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Ismat’s last flowering

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By Asif Farrukhi

The stinking water in a flower vase begins to swelter and bubble with fermentation as chemical processes unleash a life-giving change. A new form is born. Is it possible, or a figment of a lonely woman’s imagination? This is Guldaan, a short story written by IsmatChughtai in her twilight years. It is surely one of the most amazing and powerful stories to come from the pen of this extraordinary writer. Readers and critics are almost unanimous in stating that Chughtai is one of the most memorable fiction writers in Urdu, but would find it hard to interpret and analyse the qualities which determine her stature. It is a crying shame that her seminal work, the novel TerrhiLakeer [The Crooked Line], is not available in a decent edition in Pakistan. Chughtai has been better served by translators such as Tahira Naqvi endeavouring to make her work better known.
Chughtai continues to be remembered for earlier stories such as Lihaaf [The Quilt], for which she had to face a trial on the charges of obscenity. The story became known for its depiction of a relationship between two women and Chughtai handled the theme deftly from the point of view of a child. It, however, suffers from fatal flaws and is surely one of the most overrated stories in her long career. Readers of her work need to literally come out from under the lihaaf. A fuller assessment of her qualities as a writer is due. Unfortunately, even the kind of composite picture which emerges from a collection such as An Uncivil Woman: Writings on IsmatChughtai, compiled by RakhshandaJalil, is less accessible in Urdu.
A balanced and comprehensive view of Chughtai’s work would take into account stories such as Guldaan. Published first in the Lahore-based literary journal Nuqoosh, but uncollected till now, it has become the title story in a collection of her writings published recently. This is significant as it serves the purpose of reminding critics, as well as readers, of the continuing relevance of Chughtai, but at the same time it points out the many gaps in the analytical study of her works and ensuing academic research that need to be resolved.
The story represents a significant departure from Chughtai’s earlier, heavily realistic mode of narration and is, in my opinion, her writing at its best. It could easily be counted among her most valuable writings, but it would not qualify as representative, since it marks a departure from her earlier style. At the same time, the story remains one of its kind because the narrative style or the symbolic mode is not repeated in her other fiction. Too well-wrought to be regarded as a literary fluke or an accidental success, the story remains unique by itself, but it leaves behind unresolved queries if this particular work is contextualised with the work of the author as a whole and the author herself. Having opened a new vein with new possibilities of narrative, was she not inclined to exploit, or even explore, these further? Perhaps she herself did not see this single story as being such an important nodal point, requiring her to open this for further exploration. The majority of short stories from this period onwards included in this collection present evidence of waning power, the spark slowly going out; the decline is slow but steady.
Her light essays and personal sketches, collected recently by Aqeel Abbas Jafri and entitled Chiragh Roshan Hain, are no less interesting. Subjects range from Bollywood to her relationship with her own self. The Mumbai film world she had seen at close quarters, not so much as observer as participant, and her comments about the male leads and the overall impression of leading women are interesting in themselves. Written for a general audience, these essays are, by definition, light and show a long relationship with the film world without going into any analysis. They also manage to steer clear of insubstantial gossip which many popular magazines find convenient to dish out. Her close friend and contemporary, Saadat Hassan Manto, turned towards penning sketches describing the sensational aspects of film stars. Manto took up such writing — it must be pointed out — during a low period when he was unable to write fiction at his usual pace and characteristic demeanour. He himself said that he was perplexed by Partition. Chughtai was spared such a painful process, but her decline was of another kind, and is evident from her writing.
The lack of a good biography is further highlighted when the question of her last completed short story is raised. Entitled AakhriKahani [The Last Tale], it is included in the posthumously published Guldaan, with the reference of BeesweenSadi, Delhi, Annual issue, January 1992. It carries a brief note at the end from the editor indicating that shortly before her death, Chughtai handed over a pile of her papers with some published as well as unpublished short stories to the editor. According to the note, the author regarded this story to be incomplete while the editor regarded it as final and published it as such. No reference for these statements is provided. However, there is no mention of the other papers in the pile and their contents.
The same note and short story are also included in IsmatChughtai: ShakhsiyatAur Fun, a compilation of articles about her work including a selection of her writings, edited by Sultana Bakhsh. So the final submission from this great author is again subjected to neglect and confusion, which seems to be the fate of the Chughtai manuscripts and papers. I cannot but end on the note that her papers need to be preserved as a proper archive accessible to scholars and students of literature. This is the least that she deserves.

 

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Opinion

Agha Shahid Ali, the timeless poet

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By Aga Syed Amin Musvi

The Kashmiri-American poet, Agha Shahid Ali (1948-2001) published a new poetry collection “Rooms are never finished” in the same year he passed away. This poignant and remarkable work was shortlisted for the America’s coveted 2001 National Council Book award.

The work revels at the highest of the poet’s powers dedicated to his late mother. It is framed by her death from brain cancer in 1997 and the poet’s own battle against the same illness shortly afterwards.

 

The poem revolves around the nucleus – theme of life and death in exile.

Shahid employed gigantic metaphors and alluring imaginations.

The songs of the poem are dominated by elegiac tone and each serves as the sequence of poems.

The first from Amherst to Kashmir about the poet’s mother and Karbala are contrasted and binds the time into a narrative beyond time.

The second eleven stars over Andalusia of work exceptionally laced with beauty in an adaptation of MehmoodDarvaish’s “Palestine Poet” original about the expulsion of the Moors from 15th century Spain.

‘Rooms are never finished’ is divided into four parts, but in a brief note the author explains that the conflict in war-torn Kashmir forms the backdrop to his collection and was focusing to his previous volume, ‘A country without post office’.

He and his family took his mother to the devastated land for burial as she had longed for her home during her illness.

In America, she had come to Amherst for treatment and died there. His moving poem Lennox Hill plays on the word mother and describes her last days, overlaid with dream like sequence of Kashmir. He writes.

‘As you sit here by me, you’re just like my mother,’
She tells me. I imagine her: a bride in Kashmir,
She’s watching, at the Regal, her first film with Father.

If only I could gather you in my arms, Mother,
I’d save you—now my daughter—from God.

‘Rooms are never finished’

The book goes on to part one 1, from Amherst to Kashmir a sequence which opens with an exquisite prose poem Karbala: A saga – house of sorrows.

He writes and recollects Hazrat Imam Hussain (AS) on the tenth of Muharram (Ashura) is the rite of Shia’s Islam so central at the funerals those events are woven into elegies every death.

Using Karbala as a leitmotif he takes the reader back to AH 61. In elegant sparse and powerful prose, he reconstructs the story and symbolism of Imam Hussain’s (as) sacrifice as well as sufferings of saviours particularly HazratZainab.

Death had turned every day in Kashmir into some family’s Karbala. We observe the Ashura in the afternoon because of night curfew. That evening at home my mother was sudden in tears. I was puzzled then very moved. Since she was girl and felt Zanib’s grief her own. This was indeed the translation of Kashmiri elegy recited at her mother’s funeral Zainab’s lament In Damascus. This finds the profound contrast with Faiz ‘s translation the Rebel Silhouette.

He goes on to give brief glimpse of Begum Akhter when she sings the meditative poem of MirzaGalib in soppy tunes, then he moves to Muharram and the mourning. The revolving themes of mother, Muharram and Kashmir continue to develop subsequent poems. Interjected with frenzy nostalgia, the whole interposed with a medley of cross cultural references. The poet’s personal anguish becomes an expression of deeper universal emotions and mysteries. Furthermore, these poems written in wide range of poetic style and form, which includes a translation of Faiz’s memory which begins”.

Desolation’s desert. I’m here with shadows
of your voice, your lips as mirage, now trembling.

Grass and dust of distance have let this desert bloom with your roses.

Later he translates the famous Galib’sghazals which Begum Akhter sang

Not all only a few

Distinguished as tulips as rose.

What possibilities has the earth forever

Covered what face?

In this collection the mess of exile separation and loss are layered with several levels of meaning both literal and metaphorical and include poet’s eminent farewell to this earth.

The second section of Rooms are never finished consists of poems which look at the world as a place of limbo, in which the poet is but a passenger, passer-by or guest. In the little poem Rooms are never finished about reality and illusions a voice guides the poet somewhere in space and time and goes on saying:

Come to the window: panes plot the earth apart. In the moon’s crush. The cobalt stars Shed light blue-on Russia the Republic’s porcelain,

The Ural’s mezzotint, why are you weeping

Dear friend!? Hush rare guest.

Agha Shahid Ali has explored many different poetic forms, including canzones, sonnets tetra Zima and he has introduced aspects of Marisa Elegy or elements of shikwaDrIqbal’s (RA) poem . There are several of his ghazals in English too, written in remarkable skill, in which the second line of every couplet repeating a phrase employing the new meaning, culminating with the poet’s name often with a lightness of touch a quite mocking and wit.

Part 111 consists of ‘Eleven Stars Overs Andalusia, a breath-taking adaptation of an Arabic poem, by Palestinian writer Muhammad Darwish. In an end note, Agha Shahid Ali explains that he was sent “a very literal version” and asked to “convert it into poetry”. He finally found a way of tackling it, after reading Lorca (Federico García Lorca Spanish poet 1898–1936).

He adds that the Title of Eleven Stars comes from the Quran and is a reference of Joseph’s dream.

About the dream he say 11 stars and the sun and moon prostrate before him. Joseph was told by his father, “Say nothing of this dream to your brothers lest they plot evil against you.”

But Grenada is made of gold,

Of silken words woven with almonds of silver tears.

In the string of a lute

‘Eleven Stars over Andalusia not only depicts the exile and expulsion of the Moors from Spain and their farewell to their enchanted land but cleverly provides an analogy with the homelands of the author and translator Palestine and Kashmir. These poems also convey the poet’s personal lament for the world that he too will leave behind soon. In the fourth Poem ‘’ I’m one of the Kings of the end

He writes ‘’ I’ve passed over this land, there is no land in this land. Since time broke around me, shard by Shard

I was not a lover believing that water is a mirror

As I told my old friend and no love can redeem me,

For I’ve accepted ‘’ the peace accord ‘’ and there is no longer a present left

To let me pass, tomorrow close to yesterday.

The Eleventh and Final poem, Violins begins and ends with the couplet

Violins weep with gypsies going to Andalusia..

Violins weep for Arabs leaving Andalusia. The fourth and last section of this volume consists of a single poem, ‘I Dream I’m at the Ghat of the only world’ a wonderful meditation work with memories of all that is dear to him_ particularly people such as his mother, poet James Merrill, Eqbal Ahmad, Begum Akhter, all of whom have travelled to the other shore ‘’ the central image holding the poem together is Ghulam Muhammad, the waiting boatman who will ferry the poet across the water.

In this exceptional collection, Agha Shahid Ali has brought English language poetry in the sub- Continent to new heights. He has also conveyed the essence, depth and rage of indo-Muslims culture as no other English writer has, in fact South English poetry has probably never seen anything quite like it.

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Opinion

The Poems of Ghani Kashmiri:

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By Tahir Ghani

This is probably the first proper collection of English translations of verse by MullaTahirGhani, or Ghani Kashmiri (d. 1669), a Persian poet from Kashmir who lived during Aurangzeb’s time and whose language was respected even in Iran. A poet whose creations, whose idioms, influenced Indian writers even as later as Mir and Ghalib.

The collection comes with a insightful introductory essay by Mufti MudasirFarooqi on Ghani Kashmiri and Persian language in Kashmir.

 

The book offers translations of Ghazals, Quatrains (Rubaiyat) and a Masnavi.

As one reads through Ghani’s work, one gets to step into Ghani’s world, his joyous exclamations, his saddening doubts, his dejection of the way world works and his playful jokes at the world.

The compilation comes with English transliteration, so you actually get to read the original work as well the translation (a practice that should always be followed for such work. But somehow is seldom followed). The translations try best to retain the meaning of the original, the only problem is for a reader not already familiar with the way Persian poetry works, particularly in case of some Ghazals where the reader can easily forget the central theme of a composition in an attempt at catching the meaning of translation of an idiom.

One of the most interesting work translated in this book is MasnaviShita’iyahoe Winter’s Tale, a graphic and poetic description of Kashmiri winter by Ghani Kashmir that ends with lines:

Hinduyedidamki mast az ‘ishq bud
guftamashzinjustjuyatchistsud
Dar javaban gift an zunnardar
nistdardastam ‘inan-e ikhtiyar
rishtayedargardanamafgandah dust
mibaradharjakikhwatirekhwah-e ust
I saw a Hindu drunk with devotion
‘Such striving to what end?’ I asked.

In reply said that wearer of the sacred thread:
‘The reins of will are not in my hand.

“The Friend has yoked my neck with HIs thread
And pulled me by it wherever He wills.”

There is an interesting famous story given in the book. It is said that when Ghani Kashmiri was invited by Emperor Aurangzeb to his court, the poet snubbed him and refused.

The poet said to Mughal governor Saif Khan, ‘Tell the King that Ghani is insane.’ Saif Khan asked, ‘How can I call a sane man insane?’ At this Ghani tore his shirt and went away like a frenzied man. After three days he died.

What is not given in the book is a probable reason for Ghani’s hesitation at joining the royal court. The explanation for this behaviour may be sought in the story of his master ShaikhMuhsinFani.

“Fani was a court poet of Shahjahan and was greatly honoured by the Emperor. But when Sultan MuradBakhsh [youngest son of Shahjahan] conquered Balkh [in Afghanistan] a copy of Muhsin’sdiwan was found in the library of Nadhr Muhammad Khan [Uzbek, happened in around 1646] the fugitive sovereign of the kingdom which contained panegyrics on him. This detection of duplicity very much enraged Shahjahan who removed him from the court. However the Emperor allowed him a pension. Fani returned to Kashmir and spent his days in instructing and educating youngmen.”*

  • From ‘A Descriptive Catalogue of the Hindustani Manuscripts in the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library, Madras’ (1909)

Also, another thing not mentioned in the book is that his old takhallusTahir is Chronograph for the year when Ghani (his later takhallus) started his poetic career.
VinayakRazdan

The Captured Gazelle: The Poems of Ghani Kashmiri
TahirGhani
Translated by Mufti MudasirFarooqi and NusratBazaz
Penguin, 2013

(searchkashmir.org)

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Four poets on exile and being refugees

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By MananKapoor, Sahapedia

“I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a single word: Home,” wrote the exiled Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in “I Belong There”. Exile has long been a recurring metaphor in poetry and, much like love, has resonated across the boundaries of language and time. From the first-century poet Ovid who was banished by the Roman emperor Augustus, to the 19th-century poet-emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar who was exiled to Rangoon (now Myanmar) by the British, poets have often used their verses to talk about their displacement, respond to migration caused by war and politics, and question man-made boundaries.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw the expansion of nation states and the birth of what the Irish political scientist, Benedict Anderson, called “imagined communities”. Numerous mass migrations took place around the world; families were separated and people were left longing for their homelands. The Indian subcontinent witnessed the horrors of the Partition, the migration of Tibetan refugees, the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits. Naturally, many poets from the subcontinent reacted to these tragedies. These poets – some in exile, some in translation and others who witnessed calamity befall their loved ones – shed light on the plight of losing a home and the experience

 

Partition

The 1947 Partition caused the largest human migration in recorded history. Around 15 million people were uprooted, and the Punjab region – a part of which was incorporated into Pakistan – was one the worst-affected areas in the subcontinent. Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam, born in Gujranwala in modern-day Pakistan, became a refugee as a result of the catastrophe. Like millions of others, she moved to New Delhi and, at the age of twenty-eight, penned her iconic poem “AjAkhanWaris Shah Nu” (Today, I Call UponWaris Shah) on a scrap of paper. She wrote:

A million daughters weep today and look at you for solace
Rise o beloved of the aggrieved, just look at your Punjab
Today corpses haunt the woods, Chenab overflows with blood
Someone has blended poison in the five rivers of Punjab
This water now runs through the verdant fields and glades
This fertile land has sprouted poisonous weeds far and near
Seeds of hatred have grown high, bloodshed is everywhere
Translated from the Punjabi by NirupamaDutt
AjjLakhaanDhiyanRondiyan, TenuWaris Shah NuuKain
UthhDard-MandaanDiyaDardiya, UtthTakApna Punjab
Ajj Bailey LashaanBichiyaanTeyLahoo Di Bhari Chenab
Kisey Ne PanjaanPaaniyanWichDitiZaharRala,
TeyUnhanPaniyaanDharatNuuDitaPaaniLaa
IssZarkhaizZameenDey Loon LoonPhuttiyaZahar
GitthGitthCharhiyaanLaaliyanFuutFuutCharrhiyaKaher

Another poet whose voice is considered synonymous with the Partition is Sampooran Singh Kalra, or Gulzar as he’s popularly known. Like Pritam, Gulzar too was born in Pakistan and migrated to India after 1947. The horrors of the event resurface in his writings, be it his heart-wrenching short story “Ravipaar” (“Across the Ravi”) or poems such as “AankhonkoNahiLagta Visa” (“Eyes Don’t Need a Visa”), an ode to Pakistani poet Mehdi Hassan:

Eyes don’t need visas,
dreams have no borders;
With closed eyes
I cross the border, every day,
to meet Mehdi Hasan.

Aankhonko visa nahinlagta
Sapnonkisarhadhotinahin
Band aankhon se roz main
sarhadpaarchalajatahoon
Milne Mehdi Hassan se!

Bangladesh

But the embers of the fire that started in 1947 burst into flame again in 1971. The Bangladesh Liberation War, which witnessed the dissolution of East Pakistan, left millions homeless and forced thousands of people into exile. The historical event was not only recorded by writers from the Indian subcontinent, but also caught the attention of Western poets such as Allen Ginsberg, who was in India right after the war. In “September on Jessore Road”, he wrote:

Millions of souls nineteen seventy-one
homeless on Jessore Road under grey sun
A million are dead, the million who can
Walk toward Calcutta from East Pakistan
… On Jessore road Mother wept at my knees
Bengali tongue cried mister Please
Identity card torn up on the floor
Husband still waits at the camp office door

Kashmir

Another part of the subcontinent, the Vale of Kashmir, has witnessed a continuous exodus since the late 1980s. Since then, over one lakh Kashmiri Pandits have been forced into exile, becoming refugees in their own country, straining the relationship between Hindus and Muslims. In “I See Kashmir From New Delhi at Midnight”, the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali wrote about the homelessness of the Kashmiri Pandits:

One must wear jewelled ice in plains
To will the distant mountains to glass
In “Farewell”, lamenting the loss of the ‘other’, he wrote:
I’m everything you lost. You won’t forgive me.
My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.

Tibet
Not too far away from Kashmir, another community was being subjected to life in exile. In 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama, along with millions of Tibetans, fled to India after their homeland was annexed by China. They found temporary shelter in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, hoping to find a way home in the future. But even today, almost 60 years later, “home” is only a memory for most Tibetans. For others like poet Tenzin Tsundue, who was born in exile, home is a distant dream. In “I am Tired”, he sheds light on what it is like to fight for a home that one has never known:

I am tired,
I am tired selling sweaters on the roadside,
40 years of sitting, waiting in dust and spit.

I am tired,
I am tired fighting for the country
I have never seen.

Admittedly, these poems don’t have the power to alter boundaries or change the course of history. But, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, they are what make people sing in dark times.

(scroll.in)

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