Monday, April 30, 2007

Water of Life

Mohammad Hussain Azad's Aab-e-hayaat (Water of Life) is regarded as the first documented 'history' of Urdu literature. It is a book that has shaped and influenced the thoughts of the Urdu literary community all through the 20th century. I'm not much of an on-line reader, so while a link to the online version of the English translation by F.W Pritchett and S.R Faruqui figures prominently in my IE favorites folder, I desperately wanted to own a copy of the book. So you can imagine my delight when I found an old copy of this translation at a bookshop last week.

As I opened the book, I was quite amused by the very first line. The translators try to warn the reader –

"Āb-e ḥayāt is not a trustworthy history of Urdu literature. It cannot and should not be read as such."
Now, this is interesting… the first documented 'history' of Urdu literature is not 'trustworthy' after all. As I dived deeper into the initial chapters – the translators' introductory notes – it became obvious to me that the translators felt very strongly about what Azad had written in this seminal book.
"The unique power exerted by Āb-e ḥayāt is what made us decide to translate this exasperating, moving, wrongheaded, fascinating, all-too-persuasive text."
As I moved further along, I understood why FWP and SRF used these words to describe the book. While theorizing on the history of Urdu literature, Azad starts off with a critique, going completely ballistic in condemning the stagnation that had crept into classical Urdu poetry. Given the influential status of Azad's book, generations of critics that came after him perpetuated the same thought process, so much so that classical Urdu poetry (ghazal in particular) lost its stature in the eyes of the people. It's quite common to read points of view that condemn the ghazal as 'decadent' or 'immoral'.

Azad's main concern, however ill-founded it was, was that by drawing Persian imagery and metaphors into Urdu poetry, and then by holding on to it, the Urdu language was stagnating. His point is that many of the conventions used in classical Urdu poetry are alien to the Hindustani milieu and no efforts were made to lend vibrancy to the language by indigenizing or even widening the scope of these metaphors, or for that matter exploring new themes. He had a problem with ghazal restricting itself primarily to themes of love and sensuousness, which is thought of as 'immoral'.

This is how Azad puts it:
"Those same fixed things! Here and there we move the words around, here and there we do some substitutions--and we keep on composing with them. As if they're morsels that have already been eaten--or at least chewed--by other people. We chew on them, and we're happy. Think about it--what relish do they still have left? Beauty and love--marvelous!--very fine! But for how long? Whether she's a Houri or a Pari, once you're stuck with her, she becomes sickening. How long can it be till you get fed up with beauty and love? And by now she's become a hundred-year-old crone!"
Azad was not alone in this thinking. Altaf Hussain 'Hali', who was even more vitriolic in his diatribe against classical Urdu poetic traditions, went on to say the exact same thing in his critique. I have read Azad and Hali only cursorily, so I can't really comment on the validity of their attacks, but it sure makes for some very interesting reading.

Interestingly, both Azad and Hali, and many others after them, start their histories with scathing attacks on the quality of Urdu literature. The work of their successors compelled Ralph Russell to write a brilliant piece called How Not to Write the History of Urdu literature. His point – "if you don’t think much of Urdu Literature, please don't go to the trouble of writing a history of it"

The bigger problem with Azad's and Hali's views is that they take their Anglophilia to ridiculous heights by proclaiming Western poetry to be much superior to classical Urdu poetry because it was based on 'nature' and things 'real', whereas Urdu poetry was prone to extreme exaggeration and 'unreal' themes. They prescribe the adoption of 'natural' poetry, like - say - Wordsworth. They even urge – at least Hali does in no uncertain terms – that poets should look at the West for inspiration.
'हाली' अब आओ पैरवी-ए-मग़रिबी करें
बस इक़्तिदा-ए-मुसहफ़ी-ओ-मीर हो चुकी

'Hali', come now, let us follow the West;
Enough of the leadership of 'Mus-hafi' and 'Mir'

What? An urge to imitate the West? As FWP would ask: What next? Wordsworthify Ghalib?

I need to read more of Azad and Hali before I can comment on this aspect of their critique, but from the face of it they seem to ask poets to strip the ghazal of its inherent charm, which comes through exaggeration and abundant use of metaphors.