Saudade in Urdu poetry

By Fatymah Ishtiaq
Fri, 06, 20

He says that the streets of Delhi were like a painter’s book, where every visible face seemed like a painting...


Saudade, a Portuguese word, is often treated as an untranslatable word. It is a word that tries to encompass the ambivalence of nostalgia. At one place, it appears to speak for the yearning of something lost, and at another place, it becomes the advocate of our inner desires that long for fulfillment. It is hard to explain saudade in a single word and multiple definitions can be associated with it. Every description of saudade seems to reflect a feeling for something lost. This word is often associated with the Portuguese soul and is considered to be the “untranslatable word.” The following essay contests this idea and focuses on the translation of the emotions associated with this word in Urdu poetry. As Eliot says, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” so Urdu poetry appears to reflect the essence of saudade before it is understood. The emotions related to saudade resonate in Urdu poetry.

Saudade is the nostalgia for something grand that no more exists. Duarte Nunes de Leão defines Saudade as “Memory of a thing with the desire for this same thing.” This spirit of Saudade is quite conspicuous in Mir Taqi Mir’s poetry. Mir Taqi Mir, the famous 18th-century poet, was born in Agra. In 1730s, it is said that Mir moved to Delhi and made it his permanent home. The raids of Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah Durrani wrecked Mir’s Delhi. As a result, Mir was compelled to leave Delhi and migrate to Lucknow. However, Mir could never bid farewell to his love for Delhi, and his love for Delhi appears as his saudade. His saudade appears in his romance with Delhi. He says:

He says that the streets of Delhi were like a painter’s book, where every visible face seemed like a painting. It is said that, on reaching Lucknow, Mir was belittled for his modest dressing in a mushaira of nawabs. To this Mir replies:

Here, Mir reminds his deriders of the glorious days of Delhi that no longer exist. Thus, Mir feels saudade for the lost glory of Delhi.

Saudade appears as an unresolved love that fails to diminish with time. Irenay Stevens, in the title of her 2016 novel Saudade: The love that remains, gives a beautiful definition of Saudade. This definition alludes to Derrida’s concept of hauntology, where he argues that our unresolved past keeps on haunting our present. In Stevens case, it is the unconsummated or the unrequited love that persists in our heart and struggles for requital. No matter how much an individual strives, that love remains and keeps on haunting our existence. Parveen Shakir reflects this essence of saudade in the following words:

Here, Shakir foregrounds the existence of an unresolved love, which she thought would diminish with time, but it kept on marking its presence. Jaun Eliya also seems to reiterate this essence:

Here, the poet speaks of his failure to get over his beloved and his inability to move on.

When talking about the persistence of love, it will be unjust to ignore Faiz’s famous poem

Here, Faiz refers to his first love that dwells in his memory, and he is unable to forget his first love. He urges his beloved to not ask for his first love.

Owing to Faiz’s nationalistic inclination, this first love can be interpreted as his love for his homeland. Despite the beauty of his beloved, the poet fails to shed off the thought of his first love from his mind. He says,

This spirit is a recurrence of Stevens’s definition. For Faiz, his first love is so profound and complete in itself that despite his beloved’s beauty, he cannot forget that love. This inhabitation of his first love in his life that refuses to itinerate from his life is his saudade. This saudade is “the love that remains”.

Saudade also appears as a fuel for thought. As Keats says, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”. The view of something beautiful appears to nourish our soul and thoughts. Many times, while wandering through the labyrinth of this world, we often find ourselves lost in the inky room of despair. The world around us appears to be gloomy and without any light or hope. At an instance like this, it is the reminiscence of something beautiful that lights a candle in the darkroom of our life. Faiz explains the same aspect of saudade in the following words:

Here, saudade appears as a thought of Faiz’s beloved that is more like a zephyr in his desiccated life.

Thus, saudade seems to recur in different forms in Urdu poetry. At one place, it appears as quintessence for nostalgia and another place it refers to the unconsummated love lingering in one’s life. Saudade also appears in one’s recollections that are a source of happiness afterward. This existence of saudade in different forms in Urdu poetry challenges the status of saudade as an “untranslatable word.”

The author is a student majoring in English and has a keen interest in philosophy, poetry, and history.