cries inconsolably),
every man, woman, child will soon be leaving town.

first published in Prairie Schooner, Spring 2011

For more ghazals from Ghalib, click here.

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is the author of Israeli Exceptionalism (Palgrave, 2009) and Challenging the New Orientalism (IPI, 2007). Visit his website at http://qreason.com. Write to him at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

3. A Ghazal from Ghalib

translated by M. Shahid Alam

If a thing’s delayed, there’s a thing delaying it.
Not you, your suitors slowed you down a bit.

It wasn’t right, pinning my troubles on you.
The furies, fate, kismet, each had a hand in it.

If you can’t remember, let me jog your memory.
I was your prized quarry: you grew fond of it.

Captive, I stay awake, thinking of you all night.
It’s true my shackled feet also hurt a bit.

I hadn’t asked for this blinding flash of light.
I wish He’d speak to me: my heart aches for it.

I bared my neck for her. She backed out of it.
She is a sharp shooter. An arrow too could do it.

Wrongly, we are tried on the report of angels.
Is there a man like us to say he saw us do it?

Ghalib, you do not have the crown of the ghazal.
It’s rumored there was Meer, with better claim to it.

First published in Beloit Poetry Journal, Fall 2001.

For more ghazals from Ghalib, click here.

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is the author of Israeli Exceptionalism (Palgrave, 2009) and Challenging the New Orientalism (IPI, 2007). Visit his website at http://qreason.com. Write to him at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

Allama Iqbal, Gabriel and Iblīs

Allama Iqbal, 1877-1938

translated by M. Shahid Alam

Note: In the Qur’anic account of man’s creation, God asks the angels to bow down to Adam; they bow down, except Iblīs. God banishes Iblīs but, granting his request, gives him the power to tempt and waylay humans except those who submit in sincerity to their Creator.

Gabriel

Old friend, how is your time spent in banishment?

Iblīs

In fire wrapped, pain-swept, surging, toiling, unbent.

Gabriel

At our heavenly summits, we often talk of you.
Should you repent, seek grace, give us the cue.

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2. Ghazal from Ghalib

translation by M. Shahid Alam

.

کہتے ہو نہ دینگے ہم دل اگر پڑا پایا
دل کہاں کہ گم کیجئے ‘ ہم نےمدُعا پایا

.

I can’t have it – you say – if you find my heart.
Once – it was mine. Now I know who has it.

Love is easily the best part of life. This pain
cures life’s itch: there is no cure for it.

She is coy & cunning, sweet – exacting too.
She is testing me when I do not know it.

The plain truth about my heart is this.
Every time I look for it, she says she has it.

My mentor likes to rub salt in my wounds.
Sir Tormentor, I ask, what is your reason for it?

.

.

Continue reading “2. Ghazal from Ghalib”