The nights are real, the days, lies

The nights are real, the days, lies

John Eliya

Scratch out my eyes if you will, I’ll never let go of my dreams

Neither their comforts nor their tortures will drive me to break my promises

New vistas do not dwell in the suburbs of the eyes

Must I also lose the treasures of my imagination?

Yes, my dreams detest the cold and shadowy implications of your mornings

Those mornings were only the shimmering and dizzying cycle of winter’s steam,

Of all of the suns that have ever been sold at evening’s counter

Like my night of dreams, burning, blazing nights

And each day of these icily condensed implications, is good and is true,

By which the blurry orbit of brilliance turns into a 360-degree illness

My darknesses are true, too

And your “albinism” is also a lie

The nights are real, the days, lies

As long as the days are lies, as long

Bear the nights and live in your dreams

They are better than dream-bleaching days

No, I won’t wrap myself in temptation’s fog

Scratch out my eyes if you will, I’ll still never let go of my dreams

I won’t break my promises

This is enough, it is my everything

The predation of months and years is my nemesis

Its reputation has been measured against my life

Let whatever happen, until my last breath let whatever happen

راتیں سچی ہیں، دن جھوٹے ہیں

چاہے تم میری بینائی کھرچ ڈالو پھر بھی میں اپنے خواب نہیں چھوڑوں گا
اِن کی لذت اور اذیت سے میں اپنا عہد نہیں توڑوں گا
تیز نظر نابیناؤں کی آبادی میں ،
کیا میں اپنے دھیان کی یہ پونجی بھی گنوا دوں
ہاں میرے خوابوں کو تمھاری صبحوں کی سرد اور سایہ گوں تعبیر
اِن صبحوں نے شام کے ہاتھوں اب تک جتنے سورج بیچے
وہ سب اک برفانی بھاپ کی چمکیلی اور چکر کھاتی گولائی تھے
سو میرے خوابوں کی راتیں جلتی اور دہکتی راتیں
ایسی یخ بستہ تعبیر کے ہر دن سے اچھی ہیں اور سچی بھی ہیں
جس میں دھندلا چکر کھاتا چمکیلا پن چھ اطراف کا روگ بنا ہے
میرے اندھیرے بھی سچے ہیں
اور تمھارے روگ اُجالے بھی جھوٹے ہیں
راتیں سچی ، دن جھوٹے
جب تک دن جھوٹے ہیں جب تک
راتیں سہنا اور اپنے خوابوں میں رہنا
خوابوں کو بہانے والے دن کے اجالے سے اچھے ہے
ہاں میں بہکاؤں کی دھند سے اڑھوں گا
چاہے تم میری بینائی کھرچ ڈالو میں پھر بھی اپنے خواب نہیں چھوڑوں گا
اپنا عہد نہیں توڑوں گا
یہی تو بس میرا سب کچھ ہے
ماہ و سال کے غارت گر سے میری ٹھنی ہے
میری جان پر آن بنی ہے
چاہے کچھ ہو میرے آخری سانس تلک اب چاہے کچھ ہو

The Spider’s Proverb

An attempt at a translation …

مقولہ عنکبوت

جون ایلیا‎

میں پیا پے جو موجود ہوں

صرف موجود ہوں

صرف موجود ہونے کی حالت میں ہونے کو جو حوصلہ چاہیے

وہ خدایا خدا میں بھی شاید نہ ہو

:عنکبوت رواق کہن کامرے یہ مقولہ ہے

ہے بھی نہیں

اور تھا بھی نہیں

The spider’s proverb

Jon Elia

I am present — on this web

Only present

Perhaps God does not even possess

The courage which existence requires

By virtue of mere presence

Such is the saying of my ancient line of arachnids:

He isn’t even

And He never even was

Makhdoom Mohinuddin in translation

(a joint effort with Pranav Jani)

“Ask the soldier who’s leaving for war” by Makhdoom Mohinuddin (apologies for not posting it in Nastaliq characters, too).

जाने वाले  सिपाही  से  पूछो
वो  कहाँ  जा  रहा  है
जाने वाले सिपाही से पूछो
वो कहाँ जा रहा है

Ask the soldier who’s leaving for war

Where he’s going

Ask the soldier who’s leaving for war

Where he’s going

इश्क है कातिल -इ -ज़िन्दगानी
खून से तर है उस्की जवानी
हाय मासूम बचपन की यादें
हाय दो रोज़ की नौजवानी
जाने वाले …

Love is life’s murderer

His youthfulness is blood-soaked

Oh, the memories of a carefree childhood

Oh, the too short days of innocence

कैसे सहमे हुए हैं नज़ारे
कैसे डर डर के चलते हैं तारे
क्या जवानी का खून हो रहा है
सुर्ख है आंचलों के किनारे
जाने वाले …

Look at how trepidatious everything seems

How the stars move across the sky in fear

Love is being slaughtered

And the hems of our saris are bloodied

कौन दुखिया है जो गा रही है
भूखे बच्चों को बहला रही है
लाश जलने की बू आ रही है
ज़िन्दगी है की चिल्ला रही है
जाने वाले …

Who is that sad woman singing

Trying to calm her starving children

The stench of burning corpses everywhere

And life is nothing but screaming

गिर रहा है सियाही का डेरा
हो रहा है मेरी जाँ सवेरा
ओ वतन छोड़कर जाने वाले
खुल गया इंक़लाबी फरेरा

The wall of darkness is falling

The dawn, my love, is breaking

Oh you who’ve left your country

The banner of revolution is unfurling

Here it is being performed in “Us Ne Kaha Tha” (1960) sung by Manna Dey (with a verse missing):

And here it is being performed by Sumangala Damodaran with some context:

Writing and rewriting Pakistan

Fatima BhuttoSongs of Blood and Sword (Nation Books, New York, 2010; 496 pages; $26.95)

Imtiaz Gul, The Most Dangerous Place (Viking, New York, 2010; 320 pages; $26.95)

Ed. John Freeman, Granta 112: Pakistan (Grove/Atlantic, New York, 2010; 256 pages; $16.99)

Iftikhar Malik, Pakistan: democracy, terrorism, and the building of a nation (Olive Branch, New York, 2010, 216 pages; $18.00)

One is constantly caught in a double-bind when one tries to write about Pakistan.  On the one hand, the most important problem confronting Pakistan today is easily American empire.  All of the attendant crises that have befallen Pakistan since its creation have been the result of it being a frontline state in the ever-protracted Great Game (militant Islam, a lop-sided economy with a parasitical defense budget, dysfunctional democracies, etc.) in both its Cold War and Global War on Terror phases.  But centering your critique on this problem ends up sounding like an apology for the social and political rot that is taking place in Pakistan.

On the other hand, critiquing the Pakistani establishment has become something of an easy hobby in the west and in Pakistan.  The media, always under attack during military rule, has never been an ally of the establishment, and 63 years of corrupt “democrats” and even more corrupt dictators have meant that it has trained everyone in Pakistan how to be simultaneously disenchanted with the powerful and frustrated with their own ability to produce change inside of Pakistan.  In the west, this takes the form of the most cynical critique of the putatively failed Pakistani state (with mullahs always on the verge of going nuclear), while in Pakistan, civil society vacillates between a defense of the ballot and the barracks (sometimes as a defense against the failing economy and sometimes as a defense against militant forms of Islam).  In any case, there is no way of expressing Pakistani frustrations without it seeming like understatement.

This double-bind is not merely one of calibrating a precise analysis of the Pakistani and American ruling classes simultaneously, but also of falling into cliché, or more precisely, of being unable to distinguish the incisive, the critical and the meaningful from the tired phraseology of middle-class dissatisfactions.  Every member of Pakistan’s middle class can at one point or another be unhappy about the situation in Pakistan – with the Americans, with Islamists, with Zardari, with the military, with the rich – but this never seems to transform itself into anything other than an already felt and generalized malaise, especially when it comes in English, especially when it comes from the intelligentsia in Pakistan.  The most decisive moment of this class was the defense of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in the heroic Lawyer’s Movement in 2009; this class’s inability to parlay that fight into a longer, more protracted confrontation (settling instead for a still deferred reorganization of the state) has also been decisive.

As a result, Pakistan is now synonymous with militant Islam, corruption, and violence.  Consider the following, probably penned by Daniyal Mueenuddin (but unattributed on the website hosted by Granta and elegantly titled “How to write about Pakistan”), about the perverse ways that Pakistan is rendered in the West:  “Anyway, the point is that people from all over the world have come to know and love brand Pakistan for its ability to scare the shit out of them. Whatever you write, please respect this legacy. We’re providing a service here. We’re a twenty-storey straight-down vertical-dropping roller coaster for the mind. Yes, love etcetera is permissible. But bear in mind that Pakistan is a market-leader. The Most Dangerous Place in the World™.”

This is all the more interesting and believable, perhaps even sympathetic, as an explanation for the problem of the Pakistani writer considering that it also happens to be the title of Imtiaz Gul’s handwringingly obtuse book on Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.  (One of the main features of most policy writing on Pakistan is how much of it is absolutely redundant, recycling as it does the most rudimentary facts and events of Pakistani history).  But consider what Mueenuddin (perhaps) is actually saying: that stereotype dwarfs any real understanding of the human (“love etcetera”) and by doing so fuels itself as marketable commodity (already two ideological hallmarks – aversion to stereotype and a distaste for while pleasurably consuming commodities – that define the mental landscape of every petit bourgeois irrespective of national origin).  This is the banal masquerading as the radical.  Incidentally, Mueenuddin’s own book, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, has no problem mobilizing the same brand (even as its depictions of Pakistan are hauntingly beautiful).

The point, here, is not to critique the Pakistani writer for failing to topple the Twin Towers of American imperium and the Pakistani state but rather to show how part of the persistent malaise of the Pakistani petit bourgeoisie stems from its consistent inability to see the failures of its own putative radicalism; in another context, we might consider the Pakistani penchant for the conspiracy theory as part of this problem.  The features of this cliché: a deeply felt anxiety about the long shadow of Zia (military-led political Islam) and Zulfikar (Pakistani populism) which is mapped on top of the national nostalgia for Jinnah and Iqbal; a critique of American meddling in Pakistani politics and economics alongside a deep desire for western patterns of governance in opposition to the naked graft and ethnic chauvinism of Pakistani politics; a hatred for the rich coupled with a deep immersion in conspicuous consumption; a view of the military as simultaneously predatory and salutary (against corruption and Islam); a critique of Islam; a baseline feminist politics that also masquerades as sexploitation; a perpetual chafing at every instance of Indian arrogance.  The best summary of these views and the Pakistani petit bourgeoisie is Iftikhar Malik’s Pakistan: Democracy, Terrorism and the Building of a Nation, an incredibly useful survey of the most important social and political moments in Pakistan’s modern history.

But there is a sleight of hand at work in the writing about Pakistan which has all the trappings of radicalism (a critique of the state, the rhetoric of anti-imperialism, a sense of the brutality of the rich and the powerful) but none of the content of it.  It is a vein that runs throughout much of the prose about Pakistan: literary, journalistic, policy.  And it has the distorting effect of leaving one with the impression that Pakistan is not on the verge of a Muslim takeover (thankfully) but of a socialist one (fancifully).

The clearest example of this is in Fatima Bhutto’s reminiscences of her father, the late Murtaza Ali Bhutto (the son of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the apparent heir to the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party), in Songs of Blood and Sword.  Penned as a daughter’s attempt to understand the life of her father who was taken from her too soon, the book also doubles as a damning indictment of the legacy of Benazir Bhutto, the recently murdered former Prime Minister.  In it, Fatima Bhutto both lovingly recreates the radical history of her family while exposing the internecine family warfare that led to Benazir’s (and then later Asif Ali Zardari’s) position at the head of the PPP.  The consequences of her critique of the venality (she calls it a “saprophytic culture”) of the current leadership of Pakistan is an overwrought nostalgia for the days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, himself no friend to national minorities and no consistent opponent of landed and moneyed interests in Pakistan.

The debate over Granta 112, the anthology of new Pakistani writing, is also in many ways colored by the varieties of clichés-as-critique mobilized by the west and by Pakistanis: is the “discovery” of Pakistani writing, necessarily in English, proof of the arrival of Pakistan?  Does Pakistani writing in English always displace and erase its own “vernacular” origins in order to become an arriviste literature?  When one encounters “At night my lost memory of you returned” in a novella by Nadeem Aslam does (or even can) one immediately recall Faiz’s famous line –

رات یوں دل میں تیری کھوئی ہوئی یاد آئی

—or is one seduced into believing that the project for the revolutionary overthrow of the Pakistani state never had a lyric voice?  Is writing about violence pandering to Orientalist markets or delving into the soul of Pakistan?

None of this is meant to argue that the writing is not breathtakingly lovely, even at some points seductive or that one does not learn something of the circular logic of the Pakistani middle-class, frustrated, impotent, and angry.  Unlike a previous generation of writers who more deeply connected to and dependent on the kinds of mass agitations that forced Pakistan’s rulers to deploy the military in the first place, this generation of writing lives in the wake of those heroes, anxiously preserving their legacies.  And for this, at least, this body of writing is tremendously important as a reminder of the fate of a Pakistan caught in the crosshairs and bled dry by its own representatives.  But the radical nature of the critique has been evacuated (even as it can be discovered in the unreported fight of Telecommunications workers against privatization, of secularists organizing flood relief, of women combating the Hudood Ordinance) and one gets the impression that one is not really discovering Pakistan as hoping alongside its beleaguered ambassadors for something different.

There are radical movements underway inside of Pakistan but they have not yet found expression in the voices of the writers who have found audiences in the west; instead one is left with the odd feeling that everything must change and that one has heard it all before.  As Sarfraz Mansoor says about the cautionary narratives told to young Pakistani men about dating white women: “The location of the stories could vary but the narrative was suspiciously similar in every tale.”

“Bol ki lab aazaad hain tere”

Anthems of Resistance:
A celebration of progressive Urdu poetry
by Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir
India Ink, 2006

Rs. 295


There is one kind of lament about Indian politics that has become commonplace: politics has become characterized only by corruption, self-indulgence, and venality.  In fact, as this review is being written, India seems racked with some of the worst scandals at the highest levels of government since the infamous Bofors scandal of the 1980s.  Against the backdrop of an overly-rehearsed drama of political criminality, we hear an equally poignant appeal for the traditions of justice and social change that have also been a long part of Indian history.  Only these voices are smaller, when they are not, like Binayak Sen, unjustly prosecuted and thrown in prison.

There is another kind of hope that has been resurrected with the rising of the Arab peoples against American-backed dictators all across North Africa and the Middle East: that power cannot indefinitely project itself without a challenge.  The toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt has raised the hopes of people throughout the world that revolutionary politics are now returning to the agenda.  They are also, incidentally, returning to the world of poetry.  Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi’s poem “To the Tyrants of the World” was on the lips of protesters in Tunisia and then in Egypt.

You, the unfair tyrants…

You the lovers of the darkness…

You the enemies of life…

You’ve made fun of innocent people’s wounds; and your palm covered with their blood

You kept walking while you were deforming the charm of existence and growing seeds of sadness in their land

Wait, don’t let the spring, the clearness of the sky and the shine of the morning light fool you…

Because the darkness, the thunder rumble and the blowing of the wind are coming toward you from the horizon

Beware because there is a fire underneath the ash

Who grows thorns will reap wounds

You’ve taken off heads of people and the flowers of hope; and watered the cure of the sand with blood and tears until it was drunk

The blood’s river will sweep you away and you will be burned by the fiery storm.

This is a poem that could have easily been in the Mir brothers’ Anthem of Resistance: a celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry, alongside Faiz, Sahir, Naheed, and Majrooh.  Not only does al-Shabi’s poem ring out with the same power as the poetry of the early Progressive Writers Association, but its images would have found easy homes with South Asian cousins.  This may have been the dawn that Faiz awaited.

In part, what gives the Mir brothers’ book its power is their profound sense that the mission of the Progressive Writers Association – “to fight cultural reaction” and “to further the cause of Indian freedom and social regeneration” – is still incomplete.  If the first reaction to Indian politics (as thoroughly corrupt) gives rise to a furious indignation, the second reaction to recent events has stirred hope, and both of these emotional worlds are not only the product of the incomplete revolution in India and Pakistan, but they are also the bread-and-butter of progressive poetry.  Perhaps it is because both of these emotions exist simultaneously in our understanding of contemporary south Asia that the Mir brothers’ book fits so well into the current moment and manages to resonate still.

Describing the book is no easy task: it is part anthology and part history; part translation and part criticism; part panegyric and part paean.  The multipurpose nature of the book lends it a great deal of elasticity to elaborate a range of issues that relate to the long legacy of progressive writing: its influence on and reaction to the political struggles of post-independence south Asia; the enduring presence of progressive themes in filmi music; and the confident message of social change that progressive poetry embodied despite substantial obstacles.

One of the most important contributions of the book is its examination of poetic internationalism (done through the auspices of linkages made by the Third International).  Langston Hughes’ poem about Gandhi sits next to Sardar Ali Jaffri’s poem about Paul Robeson.  Makhdoom Moheeudin penned a poem on the death of Dr. Martin Luther King; Faiz lamented Israel’s colonization of Palestinian lands; Sahir eulogized Lenin.  The poets of national independence were also deeply committed to global justice and their lines expanded the scope of Urdu poetry beyond national boundaries.

Also unique to this account of the Progressive Writers Movement is its frank discussion of sexism within the ranks of the taraqqi pasandis.  The reliance on ghazals and other kinds of romantic poetic conventions meant that for the most part, the poetic production of the progressives treated men as the agents and women as the objects in the narrative of desire (even when that desire was an allegory for justice, independence, revolution, etc.).  The rise of a new kind of progressive feminist poetry in response to Zia ul-Haq’s campaign of Islamization, which included the anti-woman “Zina Ordinance” and “Hudood Ordinance,” produced the likes of Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riaz.

But there is a problem in both of these contributions that the authors hint at but never really address.  Internationalism was always on the pattern of Soviet internationalism, so while certain causes could easily find progressive solidarity, others were markedly absent, and in the case of Pakistan, perhaps most obviously was any poetic objection to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  The strong hold that the Communist Party asserted on the meaning and content of progressivism also left a number of literary casualties, the most famous of whom (perhaps because they worked in fiction rather than poetry) were left out of the book all together: Ahmed Ali and Saadat Hasan Manto.

The discussion on feminism also raises important questions that the Mir brothers don’t address openly.  For instance, did the criticism that Ismat Chughtai and Quratullain Hyder received at the hands of Progressive stalwarts have any role to play in the slowness with which feminist themes found themselves included in progressive poetry?  It’s also highly suspect whether or not Fehmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed would consider themselves part of the Progressive Writers Movement without substantial qualification.

In fact, the incredibly generous reading of the Progressive Writers Movement – historically so that it stretches almost into the 21st century and biographically so that it includes people who never joined the PWA – means that while the book can produce a very moving account of protest literature (at times Progressive poetry seems simply to mean all protest poetry in the book), it is at pains to describe why the movement languished and why the best poets of today no longer consider themselves progressives.  It is telling that the rage of most subcontinental progressive poetry produces nostalgia, both in the translations the Mir brothers offer and in the tone of the book throughout.

But the book is serendipitous.  On the heels of massive protests internationally and facing the corrupt bureaucracies of the Pakistani and Indian states, progressive poetry is slated for a renaissance.  Perhaps then, the book can best serve as a reminder of the power of revolutionary protest and the costs of leaving it unfinished.

“They are lucky, those” (Faiz)

An attempt at a translation:

I’m reposting from BestGhazals.net (which has the text in Nagari and Nastaliq) — my translation is at the bottom.

वो लोग बोहत खुश-किस्मत थे
जो इश्क़ को काम समझते थे
या काम से आशिकी करते थे

हम जीते जी मसरूफ रहे
कुछ इश्क़ किया, कुछ काम किया
काम इश्क के आड़े आता रहा
और इश्क से काम उलझता रहा
फिर आखिर तंग आ कर हमने
दोनों को अधूरा छोड दिया

फैज़ अहमद फैज़

voh log bohat khush-qismat the
jo ishq ko kaam samajhte the
yaa kaam se aashiqii karte the

ham jiite jii masruuf rahe
kuchh ishq kiyaa, kuchh kaam kiyaa
kaam ishq ke aaDe aataa rahaa
aur ishq se kaam ulajhtaa rahaa
phir aaKhir tang aa kar hamne
donoN ko adhuuraa chhoD diyaa

Faiz Ahmed Faiz

“They are lucky, those” (Faiz Ahmad Faiz)

They are lucky, those
Who understand love is work
Or rather who make love for a living.

My whole life was spent, occupied:
Loved a little, worked a little.
But work always got in the way of love,
And love inevitably interrupted work.
And then frustrated, I
Left both, unfinished.

Literary news

The Daily Star has a great write-up of a new generation of Bangladeshi writers working in English.  It’s interesting to me, at any rate, how the debate about the character of BWE is the same debate about IWE a few decades ago:

Although Bangladeshi writing in English has a long way to go, it has a bright future too. We may be able to play at least a role similar to that of India. But how? The ongoing mode of BWE has to be liberated from the literary coterie, i.e., the small circle of writers, publishers, and their admirers. It has to be rescued from the narrow confines of academia and the English medium schools. English language newspapers and magazines should allow enough room for literary expression and fresh writings should be picked solely on merit. The King’s/Queen’s English can better be exploited by the conscious ‘Calibans’ of our country.

India is pressing the UN to make Hindi an official language, but it’s coming up against the financial strains that this would put the UN under.

Shahid Malik was in India campaigning for Urdu literature; he argued that Urdu literature could help ease India-Pakistan tensions: “We can remove animosity through literary and creative writings. Mindset can be changed (through literature)… battlefields can be transformed into oasis of peace… Urdu literature can be helpful in (improving) relations.”  Even though I am a huge fan of using Urdu literature for expressly this purpose, perhaps Shahid Malik should worry about the race relations in his own backyard first: how about standing up for the rights of Muslim women, High Commissioner, and not blaming the victim.

The Express Tribune has an interesting write-up of a new literary prize, the “Life’s Too Short Short Story Prize”:

While first prize went to Sadaf Halai for her subtle, perceptive and superbly understated story of class conflict, Lucky People, the real stand out is Sheikh’s Six-Fingered Man, a coming of age story set in Kashmir. It is hard to imagine that this is somebody’s first attempt at fiction, so confident is his prose and so tender the characterisation, with a lyricism that never, ever succumbs to the maudlin. Other exceptional stories in this collection include the first, Baby, by creative writing graduate Mehreen Ajaz, not only for its stark prose and brave subject matter but also for being a short story by a Pakistani writer that doesn’t lean on Pakistan to attract attention — it is a story about two people which could be set anywhere, and this is more rare than one would imagine in Pakistani fiction. A delightfully quirky addition to this collection is Danish Islam’s, Mir Sahib’s Hairdo, a comic fable that appears very much to draw upon the conventions of Urdu literature.