Book Review: ‘O City of Lights’ by Khalid Hasan

Posted on June 19, 2007
Filed Under >Raza Rumi, Books, Poetry, Society
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Raza Rumi

The passions of Khalid Hasan, a noted journalist and writer, are well known. The life and persona of Madame Noor Jehan have been celebrated in his writings for years. He has translated several leading lights of Urdu literature including Manto, Abbas, and Faiz. However, it is Faiz who has been a prominent subject of Khalid’s writings due to his close association with him as a friend. In all these endeavours, Hasan has made an immense contribution to introduce the gems of Urdu literature to the English-reading world that, alas, includes many Pakistanis as well given the way the reading culture faces a near-annihilation in Pakistan.

Translating Urdu poetry is an exacting task and runs the risk of losing the cultural nuances as well as the richness of the myriad metaphors that Urdu has borrowed from Persian, Arabic and the local Indian languages. And translating Faiz is even more onerous as the beauty of his poetry lies in the infusing of contemporary life into the otherwise passe classical idiom of Urdu Poetry.

This is why most translations of Faiz have been quite lifeless except the ones rendered by the inimitable Pakistani English language poet Daud Kamal and a handful of others. The Oxford University Press and Khalid Hasan teamed up to produce a fascinating collage of Faiz’s poetry in English. This Volume entitled O City of Lights is not just a collection of Faiz’s translated verse but also includes accounts of Faiz’s poetry, stature and place in contemporary Pakistani history as well as snippets of Faiz’s life in his own words.

O City of Lights is roughly divided in two parts: the first part presents choicest prose pieces that include a detailed write-up on Faiz and a few interviews translated by Hasan. In addition, there is a fascinating sketch of Faiz’s childhood days where we learn how he acquired the habit of reading and the encouragement he received from his father to read books from the local library. The picture of Faiz that emerges is true to all the narratives concerning his personality: tolerant, magnanimous, humble and deeply humanistic. Like a quintessential devotee, Khalid Hasan can be a little apologetic. For instance, writing about Faiz’s stint at the Government’s war publicity department during the Second World War; and his eventual promotion to the rank of a lieutenant colonel, Hasan states:

“he [Faiz] felt that in the struggle against Nazism and Fascism, if a uniform had to be worn, then a uniform should be worn. Perhaps it was for his work during the war that he was given the Order of the British Empire”

While this explanation is a rational one, it nevertheless glosses over the fact that there were several strands of opinion within undivided India; and native resistance against Nazism was neither widespread nor a popular cause. The Second World War, is also viewed as a major cause for famines in India and the use of Indians as fighting fodder for an essentially imperial war. This digression is not to criticise Faiz’s decision to work for the colonial government. This vocation can be seen as a milestone in his poetic journey and his later emergence as a symbol of resistance to authoritarianism and injustice in post-independence Pakistan. Perhaps Hasan could have analysed this a little more dispassionately. The other chapters in the prose section of the book are equally illuminating. The transcript of Faiz’s conversations with Muzzaffar Iqbal bring forth Faiz’s insights on poetry, culture, politics and much more. Responding to a question on how he writes, Faiz remarks:

“A ghazal first requires the emergence of a rhyming scheme in one’s consciousness. One builds on it. For a nazm, one has to think. It is like artisan at work. It has to be built – The basic image must be right. The music has to be right. No false notes.”

Another piece for which one has to thank Hasan is the inclusion of a chapter, “Faiz Looks Back” based on the poet’s travels in the Soviet Union. This piece elucidates the influence of Russian literature, Marxism and the broad location of India in global imperialism. This is an important account as it serves a useful background to understand much of Faiz’s progressive poetry and political struggle.

Part II, comprising poems, presents perhaps the best collection of Faiz’s poetry including the outstanding translations by Daud Kamal published over two decades and now out of print. The hallmark of this volume is inclusion of original Urdu versions alongside the translations. Kamal (1935 -1987), a professor of English literature at the University of Peshawar, is one of the most prominent English language poets of Pakistan. The first poem “The Unicorn and the Dancing Girl” was written by Faiz for a short documentary on Moenjadaro that “was never produced”. In Pakistan and elsewhere in Asia and Africa time past is time present- And in the past – the past which neither man nor history remembers -There was no time. Only timelessness.

In Faiz’s own words, Kamal concentrated on the “imaginative and interpretative rather than literal rendering” of his selected poems and added an “effective poetic dimension of his own creativity”.

Another beautiful poem in the selection is the Subha-i-Azadi (The Morning of freedom August 1947): “This stained light, this night bitten dawn – This is not the dawn we yearned for”

“O City of Lights”, Hasan has added more translations of Faiz’s work that were not included in the earlier translations by Kamal. In all, Hasan has included 43 pieces of Faiz’s timeless verse. The range includes “An Elegy for the Rosenbergs” “My Heart My Traveller” “Africa Come Back” “Heart Attack” and “On Return from Dhaka”. While the quality of translations varies in terms of the tonal quality and lyricism, the essence of Faiz’s verse is well communicated. Hasan’s choice is also well considered as he is careful to pick samples that represent the best of Faiz – from political and the personal and the immortal mix of the two that Faiz so effortlessly achieved. Hasan admits the limitations of translation in his editorial remarks. In particular, ghazal is a difficult medium to transport into another language. This is why most of the new translations are of poems and Hasan succeeds in his mission. Dasht-i-Tanhai is well delivered:

In the forest of lonliness, beloved,Tremble the shadows of your voice, the mirage of your lips.

Another creative efforts is Sipahi ka marsiya (Elegy for a Soldier) written against the backdrop of the senseless Indo-Pakistan 1965 war. Hasan also gives a good account of the poem in part I and recounts how the Pakistani right maligned Faiz for not being patriotic enough during the war. But Faiz’s vision was humanistic, argues Hasan, transcending narrow divides as the elegy was universal in its subject and appeal.

What was once your kingdom, Is now a wasteland; And on the throne of inequity, Sit mighty tyrants. But why are yousleeping so quietly upon the dusty earth? Wake up, son My obstinate son, Wake up.

The greatest advantage that Hasan possesses is close association with the poet spanning over decades. That obviously has endowed him with an uncanny understanding of the overall context. Indeed, Hasan’s contribution in putting together this volume is tremendous and perhaps unparalleled. One only feels that accounts of Faiz’s life must also examine some of the contradictions that have been highlighted by a few commentators. Often such remarks result in literary duels (the most recent one being the distasteful outbursts by the Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi lobby a few years ago and the subsequent war of words) and argumentation for the sake of it. A few aspects that remains under-studied relates to the endemic personal relationships of Faiz with notable members of the Pakistani establishment that flourished and the ‘stardom’ that overshadowed Faiz, the poet, as detailed by Qurratulain Hyder in her sketch on Faiz. These are areas of literary investigation and hold deep linkages with the sociology of Pakistan. Hopefully, the future biographers will shed some light on this. There is no question that Faiz has inspired generations and provided a literary banner to the various streams of progressive thought and action in Pakistan. Hasan also focuses on the strength of Faiz’s character as he remained undaunted by silly allegations of being an agent of the “Indo-Soviet lobby”. Hasan convincingly argues that this “lobby”was a piece of fiction and a myth perpetrated by the vested interests in Pakistan. That Faiz was the only recipient of the Lenin prize from Pakistan irked many in the establishment who did not like what the poet had to say about the rights of workers and people.

For the “English medium” youth- increasing in numbers – this book should be an excellent introduction to the ideas upheld and cherished by Faiz, and of course to the splendours of his poetry. It is hoped that the translations would inspire them to understand and appreciate the original masterpieces. Faiz’s poetry will continue to warm our hearts and tickle our collective conscience. It is a must-read book for all those who love Faiz and his poetry.

– A version of this article also appeared in the monthly Herald.

22 responses to “Book Review: ‘O City of Lights’ by Khalid Hasan”

  1. KomalK says:

    All the comments here and the review is very intriguing. Anyone know how I can purchase this book. It is not available on Amazon or any of the other leading bookstores in the US.

  2. W. says:

    Dawn Publications recently published an excellent collection of Faiz’s poetry as well – his work alongside translations by various translators, including Arshad Mahmood, who was also fortunate enough to share a close personal relationship with Faiz and visitied with him and his family often as a young man. It comes accompanied by two CDs, one with his poetry that has been set to music by many Pakistani singers, the other with poems read out by Faiz. Lovely compilation, very well-produced.

  3. ASLAM says:

    Wonderfully written review. Dying to read the book.

  4. Mr. Rumi obviously has liked the book but he appears uncomfortable with the author’s occasional apologetic attitude towards Faiz. But it is understandable. Other than being a “quintessential devotee”, Mr. Hasan was also a good friend of the poet. In such circumstances, it is not easy to be uninhibitedly critical.

    I have never read Faiz and the review has made me eager for him and for this book. However I feel the review could have been a little longer. For a Faiz-illiterate like me, I would have liked Mr. Rumi to write more on the life and times of the poet. But then perhaps it is expected for the readers to be familiar with Faiz and his works.

  5. Naveed Siraj says:

    Raza, as always, you have done complete justice to the subject matter. While I agree with an earlier comment that reviews are meant for readers who might consider purchasing the book after reading the review, this is not true for those of us in Pakistan as there are hardly any translations of Faiz and other major Urdu poets for us to be so choosy. For example, Mohib has mentioned Agha Shahid Ali’s translation and I have been looking for it in Karachi for a very long time and have not been successful. I have however got something which, atleast to me, is a much better translation of Faiz which is V.G Kiernan’s translation of select ghazals & poems. It includes

    I love Khalid Hasan and a book on major public figures of Pakistan by Khalid Hasan called SCORE BOARD is highly recommended.

    Raza – Khalid Hasan’s write-up on Noor Jehan seems to have originated from SCORE BOARD although when it appeared in the local magazines (Friday Times), it was much more detailed and for Noor Jehan fans like myself, it was a real treat.

    One hears that Faiz has a volume of work in the English language and articles were written by him on Pakistani identity, culture etc and these appeared in the Pakistan Times (Khalid Hasan worked for this publication before he became press secretary to ZAB) I wonder if there is any thing available in the market that contains these articles

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