Let there be light

Syncretic traditions live on: A scene from the banks of Ganga in Varanasi   | Photo Credit: R_V_Moorthy

Do intricate cultural moorings of a city, not visible to the ordinary human eye, leave a plethora of celebrated authors, famous for their satirical outpourings, belonging to different languages, awestruck? Does a city continue to instil a ceaseless state of mirth in the literary gadflies of yore and modern times?

The quest for the answer can be cut short if one turns his attention to Varanasi, the cradle of the human race. It is the city that evoked an imperishable interest and uncontrollable mirth and it prompted Ghalib, one of finest exponents of Indian cerebral and creative dexterity, to write his epochal long Persian poem Chiragh-e-Dair (The lamp of the temple).

A prominent Urdu critic, poet, painter and translator Sadiq, who taught at the Delhi University, has astutely rendered it into Hindi. The immensely readable translation appended with invaluable endnotes jointly was published by the Raza Foundation and Rajkamal Prakashan recently.

The narrative poem comprising 108 couplets reveals an air of amused astonishment coupled with spiritual sublimity. According to Sadiq, it is the best long poem on Banaras. “This masnavi (long narrative poem) is the best poem on the ancient and the holiest city of India. Ghalib composed his unmatched poem, not on his birthplace- Agra or Delhi where he grew up instead he chose Banaras where he stayed for four months on his way to Kolkata.”

Travelling to Kolkata for getting his pension released, Ghalib visited Lucknow, Banda, Modha, and Allahabad and broke his journey at Banaras and stayed here for four months (August-November, 1827). The splendour of Banaras and the spiritual aura of Ganga and temples had cast a spell on Ghalib and he tried to explore the city with a sense of immensity and sensibility.

The ecstatic gaze never died down and Ghalib wrote to one of his friends, Mohammad Ali Khan, “If I had no fear of religious contempt, I would have left my religion and used to count beads, bear sacred threads, put a mark on the forehead and in this way I would have passed my life on the bank of Ganga”.

The delirium produced by the city went unabated and after forty years of his visit to Banaras, Ghalib wrote to one of his disciples, Sayyah, “It is a unique city. At the end of my life, I visited the city. If I had been young, I would have settled there and left Delhi”.

Syncretic traditions live on: A scene from the banks of Ganga in Varanasi; Sadiq R.V. Moorthy

Syncretic traditions live on: A scene from the banks of Ganga in Varanasi; Sadiq R.V. Moorthy  

According to Sadiq, Mirza Ghalib reached Banaras when he was not well but the natural beauty, salubrious surroundings, and amenable and accommodating behaviour of the residents paved the way for a speedy recovery. Having spent a couple of weeks at Banaras, Ghalib wrote to his friend Mohammad Ali Khan. “What to talk of Banaras, if I describe it as the heart of the world, I am not wrong. The wind blowing here can restore a dead person to life. The brightness of the sun owes much to the city as the grandeur of its temples, ghats, and the buildings make it more luminous."

Proficient translation

Besides making Banaras the object of his highly laudatory prose, Ghalib weaved a subtle and nuanced narrative around the city and out of 108 stanzas, 68 delineate the captivating vibrancy of Banaras and each couplet denotes the life of faith and desire judiciously juxtaposed with contradictions, spiritual fulfillment, and superstitions. The translator’s thorough grounding in literary traditions and Indian aesthetics enabled him to produce a proficient translation. Ghalib' immaculate Persian is aptly rendered into Hindi.Two specific examples prove the point:

"Zamane bhar Mein/ yeh sthal /Mukaam -e- fakher/ kehlata hain/

Dehli shaher bhi/ iski/parikarma ko/Aata Hain (this city is called as place of pride throughout the world Dehli itself circumambulate this city.

Sishir ho/Greesham/ya/ Varsha rut ho/ In mein se/partieik rut mein/ Banaras ki fiza /Jannat nazar/Maloom hoti hain (Be it Spring, or Winter or Summer. Banaras' environment manifests heavenly glory.)

Here the poetic exploration of the city's values, physical, and non-values reminds Mark Twain's description who too had spent four months in Banaras "I think Banaras is one of the most wonderful places I have ever seen. It has struck me that a Westerner feels in Banaras very much as an Orientalist must feel while he is planted down in the middle of London."

Ghalib"s penetrating observation found that no other city could vie for. The publication of Ghalib's treatise is the need of the hour as noted Hindi poet Ashok Bajpai pointed out: "At a time when many powerful but shameless attempts are being made to widen the gap between Islam and Hinduism, the publication of Hindi translation of this long poem unfailingly reminds us that the gap was filled much before."

Sadiq’s immaculate translation is certainly destined to wipe out the miasma of misconception between two communities.

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 5:36:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/let-there-be-light/article27010216.ece

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