Aaina Si Zindagi
By Rabisankar Bal
Translated by Inaam Nadeem
Aks, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697310999

Urdu is a wonderful language in many ways. One is how it is able to retain the flavour of many other languages in translation.

When Ajmal Kamal translated Iranian writer Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl into Urdu, he just had to translate the verbs, keeping most of the nouns intact, and we still got the flavour of Hedayat’s Persian prose.

Fahmida Riaz did the same, but to a lesser extent, while translating Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Wedding Song. Bashir Unwan only had to transliterate Mai [Mother], a novel by Hindi writer Geetanjali Shree, who recently won the International Booker. Unwan never needed to translate any verb or noun; some nouns, which would have been difficult for an Urdu reader to understand, were explained via footnotes.

Inaam Nadeem must have had a daunting task in translating Bengali-language writer Rabisankar Bal’s Aaina Jibon into Urdu, needing to familiarise the defamiliarised setting and tone.

Inaam Nadeem’s Urdu translation of an English translation of a Bengali language novel not only reads truer to the original, but actually improves upon it

In the novel, set against the mysticism of the 13th and 14th centuries, the famous traveller Ibne Battuta goes to Konya, Turkey, a century after Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi’s death, to collect a manuscript about the Muslim mystic written by Yaqut Mustasami, one of Rumi’s followers.

Aaina Jibon was first translated into English as A Mirrored Life and Nadeem translates it from English into Urdu. But, the setting that looks exotic in the English version appears to read truer to that of Bal’s original in Nadeem’s work.

Nadeem relies more on Persianised Urdu vocabulary. The English version translated Rumi’s verses into English, but Nadeem found the original Persian and one of the ablest translators of Persian, Moeen Nizami, helped in making them understandable to Urdu readers. Nadeem also corrects names and mystic terminologies and they look familiar again to an Urdu reader. He was even able to find an original Arabic poem that Bal quotes, by one Adi al Riga, and used it for a more accurate rendering.

So, while a translation of a translation is supposed to be twice removed from the reality of the original text, Nadeem has actually improved the English version. Therefore, whatever problems exist are not with the translation, but with the novel itself.

Bal had tried to capitalise on Rumi’s fame, but his gravest misunderstanding was to portray — albeit with ambiguity — Rumi and his murshid [teacher] as homosexuals.

The love for a murshid is a common phenomenon in Persian-Islamic mysticism — the concept of fana fi ‘sh Shaykh [dissolution unto the master] ordains that a pupil must dissolve and submerge his own personality into that of his master’s. This has nothing to do with physical infatuation and is a concept that Western, or Westernised, readers may not understand easily.

This dissolution is part of the mystic journey to ultimately dissolve oneself unto the One, the omnificent. Bal, with all his ambiguity, tries to present the relationship between Rumi the mureed [student] and Shams Tabrizi the murshid, as a homosexual affair.

Yes, Rumi did indeed write an entire divan for the love of Tabrizi, praising his “eyes, hair, face”, but these terminologies have a very different meaning in Islamic mysticism. These, along with terms such as ‘cup bearer’ and ‘wine’ are not to be taken at face value; these are symbolic and also have religious connotations. In Urdu, Syed Mohammed Zauqi Shah wrote a whole dictionary to explain mystic terms and symbols.

A huge amount of material has been produced on Rumi in Persian, Turkish and Urdu literature and people such as Iranian scholar Badi-uz-Zaman Forounzanfar and Urdu scholar Khalifa Abdul Hakeem never needed to refute an allegation that was so obviously off the mark for Eastern readers.

Other authorities, such as Britain’s A.J. Arberry and Reynold Nicholson and American philosopher William Chittick, also focused on the mystic’s real teachings. Another American authority on Rumi, Franklin Lewis, devotes a full chapter to the aforementioned allegation in his book Rumi: Past and Present, East and West, The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi and thoroughly refutes it.

Rumi was 37 years old, and Tabrizi 60, when they first met. Rumi’s own children were grown up by then and included his son Sultan Walad, who was sent by his father to search for Tabrizi when the murshid went missing.

Rumi also deplored religious people who engaged in carnal activities, as can be seen from verse 363 of the fifth volume of his famous masnavi:

Sufa-ee gushta ba pesh-i-een leyaam
Al khiyaata wal lawaata was salaam

[For these mean people, being a Sufi is just about stitching clothes, homosexuality and nothing else]

Rumi was, in fact, always in search of the ‘perfect man’ — the insaan-i-kaamil — and was later inspired by Salahuddin Zarkub and Husamuddin Chelebi as well. In his introduction to Rumi’s Tabrizi poems, Nicholson writes: “the Divine Mind displays itself completely in the Perfect Man.” Another interesting read would be Tabrizi’s own account of his days with Rumi, which has been translated by Chittick as Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i-Tabrizi.

Let’s get back to the novel. While staying with Yaqut Mustasami to get his manuscript — there are a lot of ‘important’ manuscripts in fiction these days! — Ibne Battuta befriends Mustasami’s adopted daughter Kimia and proceeds to romance her.

Mustasami allows this willingly and Bal makes Ibne Battuta and Kimia “discover each other’s bodies.” ‘Discovering bodies’ is a useful technique in modern fiction, but I think laying bare a mystic’s family here was pushing the envelope a bit too much.

Ibne Battuta consumes Kimia just as he does the choice food her father provides him. This theme, of food and cooking, is one of the better notes about Bal’s novel and the author uses ‘cooking’ as a symbol in the Sufi-mystic background as well — quite interesting how writers as diverse as Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Khalid Javed (in Urdu) and now Bal have employed food and cooking in their novels.

Having received sexual favours from Kimia and the coveted manuscript from her father, the traveller then leaves.

As for the mistakes, some words are misspelt in the English version because of the Bengali pronunciation and proclivity to use the ‘j’ sound instead of the ‘z’ sound — “jaaviya” instead of “zaaviya”, for instance. The English translator also miswrites the name of the famous mystic Ohaduddin Kirmani as “Wahaduddin Kirmani”.

Nadeem corrects these errors and, by familiarising the work, turns the omelette back into the egg.

The result is interesting and his work can be studied as a new form of translation, where the translation is actually better than the original.

The reviewer is a poet, novelist and translator. His recent translations include Arundhati Roy’s Azadi and Maniza Naqvi’s A Guest in the House.

He tweets at @KashifSyedRaza

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 4th, 2022



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