On translating revolutionary poetry

December 13, 2020

Tahira Naqvi’s translation of Fahmida Riaz’s poems is flawless, leaving one wanting to delve into the original text

“Coming on the descending side of my life, this collection of poetry may well be my last. That is why I have also included here the poems that are very old but remained unpublished for some reason or lacked only a line or two. But it’s still the same kind of poetry I have always written, that is, an amalgamation of personal and vicarious experiences that kept inter-changing and re-appearing with time in the form of new characters…” quoted from the preface of Fahmida Riaz’s last collection of poetry, Tum Kabir, these lines efficiently bring Riaz’s voice to the reader, in the Introduction written by Raza Rumi for Tahira Naqvi’s latest literary venture, The Body Torn: And Other Poems, an assorted collection of revolutionary poet Fahmida Riaz’s poems.

Fahmida Riaz is a phenomenon, both as a woman and as a poet. Naqvi’s selection of her subject is precise and calculated.

“…when I looked at bad translations of Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz and felt a challenge but my instinct barred me from attempting anything myself even when I felt I might experiment just to “see” what turns up. Now, after all this time, I find myself writing a translator’s note for my translation of a collection of poems by Fahmida Riaz,” writes Naqvi in the Translator’s Note. The compilation has been through a thorough thought process, for the content has been handpicked by the translator to project the diversity of Riaz’s canvas.

Riaz, along with some other revolutionary poets, is most revered for their ease to speak of female sexuality and desire. When asked about the role of a man [hero] being merely decorative in Riaz’s romantic poems, Naqvi says, “Traditionally, the voice in Urdu poetry has been a masculine voice, a male lover talking about and addressing the female beloved, replete with her naaz-o-ada, her tresses, and her cruel wiles. With Fahmida Riaz, Kishwar Naheed and Parveen Shakir we began to see a clear reversal where the voice was unmistakably feminine, the lover a woman appearing to be addressing a male beloved. In fiction, women’s feelings, thoughts and images of love and sexuality were explored for the first time in works by writers like Rashid Jahan and then, of course, Ismat Chughtai, and continued later in the works of Pakistani writers Khadija Mastur, Hajira Masrur. Urdu poetry was slower to take on this challenge, but once it did, it assumed a life of its own. The masculine figure did not only emerge as a lover, partner and companion (never as a hero), it also became a metaphor for the social and cultural constraints imposed in our society by patriarchy. Indeed, the role a man plays in Riaz’s poetry is revolutionary in the sense that it is unlike any that came before. In this sense both Fahmida and Kishwar Naheed are trailblazers; what they started shattered stereotypes and created new aesthetic standards.”

There are several poems in the book that resound Riaz’s stance about a woman’s desire, for example, Caution, Fragrance, For My Friend et cetera. But the remarkable quality of this collection is that it brings to light, the political paradigms in Riaz’s poetic thought, the poems she wrote regarding her court trials, her interactions with the policemen and the thaana culture and the insecurity of being ‘watched’, as she writes in the poem Pehla Baab, (The First Chapter):

The rebel in her [Riaz] speaks in every bit of her writing and Naqvi has skillfully picked every strand of her cognitive expression, laying it bare in the English language for the reader.

“But then on the way home/ At every street corner/ At every crossing/ You don’t turn to look back/ To see if anyone is pursuing you/ If anyone is keeping an eye on you”

It is unsettling, to say the least, to witness this shift of narrative, as Riaz sounds like she’s under duress here, a feeling the reader never otherwise gets from her poetry, except perhaps from poems written for her son Kabir who died in a swimming accident. When asked about the struggle of a woman under duress she is not built for, Naqvi explains, “An examination of Riaz’s poetry beginning from her earliest works and all the way to the last poems she wrote after her son’s tragic death reveals the journey of a woman struggling at first to fight against cultural and social restraints, then evolving and moving as she develops a clear sense of who she is and how she must counter that which obstructs and limits her actions. We observe her literary journey, are aware of her immense stature as a scholar and writer, we see her as a feminist as well as an activist, and also as a human being touched by pain, fear and insecurity like everyone else. But in the end, she is irrefutably one of the most unafraid female voices of the twentieth century.”

Riaz’s poems encompassed a vast range of literary themes, evolution being a prominent one of them. A fact, taken carefully into consideration by Naqvi while compiling this collection. For example, in Doosra Baab (Second Chapter), a block of verse reads:

“I’m mud/ The very first form of earth is in the universe/ I was patient and became a rock/ And loved and became a valley/ Covering my bosom with the greenery of compassion/ I gave up two coins from the treasure of wheat/ That became diamonds, rubies, gems/ And gold and silver began melting in my veins.”

Riaz frequently mentions jewels, especially rubies in her work. She mentions the colour red as much in her political themes as she does in the romantic ones. She profusely refuses to be defined as one kind of a poet or thinker. The rebel in her speaks in every bit of her writing and Naqvi has skillfully picked every strand of her cognitive expression, laying it bare in the English language for the reader. However, Naqvi purposefully leaves some words in Urdu, for example, Uff, majlis, dhak dhak et cetera. While reading the book one realises the sheer acumen behind that decision as nothing else would have sufficed.

Particularly intriguing is a poem titled Surah Yaseen. It describes a woman lost, looking for a way back. However, the title and the text require some explanation. “I cannot be sure how the title of the actual sura[h] plays into the meaning of this poem, but I can make a guess. The sura[h], known as the heart of the Quran, is long and gives the believers everything needed to know God. I feel that in her poem, Riaz places her despair as a woman suffering at the hands of society within the confines of that absolute belief, almost as a complaint about that which is promised and that which she receives,” says Naqvi.

The selection of Riaz’s poetry for this book is beyond wise, translated exceptionally by Naqvi. The book is replete with a fusion of themes and topics, leaving one wanting to read the original text as well. Palestinians, The Constable is Waiting, the First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Chapters deserve critical appreciative pieces for themselves alone.

The Body Torn: And Other Poems

Author: Tahira Naqvi

Publisher: Folio Books

Pages: 172

Price: Rs695

The writer has authored two books of fiction, including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary   Stories of Ordinary Women (2018)

On translating revolutionary poetry