Khushwant Singh is India's best-known writer and columnist. He has been founder-editor of Yojana and editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, the National Herald and the Hindustan Times. He is the author of classics such as Train to Pakistan, I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale and Delhi. His latest novel, The Sunset Club, written when he was 95, was published by Penguin Books in 2010. His non-fiction includes the classic two-volume A History of the Sikhs, a number of translations and works on Sikh religion and culture,
Delhi, nature, current affairs and Urdu poetry. His autobiography, Truth, Love and a Little Malice, was published by Penguin Books in
Khushwant Singh was a member of Parliament from 1980 to 1986. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974 but returned the decoration in 1984 in protest against the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by the Indian Army. In 2007, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan.
Among the other awards he has received are the Punjab Ratan, the Sulabh International award for the most honest Indian of the
year, and honorary doctorates from several universities. He passed away in 2014 at the age of 99.
Kamna Prasad is the editor of the festschrift Khushwant Singh: An Icon of Our Age.
One summer when on vacation in Kasauli, I was looking for an anthology of Urdu poetry to read before taking my afternoon siesta
and before retiring for the night. I laid my hands on Gyaneshwar Prasad's selection of Urdu verse in Devanagri script. I read Devanagri with some difficulty and my Urdu vocabulary is poor. To my dismay I found the meanings of difficult words in the footnote even harder to understand than the original. Back in Delhi, I asked Gyaneshwar's daughter Kamna Prasad who, though unable to read the Arabic script in which Urdu is usually written, has a sizeable repertoire of Urdu poetry which she reels off by rote. She loves Urdu poetry, and organizes an annual Jashn -e- Bahaar Mushaira of leading Indian and Pakistani poets in the capital. I asked Kamna to help me select what she thought were gems of Urdu verse which I could translate into English as a joint
offering to lovers of the language.
I have been translating Urdu poetry off and on, and including it in the syndicated weekly columns I write for Hindustan Times ('With
Malice Towards One And All ... ') and The Tribune ('This Above All'). I also included Urdu verse in my novel Delhi. This was followed by a translation of Mohammed Iqbal's 'Shikwa' and'Jawab-e-Shikwa'. I went on to translate more Urdu verse for the collection Declaring Love in Four Languages, in collaboration with Sharda Kaushik. I mention all this here to prove that, despite my shortcomings, I have an abiding passion for Urdu poetry.
Although we have named this collection' Celebrating the Best of Urdu Poetry' , connoisseurs of the language may feel our selection doesn't deserve to be called the best. Urdu is dying a slow death in the land where it was born and where it flourished. There is little to celebrate about the status of Urdu in present-day India. The number of students who take it as a subject in schools and colleges is dwindling very fast. Rashid laments:
Maangey Allah se bas itni dua hai Rashid
Main jo Urdu mein vaseeyat likhoon beta parh Iey
All Rashid asks of Allah is just one small gift:
If I write my will in Urdu, may my son be able to read it.
Nevertheless, Urdu continues to be extensively quoted in debates,
and it remains the most quotable of all Indian languages. Khurshid
Afsar Bisrani put it aptly:
Ab Urdu kya hai ek kothey kee tawaif hai
Mazaa har ek Ieta hai mohabbat kaun karta hai
What is Urdu now but a whore in a whorehouse
Whoever wants has fun with her, very few love her.
Apart from Kashmir, where Urdu is taught from the primary to the post-graduate levels, in the rest of India it is the second or third
language. With the passing of years it has come to be dubbed as the language of the Muslims, which is far from the truth. However, even parents of Muslim children prefer to have their offspring learn Hindi or the language of the region in which they live. Knowledge of Urdu cannot ensure getting jobs either in the government or in private business houses, while knowledge of English, Hindi or regional languages does. Besides economic considerations, champions of both Urdu and Hindi refuse to budge from their positions on the script to be refused. Those who write Urdu in the Arabic script refuse to admit that it can be as easily read in Devanagri or Roman. Hindi purists, likewise, refuse to have selections of Urdu poetry included in school college textbooks. As a result, while Urdu is dying out in this country, continues to flourish in Pakistan, where it has been recognized as national language in preference to the more commonly spoken panajabi, Sindhi, Baluchi or Pushto.
Urdu is rich because of its mixed linguistic heritage. It evolved as an argot-a mixture of Turkish, Arabic and Persian that was spoken by the Muslim soldiers in invaders' armies, combined with the Sanskrit, Hindi, Braj and Dakhani spoken by the Indian soldiers in Mughal military encampments. (The word 'Urdu", incidentally, means 'camp'.) It was also known as Rekhta during the time of Meer and Ghalib. The educated elite, who preferred to write and speak Persian, looked upon the language with some disdain at first. It was the same with poets like Meer and Ghalib, right down to Mohammad Iqbal. All of them wrote in persian till they realized that Urdu was more acceptable to the masses and gave them much larger audiences. But the influence of Persian
remains dominant to this day in imagery as well as in the use of composite words like qaid-e-hayat-o-band-e-gham (prison-of-life-and- in -of-sorrows).
It may come as a surprise to readers that while most Urdu poets were, and are, Muslims, to whom wine is haraam (forbidden), they wrote more on the joys of drinking than on any other subject. (Some, like Ghalib, Sahir and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, were also hard drinkers.) Urdu poetry is replete with odes and references to the maikhana (tavern) and the saqi (wine server). However there is no historical evidence of maikhanas in any city. There were wine shops from where hard liquor could be bought and consumed alone, in exclusively male gatherings, or in salons of courtesans who, besides singing, dancing and flirting with their patrons, sometimes filled men's goblets with wine, or got their maids or boy servants to do so. The saqi, too, is as much a figment of the poet's imagination as are the taverns. The saqis in literature not only served wine but could also get men drunk by merely exchanging glances with them.
While high Muslim society was rigidly segregated according to gender, and women covered themselves from head to heel in burqas, it did not deter poets from showering praise on their beauty and proclaiming the joys of making love to them. Much of Urdu love poetry was addressed to courtesans, whose mehfils the poets patronized. Quite a lot of it was also addressed to rosy-cheeked, round-bottomed boys who on occasion acted as wine server .Pederasty, though frowned upon by puritans, appears to have been commonly practised.
Stock images from Arabic and Persian art and literature persist in Urdu poetry. Four of the commonest are the nightingale's (or the, bulbul's) lament for the unresponsive rose, moths incinerating themselves on candle flames, Majnu's unending quest for his beloved- Laila, and Farhaad hacking rock-cliffs to get to his Shirin. Almost all Urdu verse is overwhelmingly romantic, and there's a morbid obsession with the decline of youth into old age and, ultimately, death. A moot of despair runs through much of Urdu poetry. Nevertheless, there is also plenty of wit, satire and humour, their chief contributor being Akbar Allahabadi. Later poets made use of them as weapons of sod. reform, to denounce bigotry and religious hatred. Being largely: iconoclasts, the poets frequently lampooned preachers of morality who went under the titles of Sheikh, Zahid,Vaaiz and Naseh. A convention that has been carried on from the Middle Ages to the present day is the inclusion of the poet's name or pseudonym in the last couplet (maqta) Poets often added the names of the places they belonged to their assumed poetic names. Thus Mirza Asadullah Khan used 'Ghalib (conqueror) as his pseudonym. Daagh came to be known as Daagh Dehlvi (of Delhi), Akbar was better known as Akbar Illahabadi (from Allahabad), and today we are familiar with Firaq Gorakhpuri, Shakee Badayuni, Majrooh Sultanpuri , Agha Hashr Kashmiri and Sahi: Ludhianvi.
Urdu poets also owe much of their popularity to the ghazal, the most popular form of Urdu poetry. One interesting aspect of the ghazal is that it is not confmed to one theme. Although its rhyming pattern is consistent, the thought content in every couplet is often at variance and can be quoted independently. That is why ghazals are rarely give) titles or have names to them. All this may suggest that ghazals can be difficult or confusing, or obtuse, but this is not the case. In fact, this quality (or structure) makes a ghazal very flexible-it isn't always necessary to write or recite the entire ghazal.You can pick and choose any of the couplets, so you may hear different versions of a ghazal by different people. This is what I've done in some of my~ translations- picked only my favourite couplets from a ghazal.
Hindi films-music composers and playback singers-have had a great role to play in popularizing Urdu verse. In India, there were K.L. Saigal, Mohammad Rafi, Begum Akhtar, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Talat Mahmood and Jagit Singh in Pakistan Noor Jahan, Mallika Pukhraj, Mehdi Hassan, Guhulam Ali, Iqbal Bano and Farida Khanam. These singers have made Urdu ghazals known to millions who do not even know that the language is written from right to left. Above all, it is the unparalleled resonance of Urdu words and their musical content that has got many like me, who are not Urdu speakers, hooked to the language
I consulted many translations before I embarked on this venture. I wish to acknowledge my debt to the late Gyaneshwar Prasad of Patna, Victor Kiernan,Arberry, Ralph Russell, Issar, Badri Raina, Purshottam Nijhawan, Kuldip Salil, Naseem Muqri, Roshan Chauffie, K. C. Kanda, Zarina Sani,Vinay Waikar and T.N. Raz.
While working on these translations I had Sultan Nathani's Lughatd and Shri Ram Vidharthi's romanized Hindi-Urdu to English dictionaries by my side.
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