Where’s that book of Urdu poetry when the occasion needs a sher? At last we have one

Urdu poetry is often considered synonymous with love. Various shades of love, ranging from physical to metaphysical; all the nuances of the experience of love, ranging from disappointment to fulfillment, and different ways of expressing it from, playful to bitter – Urdu poetry can offer all of it. Right from the classical Urdu poets like Sauda, ​​Mir and Ghalib to the progressives or the more recent modernist voices, love has remained an important element in Urdu poetry.

There are couplets for all occasions, suitable in all situations. Urdu poetry is quoted during a relaxed conversation in a drawing room as well as during dreary debates in parliament. The speeches of leaders playing to the gallery are not complete without adding some flourish in the form of Urdu poetry. Hindi films would not be what they are without a dash of Urdu poetry.

Naturally, a book that offers a rich variety of couplets, remarkable for their mnemonic quality, is likely to interest most ordinary lovers of Urdu poetry. Not put together by an academic or critic with theoretical or professional interest in the subject, but by a passionate lover of Urdu poetry who has done a remarkable job of promoting Urdu in contemporary times, Sanjiv Saraf’s beautiful offering Love, Longing, Loss in Urdu Poetry is a book like no other so far.

There are three very important aspects of the book which make it stand out from an ordinary anthology of Urdu poetry: the selection of shers born out of love for them, how they have been organized in terms of thematic continuity and delightful one line captions, and Translation in English from Urdu presented with immaculate design and layout.

The selection

It is a quality of Urdu poetry that a sher you read or hear and like remains with you, whether or not you recall the exact words. It is a common experience to see an Urdu speaker trying to recall the exact wordings of a sher and then getting it right either effortlessly or after some struggle with memory.

An avid reader of Urdu poetry, Saraf selected all those shers – and they are very large in number – which resonated with him over the years. An overwhelming number are from classical Urdu poets like Mir, Ghalib and Daagh, but even contemporary poets are fairly well represented in this collection. Interestingly there are any number of good shers from poets who remain unknown, many of which are included.

An interesting discovery a reader is likely to make is that some shers have become more popular than the poets who composed them, like a very popular Hindi song in a forgotten film. Thus one learns that the often recited sher

umr-e-daraz maang ke laai thi chaar din
do aarzu mein kat gaye do intizar mein

which is sometimes wrongly attributed to Bahadur Shah Zafar because its rhyme and tonal quality is similar to his lagta nahin hai dil ujde dayar mein, was composed by Seemab Akbarabadi. The reader will come across many popular shers in this book with the name of poets they may not have known. Thus the book helps the reader to know not only a sher but also the poet who composed it.

Urdu love poetry has an essentially secular character, where the poet often adopts a satirical attitude towards religious concepts and figures. This is brought about in a number of shers in this collection. Thus Dagh Dehlvi can say:

Ashiqi goes to Zahid
bandagi se khuda nahin milta

(Through love, or priest, you will attain
Through worship, god, you don’t obtain)

Or Jigar Moradabadi can announce:

Usi ko kahte hain Jannat usi ko dozakh bhi
vo zindagi jo hasinon ke darmiyan guzre

(By perdition, paradise, that very thing is meant
in the midst of beauties, a life that has been spent)

In the same way love poetry is not without some wit as Zafar Iqbal can say:

Husn us kaa usi muqam par hai
ye musafir safar nahin karta

(Her beauty at the same station does stall
This traveler does not travel at all)

The organization

The shers in the book are neatly put together in many subsections which form sub-themes to the overarching theme of love in the book. These sub-sections are built around many subjects, which include the definition of love, popular tropes in love poetry like gul/bulbul or shama/parvana, the role of the heart in love, the attributes and mannerisms of the beloved, and the role of the messenger in love.

The other important dimensions of love which have inspired much Urdu poetry include the neglect suffered by the lover, the oppressive role of the veil in love, meeting the beloved face to face, and the see-saw interactions between lovers. The book also has a good collection of shers on the kiss, promises made by the beloved, the lover’s endless wait, romantic trysts, love sickness, the lover’s possessiveness, the beloved’s tyrannical nature, the insecurity of the lover because of a rival, the lover’s sense of alienation, the break-up, and separation.

Each subject mentioned above has a rich body of poetry in Urdu which can be serious, flippant, witty or simply self-indulgent. Saraf further gives interesting one-line captions to slot shers. These captions work like cues to understand the sher in a proper perspective and tone.

Thus raising the question “who is worthy of love?”, Saraf answers by saying, “love is not for everyone” and quotes a relevant sher of Jigar Moradabadi. Then further telling that “only special hearts feel love”, he brings in Makhmur Dehlvi:

Mohabbat ke liye kuchh khas dil makhsus hote hain
Ye vo naghma hai jo har ik saaz par gaya nahin jata

(Just a few selected hearts for Love are truly meant
Love’s not a song/that can be sung/on every instrument)

Saraf quotes shers on love being a joy, business, or journey, or its being hazardous, risky, tedious, unforgiving, unpredictable, or its being synonymous with madness and frenzy. Each sher sums up a new situation, a new emotion, a new attitude in love.

What is the essence of the lover’s heart? This is answered by Mohammad Rafi Sauda:

Adam kaa jism jab ki anasir se mil bana
Kuchh aag bach rahi thii so ashiq kaa dil bana

(Adam’s body came to being when elements combined
Some fire remained; so was/a lover’s heart designed)

As for the beloved, Saraf includes numerous shers on their gait, their body and form, their hands, their eyes, their lips, their smile, and their voice. Mir Taqi Mir captures her tresses and curls:

Hum run away tum run away ki miir run away
Us ki zulfon ke sab asir flees

(Be it ‘Mir’ or you or me
Captives of her curls are we)

The veil is a matter of political controversies in present times following the verdict of the Karnataka High Court on the hijab, but in Urdu literature it has inspired some memorable shers. Ahmad Faraz has a witty secular argument against the veil:

Tu khuda hai na look “ishq farishton” jaisa
Donon insan hain to kyon itne hijabon men milen

(Neither are you god nor is my love the angel’s sort
Both are human beings then why, in veils should we consort?)

translation and design

Saraf has ably translated the sense of the shers. In a poetic moment, he has also written the description of the book in rhyme. He calls his translations “transcreations” as “it mostly is not a verbatim translation of the shers.” He is aware that there can be many readings of a sher, and his translation of him is also something of his interpretation of him. Where a sher lends itself well to translation he succeeds beautifully, as in the following shers:

Mohabbat chikh bhi Khamoshi bhi naghma bhii nara bhii
Ye ik mazmun hai kitne hii “unvanon” se vabasta

(A shout, love is, and silence too/and slogan, song, as well
This is a subject which under/many headings doth dwell)

—Hafiz Merathi

Dil mein na ho jurrat to mohabbat nahin milti
Khairat mein itni badi Daulat nahin milti

(If there’s no courage in the heart, love cannot be attained
In alms, such bountiful treasure cannot be obtained)

—Nida Fazli

The Roman version of a sher in the book includes a very carefully prepared glossary of Urdu words, helpful for a reader new to Urdu words. In fact, Saraf rightly does not assume knowledge of Urdu from his readers, because a misunderstanding of a deceptively simple word can spoil the meaning of a sher.

Thus, both simple words like khalal (defect), kamyab (successful), azab (torment), qurban (sacrificed), as well as relatively difficult Urdu words like zard (pale), khayaban (flower bed), iram (paradise-like garden), jafa (tyranny), tazkira (mention) and many others are glossed in the book. The meaning of difficult words on the right margin of the page parallel to the sher, rather than at the end of the book or at the bottom of the page, makes the volume reader-friendly.

Another very important aspect of the book is the notes provided by the translator at the bottom of the page. Urdu poetry is full of allusions to Arabic, Persian, Islamic, and Hindu traditions. Some shers may require an understanding of some difficult philosophical-theological concepts or need some light thrown on the historical context which the sher may refer to. Thus Hasrat Mohani’s sher

Us but ke pujari hain musalman hazaro
Bigde hain isi kufr mein iman hazaron

is better understood with the help of the following note: “The poet plays on the Islamic taboo on idol-worship by calling the beloved an idol who is worshiped by thousands of Muslims, thereby destroying their faith.”

Similarly Shah Mubarak Abru’s sher

jab ki aisa ho gandumi mashuq
nit gunahgar kyon na ho adam

When such a wheat-hued lover is therein
Why should Adam constantly not sin?)

is beautifully explained with the help of a comprehensive note: “This is a play on original sin. As per Islam, Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden for disobeying divine orders not to eat wheat (as compared to the forbidden apple in the Bible). The poet asks: When the beloved has such a beautiful wheat-hued complexion, how can the lover refrain from sinning?”

Love, Longing and Loss in Urdu Poetry is undoubtedly a collector’s item, a book one looks for when one needs an Urdu couplet for an occasion.

Mohammad Asim Siddiqui is Professor in the Department of English at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

Love, Longing, Loss in Urdu PoetrySanjiv Saraf, Rekhta Books.

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