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Spice of life: Introducing Faiz to a classroom of millennials

To bring an Urdu text into an English literature classroom, even though in translation, is a task that is at once delightful, difficult and always threatening to burst into the territory of the disastrous.

punjab Updated: Jun 20, 2018 12:42 IST
Sakoon Singh
Sakoon Singh
Spice of life,English literature,Pakistani poet
Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-84) was an influential leftwing intellectual and one of the most celebrated writers of Urdu. He also wrote poems in Punjabi.(HT File)

The curriculum of Masters in English literature is one arena that has undergone such tectonic shifts that for the most part it does not even remotely meet the bare outsider expectations about it. From being preeminently a vehicle of dispersing colonial cultural hegemony to today transforming into a representational space preoccupied with recovering lost and powerless voices, it has indeed come a long way. It is a space built on the constant questioning of the rationale of the canon and further, in its enthusiasm to question the importance of texts, it has come down brutally on its own house. It could be deemed a dynamic and progressive space and to me, it represents what can be called the pulsating heart of humanities.

One can see the inclusion of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz in this light under the rubric of ‘Texts in Translation’. The paper allows students to have an intimate feel of literature in regional languages such as Bengali (Mahasweta Devi), Oriya (Fakir Mohan Senapati), Urdu (Faiz) and Hindi (Nirala) through translation. It is a space that an English literature student would otherwise never traverse. There is a definite attempt to break the classic elitist mould of an English literature graduate and to give the student a taste of important writings from within the country, ironing out language differences using the tool of translation.

To bring an Urdu text into an English literature classroom, even though in translation, is a task that is at once delightful, difficult and always threatening to burst into the territory of the disastrous.

What to begin with was full of trepidation is now a job I have come to exercise some semblance of control over. Eventually in these years, I can detect a pattern to the introduction of Faiz to a class of millennials. In Panjab University, we are prescribed the English translations of Faiz done by Agha Shahid Ali. But it is that one utterance of the title of the ghazal that gets them. No sooner do I utter the Urdu equivalent of ‘Do not ask me for that love again’ in Urdu ‘Mujh se pehli si mohabbat mere mahboob na maang’ than I am honoured with a moment of what is their total attention. There is a hint of fluttering smiles and shifting glances. I sense the weight of expectation. I have evoked an era that is distant yet not entirely unfamiliar. So I prime myself for the show and tell. They are taking in the dripping passion of the first three lines:

Maine samjha tha ki tu hai to darakhsha hai hayaat/ I had thought that if you are mine this existence is gold

Tera gham hai to gham-e-dahar ka jhagda kya hai /If I have this sorrow of love, does the sorrow of the world really matter?

Teri soorat se hai aalam main bahaaron ko sabaat/In your face is an eternal spring,

and by the time Faiz proclaims, “Teri ankhon ke siva dunia mein rakhha kya hai”, the class is agog. There is a wave of transcendental love. But the shock soon follows and the roller-coaster crashes on terra firma with the turnaround from love to social injustice “gham-e-dahar or grief of the world”. For a brief while, it is a bit of a task to shake them from a collective reverie to the injustices in the lanes and bylanes, the ‘gallies’ and ‘koochas’ that need redressal. It takes a lecture or two to establish the unexpected turning point of this ghazal, and the fact that, that turning point becomes the turning point in the history of the genre of ghazal itself. From a love song, no matter how exquisite, it becomes song of a revolution.

What is unabated, however, is Faiz’s passion. By the time we sense the resignation of the lover in “ab bhi dilkash hai tera husn magar kya keeje” they too have found a meeting ground. They understand the sweep: the circle of romantic passion to disenchantment to a higher realisation, all in the matter of an hour.

Every year this ghazal sets the tone for an adventure I’m never fully prepared for, but grow to enjoy over the few lectures. Sensibility of another era, so gentle yet so full of conviction. From love to revolution and back. That’s Faiz for you and suitably given to the inscrutable poetic form of the ghazal. And thanks to ‘Texts in Translation’, even though mediated by the English language, we Shakespearewallahs do a classroom reading of what is perhaps one of the greatest ghazals of all times.

(The writer teaches English at a Chandigarh college)

First Published: Jun 20, 2018 12:42 IST