Khwaja Haider Ali Aatish (1764-1846) of Lucknow is one of the most famed Urdu poets of his time. A man of independence who steered clear of state patronage, he wrote in the ghazal (غزل) genre, avoiding over-elaborate linguistic exercises and writing mostly of love and mysticism.
I struggle to find Urdu poetry that is not transliterated into English. I understand the need, but as someone who grew up functioning in Urdu (and English), I read Urdu best in the Urdu Shahmukhi script. Here, for your reading pleasure, is a famous ghazal from Aatish, rendered (via google input tools, which doesn’t render the ‘hamzah’ properly, despite my attempts) in Urdu and with its English translation. I’ve done my best to do an idiomatic translation; feel free to offer feedback and corrections. I also had to keep stopping myself from slipping into “He” and “Him,” where the Urdu original offers no clue to gender, whether for the Lover or the Beloved in تو (you) and وہ (he/she/it).
Unfortunately, this exercise in translation feels less like a linguistic or literary exercise than a frustrating, rather pointless cultural one. How to translate the loving, voluntary self-surrender (the سپردگی) of “سر تسلیم خم ہے جو مزاج یار میں آے ” without it becoming a humiliating, groveling self-debasement of an abused individual lacking in self-esteem? How to bring the Unity of me-and-Thou into the binary thought of modern English? How to translate into English the agitation of overwhelming devotional Love that cares not for Retribution? How to translate the mystical and literary trope of the Beloved’s “eyebrow” into English? This I cannot do. You are immersed in it, or you are not. You don’t get it in a translation.
As I’ve said before at this blog (I can’t recall which post, help me out here), I do believe people feel emotions in fundamentally different ways. I do believe language is not ultimately translatable, and I don’t believe language is transferable intact from one cultural setting to the other. Literature, when read in translation, is something different from its origins. When I visit Lahore, I find some college students educated in private schools struggle to read Urdu in Shahmukhi, and transliterate words into English. Perhaps English is the mushroom cloud that reduces all languages under it to shriveled skeletons. We can speak Urdu in bursts only, punctuated by the endless onslaught of English words or Anglicized Urdu. Perhaps, in many ways, it is culturally an inevitable shift where Urdu becomes something else entirely, something that Aatish would not recognize.
Perhaps this is an argument for the preservation of languages, so that – for example – Pakistani youth have the freedom, the option, to grow up thinking and feeling in English. Is this possible today? To what extent? I don’t know. As with diversity cultures – where Whiteness functions as the setting, the background, and the foreground, where samosas and pagodas and manga decorate and enhance Whiteness for better marketability – globalized cultures are inherently a death knell for local cultures and languages. Perhaps private spaces, protected – nay, even insulated – from the onslaught of English and Whiteness are the only hope for such cultures and languages. Maybe they must fade and reborn. What do I know.
I don’t know. @HumzaYousaf just took his oath in the Scottish parliament in Urdu. I believe it works, despite the insertion of the English “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth” (how about ملکہ عالیہ الزبتھ maybe?) Anyway, here is Aatish, his words alive to me at least, almost 180 years since he wrote this ghazal, at a very different time, when Humza Yousaf’s ancestors and mine were watching in bewilderment as the East India Company drove its tentacles into India.
Enjoy. Or try to.
عدم سے جانب ہستی تلاش یار میں آے
کھلی آنکھیں تو دیکھا، وادی پرخار میں آے
یقیں ہے کچھ نہ کچھ رحمت مزاج یار میں آے
ادب سے ہاتھ باندھے ہم تیرے دربار میں آے
اگر بخشے زہے رحمت ، نہ بخشے تو شکایت کیا
سر تسلیم خم ہے جو مزاج یار میں آے
نہ پوچھو اہل محشر ہم سے دیوانہ کی بیتابی
یہاں مجمع سنا، یاں بھی تلاش یار میں آے
عدم کے جانے والو بزم جاناں تک اگر پہنچو
ہمیں بھی یاد رکھنا ذکر جو دربار میں آے
نہ مانگو بوسہ اے آتش بگاڑے منہ وہ بیٹھے ہیں
قیامت ہے اگر بل ابروے خمدار میں آے
From nothingness, we came into existence, in search of the Beloved.
But when we opened our eyes, we found ourselves in a valley of thorns.
Surely the Beloved will tend toward mercy;
We enter Your audience, hands folded in reverence.
If the Beloved should pardon me, how fortunate I am! If not, I have no complaints.
My head inclines in acceptance and submission, whatever the Beloved wishes with me.
O you gathered for Judgement Day, ask not of the impatient Lover’s madness.
He heard people gathering, and here too he rushes in search of the Beloved.
O you departing for the other world, if you should reach the Beloved’s assembly,
don’t forget me, if I happen to be mentioned in the Beloved’s presence.
Don’t beg for a kiss, O Aatish, for the Beloved frowns in anger.
If the Beloved’s crescent eyebrows should crease, it is as Doomsday has arrived.