Thursday, June 16, 2011




Seated on a cold bench, Arif looked at the black electronic clock hanging from the corrugated steel ceiling of platform no.1. Its blood red display said 1:43am. He left his place, walked to the enquiry booth and knocked on the glass. The man at the counter was asleep, his head resting against a table, his mouth agape. He knocked again and the man woke up with a start. Rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand, his other hand reached for a bottle of water; he took a couple of swigs, and gave Arif an angry look. ‘See Mister! I’ve already told you that we’ll announce as soon as we get information about the arrival of North East Express.’ Arif moved away without a word, trudging back to his seat close by, his steps increasingly heavy with anxiety and waiting. A few yards away, a stray cow was pulling out garbage from a dustbin. And two railway porters were pushing a cart full of parcels.
It was the thirteenth time -- possibly even more -- that he had enquired about the train. He thought it was only natural for the man to get irritated. He decided that he would return to the enquiry counter only after an hour, and that would be a very long wait. Restlessness seized him. ‘Ya Allah! Please give me my brother back, and I would never ask anything from you.’ He prayed silently while tears welled up in his eyes. Stretching himself, he lay on the bench, the travel bag doubled up as a pillow, and closed his eyes. A nightmare troubled him: he saw his brother’s bullet-ridden body lying in the compartment of a train. Screaming, he jumped off the bench. ‘Zakir, my brother!’ When he realised where he was, he simply sat on the bench, holding his head.
At 3:45am, the loudspeakers announced that the routes to Mughal Sarai had been finally cleared. Then, after a dramatic pause, they added that North East Express had reached Danapur station and would be the first train to reach the platform. Arif stood up, trying to hold his tears, walked up to the edge of the platform, and looked westward for the incoming train. Far away, the signal light had turned green. The sky was morose and starless. He started reciting Surah Al-ikhlas, the verses of the divinity and oneness of God, from the Holy Quran.
Inside him ‘Hope’ and ‘Despair’ played hide and seek. One said Zakir was alive and he was aboard the train Arif was waiting for. The other said exactly the opposite. Arif’s spirit soared in anticipation of unexpected joy, and then he felt abysmally low fearing that the news about his brother might just be false.
The headlight of the engine was now visible. Arif could hear the train whistle. His heart raced, and his recitations became desperate.

Monday, June 06, 2011

In the Bazaar of Love: The Selected Poetry of Amir Khusrau

In the Bazaar of Love: The Selected Poetry of Amir Khusrau, Translated By Paul Losensky and Sunil Sharma, Penguin Books India, Rs. 450

Hazrat Amir Khusrau of Delhi was one of the greatest poets of medieval India. He wrote in both Persian, the courtly language of his time, and Hindavi, the language of the masses. The same Hindavi later developed into two beautiful languages called Hindi and Urdu. A disciple of famous Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, Khusrau's contributions towards the development of Qauwalli, South Asian Sufi music, and Indian Islamic mystic culture, Sufism, were very important. He is also credited with the invention of Sitar and many other musical instruments. Khayal and Tarana, two popular forms of Hindustani classical music, are believed to have been discovered by him. Amir Khusrau is also remembered as a founder of the Ganga-Jamani Tehzeeb or the Indian culture “which is a synthesis of Muslim and Hindu elements.”

Poetry in Hindavi

By writing in Persian, Khusrau reached out to the upper crust of society. For the masses, he wrote his poetry in Hindavi. Across north India and in Pakistan, even now, we come across Khusrau's poetry on a daily basis (remember his geets, qauwallis and riddles) but sometimes we are not aware that it was written by him. At times, he had beautifully mixed these two languages. The best example is Zehal-e-miskeen makun taghaful, duraye naina banaye batiyan; ki taab-e-hijran nadaram ay jaan, na leho kaahe lagaye chhatiyan. (Don't be heedless of my sorry state/ He rolls his eyes, he makes excuses/ For I cannot bear the separation, Why won't he take me in his arms?) Here the translators have tried hard to provide us the exact meaning of the poem but how can he translate the lilting effect of the Persian words or the melody of the Hindavi or Brijbhasha phrases. Nobody can. In other words, translating a poet like Khusrau — specially his Hindavi poems which are rooted in the Indian folk culture — will always be a difficult task..

The same constraints must have been faced by Paul Losensky and Sunil Sharma, the translators of this wonderful volume titled In the Bazaar of Love: The Selected Poetry of Amir Khusrau. Paul Losensky who teaches Persian literature at Indiana University has translated the Persian ghazals.

Sunil Sharma, a professor of Persian and Indian Literatures at Boston University, has taken care of rather more difficult and almost untranslatable Hindavi poems. The translators have done a commendable job by taking Khusrau to those readers who do not understand Persian and Hindavi. At some places, however, the duo has gone for literal translation rather than trying something poetic. Further, if the original texts of the poet have been included, particularly in the case of Hindavi poems, side by side of the translations, it would have given more pleasure to the readers familiar with Hindavi or Persian.

Anyway, Khusrau's poetry, even after the passage of seven centuries, remains relevant to our lives. His concept of composite culture and his firm belief in the equality of all cultures and religions are still to be fully imbibed by us. So, we all should read this book, first as a book of elegant poetry and then as a commentary on the infinitely diverse and multi-hued Indian culture.
(Originally published in Hindu Literary Review dated June 5 , 2011)