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A vein of grief

IN English, "quiver" means both the container for arrows as well as the delicate trembling of the lips just before the eyes well up with tears. The original title of this book, Tarkash, stands for the former meaning. Ironically, when translated into English, the double meaning of the word quiver opens up another perspective inherently present through the verses of the book. Needless to say, the lava of grief simmering in most of the verses in the book, is in fact the very throb of the poet's life:

Sensitive use of vocabulary ... Reading from the anthology, in Kolkata.

This grief is my necessity
Because of my grief I am alive.
The poet is persistently articulating his loneliness. On the other hand, much is made of the family of poets and writers to which Javed Akhtar belongs. His father, Jan Nissar Akhtar, and his uncle Majaz, were both distinguished Urdu poets; his mother a writer and Muztar Khairabadi, his grandfather, a name in Urdu literature. Then why should the voice of the poet quiver with a sense of non-belonging?
I, a wretched fellow,
a banjara,
wander aimlessly.


Putting his bag of memories upon his shoulder, the poet moves on, "to tell his story again and again". But then, what is his story? "If you were here, then this might be/If you were here, then that might be." This craving for another is heart wrenching. But who is this other? Perhaps the poet became a permanent exile when he lost his mother at the age of eight. The mother is alive in his mind, evoking snippets of the memory of warmth and security. In the poem "I Remember That Room", the room stands for the refuge, love and protection that only a mother can offer:

That room, kind beyond all
Which used to tuck me up in its
soft sleep
As a mother
Might hide a child in the folds of
her dress.

The poem "Hunger", wheeling its way through hunger, arrives at the cosy memory of the mother feeding him as a child: "One mouthful for the elephant;/Another mouthful for the horse" . The poet relives the moments of togetherness with her and intensifies his relationship with her through her absence, in fact because of her absence.

The Urdu original of Quiver was published as Tarkash in 1995 and it ran into a number of editions. Immediately accessible, these poems demonstrate a simplicity of expression, sensitive use of ordinary vocabulary and a down-to-earth approach. Shorn of all pretensions, these poems presented authenticity in the clever world of the mid-1990s, infested with all kinds of jargon. These poems have a de-romanticised nostalgia for a lived past. But then, for the hungry, a mundane roti may seem a wishful fantasy:

I gaze up to the sky above
Served up upon the sky's vast dish,
The moon is shaped like a chapati.

Since Quiver is bilingual, there is a natural temptation for a bilingual reader to read both and compare the translation with the original. Inevitably, it is the translated poem that loses its autonomy then, and is read as the shadow of the original. The translator David Matthews' knowledge of Urdu prosody and his understanding of the complicated meters of the Urdu ghazal are impressive. He attempts a faithful rendering of the form of the ghazal. But this very strength at times becomes his weakness, when he compromises the poetic experience of the verses by adding a word or two in order to adhere to the original. The greater the faithfulness to the form and the letter, the greater the loss of poetry in the translation! That is why perhaps the poems of free verse translated into English read much better than the translated ghazals. A simple poem such as "Uljhan" ("Perplexity") makes a beautiful poem in English, standing on its own, confident and free.

Quiver does well in bringing three languages together: Hindi and English quite obviously and Urdu peeping through all the crevices located between the lines and behind the words.


Quiver: Poems and Ghazals, Javed Akhtar, translated from Urdu by David Matthews, HarperCollins, 2001, p.251, Rs. 350.

The writer is the translator of Sleepwalkers, an Urdu novel by

Joginder Paul.

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