20 August 2010
Agha Shahid Ali
Here is a passage from Aamir R. Mufti’s “The After-Lives of Agha Shahid Ali” (21 March 2010), which shows how awareness of two languages enhances one reader's experience of reading poetry:
“Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken;
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.
“And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee –
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.
“The second and third couplets I have quoted sound like they could originally have been written in Urdu, so faithful is their replication of rhythms and attitudes that are characteristic of its poetry. It is not uncommon for Shahid’s western readers to wonder if they are reading translations from some other language. And the ghazal ends by invoking perhaps the most famous opening line in American literature — from Moby Dick — but it is simultaneously, of course, an Islamic reference as well.
“This cultural crisscrossing is a typical feature of his poems, which often weave a complex passage across civilisations. No language, no civilisation, no cultural ethos is to be left alone in peace with its own internal values, symbols and presuppositions:
“No language is old — or young — beyond English.
So what of a common tongue beyond English?
I know some words for war, all of them sharp,
but the sharpest one is jung — beyond English!
“Go all the way through jungle from aleph to zenith
to see English, like monkeys, swung beyond English.
“If someone asks where Shahid has disappeared,
he’s waging a war (no, jung) beyond English.
“This is not a set of multicultural clichés about the mutual coexistence of diverse cultures. Urdu — its rhythm, sounds and mood — is poured into English, so that we are left just a little bit uncertain about which language we are in. In the age of its global dominance, Anglophone writing, the poem suggests, has the ethical responsibility to look beyond itself. The mere repetition of the radif in each couplet produces an insistence, to be open to other worlds, to look ‘beyond English.’
“In many of his ghazals, and in fact in quite a bit of his poetry, Shahid seems to have attempted the impossible: writing Urdu poetry in English. It is evidence of his remarkable talent that to a measurable extent he seems to have succeeded.
“And of course this mixing of languages recalls the birth many centuries ago of Urdu itself, the quintessential mixed language, created when Persian and Arabic rhythms, sounds and moods were poured into Hindi, the vernacular of north India. An early name for Urdu is of course simply that — rekhta (poured, spilled or mixed).”
Mixed language poetry brings us back to the beginnings of poetry. Innovation is nothing else but being faithful to tradition.