Anisur Rahman, currently senior advisor to the Rekhta Foundation, and formerly professor and head of English at Jamia Millia Islamia University, is the author of numerous books and essays on translation, Indian poetry, comparative literature and postcolonial studies.

His latest book, Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi: The Wonderful World of Urdu Ghazals fills the deeply felt void of good translations of Urdu ghazals available in English, with the most comprehensive selection from across its long history.

Rahman spoke to about the book, translations and the evolution of the ghazal as a literary form. Edited excerpts:

Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi (HKA) showcases a forte of technique and virtuoso in its dexterity of translating such a tight genre so close to its form into the target language. HKA also begins by providing an insightful introduction to the genre itself.

Would you like to reiterate why you think the ghazal remains such an important genre that merits this sort of both intensive and extensive attention? And how long have you worked on this project?
Thanks for your words of appreciation. Ghazal has been a literary curiosity, a repository of strange mysteries and rare delights. It has had an infectious appeal through ages on account of its in-built musicality. Originating in Arabia in the mid-sixth century, it emerged as a quintessential mode of poetic expression both in and outside the Orient.

It has been a site for romantic-cum mystical engagements, as also for socio-political discoursing. It has thrived in the literary domain, as well as in cultural spaces. So, you have had a long tradition of ghazal gayakis and mushairas, and also of its appropriation in film, theatre, and now in social media.

Interestingly, there are ghazal lovers all around who customise a sher from a ghazal to achieve their personal and political ends. A single sher of a ghazal, being epigrammatic in nature, has the capacity to open up curiosities and new vistas of meaning. And all the shers of a ghazal, taken together, create a unique music of ideas. Firaq rightly said, it is a series of climaxes.

Coming to the time I took to bring this book to its completion, I should say it took me a decade. I understand that all translations must have a long drawer-life to be able to get a long shelf-life. I do not know how long or short the shelf-life of this book will be but it satisfies me to say that I have worked on it for a pretty long period of time to make what it is.

Your technique of translation is most appealing, as you try to recreate not just the content but the form of each poem, by retaining as many elements of the original as possible in the translation. Your translation of the short ghazal by Quli Qutb Shah is a good example:

I can’t ever drink my drink without my love
I can’t ever breathe; I sink without my love

I should be patient, you say, without my love
How unfair! I can’t even blink without my love

A boor indeed is one who can’t be in love
I’m no boor; I’m on the brink without my love

No counsels, Qutub Shah, none to this crazy one
I’m the one; I can’t even think without my love.

Would you like to comment on your creative/translation process?
You are so right. To put it precisely, I tried to create a semblance of the original text. I tried to translate the content, imitate the form, and copy the rhythm. So I decided on my line-length, picked up the words that would stand out suitably as qafia and radeef, and tried to find the closest possible facsimiles of words, images, metaphors, symbols and myths to create the climate of the original text. I did this to the extent I could but not necessarily in all the cases. So, I made my own negotiations; I evolved a form of my own to represent the tone and tenor of the text that I chose to translate.

Let me add that when you read a poem in translation and like it, you say, “what a great poet” but when you don’t like it, you say, “what a lousy translator”. I just tried to save myself from the second comment coming my way.

Who is your ideal reader? There seems to be a boom in translation in India in general and from Urdu to English in particular. Where does this take us? Where do you see your book’s reach and how, if at all, do your translations contribute to the world of Urdu literature and readership?
Ideal reader? I wonder if there is one. One who reads my work and likes it for any reason – academic or otherwise – would be my reader. We have long categorised literatures with labels. I think this is the time for labels to go. Today, we live in a liberal literary habitat where the chaff is automatically separated from the grain.

Yes, there is a boom now in translation as well as in translation studies since translation has become a serious engagement in India today. There are texts that need to reach out. So, there are translators to carry the text forwards to new readers. The text, the translator, and the reader constitute a new literary fraternity today. With the growing number of translators and publishing houses promoting translations, we have almost arrived in a big way towards identifying and defining what has long been problematised as Indian literature. We are witness to a great moment of literary liberation.

I understand this book would reach different quarters of academics, serious readers, and literary dilettantes. Like other translations, this too is likely to broaden the frontiers of Urdu literature and become a part of a larger literary heritage.

I feel that while HKA is pitched at a popular audience, it works equally well for a comparative literature class with students at the beginning or intermediate levels of learning Urdu literature at the university level, and for young scholars. You have not only introduced the ghazal, but also periodised your wide selection in an interesting and unique manner. This also has consequences for canonisation.

Could you elucidate a little about the process here? One can see why you have not provided notes, but as an academic to another, could I ask you about your sources?
Frankly, HKA does not necessarily cater to the so-called “popular” audience. My aim was to make a comprehensive selection of the finest Urdu ghazals through the 500 years of its existence. So, I chose the poets who have held the canon and I identified the ghazals that have stood the test of time. Although it sounds pretentious but I understand that such a selection may have the potential to stay well with the popular as well as the specialist readers, students, and comparatists. After all, great literature lends itself to all kinds of readers. In a way, HKA is an attempt at canonisation, as you rightly mention.

Earlier, I had thought of adding notes but I found later they were not really required. My translations automatically took care of implied references and saved the text from being cumbersome. Also, from being directed towards a certain kind of readership. I thought it important, however, to supplement my translations with a detailed preface and precise notes on seven literary periods and 65 poets included in this volume.

As for my sources, I drew upon the collections of ghazals by individual poets and also general collections of ghazals but they were not quite authentic as they suffered from the usual problems of Urdu publishing. Ultimately, I compared my selections with those available at the Rekhta website which helped me determine the right text. This is a reason the book is dedicated to Rekhta Foundation.

I have some specific queries here too. The first is about the period of Sauda, Mir, Dard, and Siraj that you call “Towards Enlightenment”. Is there a suggestion of a move or interaction of Urdu poetry towards European Enlightenment? If so, in what way? Or is it something else you are gesturing towards?

The second related query is your choice of calling the age of Ghalib and other 19th-century poets as the “Romance of Realism”. Do you see a categorical difference between the poetry of the 18th and the 19th centuries for you to make these claims? Could you explain this more?
These are very pertinent observations. I looked at different histories of Urdu literature. As you know literary histories are usually written in three different ways – age-wise, author-wise, and genre-wise. For my purposes, I tried to mark the predominant features of different ages and identify the poets who naturally constituted a certain tradition. This helped me develop the contours of HKA.

Well, I did not have the European Enlightenment in mind when I used this phrase for one of the subtitles. I thought this expression typically represented the age with which I tried to identify the poets. Similar is the case with “Romance of Realism”. Looking at Meer, Ghalib, and their contemporaries, I thought both “romance” and “realism” counterbalanced each other and represented the spirit of the age.

Let me move towards the other editorial issue of selection. How did you pick “the best of Urdu ghazals” or effectively the 65 poets from a prolific history of the ghazal in India?

In your translator’s note you say that the Urdu ghazal is largely associated with Muslims in India. This is borne by your selection too, with Firaq and Bani, being the only two poets from a Hindu background while the other 63 come from Muslim ones. In contrast, other scholars to write in English on Urdu literature and literary politics, such as Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and Alok Rai, have spoken of the presence of non-Muslim Urdu writers and their neglect by the creators of Urdu literary canon. Was this a consideration for you?
These questions relate with the criteria of my selections. I should say that I was tracing the trail of canonical poets who truly represented their age and evolved their intriguingly individual idiom to compose a tradition. As I went ahead, I did not think in terms of Muslim or non-Muslims poets. My concern lay somewhere else; I was indeed trying to develop a trajectory of canonisation as it evolved through different ages.

You have ignored some of the more popular contemporary ghazal poets such as Rahat Indori and Javed Akhtar. Is it a question of poetic merit for you? You also have very few other living poets. Is this a comment on the Urdu ghazal today? Or have you other considerations such as an end date for your project in mind? Do you find any ghazal poets writing well today?
As we often say, selections are always personal. So is mine. It is not a question of ignoring anyone but of making choices. Popularity and poetic merit are not contradictory to each other. After all, selecting a few dozen of poets from hundreds of them who wrote during the last 500 years needed a well-defined methodology of selection. As such, I evolved my own methodology of selection. And this was based on identifying the more authentic voices than the others.

As for the poets writing now, there are many remarkable ones, both in India and Pakistan. They are writing a different ghazal now. Some of them who are included here are evolving a fresh idiom and syntax although there are many voices that would be lost sooner than others in due course of time. I have included poets born up to the 1960s that somehow marks the end of a literary period. I understand there should be another volume to mark the subsequent stages in the development of Urdu ghazal which will open new possibilities of expression.

Finally, what do you foresee as the future of the Urdu ghazal? And thanks for a wonderful book.
Ghazal has ever been a virile medium of poetic expression and it would remain so. The post-1960s poets make curious experiments in style and diction even while they retain the best marks of the classical form. The new ghazal is evolving afresh; its beauty lies in its difference. It is politically conscious; it is defiant; it shocks and surprises and leaves the reader wondering about its real potential.

Maaz Bin Bilal is a translator, poet and assistant professor in literary studies at Jindal Global University.