Crescendo: A review of English translations

Ours is largely a trash age and literature and especially poetry has been so massively trivialized that most of the poets today have become disgraceful wah wah party whom few read and still fewer appreciate.

However some poets declare their genius nonetheless and it is pleasure to read them. Crescendo is a translation by Abid Ahmad, of the select poems of Sheikh Khalid Karrar, a promising Urdu poet from Jammu and it is good fortune of a poet if he gets an able translator. I was moved by the translation that flows effortlessly and reads refreshingly original. A great transcreation of poems representing diverse themes with a good introduction by the translator make the book as much a creation of translator as the poet. Very few poets of Urdu find able translators or readers in English.

Crescendo is a mirror of our age with its doubts, anxieties, aspirations, disillusionments, and frustrations, passions and dreams.

It’s profound, subtle and intoxicating at occasions and never superficially thoughtful or emotional. It leaves you guessing at deeper and deeper interpretations. Beautifully and often wittily well-crafted words and images weave a magic that transports one to a different world for a time being. The poet has something to say and the translator has amply gifted imagination to help him say it with both force and poetic beauty.

The poet remains himself, densely allusive and elusive. At times he appears mystical but agnosticism keeps him haunting. He finds no answers to life’s innocent questions.

One recalls that beautiful verse” Zindagi tere masum sawalun se pareshan hu mein.” And one may remark, has anyone found these answers?

My reading of scriptures, mystics and the most brilliant minds of history who are universally respected as philosophers has convinced me that great religions, philosophies and poetry and mysticism have not answered the troubling questions regarding fate, suffering, mystery, glory, quest for transcendence and meaning  and madness of dreams we weave and passions that move us, the passions of life. They have, however, dissolved these questions, and asked for a new orientation to life, a transformation of our attitude to it. Nirvana is samsara when looked from the eyes of a child – trusting, grateful, playful, artistic and non-egoistically. Umer Khayam has expressed the position of mysticism and great poetry or tragic art in his Rubaiyyat. So has Hafiz when he says ‘Who has solved the riddle of life?’ At a purely rational plane, life offers us wide balls that you can’t maneuver.

Yes, love opens the gate but then you are no longer the old self – doubting, questioning, anxiously seeking answers. Unconditional love, soul ravishing vision of beauty, consent to be nothing in the experience of fana dissolve that old self-centric rationality-bound creature. The poets appears to be close to achieving this breakthrough but it seems they are yet to travel some more distance and complete the rendezvous with Purgatory.

Much of Crescendo seems to be a voice managing to fight the dark night of the soul with faith that is often too deep for exotericism to grasp and dignity that is denied to even great humanists. One wonders how much the poet has assimilated of life’s woe and sorrow but still managed to be a Man – defiant, undaunting. Perhaps the translator has found echo of his own complex inner journey through the Purgatory of despair that modern education brings to religiously sensitive heart and mind and this heroic resolve in the poet to fight with existential questions has made him to undertake this translation.

Crescendo is about life with its variegated hues. Life is not subject to a consistent coherent interpretation. Great poetry embraces life’s transcendence of dogmatic positions that rationalists and fundamentalists impose on it. Crescendo is existentialist in its approach – it seeks to come to terms with the void – captured brilliantly in the poem “Void” – that seems to walk with us everywhere. “Plaintalk” is a plain talk on man’s inability to find God’s phone number to clarify the mess that life often seems to be in.

It expresses absurdity of alienated labour to which man is subject in an apparently alien world. “I struggle hard in day/to make my ends meet/once I return exhausted/ I collect each drop of the patches of light/in the dark light/I see dreams/that hold no meaning /in life/I spurn my being/with cigarette sore and ill-logic.”  It asks God to call from his own side when he chooses to come to earth implying that He is absent from the scene now. This echoes “absent God thesis” favoured by many existentialist writers and mystics like Simone Weil and philosophers like Wittgenstein. Many modern theologians and Sufis have maintained that God is “an unattainable quest” as Whitehead put it. Muslim theology denies possibility of vision of God in all its nakedness and glory in this world. All these points imply that man is condemned to deny himself and his dreams in the face of “deaf” universe. However this doesn’t mean God is  not but God is not in the world. The best prayer and the only one that we really need, from a mystical viewpoint, is to say ‘thank you God.’ Prayer is not petition.

The book is about Kashmir as well or one could interpret it like that. “Life lying in an isolation ward” speaks of day to day experiences for many victims of current trouble. In a brilliant stroke of wit the poet says that our bodies are used as laboratories. Isolation ward could mean prison to which those are taken who need special treatment. To quote the poet “he injected poison in my veins/tore my fibres/fragmented my body into pieces/let loose predators on me/each day a fresh torture/he trampled my living body/dragged it on roads/now he has thrown me in isolation ward.”  “Curfew, I and he” expresses a novel thought about now a familiar experience. The poem is a powerful satire on current phase of Kashmir history. “My wailing Wall” is a statement of desecrating war that respects no holy days and is imposed on us. ”Noah’s Ark” is a critique of messianic thinking that has been the bane of Muslims. On the ravages of time is a brilliant short poem “Time” echoing the theme of the Quranic chapter titled “Wal Asr” though the poet has not made any exception of the chosen ones who are not blinded by the raging torment of desire. The poet however keeps

his faith in life’s forward movement  by employing the symbol of water in the poem “Water”. The poet is a master of monologue and brilliantly weaves the tapestry of images on such otherwise hazy subjects as meaning in “Meaning.” The book is an impressive use of various linguistic devices and does achieve the major aim of defamiliarization partly by deft use of images.

Mysticism echoes in many poems. “Itinerary” reminds us of traditional Sufi poets in theme and dares to state its conclusion much more boldly than we usually find in Sufis. “I have become a god/unto myself.” However he is still in search of the elusive self that gives us intimations of solid grounding in the eternal rock of joy and light.

He is yet to arrive, if we use mystical terms. He finds no anchor, no balm anywhere and betrays his mystical intuitions that redeem him at other moments. Although aware of the difference between loneliness and being authentically alone like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Mansur he is not on the other side of the shore. Vacillating faith and agonizing doubt is evident in many poems including the one titled “Where am I.” The poet appears to be neither traditional nor modern but hovering in a half way house of hazy belief and suspected doubt.  “Winter” is one of the most beautiful poems celebrating ordinary happenings, not unlike Zen mystics, whose only prayer ritual consists of drinking qehwa in silence. The poet in “December” ingeniously compares life’s unfulfilled dreams and ambitions to “thousands of shoulders,

graceless/dead bodies” on which he sees himself sitting.

As the translator of poems has observed: “The poet doesn’t accept dictation from the universe”. Like Ghalib he is not going to accept the terms that the world of space and time impose on us. He is not a slave of any gazelle eyed beauty. “Heart is restless/if not you, some other wish would be there/ Not that you are the source of my life/yes, if not you, there would be some other support.”

The poet is quite modern in his sensibility and beliefs but what prevents him from being a dry as dust secular modernist (a lost, self doubting, pessimistic mass of protoplasm) is his mystical faith in himself and loftiness of his station. Although quite conscious that ours is an age of demythologization when medieval enchanted landscape of fairies and supernatural tales is gone forever, as in the poem “Jinnie” he knows how to enjoy newer consolations, how to see the sacred undercover of secular or material miracles like computers.

One is reminded of Camus of The Myth of Sisyphus in such poems as “Wilderness,” “Growth” and “Void”. He finds wilderness and void “under the façade of splendorous dresses/dancing under beautiful fabrics/in long queues/crowded streets of city/work places/highways/paths and restaurants/rallies and processions/houses of representation” As in the last line he appears to be a postmodernist. In fact he is a postmodernist, existentialist, mystic all rolled into one. In  “Computer and I” he looks at the problem of time (as memory) and on the old question of to be or not to be. The poet explores the possibility of formatting himself – what an image to use! – but concludes that it is not possible as “He has kept the password of the set up with himself” The poem “No one is here” is a serious musing  on the drama of being and nothingness and has Beckettian overtones. The poet travels, like Ghalib, with many idealogues for some time but keeps his distance and has not found a master. He reserves commitment to any totalizing narrative or ideology.

The supreme beauty of the book is in its language. And for this the translator must be congratulated. Language is such that you don’t suspect you are reading a translation. Proound thoughts require deep meditation on the part of the translator and he is equal to the task.

We may get the idea of use of language appropriate to the ideas and emotions expressed by looking at such extracts as” Everything is same/frozen/useless/pensive/unbridled/lost” “In this torment of seasons/all eyes/dry/parched/coverless/leafless” “Nowhere without/Nothing nowhere/Nowhere is out there” “I am sitting on/thousands of shroudless, graceless/dead bodies” The texts’ freeflow, again a difficult job  the translaltor has so well executed could be found by considering any poem. To illustrate I quote only two excerpts: Anyone coming there?/No one is there/Is anyone alive?/in walls of fractured moments/No one is there…/A strange drama of being and nothingness” “With destination nowhere in sight/ruins were calling us/from all sides/ with their abandoned selves” And lastly to quote an entire poem “Nowhere is my balm./Awestruck am I/All shades vision has absorbed/while the rest have faded off/dark is still there/red is alive/dark is the night/red is the blood/nowhere is my balm/baffled am I.”

I conclude with a note of gratitude to the poet as well as to the translator for discovering the poet, making an exquisite selection of poems to be translated and equally exquisite and brilliant translation.