Junoobi Asia Ki Muntakhib Nazmein
Selected and translated by Yasmeen Hameed
Book Corner, Jhelum
ISBN: 978-9696624219
295pp.

It is not just each translated text, but the very act of translation itself, that seems to be engulfed by an array of uncertainties, ambiguities, mistrusts and paradoxes. In reality, no such thing as ‘a single authentic rendition’ of any text exists — or can exist, ever.

Every translation is essentially an interpretation — quintessentially a possible one that always leaves room for an alternate. Absolutism has never existed in the epistemic and performance worlds of translation. There might be multiple translations of a text and most might be equally valid, though some more valid, reliable and more beautiful than others.

Beauty and reliability — in a literary translation, particularly — owe much to the masterful and creative use of language on the part of the translator. Paradoxically, though, a reliable literary translation in poor language is less welcomed than a well-crafted, yet less reliable, one.

That said, Junoobi Asia Ki Muntakhib Nazmein [Selected Poems of South Asia] is Yasmeen Hameed’s translations into Urdu of South Asian poetry. It is beautiful, loaded with fresh poetic language and worth reading.

A collection of more than 100 poems from 16 South Asian languages, translated into Urdu, is a treat for lovers of poetry

Poetry seems to not only have been Hameed’s first love, but last resort all along. Even her sporadic prose writings remain dedicated to explorations of the world of poetry. An acclaimed yet not-necessarily-feminist Urdu poet, she has rendered Urdu nazms into English; the second edition of her book Pakistani Urdu Poetry: An Anthology of the Post Iqbal Urdu Nazm has been just published. The canon she employs to appreciate, evaluate and interpret poetry is carved out of the ‘tradition’ of modern Western poetry and Urdu nazm.

We all, more or less, live with contradictions and paradoxes. Poets generally live within paradoxes. Hameed loves to compose, read, translate and write about the modern nazm as far as form is concerned but, as for content, she appears sceptical of the anthropocentric notion of modernity, which pushes all metaphysics and its multiple manifestations to the margin.

In simple words, though she employs both modern form(s) and modern idiosyncratic diction of poetry, her choice of themes remains anchored to the indubitable realm of tradition. This might be termed ‘normal’ among writers from postcolonial countries.

With a population of almost two billion, South Asia is enormously diverse in languages. Most South Asian writers are bilingual. Some are multilingual. Other than their native language, they may be well-versed in Sanskrit and Persian, Hindustani or today’s Urdu, Hindi and English.

The commonality of a lingua franca has fostered a sort of cultural-literary camaraderie. And shared history has syndicated common communal/ emotional/ political/ cultural/ economic sufferings and miseries and, eventually, their homogenous literary expressions.

But our colonial experience has made us look towards the white West — and its extended intellectual planes — for knowledge (theirs and our own, too), power, literary inspiration and validation. But while we have two eyes, we can glue them to only one object at any one given moment.

So, much as we look to the West and its intellectual and cultural planes, we grow alienated to local and indigenous languages and cultures. The idea ‘think globally, act locally’ hangs in precarious condition. This explains why we know and consume so much more European, American, African and Latin American literatures than those of Pakistani and South Asian languages.

Veteran Urdu writer Muhammad Saleemur Rahman had also lamented the fact that we, awed by Western literature, fail to know of literary works in our surroundings, which have so many common values.

In the introduction, Hameed delineates some facts about the choice and ways of translating poetry, and also some common values possessed by the poems from the 16 South Asian languages she has selected.

First, she notes that all her translations are based on the English versions of the poems. She also satisfactorily explains why Urdu poems aren’t included: as the anthology is dedicated to translations, she saw no rationale for including any original Urdu piece.

However, her take on English as a South Asian language and choosing all the poets from a single country — India — shall remain contestable. Likewise, no Punjabi poet has been picked from Pakistan. She also asserts that, in all the poems, one can find a common sensibility that the modern South Asian person of the 20th century has embraced.

Nostalgia and displacement are dominant themes for poets coming from Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Oria, Bengali, Sinhala and other backgrounds. Nostalgia and displacement are intertwined: you become nostalgic because you experienced displacement and recall all that you left behind, or which vanished, because of its irrelevance in the new scheme of things.

Though hollow jargon for it is used frequently — and many a time, out of context — by modern and postcolonial critics, displacement is a most relevant term to understand why South Asian poets desperately long for things, people, places, customs, rituals and symbols they were forced to leave and detach from.

The existential crisis their poetry displays is less philosophical, and more historical and cultural. This is where modern South Asian poetry differs clearly from modern Western poetry.

For instance, in ‘Meri Chhoti Si Duniya’ [My Small World] Tamil poet Gnanakoothan nostalgically recalls that his small world [comprises a fence of bamboo where a chameleon and a cricket sit]. If someone mocks his small dwelling, he shall recoil and withdraw to his place, where there are birds to welcome him.

‘Nasabnama’ [Lineage], an English poem by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, is an imaginative journey into the past. As boundaries between the personal and cultural/political blur in modern postcolonial literature, Mehrotra goes deep into the cultural past of his land, on a journey that unravels how our selfhoods are constructed.

Alongside our ancestors, cultures and histories, the kingdom of plants and animals has contributed much in the construction of our selfhood. Thus, much in Hameed’s anthology is about parental relations and there are also verses on the rights of animals, birds and trees, and how they’ve provided a wonderful treasure of metaphors for poetry.

All fine metaphors seem to be borrowed from nature and many poems in this anthology are rich in metaphors of nature.

In ‘Cheetay Ke Haqooq’ [Rights of the Leopard], Bengali poet Asad Chaudhary writes about the animal confronting extinction. In his second poem, ‘Noha’[Lamentation], he wishes that he had been just clay. We human beings have an insatiable lust for power over nature and this has made animals’ lives miserable. Had Chaudhry been nothing more than clay earth, creeping animals would reside there and he would be able to nourish them.

‘Mera Mashraqi Bengal’ [My Eastern Bengal] by the late Syed Ali Ahsan also vehemently describes Bangladesh’s landscape — its trees, jungles, birds, rains, its days, nights and its cultural ethos. These poems seem to create a semblance of Bengali national culture.

The diverse geographical landscapes adeptly painted by these poets contain a pattern of movement and stillness, a sort of music indeed, for good poetry has not only melodious words, but jingles of images, too.

How refreshing, revitalising and incredibly beautiful and meaningful can metaphors taken from nature be is remarkably exemplified by Telugu poet C. Narayana Reddy’s ‘Mein Tumhain Samandar Daita Hoon’ [I Give You A Sea].

It is true that the sea — being a universal metaphor — seems to be an abhorrible cliché at times, lacking the lustre we look for in poetic metaphors in the first place. But the way Reddy uses it is truly both spectacular and meaningful. His poem goes: [I give you a sea. Wrap it up around your whole body. And look how you come to turn into an idea beyond your own conception and see then how strong faith you develop in your own self.]

As Hameed hasn’t made the poems in their original languages part of the text, we can’t comment on the translations’ authenticity. But where the richness and flow of language, and length of lines aimed at conveying the narrators’ tone and feelings are concerned, the poems are simply stunning. The overall diction will not be unfamiliar to readers of Urdu, so in reading, one feels a sort of homogenous ambience.

A word of caution, though. Each poem requires to be read in complete silence. Many would know that inner noise is much louder than external noise. Better yet, read them at night, alone, by candlelight! Rest assured that such a bizarre ritual observance will guarantee the experiencing of a slow, yet overwhelming, music and fragrance oozing out of each word.

Though more than 100 poems from 16 South Asian languages have been translated, a few major languages have been dropped. None of Pakistan’s languages are included, nor any poet from Afghanistan been selected. Apart from this small omission, Hameed’s book is a treat in an age when, except for fiction, nothing seems to count for readers of literature.

The reviewer is a critic, short story writer and professor of Urdu at the University of Punjab, Lahore. His latest book of criticism is Ye Qissa Kiya Hai Maani Ka. He tweets @NasirAbbas65

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 5th, 2022

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