Language/Meaning / 14.07.2020

Anjum Altaf, Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Delhi: Aakar Books, 2019; Karachi: Liberty Books, 2020. Transgressions, by Anjum Altaf, is a book of poetry that is a comment on the nature of translation more than anything else. This commentary is made all the more poignant since the book is not a work of translation in the first place, but is rather reflections on the poetry of the late, great master of Urdu poetry, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Described on its cover as a book of ‘Poems inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz,’ Anjum takes on the task of picking different poems by Faiz, and writing poetry inspired by those poems. He insists, and correctly so, that these are not translations. Instead, it is a very humble offering. The act of making another poet your muse is not just rare, but also a nod and an acknowledgement towards the...

Language/Meaning / 04.06.2020

The amazing thing about Faiz Ahmed Faiz is that you can never leave him behind. Witness how he emerged in the midst of the recent protests in India with ‘hum dekhenge’ being sung in half a dozen languages to the point where flummoxed authorities were forced to treat a man, dead for a good 35 years, as a threat to national security. These days the title of one of his poems, ‘yahan se sheher ko dekho’ (Look at the City from Here) has gotten into my head and is driving me insane. That is because, if you think about it, the ‘here’ in the title can blow your world apart. What it is telling you is that the city looks different from ‘here’ than it does from ‘there.’ And, knowing that can forever change the way you look at your city. I was recently part of a...

Language/Meaning / 01.06.2020

Anjum Altaf’s renderings are elegant, and often melancholic, exploring Faiz as a poet of solace for those licking their wounds in the aftermath of inevitable injustices. Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. By Vipul Rikhi in The Wire on 18/May/2020 “Not even dogs Go as quietly as these men Battered and bruised Idle and begging Homeless and hearthless Stabbing each other for scraps Starving in silence” The nightmare unfolding on Indian highways through the abruptly-imposed ‘lockdown’ – of migrant labourers, rejected by the cities they served, walking hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometres home to their villages, often without food and water, under the hot, unsparing sun of the Indian summer – reminds us in stark visuals of the cruelty of visited by one class of humans on another. A cursory look at history reveals that such cruelty is hardly new. ‘Why’, the opening poem in Transgressions, Anjum Altaf’s collections of poems inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, continues thus: “Why What...

Language/Meaning / 14.05.2020

In his new book, Anjum Altaf revisits the works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz The French essayist, poet and philosopher Paul Valéry once said of poems, that they are never finished, merely abandoned. If it were possible, a poet could spend an entire lifetime perfecting a poem. To some degree, poems do not provide the closure that prose can afford. Instead, they complicate the worlds that we inhabit to mirror our rich and complex lived realities. Anjum Altaf undertakes a gargantuan task in Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz by revisiting the work of one of the most celebrated revolutionary poets of South Asia. At the outset, he lays out the purpose of his work – his poems aren’t translations, instead, they are “transgressions” as the title quips – musings on Faiz’s verse, poems “borrowed and reworked as a tribute to a major poet of our times”....

Language/Meaning / 23.02.2020

The Urdu poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz has been translated by many writers including Khalid Hasan, Victor Kiernan, Shiv Kumar and Daud Kamal, among others. The small volume under review, while coming under the rubric of translation, is much more than literal translation of the original. Each poem is identified by its original Urdu title, making it easier to find the poem in Faiz’s published poetic works. In addition the author, in the footnotes, gives the names of others who have translated the particular poem and mentions the trigger that prompted him to translate the poem. Title: Transgressions Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz Author: Anjum Altaf Pages: 80 pp Published by: LG Publishers Distributors, Delhi Price: Rs. 660.25 Anjum Altaf is a well-known Pakistani academic. He has served as Professor of Economics and Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and...

Language/Meaning / 04.02.2020

Urdu poetry is celebrated for its multi-layered resonances which transcend time and age. Whether written in the 18th century or the 21st, it can be quoted in political meetings, debates and daily conversations to make an apt comment on current events, public or personal. In recent weeks, Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous poem Hum Dekhein Gey [We Too Will See] — which was written as a critique of the Zia regime and rings out with its universal message of protest against tyranny, repression and injustice — has been chanted by huge crowds in India against the brutal attacks at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. The power of Faiz’s poetry and its ability to reach out across languages, cultures and nations is central to Anjum Altaf’s unusual collection of English-language verses, titled Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Each poem in the collection provides an intertextual engagement...

Language/Meaning / 21.05.2019

By Anjum Altaf There is something intriguing about the use of script and language in Pakistan that is crying out for an explanation. My observations of the phenomenon began in the metropolis before being extended to small cities and rural towns in the Punjab but the story is more interestingly narrated in the reverse order. Next time you are in a rural town in the Punjab raise your eye-level from the cell phone to the shopfront and you shall see virtually all the shop signs in the Urdu script. This is to be expected as very few people in such places can read English. But look again -- almost every sign is a transliteration into Urdu script of an English name. The most humble khoka is a ‘Cold Corner’ or a ‘Jus Shop’ written, of course, as pronounced in Urdu -- kaarner for corner and shaap for...

Language/Meaning / 11.07.2017

By Anjum Altaf The other day I read an article on indigenous languages. I admired its spirit but was dismayed by its logic relating language and learning. The article mentioned there are 17 languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of which only two, Pashto and Hindko, will be explicitly recorded in the forthcoming census. The rest will be categorized as ‘Other.’ The author feared these languages would decay and urged the government to preserve them for posterity. So far, so good as the fate of minor languages is a global concern. But the article included a paragraph that needs to be quoted in full: There are some experts who argue that a child should be taught in the mother tongue till a certain grade before opting for any other language at an advanced stage. The argument seems to be flawed since languages become harder to learn with age. So one...

Language/Meaning / 14.03.2016

By Anjum Altaf Language has started vying for inclusion in the small set of problems that compete for the title of the ‘biggest’ problem in Pakistan holding back development with the implied suggestion that solving this one problem would set most other things right in the country. This small set includes overpopulation, corruption, illiteracy, and secularism. A rising tide of opinion now claims that if only we could make the ‘correct’ choice of language we would emerge as a strong nation in the modern world. Only a little reflection is needed to debunk such one-dimensional arguments. Take just one example, that of overpopulation. Shouldn’t one ask why China and India, with over five times the population of Pakistan, have developed so much faster? Why the development of Pakistan didn’t take off like a rocket after it shed half its population in Bangladesh? Why Balochistan, the least populated province...

Language/Meaning / 12.03.2016

By Anjum Altaf One can agree with most things Pervez Hoodbhoy says on language (Is Pakistan’s problem Urdu? Dawn, March 5, 2016) and yet be left with the impression that he has painted with so broad a brush as to distract from the clarity of the issue and be actually misleading on some points. Let us begin with the first part of his conclusion: “No nation becomes stronger by having the ‘correct’ official language. Very true, but this does not imply that a nation cannot become weaker by having an ‘incorrect’ official language. For proof, just return to the beginning of the article where the author takes two paragraphs to assert the damaging effect of attempting to impose an ‘incorrect’ official language on East Pakistan. Not only did the nation end up weaker, it actually broke apart. Next consider the second part of the conclusion: “Education cannot be...