Dr Bina Biswas: A difficult odyssey,Gulzar: fulsome tributes,Nasir: “deathless poetry”
The iconic lyricist and poet Gulzar in his preface to Dr Bina Biswas’ translation of a collection of Urdu poetry pays rich tribute to Pakistani poet Naseer Ahmed Nasir.
“Whether it be a droplet or a lake, water has a way of reflecting what it sees. There is an ocean-laden droplet called Naseer Ahmed Nasir,” says the acclaimed lyricist and writer Gulzar in his forward to the English translation of a collection of poems by the Rawalpindi-based Urdu poet.
A Man Outside History is a slim, 173-page volume of the poems of Nasir translated by Indian writer and professor of English Dr Bina Biswas (Hyderabad, Deccan). It includes a 1994 tribute by the American poet Sandra Fowler eulogising Nasir, one of Pakistan’s most respected modern poets, as a “wordsmith”.
The book includes a postscript by the Russian scholar Yelena Sapranova, and several accolades to Nasir by readers from India and Pakistan as well as countries further afield like Australia, the United States, Britain, South Africa and Romania. Nasir’s work has been translated into various languages besides English, including Spanish, Russian, Romanian, Uzbek, Hindi and Farsi, besides various regional languages.
A blurb on the back cover quotes another reputed writer Abdullah Hussein, author of the iconic partition novel Udas Naslein, on Nasir: “His deathless poetry will keep giving hope to generations whim we don’t even know and will never ever see.”
But the most fulsome tribute to Nasir comes from Gulzar in his preface. Nasir, says Gulzar, “imbibes the smallest moments and renders them into poems that encourage, pass the whole of existence. He pierces clouds with the tip of his pen and causes raindrops to fall, then speaks to a driblet — resting on a verdant leaf — to divulge complete jungle fables… Reading him, I feel like that driblet of water floating on the palm of his hand.”
This is, after all, a poet writing about another poet.
“Ingressing Naseer Ahmed Nasir’s poems is to wade through a stream,” continues Gulzar. “No rapid passage there. One has to stop frequently and till one has not absorbed the verses, it’s not possible to turn the page. I lay his poems on my lips and sip at leisure. This white-whiskered friend of mine is a poet par excellence.”
Gulzar says he recognises Nasir through his idiom and locution, and cites a verse as an example:
God! Turn my words into beetles
God! May my poems become floating flocks of birds
Voyaging towards far-off lands
“I have enticed those birds with seed to alight on my roof. I have caressed their feathers and kissed them.”
To Gulzar, Nasir “talks like Siddhartha” and he imagines him to be Gautam. “They are not really the same; one of them is a seeker and the other has already acquired suffering but I see them both in Nasir.”
“Modern Urdu poetry has nothing better to offer than Naseer,” writes Gulzar. This is high praise indeed from the man whom many consider as one of the greatest living writers of Urdu — prose or poetry.
Gulzar says has “always been a great admirer” of Nasir’s, whose work he has been reading “over time”. They had been corresponding with each other, and Gulzar had written for the Urdu literary journal Tasteer that Nasir edits. Due to the restrictive visa regime between India and Pakistan, he was resigned to the thought that they would never meet. He writes:
“And then time turned on its side and I went to Lahore. After a five-hour journey, over Jehlum’s bridge, I reached Dina to see my ancestral home — to touch the dust of the land of my birth. I was eight years old when we left and I returned after seventy years! Went to Dina Train Station. Met some friends. A man stepped forward to grab my hand, ‘imam Naseer Ahmed Nasir.’ I was wonderstuck. He had white whiskers on a bright face. I had never been handed such a lovely surprise before! How benevolent is life that blesses us with such friends and such poets!”
Gulzar first visited Pakistan in 2004, but due to visa restrictions was only able to visit his hometown Dina in 2013.
Being well versed in Urdu himself, Gulzar must have read Nasir in the original. This makes his commendation for the English translation by Dr Bina Biswas — “magnificent” — even more compelling. Nothing, says Gulzar, has been lost in translation.
“The most amazing part of the work is the way she has kept the cultural ethos of Urdu intact. It’s not only the meaning, she has carried the subtle shades of the words and phrases into English.”
Dr Biswas writes that she embarked on this “difficult odyssey” of translating Nasir’s Urdu poetry not just because many in Pakistan and India “consider him the greatest living exponent of this art in the country” but also because of how deeply his poetry appeals to her.
“They touch me inside, in my heart, where I live and love, in their rich and powerful but homespun imagery and their extension of a tradition in poetry that is already extremely wealthy (Urdu)… to which it is really challenging to add anything new, deep or original, yet he has done all of these three things.”
Nasir also “pleads poetically for world peace and unity” as Dr Biswas puts it, not confining himself to Pakistan or “by default it’s ‘big brother’ India”.
“He is, in the best sense of the word, a world poet. He speaks of Bosnia and Somalia or Damascus or a Buddha in his poems with the same compassion as he does of his own village…”
It is such works of art and poetry that remind us of our common humanity and provide an alternative to the dominant narrative overshadowed by hostility and despair. And this is what gives hope that another world is not only possible, but worth organising and fighting for.
Courier You A Song Everyday (For Gulzar)
By Naseer Ahmed Nasir, translated by Bina Biswas
The magical dreams that you weave
your melodies with
when you turn them into tears
and make stream your agonies from the eye
you surround like the laden
The scent of the memories
that you adorn your nights with, and
the shade of the tree
that you wrap yourself with
the village named Dina
that you swathe yourself in,
on diverse paths, in different soils,
you grow and reap.
Your blossom flowers under the sun
become rain, wind, bird and umbrella.
Taking those magical dreams
tears of that eye,
the fragrance of those reminiscences,
and, the shade of that tree,
from remote courses and directions,
I, with showers and storms
mould them them into a golden song, and
send one everyday towards your cityscape
and prospect for a chance to meet you!\
“A Man Outside History”
Poems of Naseer Ahmed Nasir
Translated into English by Bina Biswas
Foreword by Gulzar
Free Verse, an imprint of LiFi Publications,
New Delhi, 2014
Pp 173; INR 300