Rakshanda Jalil, translator and scholar, has already established herself as an influential figure in the understanding and dissemination of the many fates (some dismal, some encouraging) of twentieth century Hindustani. She brings the full force of her wide understanding to the study and biography of the Jnanpith-winning Urdu poet Shahryar (1936-2012) in Shahryar: A Life in Poetry. The book is divided into two sections – the first consists of a brief literary biography, and the second, a translation of selected poems.

Perhaps partly on account of its hospitality to spoken Hindustani in sound and clausal structure, Shahryar’s poetry at its best achieves an unfussy, dry, direct, unsentimental and colloquial musicality. In modern Urdu poetry one has to sometimes fight the inherent musicality of the language, one has to learn to dis-embellish, to scour the accumulated meanings that certain words have acquired over centuries.

Pleasures and perils

In Shahryar, the occasional, pointed Persianised word amidst a sea of everyday speech stands out only naturally – in the manner of a flower that one stumbles on in an unremarkable village-path. This itself is an achievement – one may compare it to the vogue for poorly written Sanskritised Hindi where almost every word can intimidate.

Though in the flattened English translation one loses the dual register (of everyday phrasing that surrounds the more elevated individual word or phrase), a few examples can give an overall intimation of the poetry: “dewdrops on cold branches / still immersed in their dreams when the sun/comes riding on his chariot” and “the eye had this one desire that has been fulfilled / its greed to be drenched in tears has been fulfilled”.

Although it is hard to feel satisfied in English with the some of the forced climaxes that traditional forms of Urdu poetry demand, a few examples break through with unexpected sentiment: “the night bathed first in dew then in tears/thus it did descend in our homes drop by drop”; and “none is big or small; the mirage belongs to everyone/everyone is thirsty alike, everyone is equal”. It may be admitted that the translations here do not ideally capture the start and stop of lines, the shapes and curvatures of aural space that are lost when one translates the silences and vacancies of Urdu into the vacancies of English.

Give us more

Jalil’s biography of Kunwar Akhlaq Muhammad Khan (whose nom de plume was Shahryar) marks an important beginning. But a fuller biography would not be coy about his personal life (of which one get very little sense of), and would seek to integrate the details of that life with his literary achievement. Jalil is clear in the earliest pages that she will only analyse the work, though here too one does not quite get a grasp of the poetry as it matures over time – the translations are undated, and one wishes for a sense of the voice as it evolves even within the fixed genres of the ghazal and the nazm.

But this biography is nevertheless a salutary incipience, and it makes one dream of a multi-volume many thousand-page book that will bring out the million scintillas that make up the life and milieu of a poet like Shahryar. Moving in concentric circles one may begin with a core (say, the Aligarh Urdu department where he spent his entire professional life), then the broader circle of Aligarh from the ’50s onward, to the still larger circle of the semantic density of northern Indian post-war literary culture (Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Farsi, university English). So many names, auras each, haunt the book. To pick a random sample – Hasrat Jaipuri, Ahmad Faraz, Zehra Nigah, Nasir Kazmi – each no doubt carrying a poetic universe worth getting lost in.

There are quibbles, not always uninteresting, even within the Urdu poetic world – indeed, quibbles that might attest to a happy diversity. In a discussion with Jalil cited in the book, Javed Akhtar makes the point that Urdu from the Delhi-Agra meridian and eastward (modern day Uttar Pradesh) has a slightly different aesthetic than that of Punjabi-ised Urdu (such as that of Faiz or Iqbal). The latter laid much stress on creating new compound words through extensive hyphenation.

Shahryar, by birth, a Muslim Rajput in western Uttar Pradesh, belonged clearly to the school of brevity. Rather than the dazzle of hyphenation, his was a less hortatory, more precarious, more searching poetry. The courtesy and quietness (the dheemapan that his colleague Sadiqur Kidwai noted) perhaps allowed the maturing of the poetry into inscapes closed to the flamboyance of the oral and social performance.

Openness and nuance

Jalil rightly insists that Shahryar is a poet of greater significance than any predefined linguistic demographic: “…[T]hough he did write only in Urdu there is nothing in his oeuvre that makes an explicit call to any one community… Shahryar wrote in Urdu, yes, he lived and worked in Aligarh for the greater part of his life, yes, but he was not a ‘Muslim’ poet”. Every language (be it Urdu or Telugu) has to negotiate the gains and pitfalls of linguistic nationalism – one may have to cry out to be heard at all, but equally, one may only be endorsing an insular and often corrupt culture.

Shahryar was caught in another debate, perhaps one more unequivocally sterile. This was the debate (a blight that almost all Indian languages have had to endure) of having to choose only between “social realism” (tarraqui pasand tehreek) and “modernism” (jadeediyat). Perhaps a book like this in its own quiet way (replicating Shahryar’s determined and quiet way) is a step toward reading both our poetry and our history with a little more openness, sanctity, hesitancy, mystery, nuance, invitation.

Let the last verse on this be Shahryar’s: “I am a thirsty ocean / come in the boat of your body / row across me.”

Shahryar: A Life in Poetry, by Rakhshanda Jalil, HarperCollins India.