The magical lyricism of Urdu

The magical lyricism of Urdu
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First Published: Thu, May 26 2011. 09 05 PM IST

Poetic wit: Ghalib was the rare great poet who could laugh at himself, Painting by Shubnum Gill/Flickr.com/photos/shubnumgill
Poetic wit: Ghalib was the rare great poet who could laugh at himself, Painting by Shubnum Gill/Flickr.com/photos/shubnumgill
Updated: Thu, May 26 2011. 09 05 PM IST
Ghalib announced he would give up all his poems to have written this one couplet: “Tum mere paas hote ho goya/Jab koi doosra nahi hota (You remain within me even/When nothing else is mine)”. The couplet is by Momin Khan “Momin” (The Believer) who died in 1851. It is a spare line, perfectly weighed. The sentiment in it is haunting, a word often used. In this case it’s justified.
Asadullah Khan “Ghalib” (The Conqueror) died in 1869, the year Mahatma Gandhi was born. Ghalib himself wrote many, many couplets poets would sacrifice their life’s work for including this jewel: “Na tha kuch to Khuda tha, kuch na hota to Khuda hota/Duboya mujh ko hone ne, na hota main to kya hota?” I will leave this untranslated because it is byzantine, with dozens of meanings. A terrific line of poetry.
Ghalib thought himself great, and he was, and he was justifiably arrogant. But in one couplet he tips his hat to another poet: “Rikhta kay tumhi ustad nahin ho, Ghalib/Kehte hain aglay zamanay mein koi Mir bhi tha (You aren’t Urdu’s only master, Ghalib! Apparently there was once another, called Mir).”
Rikhta is another word for Urdu. The Mughal court functioned in Farsi, but Mir Taqi “Mir” (The Leader) who died in 1810 wrote in Hindustani/Urdu, making him a pioneer. Mir described why he took to Urdu in this couplet: “Khugar nahin kuch yun hi hum Rikhta-goi kay/Mashooq jo apna tha, bashinda-e-Dakhan tha (It isn’t casually that I began dabbling in Urdu/I picked it from my lover, a native of the Deccan).”
Poetic wit: Ghalib was the rare great poet who could laugh at himself, Painting by Shubnum Gill/Flickr.com/photos/shubnumgill
Deccan is where Urdu was thought to have originated (the scholarly consensus now is that it rose in Gujarat). The “Deccan lover” Mir refers to is Wali Muhammad “Wali” (The Friend) who died in 1707, the year that Aurangzeb Alamgir also died. He is also called Wali Gujarati. Wali is the first of Urdu’s great poets.
On the afternoon of 28 February 2002, a Gujarati mob tore down his tiny grave outside the Ahmedabad police commissioner’s office and paved the road overnight. Nothing now remains. I happened to come across a tattered book of Wali’s poems a few weeks later. The opening line was: “Dar Firaaq-e-Gujarat so hai khaar khaar dil (Parting from Gujarat leaves thorns in my chest)”.
My heart stopped when I turned the page to another poem titled: “Ta’arif-e-shehr Sourat (Lines in praise of the city of Surat). I read out Wali’s couplets to Gujarat’s chief minister one cold evening. I asked him to consider restoring that little tomb, no more than 10x8ft, but Narendrabhai was unmoved. For some Indians, the two-nation theory is a living thing.
Faiz Ahmed “Faiz” (Success) died in 1984 and thought Partition was unfulfilling. He wrote a poem about this called August 1947, which opens with this couplet: “Yeh dagh-dagh ujala, yeh shab-gazidah sehar/Woh intezar tha jiska, yeh woh sehar to nahin (This stained light we see in this tattered dawn/This isn’t the morning we had been promised).”
Partition is a good subject for Urdu poetry because it involves a critical image for Muslims: hijra, or exile. A decade or so ago journalist M.J. Akbar interviewed Pakistan’s Mohajir leader Altaf Hussain. A Partition exile from Uttar Pradesh (Mohajir means he-who-did-hijra), Hussain had then been chased away from Karachi and led the MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement) party in exile from London. He said of his plight: “Na Khuda hi mila, na visaal-e-sanam/Na udhar kay rahay, na idhar kay rahe (I found neither faith, nor union with my lover/And now I belong neither there nor here).”
Before he was fired as editor of The Asian Age, Akbar often ran Urdu headlines, especially to his own stories. After he wrote an election feature from Andhra Pradesh in 1996, he ran this headline: Hyderabad: Jo beet gaya dard, guzar kyon nahin jaata? (The wound is healed, why does my pain still remain?).”
This was modified from the lovely poem written by Mumbai’s Nida Fazli (born 1938). The actual lines are: Benaam sa yeh dard thehar kyon nahin jaata?/Jo beet gaya hai woh guzar kyon nahin jaata? (This echo of pain, why does it insist on remaining?/That which is past, why is it not yet gone?)”.
Fifteen years ago, newspapers would use high-culture references like this one, but no longer. This is a reflection of the decline in the quality of readership. Some publications then had readers of such quality that they themselves wrote first-rate poetry.
Singer Jagjit Singh says he got his break with HMV for his first record when he happened to come across one such poem. The poem was published in the magazine Shama (owned by Sadia Dehlvi’s family) and had been sent in by a reader. Its magical opening line was: “Baat niklegi to phir duur talak jaayegi (If our secret is revealed, word soon will spread).” The writing is actually arrhythmic, and Jagjit Singh had to set it to a stop-start rhythm. It remains his finest song. One can imagine the shock and exhilaration that still-anonymous writer must have felt on suddenly hearing his or her (I suspect her) words one day, rendered in that magnificent voice.
Director Sudhir Mishra named his movie after the Ghalib couplet: Hazaaron khwahishen aisi, kay har khwahish pe dam niklay/Bohat niklay meray armaan. Lekin phir bhi kam niklay.
Stalwarts: Faiz Ahmed Faiz (right) photo Lev Ivanov/AFP and Gulzar photo Raj K Raj / Hindustan Times are two prominent Urdu poets of the post-Partition
The lethal line of this poem is actually its maqta. The maqta is the poem’s final couplet which contains the poet’s signature, his name. Kahaan maikhanay ka darwaza Ghalib, aur kahaan waiz/Par itna jaante hain, kal woh jaata tha kay hum niklay (You wouldn’t associate the mullah with the tavern, Ghalib/But this I know: I was leaving it yesterday when I saw him enter).
Ghalib could laugh at himself and that made him unusual, for good poets are pompous. My absolute favourite couplet from him is: “Yeh masail-e-tasawwuf, yeh tera bayaan Ghalib/Hum tujhay wali samajhte, jo na badakhwar hota (These philosophies you spout with such pompous gravity, Ghalib!/People would think you wise, if you weren’t such a goddamn drunk).
Lyricist Gulzar wrongly puts this line at the opening of his serial on Ghalib. He has Ghalib (Naseeruddin Shah) in old age begin slowly to walk up a mosque’s steps but stop, shake his head, recite this couplet, and turn back. Gulzar sees it as a moral comment. It’s not. The poem it is set in doesn’t justify this sentiment, but that of Ghalib making a joke.
Another instance of Ghalib’s humour comes from the poem that Bollywood film Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota is named after. It is the poem’s maqta, and it is superb: “Hui muddat kay Ghalib mar gaya par yaad aata hai/ Woh har aik baat pe kehna ke: ‘Yoon hota to kya hota?’ (It’s been a while since Ghalib died but I still remember/His love of argument, always saying: ‘Fine, but if THIS had happened, then what?’).”
This couplet reveals so much about Ghalib’s personality, and attracts us to it. The funniest couplet I know was recited by writer Khushwant Singh, though I’m uncertain if he wrote it. Asked to make a speech in Pakistan he opened with this gem, which would have startled his audience: “Waiz! Teri duaon mein asar ho to masjid ko hila kay dikha/Nahin to do ghoont pee, aur masjid ko hilta dekh (If your prayers are potent, Mullah, move this mosque my way/Else have a drink or two with me, and we’ll see its minarets sway).”
One writer I am fond of is the Gujarati polyglot Sheikh Adam Abuwala. Few know him, but all of us know his work. He wrote the ghazals that Gujarati singer Pankaj Udhas sang. Abuwala wrote in Urdu and in very good Gujarati. One couplet of his I like is: “Adam, gajab ni vaat chhe: astik hata amey/Nastik bani gaya amey, karan Khuda mali gayo (I used to be a believer, O Adam/But I stopped after knowing God).” Abuwala had a certain style about him. He spoke German and English, and one of his books is called Adam thi Sheikh Adam sudhi (From Adam to Sheikh Adam!).
Years ago, Gulzar visited the Ahmedabad office of a Gujarati newspaper I then worked in. He strolled up to where I was sitting. I rose, but his eyes were on the wall where I had pinned a poem I had just discovered. It was written by a revolutionary Pakistani poet. In his sonorous, masculine voice Gulzar read it out slowly: “Aisay dastoor ko, subh-e-benoor ko/Main nahin maanta, main nahin jaanta...
“Habib Jalib,” I said.
Main jaanta hoon (That I know),” Gulzar said.
The lines are: This lawless constitution, this lightless dawn—I reject, and I shall never recognize.
But of course, Pakistanis had to accept it. Pakistan seems to have the same problems for decades. Columnist Ayaz Amir referred to this by quoting the couplet: “Ek aur darya ka saamna tha, Munir mujh ko/Main ek darya kay paar utra to maine dekha (I saw I had yet another river to cross, Munir/When I just about managed to cross this one).”
Mohammad Ali Road in Mumbai is named after Mohammad Ali Jauhar, who led with Gandhi the Khilafat movement of the early 1920s. He wrote one of poetry’s most stirring couplets, and one which always moves me: “Qatl-e-Hussain asl mein marg-e-Yazeed hai/Islam zinda hota hai har Karbala kay baad (The murder of Hussain is actually the end of [his killer] Yazeed/Islam is refreshed by the blood of the martyrs of Karbala).”
I was familiar with Iqbal’s Tarana-e-Hindi (which we know as Saare jahan se achcha). But I had not registered its most stirring couplet till I heard Manmohan Singh, then Union finance minister, recite it one magical moment in his first budget speech 20 years ago. My gooseflesh flared when I heard Singh deliver these words in his soft voice: “Yunaan-o-Misr-o-Roma, sab mitt gaye jahaan say/Ab tak magar hai baqi, naam-o-nishan hamara (Classical Greece, Pharaonic Egypt, Imperial Rome are all dust/But our India—ancient, unchanged, alive—lives forever).”
I often mumble this couplet to myself, because it has beauty and such power. It is shocking to learn that Iqbal was only in his 20s when he wrote this great poem. He died an Indian in 1938, a decade before Partition, but he’s Pakistan’s national poet.
Pakistan’s current spell of democracy came after the rebellion of its chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, against General Pervez Musharraf. Justice Chaudhry was mistreated but held firm and then was supported by the lawyers and the political parties. Describing his ordeal, he recited a couplet by the great Bollywood poet Majrooh (“Wounded”) Sultanpuri: “Main akayla hi chala tha janib-e-manzil magar/Log saath aatay gayay aur kaarvaan banta gaya (Alone, I turned in the direction of my destination and yet/As I began, others started falling in and we walked together).”
A few years ago, mad scientist Dr A.Q. Khan and I used to write columns for Pakistan’s Jang group. He on Wednesday and I on Sunday. One week he wrote a piece about his memory of Pakistan’s surrender to India at Dhaka in 1971. He described the humiliation he felt with this couplet: “Yaad-e-maazi azab hai ya rab!/Chhin le mujh say hafiza mera (The events of the past so torment me, Lord!/That I want taken away all of my memories).” I thought that was a little drastic.
The Momin poem that Ghalib would give up all his lines for has another stunning couplet: “Haal-e-dil yaar ko likhun kyon kar/Haath dil say juda nahin hota (I ache to pick up a pen and write how much I miss her/I cannot, for my hand is occupied with nursing my heart).” What melancholy is contained in these words. That is the magic of Urdu.
Because of the vocabulary of its multicultural, muti-religious experience, Urdu is the richest language in India. One morning over a cup of tea at his house, Gulzar told me that film actor Shabana, daughter of poet Kaifi Azmi and wife of poet Javed Akhtar, couldn’t read the Urdu script. Her dialogues (and those of all the four Khans) are today written in Roman.
Urdu couplets capture a moment, as all good poetry does. But they also capture an emotion and a mind space and this is uncommon. European poetry is extroverted: It describes the physical world. Dylan Thomas described life as “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”. What a magnificent description.
Indian poetry is introverted. It describes internal states. Urdu couplets have no rhyme (see all the ones in this piece) and yet are magically lyrical to us. Our poetry is sentimental, with a high content of emotion. Others, who see these words in translation, will be unable to understand why the lines move us so. “Wah!” is a unique word and a unique sentiment, and it is ours alone. We are inheritors of a mighty tradition that we can justly be proud of. That is why Gandhi instructed all Indians to learn Hindustani in both its Devanagari and Persian scripts.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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First Published: Thu, May 26 2011. 09 05 PM IST
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