Nostalgia of exile

December 21, 2014

Ashfaq Hussain, one of the pioneers of Urdu literary activities in Canada

Nostalgia of exile

"This nostalgia of homelessness is the fate of my generation and tribe. I am not the only one walking on this pathway of anguish, a whole caravan of wounded souls is walking with me." (Ashfaq Ahmed)

Ashfaq Hussain is one of the pioneers of Urdu literary activities in Canada. Born in Karachi in 1951, he acquired his Master’s in Urdu literature from the University of Karachi in 1974, and moved permanently to Canada in 1980.

Two years after his arrival in Toronto, he started a prestigious literary magazine called Urdu International which entertained original contributions not only from expats but also from famous fiction writers, poets and critics of India and Pakistan.

Today Hussain is known as a Canadian poet of Urdu language, but in fact his literary journey started long before moving to his adopted land. He started writing poetry in the 1970s and his first poetry collection Aitbaar (Credence) came out in 1979. He was deeply impressed by two modern Urdu poets, Faiz and Faraz. His book Faiz Aik Jaeza (Faiz a Study) is considered to be the first ever survey of Faiz’s poetry. His second book on Faiz Habeeb-e-Ambar Dust (Friend with Fragrant Hands) came out in 1992, and still another study on Faiz The Western References of Faiz was published in 1993.

The first English translation of Ashfaq Hussain’s poetry was published in 1985 from Toronto, and critics instantly admitted that it was a voice to reckon with. Famous Indian critic Gopi Chand Narang said, "Ashfaq was neither exiled, nor did he change his abode under any pressure, but he still suffered from the pain of exile and the anguish of homelessness." Why is it so? Narang advises us to look for the answer in his poetry:

My children find solace

In homes without courtyards;

The desire for open courtyards

Was limited to my generation


God knows what malaise

Has struck city folks:

There are people all around,

But loneliness abounds 


When I left my home

I was aware of the fact :

If there are sandcastles,

There should also be the tide. 


Where can I go

In the garb of a stranger?

I have just brought my body,

but left the face behind

The painful aspects of modern urban life started appearing in his poems when he was still in Karachi, but they assumed tragic proportions once the poet moved to a city of skyscrapers standing tall against the downtrodden neighbourhoods:

We might be absent

from the city of loss

But there should be others

who are present


The telephone calls from your city

To the hell

Are all local calls

Poetic thoughts of one language can never be adequately expressed in another that has led people to believe that poetry is something that cannot be translated. Translators of the world agree that theirs is a tricky business. The more a text is language specific, the more difficult it is to translate. Poetry can be a case in point where the syntax becomes so important that you cannot change the word order even within the original language, what to say of another language.

Last year I interviewed Washington-based Javed Boota who translates from Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and other regional languages. Comparing poetry and fiction, he had a gem of an advice for the translators of literature: Narrative fiction seems comparatively easier to translate because you can play with the syntax without apparently tampering with the meaning. But this is a trap most translators unwittingly slip into.

Khalid Hasan, a superb translator of Manto, couldn’t sometimes resist the temptation to elaborate on the original text. He also didn’t hesitate to abbreviate or even completely skip a couple of lines that he thought were irrelevant for the target readers. This I think is unfair. A translator has no right to reveal, explain, expand, clarify, simplify, rationalise or in any other way ‘refine’ the original text. And when it comes to poetry, this rule applies even more strictly.

Baidar Bakht, the superb translator of Ashfaq Hussain’s poetry, seems to be an ardent follower of this rule. A civil engineer by profession, Baidar Bakht has also been building bridges between cultures and languages. He has translated many modern Urdu poets into English, including Kishwar Naheed, Bulraj Komal, Akhtar-ul-Iman, Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi, Jamil-uddin-Aali, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Ali Sardar Jafri. In 2010, he published a thick volume of Amjad Islam Amjad’s poetry that he had translated in collaboration with Marie-Anne Erki.

Baidar Bakht quotes Ashfaq Hussain in the afterword of the book: "The situation of creative new citizens of the new world, who had left their homelands for better future, is quite strange. With the happiness that the beauty of the new world has offered, comes the difficulty of averting one’s eyes to one’s past. It is the truth that a man, cut off from his past, has neither the present nor the future. In the new lands, Urdu writers and poets, while having full allegiance to their new countries, are also the keepers of this truth."

And then Baidar Bakht goes on to say, "Although Ashfaq Hussain has fully reconciled to his adopted land, he seems to believe that he has not burnt all his bridges."

The Ocean Searches for Me
Poet: Ashfaq Hussain
Publisher: University of Karachi. Pakistan Study
Centre, 2014
Pages: 281 

Nostalgia of exile