Interview: Maaz Bin Bilal, author, Temple Lamp: Verses on Banaras

ByChintan Girish Modi
Dec 29, 2022 02:29 PM IST

On his latest work, a translation from the original Persian of Mirza Ghalib’s masnavi Chiragh-e-Dair

Tell us a bit about your journey with Persian. Why, how and when did you start learning?

Poet and translator Maaz Bin Bilal (Sarang) PREMIUM
Poet and translator Maaz Bin Bilal (Sarang)

I learnt Persian formally during my MA days from the Iran Culture House in Delhi but I had been interested in Mirza Ghalib from childhood and Urdu is my mother tongue. Urdu traces the etymology for many of its words to Persian and Arabic. Ghalib’s Urdu poetry employs a more Persianized register than most poets. With Ghalib as my favourite Urdu poet, I felt pushed towards Persian to read even his Urdu poetry and eventually started exploring his Persian poetry too. I am a slow reader of Persian still, and worked steadily for a number of years on the translation of the 108 verses of Temple Lamp. At an intellectual level, I also feel that it is supremely important for Indians to know Persian today to understand their diverse pasts holistically, as Persian was the court language of many Indian states for close to a millennium.

What made you translate Chiragh-e-Dair from Persian into English? Did you ever feel that you had bitten off more than you could chew? How did you keep yourself motivated?

I was encouraged most strongly to translate the masnavi Chiragh-e-Dair into English by the retired Urdu professor of University of Delhi, Dr Sadiq, who has himself translated the masnavi into Hindi. Very little of the Persian Ghalib has been translated, or, if I may say so myself, translated well, into English so far. Ghalib is also primarily recognized as a ghazal poet. His poetry in other genres such as the masnavi has not received similar attention. My translation is a humble offering to fill these lacunae. The masnavi is a long narrative poem written in rhyming couplets. Jalaluddin Mohammad Rumi’s Masnavi-e-Ma’navi is probably the most famous masnavi in the world. Malik Muhammad Jaisi’s heroic epic Padmavat, which was made into a Hindi film recently, is also a masnavi.

Chiragh-e-Dair also offers a contrast to the modern developments in Banaras and changes in its sociocultural, religious, ecological, architectural and civic landscape. The 19th century views of the Indo-Persian poet, Ghalib, open up Banaras outwards as a world centre of piety, religiosity, spirituality, beauty, and life rather than taking an inward-looking view of it as a centre for only Hindus. This seemed worth sharing with fellow Indians – the majority of whom know no Persian – and with the larger English-speaking world.

Not having native fluency in Persian, I often hit roadblocks, and wondered why I had undertaken such a task at all, and who, if anyone, would care to read Ghalib in English on Banaras anyway. I often felt unsure of the quality of my verse too. It was through the kind attentions of friends, fellow poets and Ghalib fans that I managed to soldier on. My colleague and friend, the lawyer and poet, Dr Arun Sagar, must be named here especially for his firm belief in the value of such work, and for his suggestions towards my poetic line. All the blurb-givers, by agreeing enthusiastically to endorse my work also added to my confidence greatly. A big thanks to them!

200pp, ₹399; Penguin
200pp, ₹399; Penguin

I do not read Persian but your translation moved me to tears. When Ghalib writes, “May God keep Banaras/ from the evil eye, / it is heavenly bliss, paradise established”, one can’t help but marvel at the depth of his love. Was it love at first sight or did it grow over time?

It was love at first sight indeed. Ghalib had quit Ilahabad (now Prayagraj) in a hurry, falling sick there and also probably falling out badly with some followers of a rival Indo-Persian poet Qatil. He came to Banaras thinking of carrying on towards his final destination Calcutta (now Kolkata) in a day or two, but stayed a month. He tells us in a letter to a friend, which I quote in the introduction, that the breeze cured and succoured him right from the moment of his arrival. Temple Lamp is the only long poem he has written in love of a city, even though he is popular as a poet of Delhi, or a fan of the modern metropolis of Calcutta.

While working on this book, did you travel to Banaras to immerse yourself in the city that meant so much to Ghalib? Which places did you visit to feel his presence?

I was lucky to complete my research trip recreating Ghalib’s journey to Calcutta not long before the COVID-19 lockdown. Of course, I did not have the luxury to complete it at his pace and on foot, horse, and boat, taking a year just to reach Calcutta. I took a train to Calcutta, a flight to Banaras, and then trains again on to Ilahabad, and back to Delhi. In Banaras, I could feel Ghalib’s joy at beholding the Ganga from Dashashvamedha Ghat alongside a much smaller aarti as compared to today. He had lived close to the ghat in the Aurangabad area near Dalmandi, the abode then of courtesans. The sarai and the house he may have stayed in no longer exist, but I did see some old gateways in Aurangabad he may have walked through. The ponds and streams he would have seen in a salubrious Banaras have all been dried since and converted into chowks and bazars. Ghalib’s Banaras would have been more quaint, cleaner, and greener, not the commercialised tourist-focused artefact that we see today.

When I read in your introduction that Ghalib used the term ‘Kaaba-e-Hindustan’ for Banaras, I remembered that Allama Iqbal called Ram ‘Imam-e-Hind’. Do you find this syncretism in the Persian and Urdu poetry being written in today’s India and Pakistan?

There is negligible poetry in Persian coming out of the subcontinent in our own time except from a handful of academics and savants such as Prof Akhlaq Ahan of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Urdu is a language that is formed from the amalgamation of Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Braj, Khari Boli, and so on. By its very nature and history of origin it cannot but be syncretic, even if attempts have been made to excessively Persianize, Arabicize, or Sanskritize it due to different interests. The contemporary Indian poet Farhat Ehsaas’s Taraana-e-Rekhta or the Song of Rekhta (Urdu) is an obvious example. I quote a few lines: ‘sar chadh ke bolta hai urdu zabaan ka jaaduu/hindostaan ki mitti ke aasmaaN ka jaaduu/hindostaan ka jaaduu saare jahaan ka jaaduu/…/jap-jaap jogiyon ka naara qalandaron ka/tahziib mahfilon ki aur shor mai-kadon ka…’ Here’s my quick translation: ‘The magic of Urdu gives a heady high/the magic of Hindostan’s soil and its sky/The magic of Hindostan, and of the whole world/the chants of the yogi, the call of the Sufi/the culture of gatherings, the clamour of taverns…’

A view of the ghats of Varanasi. (Rajesh Kumar / Hindustan Times)
A view of the ghats of Varanasi. (Rajesh Kumar / Hindustan Times)

Ghalib is usually associated with Delhi, not Banaras. What are the reasons behind this?

Ghalib is primarily recognised as an Urdu poet, who spent his working life in Delhi for the longest part, seeking poetic honours at the court of the last Mughal – Bahadur Shah Zafar – and seeking political and monetary favour with the British resident of Delhi. He loved the city life of luxury and cultural excess. While he wrote more in Persian than Urdu, the slow death of Persian in the subcontinent with English as its replacement laid to waste his belief that he would be known for his Persian work rather than his Urdu oeuvre. His month-long stay in Banaras, where he produced his only long poem in love with a city (which is, of course, Banaras) got left behind in changing times, where Persian no longer remained the hegemonic language. His Urdu letters describing the horrors of 1857 further entrenched him as a chronicler of Delhi, the writer of its dirge. The Banaras poem came to be read only by Urdu readers in Urdu translation.

READ MORE: Review: Temple Lamp by Mirza Ghalib, translated by Maaz Bin Bilal

Being a poet yourself, what aspects of his craft do you try to emulate when you write?

I write ghazals in English after Agha Shahid Ali, but perhaps the tone and mood of my ghazals (and other poems too) is closer to Ghalib’s. Growing up in Ballimaran, a locality that Ghalib inhabited approximately a century and a half before me, and having watched Gulzar’s television series as a child, where Ghalib is played by Naseeruddin Shah and his verse sung by Jagjit Singh, I always feel greatly connected to him. Shahjahanabad continues to be in slow (or fast) decline, an experience he and I seem to have shared even though divided by centuries. Still, Ghalib’s immense capacity to feel and to turn pain into poetry have always made me find any of my own troubles so much smaller, and driven me to derive rasa and beauty from every strong emotion, negative and positive. I had also begun translating some of Ghalib’s Urdu ghazals more than a decade ago, and included some of those translations in my first book of poems, Ghazalnāma: Poems from Delhi, Belfast, and Urdu (Yoda, 2019), which was shortlisted for the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar. Translation greatly informs all my creative writing.

What differences do you notice between the Banaras that Ghalib lived in, and today’s Banaras? Please tell us about the cultural and political scenario as well as the geography.

The Banaras that Ghalib visited was a city at peace, ruled nominally by the Kashi Naresh under British auspices. The Banaras royal family survives till date, and they hired a succession of Muslim dewans of Iranian ancestry in the 19th and 20th centuries. Raja Udit Narain Singh was king when Ghalib reached Banaras. It was probably greener and cleaner than today, less commercialised, with a bigger, less-dammed and more freely-flowing Gangaji. It was a seat of culture, with literature, theology, music, dance and the other arts being practised in great abundance. However, Ghalib, surprisingly, seems to have chosen not to have met anyone of note in the great city of lights. I would like readers to make up their own minds about the differences with today’s Varanasi based on the poem in my translation and my contextualised introduction to it in contrast to their own observations of Kashi through personal experience and media coverage.

You make an “academic conjecture” about Ghalib’s relationship with a courtesan in Banaras. Tell us how the city helped him find his Ishq-e-Majaazi and Ishq-e-Haqiqi.

Ishq-e-Majaazi or the love of this world is a means in Sufi thought to the Ishq-e-Haqiqi or the love of the Eternal Truth, that is God. In Temple Lamp, Ghalib not only focusses on Banaras as the abode of the dying, the place for mukti or release from transmigration, but he focusses also on the teeming river and the beautiful bodies immersing themselves in it, the sun shining above the river, and the city preening with the river as its mirror. Ghalib falls in love with the city and its lively people, as much as he burns like a flute, reminiscent of the burning pyres from the ghats. Through love for the personal, the city, he seeks the eternal. Yet, his love for Banaras is such that he feels the need for its preservation causes God to defer forever the end of this world despite the prophesy of Judgment Day.

I was stunned to learn that Ghalib was so taken up with Banaras that he wanted to wear a janeu, become a Hindu, and “absorb the qualities of the city”. Did he fulfill that wish?

No, that does not seem to be the case. While we know the claim you refer to from a letter that I have quoted in my introduction, the poem also ends to the effect of him having to move on from Banaras under social and familial pressures and responsibilities. As Ghalib remained a modern thinker believing in a supreme power, his temperament remained accordingly interrogative. Perhaps he wasn’t ever bound by any single religion, and he would have never felt the need to formally convert. A famous Urdu sher on his incessant desire to question all tradition comes to mind: “kya farz hai ki sab ko mile ek sa javaab/aao na ham bhi sair karen koh-e-tuur ki,’ ‘Is it a given that all will get the same response? Come let us too tour Mount Sinai.’ Moses had asked his Ilahi to reveal himself on Mount Tuur, (probably the same as Sinai), but could not behold him.

However, with Temple Lamp, Ghalib seems to use the act of translation of Dharmic mysticism and ideas of metempsychosis into a Persian poetic universe as an act of conversion itself. His own biographical self ceases to matter in this major act of poetic translation-conversion. Ghalib writes that the spring breeze wears a zunnaar (the Persian word for the Sanskrit janeu), made of flowers, in the city of Banaras.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, journalist and educator who tweets @chintanwriting

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