Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I will not sing (Bi Gyavana Aaz)

I will not sing—
I will sing today no rose song, no song of the nightingale,
No song of the iris, no hyacinth song,
                                    No song to ravish nor song intoxicated
                                                Not languor’s sweet, slow songs—
Not the least song—
I will not sing—
Not when the dust cloud of war skins the iris for its hue—
When the thunder of guns tears out the tongue from the nightingale—
When I hear the clamor and clatter of chains, here
Where there were hyacinths—and the diseased eye of lightning is webbed closed,  
And mountains recoil
Back onto their haunches; when black-death gathers close
Cloud tops to embrace—
I will not sing
For now warlord and bureaucrat stand
Girt-about in guard; here remain in watch
Over my Kashmir.

I will not sing—
I will sing today no song of Nishat or Shalimar, no annealed song of waters
Engraving terraced gardens, no bower songs of bedded flowers;  
No soft songs flush or sweetly fresh, not green dew songs
Nor songs gentle and growing—not the least song—
I will not sing—
Not the least song—
Not today—not when here is no place
Where the day’s white-seething pan of light is not set, poised to distress,
Setting shake, spilling from quavering vessels what life there was yet
To blight my waking garden—
So the rose holds its breath, and
The tulip its brand; quick rivers stall their song and keening koels shake
In their palpitating hearts
Where throbbing song is stilled—all fearing,
A wild starling idly sinks into the quiet of its unsettled perch.  

I will not sing
For now the warlord and bureaucrat stand
Girt-about …

I will not sing—
I will sing no song today of incipience, no late songs favoring spring
of first friends, the fevers willed, of new love and wildness in longing;
I will stage no song to effloresce red and yellow, with tender crests
            Of the blue and green stuff growing—not the least song—

(An Ongoing Translation of Dina Natha Nadim's Bi Gyavana Aaz by Sonam Kachru)

Here, for the first minute before the overdub begins, you can hear the Master himself. Note how the visuals miss the irony of using them as yet another picturesque reduction of the valley.

Here is the poem, set to song, and part of the after-life of Nadim's strong music. I prefer the rhythms of the poem as Nadim offered them to us, demotic and unharnessed by narrow musical measures, but patterned around the breathing voice. Still, important:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bird, Mad About Flowers (By Mahjoor)

What is it that will sift a flower—
and what flowers!—that will boldly drink
of spring from the garden’s year, and does not know?

For here is riot, and fury of sound, quite agony enough.
What if you were not told?

Yours is the horse-hair net
and florid bait, and the sprung-snares of luminous stuff made:
Here flowers conceal the flush green nets set with blades of spun-grass.

Here is downfall;
your ruin in fire,
should you nestle among boughs where there are flowers
high on the flowering tree—now it is past time
you left the garden; now that you persist, and would disavow this—

For we here bless with more life only trees 
that keep, and do not beg 
their share of shade; we lay waste 
to the tree bereft, be it the proudest of tall pines.

--Ghulam Ahmad Mahjoor (1885-1952)

(Adapted from the Kashmiri poem, Bulbulo Mot Gokh Poshan, by Sonam Kachru, September, 2011*)

The songbird (bulbul) has figured before this in the poetry of Mahjoor, and was to continue to effect him in his work beyond the forms and metaphoric registers he inherited from Persian. He could not resist speaking to the bird, even in a poem otherwise addressing the Gardener: karee kus bulbulaa aazaad panjaras manz tsu naalan chukh / tsu pananye dasta pananyan mushkilan aasaan paadaa kar. I hope to have occasion to say more soon concerning the songbird as it figures as muse, deceiver and creature of extravagant invention and by turns naive servitude to idyll thoughts in a burning garden. In that note I will explain my preference of "songbird" over "nightingale" or even retaining bulbul in transliteration. In the meantime, one might amuse oneself with the erudition on display here

*The poem has been translated before. See in particular 'Fussy Bird' by Trilokinath Raina, available in his collection of poems by Mahjoor, The Best of Mahjoor, J & K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, Srinagar, 1989.

Fragments From "To The Songbird (By Ghulam Nabi Firaq)"


           But you are curious, songbird--
without a word your extravagant voice
is inside; and you cry, and when all is
alive with the abrupt rumor of you
my haunted heart, a wild thing, leaps,
near the least spasm of time:
                  it suspends me here
for my world is not now what it was.

of a moment with your moving song
here seems the rose, and all your creatures of song,
all as of noise and the flourish of spring...

I wandered far--it was a Greek play
that consumed my mind, where I lost
my self, wetting invention, feeding taste ...

Friday, October 7, 2011

Shrew, by Dina Natha Nadim

O, it is a weight and no mistake that a window must bear--

open it and it will complain, waking the bleary wide worlds
street by shriek, like a shrewish (you know which) sister
through marriage. It lets out a yell when you close it as well
and you'll want then you hadn't. As for me, I have mine--

for me to have to hear such music the lifelong day every day

Adapted from Kashmiri by Sonam Kachru, August-October 2011.

A minor piece by the poet extraordinaire I first came across in Trilokinath Raina's book on Dina Nath Nadim for the series Makers of Indian Literature, published by the Sahitya Academy Press. The sketch is called Vara Hajy', a small contribution, but not without bite, to an object not uncommon to literature written in Kashmir, and with a tone too rarely found in reports on the region. The window has recently again featured as the occasion for verse, though here ("Window To My City"), in an elegy after Agha Shahid Ali recently offered by the young poet Feroz Rather, the window is a witness to life, if we may call it that, in a sadly diminished key in the city that has seen so much after Nadim. As it bears on the theme of windows, and because it is quite simply refreshing to point to the resurgent talent in the city of Bridges, I include here a painting by Showkat featured as an illustration to the piece by Feroz:

For those interested in Nadim's experiments in the miniature poem (and the very short poems Nadim called fireflies, modeled on haikus), see Arvind Gigoo's translation of some of Nadim's anecdotes: Ancedotes by Dina Nath Nadim, translated by Arvind Gigoo.

I cannot refrain from offering one, as I have adapted it from Kashmiri:

                      It came to pass that time came to rest
                      On a picture: and the bold, green lines
                      Grew long, and there was a forest.
                      He who took the long road through
                      Found home--and there was breath;
                      Where is the forest? What place, mind?

Image 1 from a review of a calendar called "Windows of Life," featuring the windows of Old City, Srinagar, that appeared in Greater Kashmir in an article called Shahr-e Khaas Silently Losing 'Window of Life'. Each photograph carries a short note on the history of the windows and their design.

Image 2, by Mukhtar Khan, featured here.

Some heart-breaking photographs of houses by Habba Kadal (with a great view of the windows) can be seen at the blog Search Kashmir

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Seven Sparks, Rafiq Raaz

At midnight the seer’s soul caught fire; he began to dance—
In frenzy he danced, and in splendor. I was still, fearing,

When he made me a gift of paper. I trembled to see there
Sparks, there were seven, wrapped in folds of paper like silk.

I was overcome. I fell into sleep, dreaming there the dancing seer
Was stilled. I made a fold of my hands, and pressed them together

And asked after his gift: “Tell me, let me not be the one left out
of the secret tonight—what is this? In the name of God,

What would you have me do with these? How keep them? The sparks
will burn, how can they not, through these folds as fine as silk.”

“They will burn,” he said, “and the sparks go out. And seven
are the places that shall catch fire, burning for so many years.”

Rafiq Raaz, adapted from Kashmiri by Sonam Kachru, October 2011.

Instead of a commentary to this poem, I should like to offer two small fragments; the first, a quote that could have served as an epigraph to the poem, and second, an oblique essay: notes for a biography of the number seven. The latter is are notes towards an entirely idiosyncratic response to the poem. 

First, the epigraph, from Ghalib:

              For painted silk to enfold flames of fire is facile--
              It takes ingenuity to conceal burning grief in the heart.

(lipatnaa parniyaan men shulah-e aatish kaa aasaan hai
vale mushkil hai hikmat dil men soz-e gam chhupaane ki)
For more on this verse see the discussion here.

And now, for something completely different: The Number Seven. 

As an envoi to this essay yet to be written, I would ask you to recall that:

When a sincere man begins to dance, 
The seven heavens, and the earth, and all creatures 
begin to dance." 

How far is it from Tabriz to Srinagar?

There is a Sunni hadith, (from the Sahih Muslim): "Verily Allah is 'odd' [for he is one, and one is an odd number] and he loves the odd numbers best." Seven is an odd number, loved by God. Thus some have said, when he is remembered, as in the Shahada, it is seven words that gives commitment its shape:

لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله
(lā ʾilāha ʾillallāh, Muḥammad rasūlu-llāh--the seven words are more easily scanned in Arabic script).

Before it was clear that God loved the odd numbers, men have found reason to suspect something was in this number...


For more on the poet, see Abir Bazaz's entry on Rafiq Raaz on his excellent website Kunear devoted to the Kashmiri language and the literature of Kashmir in every language used in the valley. It is enough to say that Rafiq Raaz is perhaps the preeminent master of lyricism in language writing today, (favoring among all forms the ghazal), and in general, along with Rahman Rahi, is among the most prescient of poets working in Kashmir. At the level of image alone, he is often unforgettable:

Outside you would see the likeness of Mughal palaces--
Inside, there is a lantern, a sickness and a dream.

(Nyebra cha baasaan Mughlan hanz shahkar haveel
Andre chu akh chatgeer tae akh bemaar tae khwab)

I would like to take the opportunity here to point to an earlier, and beautiful rendition of this poem by Muneeb ur Rahman. Any student of Kashmiri literature ought to feel indebted to Rahman's ongoing efforts to keep alive literary expression in Kashmiri, through his own efforts as a fine translator, but also as the editor of the only Kashmiri journal dedicated to literature: Neab, revived in an online incarnation largely through the efforts of Rahman.  His translation of this poem is available on his blog Kashmiri Writing Today

This translation appeared in the book Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyonda groundbreaking book for poetry in translation, along with two other poems from Kashmiri, Amin Kamil's ghazal 'In Water' rendered in a beautiful English form respecting the requirements of the ghazal by Rahman, and a poem by Rahman Rahi translated by Shafi Shauq. I believe that this is the first time poems from Kashmiri have been featured in 

an anthology of world literature in English; they certainly represent among the finer achievements in the translation of Kashmiri into English. One of the things I greatly admire about Rahman is his unified vision of Kashmiri literature. In a time where we are apt to forget the achievements of our earlier poets (when we think of poetry at all), Rahman was quoted as hoping to include even Nadim, to my mind among the strongest of poets in Kashmiri, certainly among the most influential, but a poet seldom mentioned in the same breath as Raaz or Rahi: "I regret Dinnath Nadim's "Candy & Absinth" was dropped from the selection at a later stage during a review by a professor at the Kashmir University." I thank Muneeb ur Rahman for wanting to include our strongest poems, even where their immediate relevance to our current climate is not immediately apparent. 

Photo Credit: The Telegraph, Picture of the Day, 14 January, 2011. School Children in Jammu at recess. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A New Disease, by Akther Mohiuddin (d. 2001)

He's out of his mind, I said. 
He will get to his house and then not walk through the door. He just stands there, as if in queue, 
sometimes for an hour: standing there, waiting for who knows what; and then, he will not enter. 
He turns at last his back to the door, if you please, and walks away.

No, no, no, he said, there has been some change for the better. He has been to the doctor.

And what did the doctor do?

He said that as soon as he gets home someone ought to perform a search of his person. Then one must wait 
to see whether he will enter his house or no, or even walk through the gate.
And they did, just as the doctor prescribed; and now he will enter. 
The doctor said that ever since we have had searches performed on us at every possible door, 
outside every possible gate, this new disease has proven catching. 
Some, he said, are compelled even to search themselves before they can walk 
through gates, any gate, or enter a house, any house.


1. Nav Byamar--there is no way to capture the manner in which this title, with its two words, and three stress cadence, rudely echoes and refuses a title beloved of so many authors before, in what must seem today, but was not necessarily so, a happier time, time when it was possible still to hope for 'new Spring' (Nav Bahaar). (I stress, however, that Nadim already spoke in the fifties of refusing to sing of new spring, youth or idle dreams of one's first, wild longings). Now, no 'New Spring' any longer, but 'A New Disease'. The choice of articles is always a burden for the translator when the source languages have none. I have chosen the indefinite. A vain hope that the condition is not a true disease distinctly its own.

2. This is an adaptation from Kashmiri by Sonam Kachru, a piece long in preparation. Thus far, it is the only example of prose I have wanted to include as a prose-poem in my book of translations from Kashmiri poetry, as Mohiuddin' s voice is simply not to be overlooked in any collection of voices from Kashmir. Hence, this adaptation, prepared before I had the chance to read Abir Bazaz's excellent translation, recently shared via facebook, and through the closed group Kashmir Reading Room. This version is indebted to Abir's translation, and my willingness to share it, to the warm support shown by readers of the group for literature such as this.

I am indebted Abir Bazaz (through conversation, for this as with so much else) and Basharat Peer (through his book, Curfewed Night) for acquainting me with this gem of a short story (what some today would call 'flash fiction', though Sadat Hasan Manto, Mohiuddin's true influence, excelled at this genre before it was a genre). Peer offers a paraphrase of this short story, effectively reproducing Mohiuddin's words, on page 154 of Curfewed Night--whether by design or not, Peer follows his ultimate predecessor, Kalhana, in his concern for documenting literary expression as a form of optic important to history and memoir. The passage reads:

"In "The New Disease" a man waits for a long time, as if in a queue, before entering his own house--and then turns away and leaves in another direction. His family takes him to a doctor. The doctor says, "Ever since frisking has been introduced, a new disease has come up. Some people need to be frisked every time they see a gate; others frisk themselves." He prescribes a body search every time the man reaches a gate. The family follows a prescription, and the man's condition improves."

Peer offers "frisk," and "body search", and Bazaz "search" for Mohiuddin's verb 'talaash' followed by the periphrastic verb, kadun, which means to search for, as it does in Hindustani. All these variants in English help bring out the range of what is resonant in the by now all too familiar idiom in the valley, as are the words "security", "search," "frisk" in English, though the situation in Kashmir is much more extreme, as this piece invites us to see. Thus, I wanted something, that would strike the ear in English as at once routine (in our oh so secured world) and alienating. I wanted a phrase that would help render the body an alien object, the locus for actions that distance the agent and the object of action: hence, my ridiculously anachronistic example of bureaucratic English, "perform a search of one's / his person", which like the Kashmiri idiom, seems to promise and yet leave out a purpose for this activity. It is enough that the person be the locus of search, an environment for an endeavour. But to be adequate, we shall want all these senses, with the tonal possibilities of various idioms, and so, perhaps, as many translations as we can bear to have. It is worth pointing out the distance between talash kadun, and pay kadun, where this latter activity (from pay meaning footprint) means to search for truth on the basis of clues. One respondent to the story thought she heard the echo of laash in talaash. I leave it to readers more skilled in Mohiuddin's work than I am to determine if he was prone to such sly echoes.

3. The echo in the last line to anigati, in Kashmiri, darkness, is my own. It is not Mohiuddin's, nor is the strict repetition, which is my way of stressing the everywhere present occasions for the symptoms of this disease. But the echo I seek to let resound here with the English "any gate" finds its source in this dedication of Mohiuddin's to his book of short stories, Seven One Nine One Seven And Other Stories published in 2001:

Mausoom shaheed Muhammad Yusuf wa Ahmadullah Reshi te timan jawanan handi nawa yim zulmakis ani gatis manz be nau Jayan qatl karne aayi [Emphasis Mine]
To the innocent witnesses through martyrdom, Muhammad Yusuf and Ahmadullah Reshi, and such boys as were destroyed in the unjust, depriving dark of oppression, killed in nameless places

4. The illustration is by the Kashmiri artist Veer Munshi. I will add copyright information and a link to the original as soon as I can remember where I acquired it from.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011



By Ghulam Ahmed Mahjoor

(Adapted from the poem Lokchaar in Kashmiri by Sonam Kachru, June-August, 2011; this adaptation has been accepted for publication by Kashmir Dispatch. My thanks to Majid Maqbool for finding a home for this effort).

               Speak, Spring,
Time I was young--what brief spell was this,
Between vision, our hazard of staged parts
And remembered scenes, and seeing you,
Magician, stake all, and steal away?
My youth was high midsummer, a face unveiled
To tempt the world; there were flowers
That lived through their day. Spring, I’d say
My green days were like the wild cedar on the water’s edge, 
Tasting new grass; but you are grim, Woodsman—
I beg of you, forego your axe.
              It was a time for life
On fire, burning like lit pines, a time to spark
Quick mouths and tongues of flame—Spring,
That life is spent, the fires out. My youth was a dream
Sweet to savor; and if I have had to feed on regret
On waking, I want, Spring, Time I was young,
Just once, to see it again: my young days,
The garden’s creaturely soul, a bird in the garden
Lifting its gladdening voice, the thrill of accord
The graceful burden of its balm of song—it sings
Sweetly to ensoul me, softly stalked by the King
Of Hunters, time and again among men.
            For a time there was time
For gardens on fire; there were flowers
Of the pomegranate to flame—too early splendor
For such abuse, petals too soon among the torn
Ruins in autumn, fragile spoils of fall’s winds.

            I speak, Spring, of time I was young,
Of my days like water in an impatient stream
Swelling with rain, of the flood past forlorn bends 
And on the bank, of hot thirst of clutched grass
Drying on the water’s edge.

(This version is incomplete, omitting two verses that conclude the poem. If the poem seems sufficiently interesting, please see the forthcoming post on this blog for an essay in which I offer some reflections on translating Mahjoor and a reading of this poem in particular; the essay restores the concluding verses, and offers my reasons for not including them in this version of the poem. Briefly, I may say that  translating Mahjoor's final gesture, his attempt at restoring life in a land desiccated by time, folding death into the image of an absent lover, involved me in his last attempt at exorcising the companion spirit of Rasul Mir, perhaps the Kashmiri poet most resistant to translation. I found it easier to rest in my translation where I have above, with Mahjoor in the company of the ghost of Eliot in the long shadow of Whitman).