Immigration is such an integral part of the modern world that it takes a while to realise how this phenomenon has long been common in our part of the world, how it peopled the entire terrain for a long period and the enlivening effect it had on the arts and the literary heritage.

A steady trickle of poets and scholars from Persia poured into the Subcontinent and added great colour and verve to the already thriving tradition of poetry, to the extent that they were dubbed a separate school or distinct style. The slow but definite erosion of Persian as the premier language of cultural education has meant that we have lost touch with this formidable body of work.

Not many scholars in Iran have chosen to study these poets and they have been particularly put down by poets and scholars in South Asia. It is well known that Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib looked down on these poets as he considered himself to be much superior. The magisterial Sherul Ajam [Poetry of Persia] by Shibli Nomani mentioned these poets, if at all, in a hasty and almost dismissive manner.

In the recent book India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765, Richard Maxwell Eaton describes in detail that “the period of India’s history conventionally labelled ‘medieval’ coincides with the eastward diffusion of Persianate culture across almost all the Indian subcontinent and its intersection with its Sanskrit counterpart.” While Eaton’s description of the interaction is detailed, it makes little reference to the poetry which flowed from this fountainhead.

Opening a fascinating avenue of poetic pleasure, Baada-i-Dosheena: Intikhaab-i-Ghazaliyat [Wine from Last Night: A Selection of Ghazals] consists of selected couplets from 10 such poets. Although linked together, the poets are different from each other in their emphasis and separated by a long stretch of time. Some readers will be surprised that this selection comes from the pen of Afzal Ahmed Syed, a leading exponent of the post-modernist trend of prose poetry. However, Syed has to his credit a remarkable translation of the Persian divan of Mir Taqi Mir, who has been respectfully termed Khuda-i-Sukhan [God of Poetry], but this aspect of Mir’s work was less known and it seems ironic that, although there is no end of idolisation for Mir’s poetry, an entire collection of his remained virtually unknown.

Afzal Ahmed Syed has done great service to our literary heritage by excavating and translating vintage couplets from often unfairly dismissed poets

The translator’s understanding of poetry has mercifully refrained from turning the taut Persian couplets into Urdu poetry, which is likely to be jejune and knobble-kneed. Syed has rendered each couplet into a prose equivalent in Urdu and placed it on the opposite page to the original Persian so that, with a bit of dexterity, one can access the richness of the original. He has explained the idiomatic usage of the words and metaphors used by the poets. His selection emphasises beauty and its manifestations, in human form or the natural world, and he steers clear of verses lamenting the ephemeral or the transient nature of beauty and the decline of morals. The changing seasons and a flutter of colours stand out in this selection.

Beginning with Fughani Sheerazi, among the 10 poets included here are names such as Ghani Kashmiri and Waqif Lahori, who seem closer in spirit to us, and even a small selection such as this makes it apparent what a loss our general neglect of these poets amounts to. Nasir Sirhindi, Shaukat Bukhari and Mirza Qateel are some of the poets whose names will be familiar to anybody who has studied Ghalib’s life in some detail. A beautiful ghazal of Qateel’s is still popular in qawwali mehfils [music sessions] in Pakistan.

The surprising name here is chronologically the last one, Shibli Nomani — the very scholar whose colonial view of history put the last nail in the coffin of the almost dead literary taste which acknowledged these traditions. In spite of his puritanical views, Shibli hankered after the sensuous fullness of this style and wrote some remarkable ghazals in this mode, which make it a befitting conclusion to this invaluable selection.

The one major Persian poet from South Asia whom I miss here is Bedil, but I can understand that considering him for a short selection, like the other poets here, would have meant inviting a camel into the proverbial Arab’s tent. Bedil deserves a selection all to himself.

The short preface is no less remarkable as a critical comment challenging some widely held and long cherished assumptions. Without going into a full-scale frontal attack, it indicates how colonial norms, imported from Victorian England, made it difficult to appreciate the essence of Indo-Persian poetry. This was coupled with prejudice and even wilful neglect from mainstream Persian scholars and these poets were mocked as vagabond “poets without a country.” Designed as a term of abuse, this condition of statelessness — close to what the recently deceased critic George Steiner would call “extra-terristorial” — brings about an affinity which deserves to be explored further.

Fully laced with references from Irani sources as well as Urdu scholars including Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, who is a known authority on this subject, the translator has prepared his case well. Brief but packed, the opening piece also links the old-style — long considered outmoded — with some contemporary poets writing ghazals in the present era. This gives us a sense of continuity that the influence of these unjustly forgotten ancestors continues to exert itself, despite being largely unacknowledged or fully realised as to where it is coming from.

While this book is to be appreciated, indeed treasured, it whets the appetite for more and I hope the translator will delve further into this treasure trove, now that he has given us a glimpse of the jewels it contains.

The reviewer is a fiction writer and critic who teaches literature and humanities at Habib University. His recent work is a video-blog series on reading and writing in days of the pandemic

Baada-i-Dosheena: Intikhaab-i-Ghazaliyat
Selected and translated by Afzal Ahmed Syed
Aks, Lahore
ISBN: 97-89697310104
288pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 31st, 2020