By Geeta Patel Miraji was a consummate poet of the streets, someone whose life was made replete through the journeys he took. Mehr Farooqi’s eloquent portrait in the pages of this newspaper brings him to life as a sadhu, mala in hand, long hair untamed, earrings dangling. One can almost imagine him, his thaila or shoulder bag laden with books and loose pages scribbled full of poems, a small bottle of alcohol tucked between them, wending his way on a yatra. He could have been a typical aashiq, a lover, hollow-eyed, locks askew, bechain, swinging between hope and despair, haunting the street, awaiting a glimpse of the woman he said he loved, Mira Sen, outside her firmly closed door, loitering outside KinnairdCollege in Lahore. As he describes in his nazm, “Aankh Micholii”: “I walk past my house a little, wish she were here. How quickly she eludes my glance. What must I believe? Does she abhor me? But this: she looked down so soon, in such silence. What can I believe, does she know my longing? And this? When our eyes meet, she shuts her door, and I, destitute, wander again.”
But Miraji was a poet of the streets in many less conventional ways. If one can imagine galiyan as poetic paths, he also haunted the byways of libraries. He had forsaken a conventional education and was entirely self-taught. The librarian at the Punjab Public library remembered him as the first one in and the last one out. Libraries became his avenues to other worlds, avenues he travelled inexorably, returning to Urdu from sojourns into translations from French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and, closer to home, from Bengali, Sanskrit, and Braj. In absolutely essential ways these journeys transformed his being, became the lodestone for his poetry. Miraji was very young when he wrote many of his essays on poetry that he could have encountered only through such “travels”; some of them, collected in Mashriq-o-Maghrib ke Naghmain, were composed when he was 18 years old. So from the inception of his first forays into writing the lovely nazms, geets and ghazals for which he became famous, he translated. And these translations were seminal for him as a poet.
A few poets have acknowledged how important translation is for their own composition. Perhaps Rilke in his ninth elegy alluded to the centrality of translation. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, moved by the Sanskrit play Shakuntala and the profound lines of Hafez, sought out translation as inspiration for cycles of lyric. Kenneth Rexroth, in his essay “The Poet as Translator,” characterised translation as a kind of going beyond oneself in the act of voicing someone else’s lyric: “The translation of poetry into poetry is an act of sympathy — the identification of another person with oneself, the transference of his utterance to one’s own utterance … to transmit it back into one’s own idiom with maximum viability.” But Rexroth ventures further than this when, in discussing the British poet HD’s translations from ancient Greek, he calls her process and her verse “the story of her own possession by the ghost of Meleager”. For Rexroth the skimpiest understanding of translation is the common one: translation as a process of turning a text from one language into a text in another. Here the translator is almost absent, treated as a transparent funnel or conduit who enables what is most important — the new text. And usually what people look for when they think of translation in this way is fidelity, how close the translation is to the original. Rexroth brings the translator back into view, not just as someone who has to feel their way into the original by overcoming a self, but as someone who, in the process of translation, is taken over by the words that they are translating. They become something or someone else, and the two languages in their hands absorb these transformations. To explain the place of translation in Miraji’s life and work I would go even further. Adrienne Rich, in the United States, comes the closest to exemplifying what I want to say. Her poetic voice changed after she worked on Ghalib and she found in ghazal a form of lyric that made it more possible for her to enunciate love as loss. Miraji sought after different kinds of speaking when he translated; these then became his voice. But he also became another person through translation. And I am not sure how many poets have, like Miraji, held onto the spaces between translation and composition, composition and reading, reading and translation, as though they were as necessary as breath.
Urdu has of course had its own a long history of translation. One familiar and perhaps apocryphal story of the origins of the language makes translation between the various communities of the camp or the market its birthing site. And among many of the notables in the history of Urdu literature whose names may be invoked in relation to translation was Altaf Husain Hali. Hali, who made some of his living from translating books from English, could be thought of as someone whose call for a new aesthetics — through islaah or the improvement or revision of Urdu poetry to produce Urdu’s “nayii shairii” as poetry based in natural (that is, realist) description — was founded in translation. Nineteenth-century British realism transmuted into Urdu poetry might also have had the project of translation as its host.