In 2020, when the first wave of Covid-19 had brought the world to a halt, I received an email from Christopher Wordsworth Andrew about an online project to mark the 250th birth anniversary of British poet William Wordsworth. Andrew introduced himself as one of Wordsworth’s direct descendants.

Since he had spent some time in Karachi, Andrew was familiar with the interest found in Pakistan for English poetry. As a pro bono initiative, he wished to record Wordsworth’s poems, which people liked, in their own voices, and they could also say anything else if they wished. The recordings would then be put online on www.wordsworth250.com.

What an interesting idea it was in times of depression and disease, isolation and lockdown. After receiving the email, I also tried to look for translations of the poet available in Pakistani languages.

Unfortunately, the year 2020 took a toll on my mental and physical health when I lost some close personal friends for one reason or the other, and then contracted Covid-19 myself. Therefore, after more than two years, I am yet to add to the online platform a poem in my own voice and an Urdu translation of Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’, that I did when I was 15 years old.

If I recall correctly, that was my first brush with translating or writing poetry. Later, I moved on to liking different kinds of poetry. Nevertheless, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Blake, Wordsworth has a special place in my heart and in my imagination.

In 1982, I enrolled at the DJ Sindh Government Science College for intermediate studies, between secondary school and the undergraduate degree — grade 11, as we would call it now. In both grades 11 and 12, my English language teacher was Professor Mehboob Ali Khan.

Besides being an outstanding teacher of English language and literature, Khan was also a mentionable poet of Urdu ghazals. Since his forebears came from Hyderabad Deccan in India, he would also recite classical Deccani poetry to us, in that distinct dialect where conjunctions and plurals invariably sound melodious.

He was politically conservative, and critical of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, particularly in South Asia, for undermining the individuality of the artist. However, Faiz Ahmed Faiz was an exception for him among most Progressive writers, who he generally disliked. His favourite couplet by Faiz, which Khan always hummed, was: Yeh aarzoo bhi barri cheez hai magar humdum/ Visaal-i-yaar faqat aarzoo ki baat nahin [To sustain a burning desire itself is a feat, my friend/ But just to have a desire is not enough to reach the beloved].

Many of Khan’s students were firebrand leftists. But he was old school and a gentleman through and through. He would go far beyond the limited curriculum for a small group of students who were interested in learning more about the prosody of verse, or searching for plot in fiction.

He introduced us to additional texts of poetry and prose and helped us develop a wider and more encompassing appreciation for varied forms of creative writing. It was he who taught me Wordsworth among other pre-Romantics, Romantics and, later, transcendentalism.

I was soon enamoured by Wordsworth’s lyrical poem ‘The Solitary Reaper’. I attempted its Urdu translation. That surely must have been a childish translation. For instance, I still can’t fathom how I could have translated “A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard/ In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird/ Breaking the silence of the seas/ Among the farthest Hebrides.”

But Khan being Khan, ordered qalaqand from nearby Fresco Sweets to mark the occasion. He would do that once in a while, when some student of his made him happy. Since DJ College is conveniently located near Burnes Road — that mecca for foodies in old Karachi — any kind of snacks or meals ordered were always finger-licking good.

In grade 12, some classmates and I began to frequent Radio Pakistan’s Karachi station after our classes finished for the day. We thoroughly enjoyed spending time with artists, poets, writers and producers. That was where we heard extraordinary men of letters, who happened to be radio producers as well — Qamar Jameel and Zamir Ali Badayuni — waxing lyrical about poets from T.S. Eliot in English, to Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme in French.

Because of my father, I was familiar with the names of Eliot and another American poet, Ezra Pound, who, like Eliot, had also lived away from the United States for long periods of time. My father kept mentioning that, as a reader who happened to be a Marxist, he had an interesting relationship with the works of Eliot and Pound, even after disagreeing with Eliot on a number of counts and totally rejecting Pound’s proclivities towards fascism.

In fact, my father would sometimes exhibit his soft corner for social realism when meeting ideological novices. However, between politics and aesthetics, his major contradiction was his penchant for symbolism, modernism, surrealism and rhapsody when it came to appreciating literature.

Eliot’s works, including ‘The Waste Land’ and ‘Four Quartets’, and Pound’s ‘The Cantos’ were among his favourites. However, it was none other than Professor Mehboob Ali Khan who properly made me understand in a classroom setting how ‘The Waste Land’ is, in fact, one of the greatest poems ever written.

This year, in 2022, we mark 100 years of the publication of ‘The Waste Land’. In 1922, it was first carried in a magazine called Criterion, before coming out in book form later the same year.

Recently, I chanced upon a transcript of the original drafts of the poem with facsimiles of Eliot’s own major and minor edits. The book, edited by his wife Valerie Eliot around 1970-71, also includes the annotations and comments on the original draft made by Pound. Let me end by quoting from ‘The Waste Land’: “These fragments have I shored against my ruins…”

The columnist is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora’.

His latest collection of verse is Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 28th, 2022

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