February 19, 2020
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Brevity, A One-Eyed Duchess

Unforgivable omissions, insipid choices of prose and poetry and a novel theory on the origins of Urdu—these anthologies do scant justice to their grand design

Brevity, A One-Eyed Duchess
Brevity, A One-Eyed Duchess
The Oxford India Anthology Of Modern Urdu Literature—Poetry And Prose Miscellany
By Edited By Mehr Afshan Farooqi
Oxford University Press Pages: 349; Rs: 795

"Being published by the Oxford University Press is like being married to a duchess; the honour is somewhat greater than the pleasure," said a writer who had made the grade. OUP is undoubtedly the most prestigious academic publishing house in the world. I am pleased with myself because it has provided me with a harem of three duchesses. Mehr Farooqi, who is Professor of South Asian Literature at the University of Virginia, has done better: she got two at one go. I am green with envy. However, she is a lady: what will she do with duchesses? I also have a few bones to pick with her, not entirely out of pique at being ignored as a translator but for the injustice she has done to Urdu. I will spell them out in detail.

Professor Farooqi tells us that Urdu was born in Gujarat, travelled to the Deccan and finally arrived in Delhi where it attained maturity. This is the first time I’ve heard this theory. The general belief is that it is the mixing of Turkish, Farsi and Arabic speaking soldiers in the armies of Muslim invaders with Braj and Daccani speaking Hindu soldiers in military cantonments that evolved into a new language called Urdu, meaning Camp. It was also known as Rekhtaba. From Delhi it travelled to the Deccan and elsewhere. Gradually, it replaced Farsi, the language of the aristocracy and the law courts to become the common language of northern India.

What I found more mystifying than her genesis of Urdu was the omission of three great poets from her volume on Urdu poetry: Zauq, Bahadur Shah Zafar and the greatest in the pantheon of poets—Asadullah Khan Ghalib. Her justification is that the anthology comprises "modern" poets by which she means mid-19th century or post-1850. It so happens that all three were alive in 1850. Zauq died in 1855, Zafar in 1862 and Ghalib in 1869. She changes her stance to mid-20th century for reasons which appear spurious. Any other anthologist who omitted these three would die a thousand deaths. However, Professor Farooqi opens her selections with Akbar Ilahabadi (1846-1921).

Equally baffling is Professor Farooqi’s selection of poems of those who pass her test of time. One would have thought she would choose their best or the best-known. Instead, she has opted for the obscure and the short—rarely giving more than a couple of verses to each. As a result, one is left asking, "What is so great about this poetry that lovers of Urdu keep raving about?" I give an example of her selection from Mohammed Iqbal (1877-1938) who is rated as equal to Ghalib. The poem chosen is Wild Poppy:


The lacquered dome, this world of loneliness
The vastness of the arid plain
Makes me afraid
A traveller who lost his way
That’s me
A traveller who lost his way
That’s you
Poppy of the desert
Where are you going?
These mountains and these valleys
Have no Moses. Otherwise
Both I and You
Are the fire of Sinai
Why did you blossom forth?

And so on. One may well ask where is the poetry? Where is Iqbal’s magical music of words? It is much the same with the remaining 38 poets in the anthology. Most people think translators should be masters of the language of the original provided they have a good working knowledge of English, whereas it should be the opposite: translators should have adequate knowledge of the original but must have mastery over English. The best translations of Sanskrit into English were not by Sanskrit scholars who knew English but by English scholars with working knowledge of Sanskrit, for example, Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia and John Brough’s Poems from the Sanskrit. Likewise with Persian classics: men like Edward Fitzgerald made Omar Khayyam a household name. Also Hafiz, Rumi, Sheikh Saadi came into English through translations by Englishmen, not Persian scholars. Much the best translations of Faiz Ahmed Faiz was done by the Scotsman Victor Kernan. The best translation of Tagore’s works is by William Radice. Premchand’s Godaan, rendered into English by the Hindi scholar S.H. Vatsyayan ‘Ageya’, could not find a publisher; done by an American it made a bestseller. The point I make is that one has to be emotionally involved with English to convey the original’s essence. Even to this day, Hindi novels translated by Gillian Wright find publishers immediately; those translated by Indians have problems. Evidently, Professor Farooqi does not agree with me. To this litany of negatives I add my personal grievance at being totally ignored. My translation of Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa (OUP) is now in its 14th reprint. In the anthology Declaring Love in Four Languages (Penguin), done jointly with Sharda Kaushik, the Urdu portion is by me. In Celebrating the Best of Urdu Poetry (Penguin/Viking), done with Kamna Prasad, all translations are mine. None of them finds a mention in the bibliography. I have reason to feel aggrieved.

The miscellany of prose that follows poetry has useful biodata of 20 writers of prose comprising essayists and writers and belles lettres. But the writing selected is mostly pedestrian. At the end, there are a few witty anecdotes; a couple are common currency. The ripostes have little wit. I give two examples. Akbar Ilahabadi, acknowledged as the wittiest Urdu poet, learnt that a Maulvi claimed to have taught him all he knew. Ilahabadi hit back, "Yes, Maulvi Sahib is right.... He used to teach me knowledge and I used to teach him common sense. Both were unsuccessful. Neither did Maulvi Sahib acquire sense nor I knowledge." The other example is from Iqbal. Someone asked him: "What is the ultimate in wisdom?" Iqbal replied: "Wonder." Asked again, "What is the ultimate in your love?", Iqbal said, "Why don’t you look at the second line in which I have acknowledged ‘Just look, what naivete’?"

I have less to say about the volume on fiction. Novel writing in Indian languages came with the English language. Among the earliest was Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada (translated by me) and Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Ek Chaadar Maili Si (also translated by me as I Take This Woman). It was Qurratulain Hyder who took it to an international level with her Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire). Many others have excelled in short stories which are as good, if not better, than the best of other languages; full of satire and wit. Examples are Premchand, Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, Ghulam Abbas’s Hotel Mohenjodaro and the collections of Intezar Hussein. Urdu poetry and fiction have a lot more to them than is offered in these two volumes compiled by Professor Farooqi. OUP has certainly bestowed two duchesses on her, but both of them are one-eyed.

Mehr Afshan Farooqi, Editor of the book, responds to the review: Mr Singh, You Ain’t Camp Enough
Frances W. Prithett responds to the review: Lost In Translation

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