Urdu poetry is celebrated for its multi-layered resonances which transcend time and age. Whether written in the 18th century or the 21st, it can be quoted in political meetings, debates and daily conversations to make an apt comment on current events, public or personal.
In recent weeks, Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous poem Hum Dekhein Gey [We Too Will See] — which was written as a critique of the Zia regime and rings out with its universal message of protest against tyranny, repression and injustice — has been chanted by huge crowds in India against the brutal attacks at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi.
The power of Faiz’s poetry and its ability to reach out across languages, cultures and nations is central to Anjum Altaf’s unusual collection of English-language verses, titled Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Each poem in the collection provides an intertextual engagement with, and adaptation of, a specific Faiz poem. Altaf supplements each with a brief note, giving the context in which it spoke to him personally and led him to capture its essence in his own verse.
Interestingly, the collection includes two poems, ‘Resist’ and ‘Speak’, which draw on Faiz’s ‘Dar-i-Umeed Ke Daryuza Gar [Supplicants at Hope’s Door] and ‘Bol’ [Speak] respectively. They were penned by Altaf in response to the Modi government’s 2016 attacks on JNU’s faculty and students protesting over issues of sedition.
In his ‘Acknowledgements’, Altaf asserts the importance of Faiz in his life and how Faiz’s writing “changed the trajectory” of Altaf’s thinking at different times. This dates back to Altaf’s days as a student and “the intellectual turmoil of the Vietnam War.” He also points out that his mother fostered his love for Urdu literature, while his interest in English literature owes much to his father. This bilingualism is central to Transgressions which transmutes poems from one language to the other.
The significance of an original collection of Pakistani English poetry lies in its ambition and desire to transcend barriers of language, culture and time
Altaf’s “engagement with Faiz was nurtured in almost daily conversations” with his wife and his sons. He begins his collection with the poem ‘Faiz Ke Naam’ [To Faiz] by Hasan Altaf, his son. This, in turn, makes a comment on Faiz’s influence on two generations and becomes a unique preface to Altaf’s verse in the rest of the book. Hasan explains that he grew up in the United States until he was 14, and then his family relocated to Pakistan. Faiz’s poetry had provided him with “one of the strongest links” to his homeland. At 17, when Hasan joined New York University, he took a Faiz poster with him — and wrote ‘Faiz Ke Naam’. The poem is among the few in Pakistani English literature to employ both the Arabic and Roman scripts; the former is used in the Urdu title and Faiz’s quotes, the latter is used in the rest of the poem which is written in English and begins with the words: “I remember finding you, buried there/ In the shrouds of dust and spider webs/ In the back, in the dark/ The way your face shone as we lifted/ You out, the brilliant white of your words.”
The remaining poems — all in English — are written by Anjum Altaf. Each is inspired and illuminated by Faiz’s poetry. As such, Altaf’s poems provide an unusual direction for Pakistani English literature. His work is very different to translations or transcreations of Faiz’s verse by Victor Kiernan, Naomi Lazard, Agha Shahid Ali and others, though Altaf names specific translations alongside each of his own renditions.
In Altaf’s poem ‘Why?’, the link with Faiz’s poetry is revealed in the first few words: “Not even dogs/ Go quietly as these men/ Battered and bruised/ Idle and begging/ Homeless and heartless/ Stabbing each other for scraps.”
Altaf’s accompanying note discloses that his poem is based on Faiz’s ‘Kuttay’ which has been translated by Khalid Hasan and Victor Kiernan. This information enables the interested reader to compare Altaf’s version with those of Hasan and Kiernan’s and reveals that, while both translators retain the title ‘Dogs’ and the metaphorical imagery of strays, their dogfights and desperate lives, Altaf’s poem transmutes the symbolism into a direct comment on the human condition and conflict between the oppressor and the oppressed.
Similarly, in ‘Go’, Altaf draws on Faiz’s ‘Aaj Bazaar Mein Pa Ba Jaulan Chalo’ [Let’s Walk Fettered in the Street Today] to protest against the shackles of tyranny and violence. The poem is dedicated to Sheema Kermani and her dance performance at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in defiance of the extremists who had bombed it. The poem begins: “Unwept tears. Inner torments/ Enough./ Hidden desires, silent accusations/ Enough/ Go/ Flaunt your fetters in the street/ Arms aloft, enraptured, intoxicated/ Dishevelled, bloodstained/ Go.”
Altaf continues to engage with topical social and humanitarian issues in ‘A Refugee in Paris’, which addresses the burning issue of Europe’s refugee crisis today. He draws on Faiz’s ‘Paris’, which captures images of that city’s wretchedly poor amid deepening shadows.
Altaf extends his interaction with Faiz to engage with Western literatures, too. In ‘You and I’, he looks at Faiz’s ‘Jo Mera Tumhara Rishta Hai’, translated as ‘Our Relationship’ by Naomi Lazard, to write of his response to the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s collection The Face Behind the Face and incorporates Yevtushenko’s title words into his last line.
‘A Prison Morning’ which draws on Faiz’s famous ‘Zindaan Ki Aik Subha’ — translated as ‘A Prison Daybreak’ by Agha Shahid Ali — was inspired by, and engages with, an essay by the American novelist Tim Parks, discussing Italian writer Primo Levi’s memoir If This is a Man which includes Levi’s years in Auschwitz. Altaf writes: “Dawn comes upon us like a betrayal/ The sun siding with men/ Intent on our humiliation.”
In ‘Beauty’, Altaf looks to Faiz’s ‘Mauzu-i-Sukhun’ [Topic of Discussion] to engage with another essay by Parks titled ‘Pretty Violence’ — a contemplation of art and aesthetics.
The quality of Altaf’s work does vary, though. In many poems, the nuances of language, poetry and poetic resonance in English become secondary to conveying messages. This becomes particularly apparent in Altaf’s uneven opening lines in ‘Speak’, which draws on Faiz’s ‘Bol’. Despite this, Transgressions is a rare and original collection of Pakistani English poetry and its significance lies in its ambition and desire to transcend barriers of language, culture and time, to assert in English the universalism so pivotal to Faiz Ahmed Faiz and his writing and its daily relevance in our own country and other lands.
Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
By Anjum Altaf
Akbar Books, India
The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 2nd, 2020