Urdu Poet Who Got Alcohol to My Muslim Home Is Not Just an ‘Idiom’

Urdu poet Shahryar’s verse transcends time, and Rakhshanda Jalil’s new book on him does justice to his work.

5 min read
Shahryar’s lyrics brought the Rekha-starrer ‘Umrao Jaan’ to life. Image used for representational purposes.

(This is a book review. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

This book is about a man who sat smoking a cheap cigarette on the almost moth-eaten carpet in my parents’ living room, what we called the drawing room, in the early eighties. He is the one who wouldn’t let the six-year-old me take a sip of his Cola Cola, because it was, in his words, the grown version of the Coca Cola sherbet, as he deftly plucked the glass out of my hands.

The book is written by Rakhshanda Jalil, and her credentials as a literary historian and critic check out like few others. Plus she is Ale Ahmad Suroor’s granddaughter. He supervised Shahryar’s PhD, I think, or taught him or something, while she was growing up on campus, so probably knows him better than most.

‘Shahryar: A Life in Poetry’ by Rakshanda Jalil, published by Harper Collins India; 256 pages.
‘Shahryar: A Life in Poetry’ by Rakshanda Jalil, published by Harper Collins India; 256 pages.

Would Shahryar be Reduced to a Black & White Idiom?

“Then why is the dratted book still on your TBR (to-be-read) shelf,” my friend Hemant sounds exasperated.

“Well, because right at the beginning, Rakhshanda Jalil says that she will not talk of the person behind the poetry, and that her commentary will be on the seminal essence of the writing alone, and that can be no fun.” I am equally exasperated.

“Well, read it,” Hemant says, “Or give it to your mom! She’s waiting to read it.”

We, now, as a way to reduce carbon footprint in the family, do not buy multiple copies of the same book anymore. Except Harry Potter, which is the exception to the rule, but that really doesn’t matter, since JK Rowling isn’t writing any more, but I digress.

Anyway, lest Mom buy her own copy and there be the murder of yet another tree or four, I pick up Rakhshanda’s book on Shahryar, with what could only be termed great reluctance. What a wasted opportunity, I click my tongue, she could have written about the man.

And then, I read on. Prepared as one can be, to be disappointed. To see the man of great colour and vivid imagery, the man who brought alcohol into my parents’ uber-musalmaan home (and gave life to the film ‘Umrao Jaan’), being reduced to an idiom in black and white.

Stripping Shahryar of the Personal

The first half rolls easy (and quietly), as Rakhshanda searches for – and finds – a tone so bereft of judgment, I could have cried. She writes of Shahryar’s contemporaries – each a trailblazer – and so many of them stars much brighter than Shahryar could ever have hoped to be. And she writes with an equanimity and restraint which would be denied to one who has read a little less.

She writes of Shahryar’s moderation, not delving on mediocrity or reasons thereof, as the poet explores radical thoughts with an unlikely temperance, just dipping his toes into the almost rabid Marxism, so rife amongst his contemporaries.

You read with a quiet chuckle sometimes, the excerpts of conversations of thinkers and poets, Shahryar himself, his contemporaries in Hindi and Urdu, and of those who would judge him with the benefit of hindsight.

All gentle appreciation, mild critique and refreshing candour.

The second half, which is why then, is riveting. Rakhshanda skirts all that is personal, and all that could have been commentary, to focus on the craft – showcasing only the poems. And it is here that the book comes of age. And it is here that the book takes a form all its own.

Shahryar Demands a Detached Reader

The translation is succinct and on point. Rakhshanda thankfully doesn’t delve into the coquettish, or the ridiculous – both of which are so intrinsic to translating Urdu poetry, that one doesn’t even cringe anymore. But hers is a more gentle, more literal translation that encourages you to use your brains, which is perhaps why the book becomes imminently unputdownable. And also because every few pages throws up a singular gem, not the quiet disillusionment of Firaq, not the easy turn of phrase of Faraz, not the fiery dissent of Jalib, and definitely not the flamboyant neologisms of Faiz, but a gem alright.

Shahryar’s is the almost prosaic, definitely defeated syntax of one who doesn’t try too hard. The Marxist who doesn’t espouse the cause, the rebel who sleepwalks through the revolution.

Who says it like it is, and Rakhshanda, in a feat of great restraint, translates it exactly like it is said.

So each time you stumble upon the tiny spark of what can only be brilliance, and you do, quite so often in the second half of the book, you miss the context. The context, which could have, if juxtaposed in commentary, been a distraction. It is then you realise why Rakhshanda probably chose to keep the man, and all she undoubtedly knew about him, out of the book. It would have not allowed you to read what he has written with the degree of detachment a poet such a Shahryar needs.

Shahryar’s Poetry Transcends Time

For he doesn’t talk of the mellifluence and savage imagery of Zindaan ki Ek Shaam (An Evening in Prison, Faiz Ahmed Faiz), or of the flaming anguish and treachery of Raqs-e-Zanjeer (The Dance of the Chains, Habib Jalib).

Shahryar is about the Khwab ke Dar Band Hain (The doors to dreams are closed). A subtext that Rakhshanda dwells on as she dissects the parallel movements in Hindi and Urdu poetry of the time, and one that she believes Shahryar transcends (or at least casts asunder), not belonging to the progressives(taraqqi-pasand) or the modern (jadeed).

As you read on, his poetry grows on you. His words are sometimes lackluster, and, perhaps therefore, familiar.

The syntax is shorn of glamour and yet, restricted by construct, and form. Stripped of ornamentation, often repetitive, and only embellished by a stark discipline. The narrative is dispassionate, almost impersonal (everything this review should be, but is not), and which is why Shahryar’s poetry deserves the attention it is getting today, almost half a century hence. It transcends time and context.

Is the Book Any Good? Yes!

I smile at how intelligent a decision it undoubtedly is, to let Shahryar’s poetry speak for itself, and shine when it can, without the bijou setting of context or commentary.

Because sometimes, a poet needs to be evaluated just so. Dispassionately. Without allowance for his circumstances and his handicap.

And without the dissonance that comes from an explanation about his mediocrity, talent or his inability to be right and beautiful and perfect all the time. When all that shines is his craft. With nubbins and textures and craters and holes in the narrative, and in what is written.

As I reach out for my phone so I can tell Mom why I adore the book I did not want to read, my twelve-year-old son Aradhya, comes in for a good night kiss. “You are still reading that book on poetry,” he says looking at the cover, “Is it about the nukta cheen dude?”

He receives a prompt whack. Never again will Ghalib be called the nukta cheen dude, or so help me God, I tell him. He grins. “What ARE you reading?” “Shahryar – A Life in Poetry,” I tell him.

“Any good?”Aradhya asks me, with the easy irreverence of a reader. “Yup,” I say, as he snuggles in closer.

(Dr Shibal Bhartiya is Senior Consultant, Ophthamology Services at Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurgaon.)

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