Category Archives: Poetry

When Faiz and Mahfouz walked together

Three months ago, I had a strange dream.

I am in Cairo, walking with an Egyptian man (his face wasn’t revealed to me). We are walking along a bridge that connects two buildings. The two of us discuss Faiz, and suddenly, we see a misty figure in a gray suit. I point out to my friend, ‘See, there goes Faiz”. Both of us look at him, wonder-struck. We keep walking.

I mention to my friend that Naguib Mahfouz also wrote poetry. My friend looks up at dark clouds in the sky and recites a couple of lines, implying that these are by Mahfouz:

The skies wear

A widow’s shroud

The dream returned to my memory today as I watched the surcharged demonstrations on the streets of Cairo. Not even in my dreams, though, could I have imagined the Egyptian people would be out on the streets, trying to rip apart the dark shrouds from the country’s skies. It seems Faiz and Mahfouz are really together on the streets today.

A treasure trove of poems by Paash

A treasure trove of 80 poems by Paash, rendered superbly into English by poet and translator Hari Singh Mohi is now available online. Here is one short poem from the collection.

THROUGH SELF-INSECURITY
If security of the country means only this
That conscientiousness should become
A condition for life,
The presence of any other word than ‘yes’ in the
Pupil of the eye should be obscene,
And mind should keep prostrate before evil moments,
Then the security of the country is a danger to us.

read more poems from PAASH: AN ANTHOLOGY

When falcons turned pigeons

    In your whole life will not get repaid
    Loan on sister’s marriage incurred,
    Every drop of blood
    Sprinkled in the fields
    Will not provide colour
    Enough to paint the face
    Of a serene smiling person.
    To add to it further
    All the nights of life put together
    Will not count down the stars of the sky;
    Then, friends, let us, indeed,
    In pursuit of the flying eagles proceed.

- an excerpt from Uddian Baaja Magar,a poem by Paash,  translated by Tejwant Singh Gill

(The original word in Punjabi translated above as as eagles is “baaj”. I prefer the translation as “falcon”, for various reasons, though technically eagles is correct.)

Paash would have turned 60 later this year. When the Naxalite spring thunder roared 42 years ago, he was just 18. He went on, along with others like Lal Singh Dil, Sant Ram Udassi, Harbhajan Halvarvi, Darshan Khatkar and Amarjit Chandan to found what came to be known as the era of “jhujaru” (literally “fighting” or struggle) poetry in Punjabi. This was in sharp  contrast to the romantic oeuvre of Shiv Kumar Batalvi. In Punjab, divided on language throughout the 20th century, similar poetry was evident earlier in the Urdu revolutionary poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi.  Paash was briefly imprisoned during the Naxalite surge, and he moved to the United States in the 1980s where his family lived and still does.

It is remarkable that Paash’s poetry caught on only after his death in 1988, when he fell victim to  Khalistani terrorism. The Left-inclined activists came in for sharp attack; indeed Jarnail Singh Bhinderawale had termed the communists in the state to be even more dangerous than the Central government, headed then by what he called the “daughter of the brahamans” (“Bamana di dhee”), Mrs. Indira Gandhi. This is not the place to go in for a discussion on the politics of the1980s. However, it does form the backdrop to Paash’s untimely and brutal death as well as the resurgence for his poetry. In contrast, Lal Singh Dil (who converted to Islam and migrated to Uttar Pradesh, unlike the Jatt Sikh Paash), came into brief prominence just before his death only a couple of years ago in the backdrop of Dalit assertion in Indian politics.
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Everything Changes

For no reason at all, I was reminded of this poem by Bertolt Brecht. After so many years.

EVERYTHING CHANGES

Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.
But what has happened has happened. And the water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again.

What has happened has happened. The water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again, but
Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.

Hopefully, this blog will be activer soon. Meanwhile, read some more poems by Brecht.

Hymn to the Buddha

No faults in any way are found in him;
All virtues in every way dwell in him

Thus begins the Hymn to the Buddha (Satapancasataka), a poem by the 1st century poet Matrceta. It is considered to have played some part in the popularization of Buddhism at that time, and even now is a good introduction to the atheistic religion.  At first it looks like an eulogy for the Buddha, but as one reads the full text it becomes apparent that it is not just a blind eulogy to a person but encapsulates the message of the Buddha in verse. It speaks about the Buddha’s concerns (the noble eight fold path)- Compassion, Speech, Teaching, Guidance and Deeds, among others. An extract from ‘In Praise of Speech’:

Your speech is excellent in three ways,
based on fact it is truthful
because its motive is pure it causes no confusion
and being relevant it is easily understood.
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Cloud and Water

You ride on a horse,
while I ride on a donkey.
Looks like you are better off than me!
Turning around, I see a man pushing his cart.
Some are better off than me,
But there are others less fortunate than
myself!

A poem from the collection “Cloud and Water” (pdf) by the Chinese Buddhist writer Hsing Yun. The blurb explains the title of the book:

What do we mean by cloud and water? Clouds float by water flows on. In movement there is no grasping, in Ch’an there is no settling. The cloud and water life is a life of living in the moment, always fresh and ready to experience.

To the Punjab of Farid and other Poems

Santokh Singh Dheer, whose courageous poems in the 1980s made him known as the “peoples’ poet”, has been a life long left- wing writer whose writings have been marked by an empathy for the downtrodden. As a student during the late 1980s I had the good chance of translating some of his poems which are now available in the form of a book. Dheer, who is now close to 90 years, handed over the manuscript to me few years back, dejectedly remarking that the collection would not be published during his life time. Fortunately, and thanks to publish on demand technology, I have been able to publish his collection. It is available from Amazon.com (or CreateSpace) for US $7 and as a free e- book .

Terrorism under the garb of religion, which is how we know of it today, started in India in the 1980s in the Punjab. It was a by- product of the developments during the emergency in the backdrop of the green revolution that had created it’s own contradictions. Though it is true that much of the violence took place after Operation Bluestar followed by the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi, a very strange kind of extremism had arisen before that. Young men, flaunting AK-47s and riding motor cycles would waylay chosen targets as well as unsuspecting ordinary individuals and murder them. Just like that. The Nirankaris were the first to incur their wrath, then came the Arya Samajis like Lala Jagat Narain, followed by ordinary Hindus and then by those Sikhs considered to be renegades to the ‘panth’. Thousands of killings later and with a combination of state terror as well as a fig leaf of “democratic” elections (when less than 10% of the people voted), peace returned to the state after nearly a decade.
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A Rare Interview with Shiv Kumar Batalvi

Watching this interview with the Punjabi poet, the late Shiv Kumar Batalvi, I could not but reflect that poetry, and art in general, is far greater than its creator. Once the poet’s idea finds a language, the language works on its own- the shared repository of mankind’s long history and engagement with ideas and emotions, it cannot but dwarf its lonesome creator.

Batalvi’s talk is almost child like in the interview, and his answer to questions about “getting away from myself” and the death of an intellectual are as naive as they are innocent. Same for his answer to the question of the inspiration of his poetry. Batalvi was not a great Punjabi poet, at the same time, his poetry is marked by a melancholy lyricism that brought a freshness to the language. As in a previous post on Batalvi, I wonder if its melancholy has something to do with the partition and confusion of ideas and identities, rather than a purely personal sadness. Batalvi’s answer seems to confirm that it was more than something purely personal- he seems to have had a happy life as he states in the interview.

Here is the rare footage from the BBC’s television with Batalvi in 1970, when he was 32. He died three years later at the age of 35. The interview is in Hindi/Urdu.

Link

(I must say that the person who has uploaded this rare footage deserves kudos for this rare treat.)

While on Batalvi, here is a rendition by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: mae ni mae mere gitaan vich. I like this better than other renditions because of its monotone and the relative lack of emotion in the voice, thus letting the words speak for themselves.

Related Post: Shiv Kumar Batalvi

A Bridge Connecting Heaven and Earth


rahiye ab aisi jagah chal kar jahan koi na ho
humsukahn koi na ho aur humzubaan koi na ho (Mirza Ghalib)

(Let us go to a place now, where no one lives
There is no one to talk to, and no one who understands my words.)

In life, one has to take a decision and choose one’s path at some point. One can take either the road or the rainbow bridge.

I took the dusty road, my friend RK took the bridge and wandered over the heaven on earth- in Ladakh and Kashmir. I do not know, as yet, where the road leads to, but where the bridge leads to is a wonderful place, as the amazing pictures show.

Take a photographic tour across the bridge.

“For Vincent Van Gogh”: a poem by Namdeo Dhasal

For Vincent Van Gogh

Sunflowers truly are
The self- expression of your
Experience
But, brother
You’ve forgotten to paint
One of the colours of the sun!

- Namdeo Dhasal from The Soul Doesn’t Find Peace in This Regime (1995)

Translated by Dilip Chitre in Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underworld published last year. A great book with some fine translations and an introduction to Dhasal and his works. The stunning pictures by Henning Stegmuller provide a visual introduction to Dhasal’s world. My only disconcert with the book is that Chitre entirely washes out Dhasal’s later shift to Hindutva politics. This poem can also be read as an expression of that disconcert.

Related Post: Namdeo Dhasal and the Fall of the Dalit Panther Movement

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Nazi Literature in South America and India

Roberto Bolano in his recently translated novel Nazi Literature in the Americas weaves an entire literary universe filled with imaginary writers and their writings.Not all writers were,however, fans of Hitler or other Nazi leaders or even their ideology. Bolano’s biographies of these imaginary writers, inspired in a way by Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, are short- the longest runs into a few pages, the shortest about a page in length. Marked by sharply etched portraits of the writers and of their equally imaginary writings, the novel reads like a racy potboiler, except that there is no evident plot in the novel. Only the last story (which readers of Bolano’s novel Distant Star will be familiar with because it is a summary of the same novel) is somewhat longer and has Bolano himself speaking in the first person and somewhat gives the clues to the underlying impulses behind the novel.

In this he recounts the story of Ramirez Hoffman, a Chilean air plane pilot who seemingly heralded a ‘new era’ in Chilean arts after the coup against Salvador Allende’s socialist government and the establishment of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Hoffman’s poetry is written in the sky using smokes from his air plane thus announcing the new blend of technology and arts as Chile was ‘recovering its manhood’ under a military dispensation.Some of Hoffman’s poems, all one liners written on the skies, read as follows:

“YOUTH…YOUTH”
“GOOD LUCK TO EVERYONE IN DEATH”
“LEARN FROM FIRE”
“Death is friendship”
“Death is Chile”
“Death is responsibility”
“Death is growth”
“Death is communion”
“Death is cleansing” and so on till “Death is resurrection” and the generals themselves realize that something is amiss. It is, however, something far more macabre that leads to his downfall.

Bolano’s prose is marked by the alacrity of flash fiction (which to me is one of the most important developments in literature in the internet age), but nevertheless carries forward the tradition of the serious novel. The absence of an explicit plot in the story does not mean that there is no plot- as a post- modern reading would suggest. Instead, the plot is hidden below the surface, like an underground river.

The point that he makes is that Nazi- like brutality has a long lineage, and it resides perceptibly and imperceptibly in literature as well. Literature is, therefore, a battlefield in the recovery of humanity and is not outside the realm of politics, and neither is politics outside the realm of poetry and literature.

Reading the novel, I could not but relate very much to India where, interestingly, it is rather normal to have politicians, in the tradition of rulers of the past like Bahadur Shah Zafar and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, to double up as poets and writers. It is therefore not unusual that two major contemporary politicians- Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, former Prime Minister and a present Chief Minister of Gujarat respectively, belonging to what is easily the closest we have to a fascist political movement, the Bharatiya Janata Party, have some claim to being poets.

To look for Nazi literature in India, one does not need biographies of imaginary writers. In India, they live among us, in our times. The question of literature and politics being separate also does not arise. They are so intricately tied up that both are the same. The nightmare and the muse.

Related Posts on Roberto Bolano

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Sudarshan Faakir

Sudarshan Faakir, poet and lyricist whose ghazals and some nazms were sung by Begum Akhtar in her last phase and Jagjit Singh in his early phase in the 1970s and 1980s died on 19 Feb in Jalandhar. He will be remembered as one of the significant though minor poets of the language. In context of the language issue, it needs to be remarked that he belonged to the small and diminishing tribe of non- Muslim Urdu poets from East Punjab. Krishna Adeeb, who passed away couple of years back and Joginder Lal (known by his nome de plume Naqsh Lyallpuri) are others that come to mind. His compositions may not have been prolific, but each is remarkable for its profundity and perfection.

Pretty much a recluse, this is one of the very few interviews that one can find on the internet. I have heard that he was associated with the left- progressive circle around NK Joshi in the early 1970s in Jalandhar.
Newsreport about his passing away
One of my own favourites is a film song by Faakir
Zindagi main jab tumhare gham nahin the.  Another is the one by Begum Akhtar below.

Another ghazal sung by Mohammad Rafi:

This is a popular Jagjit Singh item Kagaz ki Kashti:

You can listen to a good collection here too.

Romanized text of some of Faakir’s poetry at Urdupoetry.

Suharto- ‘Water will wear away the Stone’

Death, even of dreaded criminals like Suharto who died today, comes as a shock. It is also a reminder of events- in this case, the slaughter of at least a million Indonesians in the 1960s- mostly communists in a predominantly Muslim country. Outside the officially communist countries, Indonesia had the largest communist party in the world before Suharto brutally decimated it. (news report at npr)

Closer home, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr Modi- he brought ‘economic development’ and ‘stability’ to the country.

Here is a poem by the great Indonesian poet, WS Rendra written during the 1998 student demonstrations that brought down Suharto.

Because we have to eat roots
while grain piles up in your storeroom…
Because we live crowded together
and you have more space than you need…
Therefore we are not on the same side.Because we’re all creased and crumpled
and you’re immaculate…
Because we’re crowded and stifled
and you lock the door…
Therefore we are suspicious of you.

Because we’re abandoned in the street
and you own all the shelter…
Because we’re caught in floods
while you have parties on pleasure craft…
Therefore we do not like you.
Because we are silenced
and you never shut up…
Because we are threatened
and you impose your will by force…
therefore we say NO to you.

Because we are not allowed to choose
and you can do what you like…
Because we wear only sandals
and you use your rifles freely…
Because we have to be polite
and you have the prisons…
therefore NO and NO to you.

Because we are like a flowing river
and you are a stone without a heart
the water will wear away the stone.

Source

As to the barbaric political repression under the former general, Tariq Ali quotes the Indonesian writer Pripit Rochijat:

Usually the corpses were no longer recognisable as human. Headless. Stomachs torn open. The smell was unimaginable. To make sure they didn’t sink, the carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled upon, bamboo stakes. And the departure of the corpses from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were stacked together on rafts over which the PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] banner grandly flew . . . Once the purge of Communist elements got under way, clients stopped coming for sexual satisfaction. The reason: most clients–and prostitutes–were too frightened, for, hanging up in front of the whorehouses, there were a lot of male Communist genitals–like bananas hung out for sale.’

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The Year of Roberto Bolano

Roberto Bolano’s posthumous onslaught on the US literary scene continues. Boston Review has published a poem My Life in the Tubes of Survival.

Dreaming
That the saucer and I had finished our ridiculous dance,
Our humble critique of Reality, in a painless, anonymous
Crash in one of the planet’s deserts. Death
That brought me no peace, so after my flesh had rotted
I still went on dreaming.read the full poem

The New Yorker has a superb short story about a fictitious Argentinian author:Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey.

It has all the elements of a Roberto Bolano story- fast paced sequences written in exquisite prose and an ending with a dramatic twist. A short extract from the story:

But the action of that sinister and eminently sardonic character Time has prompted a reconsideration of Rousselot’s apparent simplicity. Perhaps he was complicated. By which I mean more complicated than we had imagined. Or, there is an alternative explanation: perhaps he was simply another victim of chance.

Such cases are not unusual among lovers of literature like Rousselot. In fact, they are not unusual among lovers of anything. read the full story (about 10 pages long)

Related posts on Roberto Bolano on this blog.

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Nisar Main Teri Galiyon Ke- A Translation

I could not find a translation of the complete nazm Nisar main teri galiyon ke on the internet while writing the previous post and have attempted my own translation of Faiz’s popular and, in present circumstances in Pakistan, a particularly apt nazm. The original nazm is reproduced below the translation. I have taken quite a few liberties in this humble attempt at translating this highly idiomatic  poem.

***

My salutations to thy sacred streets, O beloved nation!
Where a tradition has been invented- that none shall walk with his head held high
If at all one takes a walk, a pilgrimage
One must walk, eyes lowered, the body crouched in fear

The heart in a tumultuous wrench at the sight
Of stones and bricks locked away and mongrels breathing free

In this tyranny that has many an excuse to perpetuate itself
Those crazy few that have nothing but thy name on their lips
Facing those power crazed that both prosecute and judge, wonder
To whom does one turn for defence, from whom does one expect justice?

But those whose fate it is to live through these times
Spend their days in thy mournful memories

When hope begins to dim, my heart has often conjured
Your forehead sprinkled with stars
And when my chains have glittered
I have imagined that dawn must have burst upon thy face

Thus one lives in the memories of thy dawns and dusks
Imprisoned in the shadows of the high prison walls

Thus always has the world grappled with tyranny
Neither their rituals nor our rebellion is new
Thus have we always grown flowers in fire
Neither their defeat, nor our final victory, is new!

Thus we do not blame the heavens
Nor let bitterness seed in our hearts

We are separated today, but one day shall be re- united
This separation that will not last beyond tonight, bears lightly on us
Today the power of our exalted rivals may touch the zenith
But these four days of omniscience too shall pass

Those that love thee keep, beside them
The cure of the pains of a million heart- breaks

***

The original (source)

nisaar mai.n terii galiyo.n ke ae watan, ki jahaa.N
chalii hai rasm ki koii na sar uThaa ke chale
jo koii chaahanewaalaa tawaaf ko nikale
nazar churaa ke chale, jism-o-jaa.N bachaa ke chale

hai ahl-e-dil ke liye ab ye nazm-e-bast-o-kushaad
ki sang-o-Khisht muqayyad hai.n aur sag aazaad

bahot hai.n zulm ke dast-e-bahaanaa-juu ke liye
jo cha.nd ahl-e-junuu.N tere naam levaa hai.n
bane hai.n ahl-e-hawas muddaii bhii, mu.nsif bhii
kise wakiil kare.n, kis se mu.nsifii chaahe.n

magar guzaranewaalo.n ke din guzarate hai.n
tere firaaq me.n yuu.N subh-o-shaam karate hai.n

bujhaa jo rauzan-e-zi.ndaa.N to dil ye samajhaa hai
ki terii maa.ng sitaaro.n se bhar gaii hogii
chamak uThe hai.n salaasil to hamane jaanaa hai
ki ab sahar tere ruKh par bikhar gaii hogii

Garaz tasavvur-e-shaam-o-sahar me.n jiite hai.n
giraft-e-saayaa-e-diwaar-o-dar me.n jiite hai.n

yuu.N hii hameshaa ulajhatii rahii hai zulm se Khalq
na unakii rasm naii hai, na apanii riit naii
yuu.N hii hameshaa khilaaye hai.n hamane aag me.n phuul
na unakii haar naii hai na apanii jiit naii

isii sabab se falak kaa gilaa nahii.n karate
tere firaaq men ham dil buraa nahii.n karate

Gar aaj tujhase judaa hai.n to kal baham ho.nge
ye raat bhar kii judaaii to koii baat nahii.n
Gar aaj auj pe hai taala-e-raqiib to kyaa
ye chaar din kii Khudaaii to koii baat nahii.n

jo tujhase ahd-e-wafaa ustavaar rakhate hai.n
ilaaj-e-gardish-e-lail-o-nihaar rakhate hai.n

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