Poetic injustice

Kaifi Azmi's poems have a vitality that comes from a close association with a spoken tongue. But Pavan K. Varma has failed to find English language equivalents for the rhythms of Urdu, says ANJUM HASAN .

KAIFI AZMI'S poetry is a fine example of modern expression in the Urdu language. His poems have the vitality that comes from close association with a spoken tongue. Even while his verse carries the stamp of a sophisticated and mature artist, Azmi's Urdu idiom never severs itself from that living, breathing, amorphous language called Hindustani. This is evident, for instance, from the well-known lyrics he has written for Hindi film songs, some of which have been translated for this selection. On the other hand are poems like "Nazre Jafri" written for Ali Sardar Jafri, where Kaifi employs in full measure the innate music of the Urdu tongue, creating poetic nuances by compounding words or introducing subtle differences of mood by using one of several analogous words.

In his poetry, this rich fullness of expression, at once sumptuous and accessible, is mirrored in the general image of the universal man. This is, of course, not a poetic vanity but an expression of sympathy. In the constant evocation of the universal, "I" is the expression of a humanism that flutters everywhere like a proud and bloodied pennant. Most of the poems translated here come from a 1973 collection of Azmi's poetry called Awara Sajde, and even though some poems refer to certain events in time (like the split of the Communist Party), the book's predominant imagery is of a universally dark time, an apocalyptic anxiety and a search for human dignity. Azmi answers the world's riddles with the elegant simplicity of a master poet. In the poem "Somnath", reflecting on the continuity between God and the image of God for man, he says: Ik ne ik but to har ek dil mein chupa hota hai/ Uske sao namo mein ek nam khuda hota hai (Some or the other idol lies hidden in every heart/ Of its many names, just one is God).

In Kaifi's nazms, this untiring humanism - its rages, its losses, its defeats - is more immediate and compelling. In the poem "Daira", helplessness seems almost unmediated by poetry: Jism se rooh talak, ret hi ret/ Na kahin dhoop, na saya, na sarab/ Kitne arman hai kis sehra mein/ Kaun rakhta hai mazaraun ka hisaab/ Nabz bhujhti bhi, bharhakti bhi hai/ Dil ka mamul hai ghabrana bhi/ Raat andhere ne andhere se kaha/ Ek aadat hai jiye jaana bhi...

I won't attempt to translate this myself, and Varma's translation of these lines is unsatisfactory and inaccurate. But "Daira" is a fine instance of Azmi's use of spoken rhythms, of the conversational mode that is yet wonderfully artistic, of the intimate sense of "a man speaking to men", of the ability to reflect on universal loneliness and angst without overreaching. In the poem "Ibn-e-Mariam" he speaks to Jesus - an affectionate brother, a fellow-sufferer. Tum khuda ho/ Khuda ke bete ho.../ Jo bhi ho mujhe ache lagte ho/ mujhe sacche lagte ho (You could be God, or the son of God... Whoever you are, I like you,/ I like your truthfulness).

In the ghazals this refreshing directness is naturally muted. But Azmi does exploit the inherent playfulness of the ghazal - a playfulness that is not only literary but also suggests the philosopher's ironic smile, a playfulness occasioned both by the ghazal's tight structure and rhythm, and the whittling down of emotion to its barest expression in order to suit this structure. Azmi often writes his love poems in the ghazal mode, and these are both charming and important in their own right, though there are also ghazals, like the one which starts: Woh bhi sarhana lage ar-babey-fan ke bad... which in their 12 lines sweep across the very stuff of Azmi's poetic world - love, art, politics and the complexities of human nature.

To the advantage of those who can read it, this selection carries Azmi's poems in the Devanagiri script as well. For those who are eager to get at the original, knowing how much the translation of Urdu poetry into English can be a hit or miss affair, discovering the luscious rhythms of the language, the magical ellipses that ghazals form - complete, snug, perfectly-formed echoes of themselves - will be a rewarding experience, even if one does not literally understand every word.

I would even go so far as to say that this publication is of value only to such a reader - one who has a smattering of Urdu, can read the Devanagiri script, and needs an English translation only as an aid, to check the meaning of the occasional word or phrase. For, to someone who has no access whatsoever to the original, the translation can be a gross disappointment.

Pavan Varma has unfortunately occupied himself not with questions about creating poetry, but with concerns about the suitability of a particular word, phrase, metaphor, imagining perhaps that the sense of the original poem will be adequately conveyed if one can find the right match for each of its words. This is obviously missing the wood for the trees. The English translation is consequently a poor piece of work - wooden, laboured and on occasion a downright travesty of the original.

It is possible to fault Varma even on the way he has translated particular words or sentences or congratulate him on the few pieces he has been able to translate well. But that will not be a complete evaluation of his translation. While there exist enormous and well-known challenges for the translator from Urdu to English, there are resources in the English language that can be used to recreate the original text. The pity is that Varma has not used these resources. If rhythm is such an integral part of poetic expression in Urdu, translations from Urdu poetry could have their own rhythm. The error, I imagine, is in supposing that one has to capture the rhythms of the original language through similar rhythms in the target language. Varma attempts this at the cost of awkward syntax and using two words where one would do. For instance, his translation of the well-known song from the Hindi film, "Kagaz ke Phool" Waqt ne kiya kya hasin sitam/ Tum rahe na tum, hum rahe na hum (With such sweet revenge time cast its die/ You remained not you, I remained not I). Or the lines from "Daira": Every day from where I go ahead/ I come back to the same spot again,/ The walls I have broken so many times/ Are the walls I strike all over again. Or the clumsy, Do not come to me now even in my thoughts/ Your tangled tresses I cannot bear to see...

Ironically, if Varma had lent an ear to the soundscape of the English language, and been more careful about English idiom and syntax, he'd have done greater justice to the Urdu original.

Selected Poems, Kaifi Azmi, translated by Pavan K. Varma, Penguin, p.151, Rs.195.