Love Aaj Kal in Urdu: Can We Translate Love in Times of Protest?

Love is for the most part unattainable and as hard to find as a restful, dream-filled night’s sleep in these times.

6 min read
Love is for the most part unattainable and as hard to find as a restful, dream-filled night’s sleep in these times.

In these times of protests, if someone were to ask me to single out THE most romantic Urdu verse I would unhesitatingly pick out this jewel by Momin Khan Momin:

Tum mere paas hote ho goya
Jab koi doosra nahi hota
You are close beside me as if
No other person can be with me

The rest of the ghazal has several other, often-recited sher, too such as:

Haal-e dil yaar se likhun kyunkar
Haath dil se juda nahin hota
How shall I describe my state to my beloved
I can not detach my hand from my heart


Tum hamare kissi tarah na huwe
Varna duniya mein kya nahin hota

You never ever became mine no matter what
Or else, what could I not have achieved in life

But poetry, like love, is subjective and deeply personal. And for me the one sher that stands out from Urdu’s admittedly vast corpus of romantic poetry is this short, seemingly simple verse for reasons that are hard to describe. I like to, also, use this sher in lectures and translation workshops to demonstrate the futility and loss that lies at the heart of any translation.

In Urdu, the entire “weight” (wazan) of the sher rests on the word ‘goya’, that almost untranslatable conjunction; as if, like, as though, apparently, etc. do not carry the same weight as ‘goya’. Momin’s contemporary, Mirza Ghalib, is said to have declared his willingness to give away his entire diwan for this one verse!

Untranslatable, Enigmatic Love

The same Momin, born as he was in an Age of Greats, both blessed and cursed to have contemporaries such as Ghalib and Zauq, living in an age when everyone – from the emperor Bahadurshah Zafar to the beggar on the streets of Delhi – was a sahib-e kalaam (a writer of verse) has also written:

Umr to saari kati ishq-e butaan mein Momin
Aakhri waqt mein kya khaak Musalman hongey

As with much of Urdu poetry, the above sher can be read in a lay and a religious sense: the poet could be talking of the futility of turning religious in his old age or he could well be talking of turning his affections to a new lover! And then there is this – an exquisite jewel-like requiem to lost love:

Woh jo hum mein tum mein qarar thha tumhein yaad ho ke na yaad ho
Wohi yaani waada nibhah ka tumhein yaad ho ke na yaad ho
That love that you and I once had, wonder if you remember it or not
That same promise, that of constancy, wonder if you remember it or not

A bit like ‘goya’ this poem has ‘yaani’, just as untranslatable and just as seemingly insignificant grammatically but serving much the same purpose, syntactically, as a keystone does in an arch.


Love and Ghalib’s ‘Jigar

In Ghalib, by far the most untranslatable word is jigar; literally and anatomically meaning liver but used for the heart, or the region thereabouts, in much of Urdu poetry:

Koi mere dil se puuchhe tire tiir-e-niim-kash ko
Ye khalish kahaan se hotii jo jigar ke paar hotaa
Someone should ask my heart about the pain of a half-drawn arrow
Would this pain have been there had it gone clean through the heart

Mirza Ghalib’s bust at his <i>haveli</i> in old Delhi.&nbsp;
Mirza Ghalib’s bust at his haveli in old Delhi. 
(Photo: Facebook)

Another of the ‘greats’, Mir Taqi Mir has written profusely on love and all matters of the heart leaving the matter of the beloved’s gender vague and fluid. But there is nothing vague in this declaration that is virtually the ‘rock edict’ of romance in urdu poetry:

Ishq ik Mir bhari patthar hai
Kab ye tujh na-tavaan se uthhta hai
Love, Mir, is a heavy rock
How can one so feeble as you lift it

There is also another sher, wrongly attributed to Mir, but actually written by Taish Marairahvi that is still recited by forlorn lovers down the ages while the rest of Taish's no doubt excellent kalaam is lost from popular memory:

Woh aaye bazm mei itna to Taish ne dekha
Phir uske baad chiraghon mein roshni na rahi
He came to the assembly and that is all that Taish could see
For after wards there was no light left in the lamps


Faiz’s Love Poetry Was Not Second to His Revolutionary Verse

Centuries later, how does the modern poet view love? With the nazm gaining greater currency and challenging the hegemony of the ghazal, Faiz Ahmad Faiz in ‘Mujhse Pehli Si Muhabbat Mere Mahboob Na Mang’ (‘My Beloved, Don’t Ask Me To Love You As I Once Did’) acknowledges the heart-tugging beauty of the beloved but talks of the other sorrows of the world which claim his attention.

Faiz Ahmad Faiz in quiet contemplation.
Faiz Ahmad Faiz in quiet contemplation.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

He juxtaposes the beloved’s beauty against the miseries and ugliness of the world, a world which has hunger, disease and deprivation, a world that can never let him love her as he once did, for a love that is divorced from social reality is too individualistic, too meaningless:

Aur bhi dukh hain zamane mein muhabbat ke siwa
Raahatein aur bhi hain vasl ki raahat ke siwa
There are other sorrows too apart from love
And other pleasures too apart from that of union

Another poem, ‘Chand Roz Aur Meri Jaan’ (‘A Few Days More, My Dear’), again has the poet addressing his beloved and comforting her that the days of cruelty, oppression and helplessness are about to end. The humiliations inflicted by strange hands (the British), he assures her, shall be short lived:

Zulm ki chhaanv mein dam lene pe majbur hain hum
Aur kuchh deir sitam sah lein tadap lein ro lein

We are constrained to breathe in the shade of tyranny
Bear it just a little longer, endure thus oppression


Different Objects of Love in Urdu Poetry

Of all the contemporary poets, perhaps the one who poses the greatest problem is Munawwar Rana who seems to have virtually replaced the beloved with the mother and the love we see time and again in his poetry spanning decades is a son’s love for his mother in verses such as these:

Jab bhi kashti miri sailaab mein aa jaati hai
Ma dua karti hui ḳhvaab mein aa jaati hai
Whenever my boat reaches a flood
My mother, praying, appears in my dream

Noted Urdu writer, Munawwar Rana reading his poetry.
Noted Urdu writer, Munawwar Rana reading his poetry.
(Photo: YouTube/MunawwarRana)

Then there is Shahryar, neither fully modernist nor a traditionalist, who sees the beloved as an enigma, who invents a new vocabulary of love, who asks questions such as:

Ya tere ilawa bhi kisi shai ki talab hai
Ya apni muhabbat pe bharosa nahin hum ko
Is it that I hanker for anything apart from you
Or, is it that I do not trust my love for you

Much of Shahryar's poetry, especially his nazms, is concerned with matters of the body, with the relationship between men and women. He writes with naturalness and ease and none of the coy camouflage that some poets resort to, nor any of the overt in-your-face sexuality that mars much of modern Urdu poetry. Instead there is an easy acceptance:

Raat tujhe sapne mein dekha
Tujhko chhune ki khwahish ko
Kitni dushwari se taala
I saw you in a dream last night
And pushed away the desire to touch you
With such difficulty


To conclude, let us remember that love, be it romantic or bodily, is for the most part unattainable and, as for Shahryar, goya ke, as hard to find as a restful, dream-filled night's sleep in these times!

(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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