A Fresh Review of “The Poems of Ghani Kashmiri”

Book Review by Professor M.L.Raina
The Captured Gazelle: The Poems of Ghani Kashmiri

Translated from the Persian by Mufti Mudasir Farooqi and Nusrat Bazaz.
Penguin Books India, New Delhi, Lxiii+ 216 Pages. Rs.399.

Let me say at the outset that I am no scholar of Persian, but have imbibed some of its flavour by listening to my father, a school teacher modestly conversant with the language, recite the Abul Fazal translation of the Bhagvat Gita as well as the hymn to the Hindu goddess Sharika by an unknown Sufi singer (shab shahe ki man deedam…). I must confess that I was only vaguely aware of the contribution made to Persian literature by Kashmiri poets like Ghani until I read the learned, well-mannered and extremely readable introduction to the present volume by Mufti Mudasir Farooqi.That Kashmir is heir to not only the highly ratiocinative tradition of Sanskrit but also to the riches of Persian writing further corroborates the already recognised catholicity of Kashmir’s religious and aesthetic thought.

With my very miniscule knowledge of the original, I have to be content with what comes through the translation. ‘To translate”, says George Steiner in After Babel “is to descend beneath the exterior disparities of two languages to bring into vital play …common principles of being”. This statement assumes a basic commonality between languages as well as a universal underlying structure. But in actual practice this is not so. The statement ignores the differences in typologies of cultures of which languages are a fair reflection. The central difficulty for any translator lies in conveying words and concepts that have no analogues in the target language.

Here the difficulty gets further compounded when we realize that the Persian ghazal embodies a whole panoply of allusions, nuances and indirections that may not be carried over into the target language(in this case English). Besides, the mandarin sophistication that characterizes the conventional ghazal can never be captured in English or any other European language for that matter. That is why the attempts of Merwin and Agha Shaid Ali to write a ghazal in English come a cropper.

On the surface the translations of Ghani’s ghazals, quatrains and other works in this volume are straight, low-pitched and laced with irony. A typical Ghani ghazal or quatrain makes do with spare diction, and a meticulously orchestrated word pattern to investigate ethical as well as aesthetic concerns (the recurrent presence of the sun image in many a piece is one good instance to which Farooqi draws our attention). Indeed the aesthetic and the ethical usually emerge on blurred borders and make the reading exercise that much more exacting. Here is an example of what I wish to convey.

All partake of His sea of bounty
With gold coins the fish is decked
and the oyster holds a pearl.
Though the sea harbours
Meanings in plenty,
Mine is a pearl
theirs a bubble.

Of course, we shall miss here the rhyme, the rhythm and the sonority of the original. But there are compensations, nevertheless. We are struck by a coolness of perception and a quietness of utterance in the above lines that gently nudge us towards a meaning or, more usefully, towards a hardy exercise in search of more than one meaning. The words on the page may appear plain, even to the point of self-effacement. Yet what we see through them is a gesture, a process of thought and feeling even though indirectly expressed, a way ‘of a voice to a receptive you’ as the Romanian poet Paul Celan would put it. I think one of the principal successes of this translation is that we are never baulked of meanings by the indulgences of stock poeticisms or the hyperbole of the self-dramatization of the poet’s persona, a bane in the conventional ghazal when handled by untalented writers. As Farooqi reminds us, Ghani is not a derivative blind practitioner of the conventional the conventional imagery of the ghazal for his own non-conventional purposes, even to subvert them at times. In the above lines the imagery of the sea, the pearl and the oyster unfold meanings that go beyond the merely literal. “Meanings in plenty” might as well be said of poetry in general and Ghani’s poetry in particular. Here we shall be on less shaky ground if we understand the context provided by the introduction as well as commentary in end-notes. Then there is the pearl in the shell—does it signify ultimate wisdom earned by delving into the watery expanse? And, finally what do we make of the juxtaposition of the ‘bubble’ and the ‘pearl’? Also the associations evoked by the imagery of the pearl diver in other poets-as the mention of ‘gawase-muhabat ka Allah hi nigahbaan ho’ in the famous poem by Iqbal or ‘those were the pearls’ song in The Tempest– broaden as well as deepen the significance of the imagery.

On the basis of the Farooqi-Bazaz translation, I think Ghani Kashmiri can be better understood as an aphoristic poet, one who speaks in gnomic utterances without elaborating on them, one who garners experience in a weighty economy of earned wisdom. An aphoristic poet concentrates experiences in austere words and depends upon the quality of surprise generated by a combination of scene, situation and affect. In such poetry there is much in the lines and much between the lines. They may not have the roughage of familiar speech; they do not deviate too far from it, for their force depends on how the familiar is presented in an unfamiliar and, therefore, a new light. Here is a random selection.

Slight not, O ascetic, my
blotted record of deeds.
rains of mercy pour forth
from these black clouds.
Why grieve if wine’s
water bird is slow to take off?
In capturing the colour that has fled
It becomes a royal falcon.
At dawn a glimpse of bread
makes me forget my soul.
I am distressed by a life
So hinged on sustenance.

Like Pascal’s Pensees these poems yield meanings through a dialogical see-saw with the reader who in turn, needs to be equally versed in the intricacies of the poetic devices used by the poet. But once we grasp the devices, the metaphors and similes that become the poet’s signature, we shall surely get at his meaning/meanings. Here Farooqi helps us considerably by highlighting the devices that Ghani inherits from the conventional ghazal and telling us how these devices were harnessed to a non-conventional purpose. In the event he also states the fact that Ghani is neither a Sufi poet nor a mystic one per se. “The two main trends of poetry, the courtly and the mystical, remained dominant though Sufi poetry took precedence in terms of the sheer corpus produced…Alongside these two trends, there were poets like Ghani who were neither court poets nor Sufis…” This accounts for the muted presence of the Sufi’s ardour and the mystic’s other-worldliness in Ghani’s work. A combination of a lyrical longing and going beyond worldly concerns marks these ghazals out. Muted presence, not total absence, for Ghani is too much of a poet not to occasionally let himself yield to sensuous savours and mundane involvements.

Parted from you, my heart
desires not the garden.
Without your rosy cheek,
the rosebush is a prison.

Longing has curled your
tresses into round lips.
Permit them to cascade
and kiss your feet once.

The truth of retributions
in the world is this alone:
‘The life of the moth’s killer
does not extend beyond dawn’.

Unearthed by the farmer,
can the sapling bear fruit?
Let me, O Heavens,
remain inearthed!

There are numerous examples here that show Ghani using plain homespun idiom to convey his thoughts. Such down-to-earth sensibility, such mastery over daily experience (not always mystical), are marks of a major voice that speaks across generations, particularly when contexts of grief and sorrow assume varied shapes but remain ubiquitous. Ghani was no stranger to social and political repression, as many a poem makes clear.

Nothing but remorse
does the world yield.
Turning the millstone
only chafes our hands.

Grief outlasts joy in this world.
The candle cries the whole night
for a moment’s laugh at dawn.

Ghani Kashmiri’s stoic acceptance of the tyranny of his times is in itself an indictment of the social and political order. It is all the more telling for being understated.

The Captured Gazelle fits Italo Calvino’s designation of a classic as something that lasts past its immediate context. At least for one reader the collection opens up an entirely new perspective on Kashmiri poetry. For that I must thank Mudasir Farooqi and Nusrat Bazaz for their zestful effort.


Author: Mrinal Kaul

I am a Kashmirian Orientalist

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