COLUMN: THE GENIUS OF LATIF

April 01, 2018

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On a cool February morning, I flew into Islamabad to speak at the Mother Languages Literature Festival at Lok Virsa in Shakarparian. The first session I attended was on Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, the great 17th century Sindhi poet. Among the speakers were two stalwarts of contemporary Sindhi letters, Noorul Huda Shah and Dr Fahmida Hussain, while Urdu poet and critic Dr Fatema Hassan chaired. The session focused on the various ways of interpreting the poet, and on the many versions of his work translated into English and Urdu. The consensus was that no one had done full justice to the great poet’s Risalo in any foreign tongue; renowned poet Shaikh Ayaz’s renditions into Urdu, for example, were poems in their own right, but deviated from the prosody of the originals whereas in English, Elsa Kazi and Amena Khamisani were either too literal or too free.

My introduction to Latif came when I was 12, through musical performances. Only in my 20s did I begin to grasp the meaning of some of the poems when I bullied my father — a native Sindhi speaker — to explain them to me. Over the years I read a number of translations, starting with H.T. Sorley and Kazi, and Dr Annemarie Schimmel’s long scholarly essay. Then, dissatisfied with the English texts, I delved into Urdu translations when, in my 40s, I wanted to use some of the Shah’s verses for a paper on mystic poetry, and five years later for my novel The Cloud Messenger. I was familiar with Latif’s compelling depictions of female protagonists from folklore, including Marvi, Sassi, Sohni, Momal and Noori and the lesser known Lila and Sorath; Bina Shah in her novel A Season for Martyrs also pays homage to these heroines. Over the years, however, I was more drawn to Latif’s renditions of everyday activities such as spinning and fishing, and of nature — such as swans on the water, or the coming of the rainy season to the dry desert. These elements influenced both the paper I delivered to the Poetry School in 2004 and, later in that decade, my novel, which uses verses from ‘Sur Sarang’, Latif’s paean to rain, at its climax.

I remember how in my student days I had opted to study Seraiki literature rather than Sindhi as my time was limited and the former was easier for me to read and understand. Today, I feel that reading Khwaja Ghulam Farid and Sachal Sarmast in the original was my gateway to comprehending the Risalo, though I can only decipher the latter with the aid of a translation. On my way to Islamabad (and for several weeks before that) I was reading the latest volume of Latif translations by Christopher Shackle, my erstwhile mentor in Seraiki, acclaimed for his work on Bulleh Shah, Hashim Shah and many others. This definitive volume acknowledges all Latif’s previous translators and also includes the original versions on facing pages. This allows readers such as me to hear the music of the original in their ears while they relish the verbal images on the page in Shackle’s exquisitely lucid and pure prose-poetic renditions of Latif’s complex verse patterns, which Shackle chooses to evoke rather than duplicate.

Shackle’s succinct and exemplary introduction to what may prove to be his chef d’oeuvre is illuminating: entirely free of cerebral jargon, it guides us through Latif’s life and times.

I was pleased to show the book to the panellists, all of whom agreed that it was a significant — and possibly the finest in English — contribution to Latif studies. Shackle’s succinct and exemplary introduction to what may prove to be his chef d’oeuvre is illuminating: entirely free of cerebral jargon, it guides us through Latif’s life and times, through the indigenous and Islamic contexts in which his work is embedded and examines the intricate, “densely expressed” abyat and “more relaxed” vai — the forms in which Laatif expressed himself — before addressing the Risalo’s thematic and spiritual concerns: “Instead of reiterating the simpler kind of sufi vision, Shah Latif in his Sindhi poetry creates for his local audience an entirely new way of imagining reality. All the sources agree that he kept three books with him as his primary sources of continual inspiration: the Quran, from whose verses he so frequently quotes in Arabic; Rumi’s great Persian Masnavi, and the Sindhi verses of his ancestor Shah Karim. He derived from them a genuinely new creation in his Risalo, in which a large collection of individual verses embracing a vast variety of local and Islamic references collectively constitute one of those all-embracing classics that most literatures are only given once. As he himself says of his poetry: ‘What you consider to be poems are divine verses/ They direct the mind towards the beloved.’”

If Latif absorbed and indigenised the work of his great predecessors, notably Jalaluddin Rumi, he nevertheless stands tall as a great original. Shackle also points out that, compared to his contemporaries Sachal Sarmast and Bulleh Shah, Latif is ambivalent, even reticent in his disavowal of orthodoxies.

Many readers will understandably be drawn to Shackle’s translations of the narrative-inspired poems; while these are excellent, for me the greatest pleasure in this volume lies in those poems that combine image and lyricism in a way that no previous English translator — and very few in Urdu — have managed to do without betraying the syntax and rhythm of the Sindhi verses. These include my old favourite ‘Sur Sarang’, and the long love poem ‘Rip’, which I hadn’t noticed in other collections: “I have clouds inside my head, and my eyes do not clear. Today the beloved has caused a deluge within my heart.../ What shall I do with the clouds? It is inside me that it rains. The overcast sky created by my beloved does not clear all day long.”

And then there’s my all-time favourite, ‘Karayal’, a distillation of Latif’s opus: “The peacocks are all dead; not one wild goose is left/ This lake has now become the home of false birds/ He is the bird, the cage, the lake and the wild goose/ When I looked within myself, I realised that the hunter whom the body fears prowls about inside me.”

The columnist is a short story writer and novelist living in London

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 1st, 2018