Amrit Lal Ishrat and the Urdu ghazals of self-consolation

The Late Dr. Amrit Lal Ishrat was a renowned poet of Urdu ghazals. He was my grandfather. Two years ago, I translated his poetry into English for the first time, for a project for my Literary Translation seminar under Professor David Keplinger at the American University.

Over the next few months, many of my English translations will be published in various literary journals. Here is the preface I wrote about Ishrat, his ghazals, and my approach to the translations for my original project in December 2016.

No two poems by Amrit Lal “Ishrat” were the same. But no two were so different, either.  Throughout his career, the Indian Urdu poet was a man of constant conversation and contradiction with himself. Ishrat’s Urdu poems – emulations of the “sher-o-shayari” and ghazal traditions of poetry in Urdu, Persian, and Hindi – mastered the complicated performative rhyme schemes of the format. In each ghazal, Ishrat added his own signature wink, conversing with the poet and artist within himself as a form of self-consolation in his odes to heartbreak, nature, and addiction.

Ishrat was my grandfather, and the first years of my life were the last years of his. Although I didn’t get an opportunity to know him better, I grew up with the knowledge of his accomplishments and his stories, gleefully shared by our family and friends. A few years after his death, my father – Deepak Madhok – helped publish a collection of Ishrat’s poetry, along with a biographical introduction by the Urdu research scholar Abdus Salam about Ishrat’s life, under the title Yaadgar-E-Ishrat. My knowledge of Ishrat has since been collated with the help of this valuable biography and our shared family folklore.

Ishrat was born Amrit Lal Madhok, and only adopted what many Urdu poets call a takhallus – a pen name – when he began to submit his poetry later in life. His birth was in Lahore – now in Pakistan – on November 2, 1930 and he grew up in the nearby town of Gujranwala. His father was a popular lawyer in the Lahore High Court. But the Madhoks were a Hindu family, and thus, when India and Pakistan partitioned at the country’s Independences from the British Empire in August 1947, his family was among the millions of Hindus and Sikhs that crossed the border to India, while millions of Muslims drifted the other way to Pakistan and to the country that has since become Bangladesh. Estimates say a million people died in the riots and genocide on all sides of the border during the year that followed Independence; a teenage Ishrat and his family, however, survived to make it to the Indian mountain town of Kandaghat to start their displaced lives all over again.

The spirit of freedom, the weight of violence and survival, and the start of a new life as a stranger in a new republic could have been part of Ishrat’s early influences, but Ishrat rebelled from the heavier weights of his memory and gave himself a fresh start. His takhallus “Ishrat” translates as “joy” or “delight”. He immersed himself into the finer pleasures of life, and his addictions became both the art that lifted him and the burdens that were bared in his verses.

Amril Lal Ishrat Madhok (author).jpg

Even as he left Lahore and Gujranwala, Ishrat never allowed himself to leave behind the artistic influence of Islamic culture that he had experienced as a youth. His household was enriched with sher-o-shayari performances from childhood and he carried the love of wordplay with him his whole life. Later, the poetic tradition influenced his academic and professional decisions too: he studied the Persian language, Urdu, and Persian History in the 1950s and was eventually sent to Tehran (Iran) to learn and teach Persian. Upon his return to India in the 60s, Ishrat, his wife, and children, moved to the city of Varanasi (also known as Banaras) where he received a PhD at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and became a professor of Persian, Persian History and Urdu.

It was in Varanasi, the holiest of cities of the Hindu religion, but a town also rich in the Muslim population and a deep endorsement of Muslim arts and literature, that eventually became Ishrat’s home until his death. A city on the banks of the holy Ganga river, Varanasi is revered as one of the oldest continuously-living cities in the world. It is the mecca of the Hindu religion, the most-visited tourist destination in India, mostly flocked by domestic tourists seeking spiritual enlightenment. The confluence of spirituality is heightened as the Buddha is said to have given his first sermon near Varanasi, too.

As a Hindu, Ishrat was an outsider to the artistic tradition of shayari, but his work was able to make him a prominent part of the community at the local and national stage. Ishrat regularly performed his ghazals at mushairas – Urdu poetry expositions performances – during his lifetime.

Ishrat published nearly a dozen books on his lifetime on Iranian history, literary criticism, and Urdu shayari. Outside of his academic work, he published several of his ghazals in Urdu literary magazines, most prominent of which was a magazine called Bisawi Sadi. A collection of his most popular ghazals – written roughly in the period between 1955 – 1975 – was published in both the Urdu and Devanagari scripts in the collection entitled Yaadgar-E-Ishrat (“Memories of Ishrat”) in 1994. I have translated a sampling of his best poems from this collection spanning the productive twenty-year period.

 

There are many different forms of Urdu poetry, but Ishrat’s speciality was sher-o-shayari, which can be referred to as only sher or shayari. Each sher is a rhyming couplet that must strictly be kept within its predefined meters per line. The couplet usually relies on a simple set-up, question, or condition in the first line, with a witty or emotional response. A number of these couplets can be formed together to be made into longer poems, which are called ghazals, which usually continue the same rhyme and metric scheme throughout in exploration of a common theme. Most ghazals have a common phrase or word as refrain that is often repeated with various modifiers at the end of many lines as the constant rhyming scheme.

In public performances of sher-o-shayari and at the larger mushairas, the opening line of each sher couplet is repeated twice to amplify the listeners’ interests and anticipations, with the second, “response” line added once with emphasis in the form of a punch-line. A series of rhyming shers running consistently exercises the poet’s (shayar’s) ability to keep the rhyme scheme going while making the poetic language more complicated and effective. The purpose of each sher is to give a deeper resonance to a relatively simpler opening emotion, to evoke emotion, feelings of love, spirituality, amusement, and often in Ishrat’s case, of self-consolation. 

The ghazal is a strict format, whose value and aesthetic quality depend almost entirely on its formal structure. The repetition of key words adds a rhythm to the recitation of the ghazal, and prepares the listeners – or readers – to focus not just on the word that is repeated, but the rhyming word that precedes it in the rhyming lines. It is through this language of repetition and cleverly-placed emphasis that the reciter – or the writer – is able to reach his audience.

But it is this strict, formal adherence to format that eventually also proves to be the biggest challenge in translating the ghazal to the English language. Like many languages stemming from Arabic and Sanskrit roots, in Urdu, the verb in a sentence often comes at the very end. The common English grammatical structure of [object + verb + subject] will be translated in Urdu as [object + subject + verb]. Ishrat stuck closely to this structure in his poetry, and most of his sentences that ended in his repetitive words and sounds were his verbs.  For example, one of his simple rhyming couplets in ‘You and I have a friendship’ in Urdu is:

اپکا ہمسے دوستانہ ہے

یہ بھی کیا دن کیا زمانہ ہے

Apka humse dostana hai

Yeh bhi kya din hai, kya zamana hai

Which roughly translates as

You with me friendship have

This great day is, great time is

To make sentences in Urdu comprehensible for English readers, a translator will freely restructure the parts of speech such as:

You and I have a friendship

This is a great day, a great time.

This restructuring would work well for prose, but in poetry – particularly Ishrat’s strict work where the twist and turn of every ghazal hinged on the repetition of the last word, a literal translation loses the essential musicality of the formal. The ghazal ceases to be a ghazal.

A fully formal translation of these ghazals, if of course, possible, but not without experimenting with the language or tinkering with the content. Instead of verbs, other parts of speech, which make sense at the end of an English sentence, can be used as the repeating or rhyming words. A faithful formal translator will have to decide on words and rhymes that may not fit the literal meaning in each one of Ishrat’s lines to add to the end of their English translations. For example, for the same couplet given above, my more ‘formal’ translation, sticking closer to Ishrat’s musicality, was:

There’s a friendship between you and I now

What a time to be alive now!

I adopted ‘now’ as my rhyming word, applying it in the opening couplet and then at the end of every even-numbered line to adhere with Ishrat’s formal structure. Furthermore, I adopted a new rhyming sound for this ghazal – ‘I now’ – straying from Ishrat’s original ‘aana hai’. These changes, along with some semblance of adherence to the syllables and inner rhyme schemes of each line, were only possible by sacrificing the exact literal meanings of the ghazals.

So, in translating the poems from Urdu to English, I faced this crucial dilemma: which version of Ishrat should be maintained, and which one should be sacrificed? Do I stay true to the strict codes of the sher and ghazal format and modify the content to re-imagine the poems’ musicality? Or do I adhere closely to Ishrat’s literal meanings of the poetry, even if it meant that I would lose the truest essence of the ghazal in doing so? To my knowledge, Ishrat never considered a translation of his work, and thus, never faced the potential complications that would accompany the rules of another language during his lifetime. I, however, believe that, I can only translate his truest artistic intentions by staying true to both content and form.

To arrive at my answer, I also challenged myself to discover my own theory of translation. Translation to me isn’t simply the transference of words from one language to another. Language isn’t simply a means of communication, it’s the vehicle that drives cultures. To lose the intricate differences in language would mean to lose the important differences in culture, which are as important to the entire process of translation as the literal meanings of the words themselves. In her essay “Translation: The Biography of an Artform”, Alice Kaplan quoted Antoine Berman’s view on ‘bad translation’ as (1):

I call bad translation any translation which, using the pretext of transmissibility/communication, works towards a systematic negation of the foreignness of the foreign work. (70)

I agree with Berman here. Even as a translated work should not ‘feel’ translated, the translator should also be careful in not losing the ‘foreignness’ of the work. In Ishrat’s case, the ghazal form was his inherent ‘foreignness’ from the English language. In converting the experience of reading or hearing a ghazal in English, its essential not to lose that quality, to transfer its musicality, but also, to stay true to the ‘soul’ in the content of each piece.

It is in confronting this challenge that I was reminded of the French phrase décalage, which I first came across while reading Brent Hayes Edwards’ “Prologue” from the book The Practice of Diaspora. Edwards describes it as (2):

Décalage is one of the many French words that resists translation into English… It can be translated as “gap”, “discrepancy”, “time-lag”, or “interval” … In other words, a décalage is either a difference or gap in time… or in space…

(…)

Décalage indicates the reestablishment of a prior unevenness or diversity; it alludes to the taking away of something that was added in the first place, something artificial, a stone or a piece of wood that served to fill some gap or to rectify some imbalance. (13-14)

There is no perfect way to rectify that imbalance, to fill the décalage between the Urdu ghazal format and the grammatical form of the work translated into English. For the English reader, the beauty of the Urdu poetry will have to arise from within that imbalance.

The larger question for me, then, was if my intention with this translation was to whether to take the ghazal closer to the English-speaking reader, or bring the English-speaking reader closer to the ghazal? My answer was to embrace the décalage; why can’t both forms exist? Translation is not a monologue, it’s a two-way conversation. It’s important to both reinvent the work to fit the language – and hence the culture – of a new readership, just as it is important to retain the foreignness of the foreign work. There is beauty of the poetry to be found in both the literal and formal translations of Ishrat’s ghazals.

So, instead of creating a forced unification between the East and the West, I decided to celebrate the unique differences in each form. As someone who has grown up with a healthy dose of both cultures, I refuse to believe that there is a singular, definite audience who can resonate with these ghazals, in any language. Literature can be globally egalitarian, without the borders of linguistic rules that constrain it.

My translations present two forms of each of Ishrat’s most famous works, a literal translation – The Poem – to bring the ghazal to the English reader, and a formal translation – The Ghazal – to take the English reader closer to the original Urdu. In this way, I hope to transfer over the cultural aspects of Urdu even as the poems are read in English.

           

My memories of my grandfather are scarce and hazy. I remember him sitting with his friends, wearing a karakul over his dead, while he sang some of his ghazals. I remember him petting his Labradors as he got older and slower. And I remember his adorned, lifeless body on a wooden platform before it was carried to the cremation ghat. My parents and uncles gave me second-hand accounts of his life and personality as I grew older, but it was never enough for me to understand his true nature. Even when a collection of his poetry and a music album by ghazal artists Ahmed and Mohammed Hussain was released after his death, his words held no meaning for me, untranslatable into the limited understanding of my young mind.

So, nearly three decades after his death, I approached him again, not as Amrit Lal Madhok, my grandfather, but as Amrit Lal “Ishrat”, a scholar of Urdu and Persian and a noted poet of sher-shayari and ghazals. By reading his poetry and hearing his written voice, I was able to finally encounter the grandfather I never knew. These ghazals, written over twenty years while he moved from Iran back to India and eventually found stability in Varanasi, gave me an insight that no family albums or anecdotes about Ishrat ever could. They give me a direct conversation with him, where the public figure poured out the most personal meditations of his heart in formal Urdu poetry, and where I replied to him with my interpretations of those meditations in English. Through his poetry, I learnt of Ishrat’s loves, his insecurities, and the particular lense with which he saw the world.

Ishrat’s ghazals are primarily meditations of his insecurities and of unrequited love. He often describes himself as “distressed”, a broken heart that doesn’t deserve even the attentions of his muse. It is in this distress that Ishrat often turns to his two constant companions of self-consolation: alcohol and poetry. He recognises and is often afflicted by alcohol as a mere temporary relief, but in his verses, he is able to find the means to communicate his anxieties. Ishrat addresses his listeners, his lover, his muses, even the moon and the stars in his poetry, but he ends every ghazal with a nod to self, a sher where he shifts the conversation away to face himself. The last rhyming couplet of almost every ghazal by Ishrat is a direct address to himself, where he consoles or encourages himself after stating his previous anguishes and anxieties. At the end of “In my heart I still believe your promises are true”, a poem about losing favour with the loved one, he writes:

Don’t know anything Ishrat, except that there exists

A poet, a smiling face, and my youth – so let it be!  

It is common for shayars to end their ghazals with a couplet that incorporate their penname, their poetic takhallus. The word takhallus, deriving from the Arabic, means ending. Ishrat rarely let a poem end without this wink to himself.

True to his penname, Ishrat had joy in his poetry, too, joy that often contradicted or clashed with his sorrow. He encouraged drinking, the company of friends, and the celebration of beauty. Often, he would also lament the pain that the same beauty could bring him. In the poem ‘What is life for the desperate?’ he writes:

In the happiest smile of the spring,

What is life for the scattered thorns?

(…)

If we didn’t worship flowers, Ishrat,

What is life for the faces that bloom?

Ishrat’s fascination with Urdu seemed to stretch much beyond the language. He was a Hindu who had broken culture barriers by mastering in what was essentially an Islamic art-form. Then, and now, these barriers of religion have often been volatile, between groups of people who worship different gods and follow different customs. Ishrat picked and chose what he felt deserved celebration on each end of the spectrum, and became more famously-known for his Islamic-sounding takhallus. To honour his legacy decades after his death, an interfaith mushaira is now held with some of the country’s best shayars in Varanasi every year.

It was with an intent to keep alive Ishrat’s spirit of breaking barriers between communities that I felt it necessary to translate his work in English. For decades, the English language has both been a source of pride and controversy for Indians. It is the language that was taught by the colonists, who indoctrinated it as one of country’s national languages. Now, even while the mastery of English is helping Indians succeed at home and abroad, nationalist movements have criticised the elevation of the ‘foreign’ language and pushed local and state governments in India to revert the primary medium of instruction and communication to local languages like Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, and others.

I believe that there is merit in celebrating all languages and cultures, and by translating Ishrat’s Urdu work in English, I hope to confront these thorny complications of language by bridging more cultural gaps, like he did.

In 1987, Ishrat suffered from a tumour in his brain and passed away in Varanasi on May 18, 1989, at age 58. Even after death, however, Ishrat’s poetry has helped keep his spirit alive for another generation. While he was constrained within the boundaries of his academics in his professional life, Ishrat allowed his poetry to become the true expression of his fears, insecurities, loves, and addictions. In the ghazals translated here, he often comes out as astonishingly vulnerable, bearing his weaknesses and the pessimism of his romantic life. But there was joy and a celebration of life and beauty in his work, too. In Ishrat’s work, no flower came without thorns. That was eventually his consolation, that for every winter, there was a potential of spring to follow.

 

Notes

 

1. Kaplan, Alice. “Translation: The Biography of an Artform.” In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Columbia University Press, New York, 2013.

 

2. Edwards, Brent Hayes. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2003.