Most readers of Urdu-Hindi poetry are familiar with Muneer Niazi’s iconic nazm or free-verse poem Hamesha der kar deta hun main (‘I always leave it late’). The poem, like all of his oeuvre, touches emotional chords that you may have long forgotten. The finest among the poets of the late 20th century, not just in Urdu but also Punjabi, he was fittingly awarded the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s Star of Excellence award, prior to his death in 2006. Now, author-translator Amitabha Bagchi has finally brought Niazi’s verses — that capture the deepest emotions with startling revelations and innovative turns of phrase — to English, in Lost Paradise.
That Bagchi has been a fan of Niazi was evident since his own award-winning novel, Half the Night is Gone, quoted the poem Hamesha. Lost Paradise is the culmination of that deep admiration, a labour of love to present Niazi to a new audience.
An ode to the everyday
Bagchi opens the book with a precise biographical introduction. A translation of Pakistani writer Intizar Hussain’s beautiful essay on Niazi is included, where Hussain notes that while the rest of humankind moved away from forests to cities, it was the inner forest in Niazi that came alive to animate his poetry. Partition had the strongest impact on both Hussain and Niazi, but while each story of the former’s exhibits its effects, Niazi appears to have sublimated the trauma into a heady wine of pure poetry and emotion.
Carrying on the titular theme, consider these lines about a garden and seeing: ‘When the colours of spring settled on the garden I saw, when the bitterness in my heart relented then I saw. I used to look at the expanse of the midnight sky, when that garden came down to earth then I saw.’ Niazi’s poems work with the fundamental, the everyday, the ephemeral, the transient as well as the abiding, but have no political or topical themes. They create, and aspire for, beauty with a unique diction and syntax.
And it is these notions and syntax that Bagchi, in his Translator’s Note, claims he has sought to capture. He argues that his main goal in translating the poetry is not to bring Niazi to new readers, but to use ‘the idiom of one language… as a guide to create an idiom in another’. Thus, he calls Lost Paradise ‘a volume of English poetry’.
Of scripts and slippages
Translation is a weird beast, especially that of poetry. The poetry translator seeks to ‘carry across’ form, too. Does it remain solely the work of one language then? Bagchi does well to translate shers into English couplets. His renderings of ghazals (he would have done well to introduce readers to the form in his introduction) may be divided into two kinds. The first, as in the one quoted above, retains the refrain at the end of each verse. These translations succeed as they bring this relatively new poetics, syntax, diction and thought to English.
Lost Paradise: Selected Ghazals by Muneer Niazi
Tr. by Amitabha Bagchi
The second kind, where each couplet has its own end (sometimes partial) rhyme, does not work well for me. The rhymes read stilted in English and the form is no longer that of the ghazal, but becomes like that of the masnavi with its internally rhymed couplets. Anuvad (Hindi for translation) is ‘dialogue after’, and this English poetry cannot wholly let go of the original Urdu, because that is also where it derives its value.
Bagchi has also dropped upper case letters to recreate the original Arabic (Nastaliq is the font) script, but the singular pronoun, ‘I’, the ‘M’ of Muneer, and surprisingly an ‘O’ as address creep in. It is in these liaisons between the two languages, and scripts, in such slippages that this translation finds its pros and cons, and a healthy confusion between the translator’s aims and achievements.
The writer is the author of Ghazalnama: Poems from Delhi, Belfast, and Urdu and the translator of Temple Lamp by Mirza Ghalib.