01 Jun Review: ‘Transgressions’ Celebrates the Timelessness of Faiz’s Poetry
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:
What myth is it
That keeps you
That keeps you
To your strength”
Faiz’s poem, ‘Kutte’ (Dogs), from which Altaf’s poem is inspired, is more abrupt and forthright in saying that if all dogs were to unite in their misery, they would overthrow human rule in no time.
Dreams of revolution have accompanied us since the time there has been institutionalised oppression. Actual revolutions have taken place and sometimes turned into even worse oppressions themselves. Does history simply repeat itself endlessly or is there some kind of progress through time?
The challenge for those who fight on the frontlines of suffering, or even those who just empathise, is to be able to stand spectacles of sorrow which mind cannot comprehend and throat cannot swallow. And yet there is beauty, love and truth in the world. How are these to be reconciled? Faiz’s poetry is constantly in the thorns of this dilemma.
Faiz re-entered mainstream consciousness in India in light of the anti-CAA protests that convulsed the country at the beginning of the year, through his poem ‘Ham Dekhenge’. This poem became a rallying point for protestors and a point of attack for supporters of the act. The poem promises an eventual day of justice, when we shall at last witness (‘Ham dekhenge’) the ascendancy of the oppressed, and the decimation of the oppressors:
“Sab taaj uchhaale jaayenge
Sab takht giraaye jaayenge”
Will we in our lifetimes witness such a day? Perhaps each generation has asked itself this question. Faiz is often described as the poet of revolutionary hope. In the poem quoted above, he’s attacking General Zia-ul-Haq’s repressive regime, promising it won’t last forever (it didn’t; but other regimes replaced it).
In the introduction to his book, Altaf says that poems by Faiz would often spring to his mind and his lips at critical moments in the history of his own time – bombings at the Stade de France in Paris, the lockdown of Brussels, the attack on young students inside the JNU campus. Poems become commentaries on events – ways of dealing with news that is often too disturbing to digest ‘rationally’. Faiz’s poems, having played this role for Altaf, inspired him to re-interpret the poetry for his own time, in English. He calls his poems not ‘translations’, but ‘transgressions’.
Altaf’s renderings are elegant, spare, and often melancholic, without the fire with which Faiz’s Urdu poetry is bursting. They give us a different point of entry into Faiz from the usual one – Faiz is not only to be ‘used’ as a rallying cry for activists (as Kabir is sometimes ‘used’ to invoke ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’); rather, Faiz is experienced as a poet of solace for those licking their wounds in the aftermath of inevitable, overwhelming injustices.
Vipul Rikhi is a poet, Kabir singer and author of One Palace, A Thousand Doorways, a book of translations of mystic poetry from South Asia.