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This new book gives a glimpse into the world of Urdu poetry

Hitesh Gupta Aadil's ‘Humsafar: The World Of Urdu Poetry’ is a good reference guide for newcomers to the world of Urdu poetry

Mirza Ghalib's 'haveli' in Old Delhi is a heritage site. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Nipa Charagi

LAST PUBLISHED 15.08.2023  |  04:00 PM IST

A few months ago, at the launch of a book of Urdu poems—Hukm E Safar Diya Tha Kyon by Shantiveer Kaul—a poet in his mid-60s said he rarely got a chance to attend such events now because “ab us peedhi aur kism kay log nahin hai" (it was difficult to find people of his generation and temperament now).

As well-known poets like Gauhar Raza and Chander Bhan Khayal, and actors Alka Amin and Flora Bose read out from the book, the audience, seated around an oval, long table, was in rapt attention. It did not matter if you did not know the script—the cadence, the vivid imagery, the evocativeness drew you in. Raza’s copy of the book had colourful post-its sticking out from every alternate page, like a string of prayer flags.


So, when I recently picked up my second book of Urdu poems, after Hukm E Safar—Hitesh Gupta Aadil’s Humafar: The World Of Urdu Poetry (Fingerprint)—I knew how to proceed. I read the poems aloud. It made it intimate, being both the reader, and listener.

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Focused on romanticism, there are 40 poets featured in the Dubai-based author, blogger and (Urdu literature) translator’s first anthology. Each poet is introduced with a brief profile, followed by some of their works; there are around 160 poems. These include nazms (free verse), rubaais (a stanza of four lines), and ghazals (poems consisting of rhyming couplets). While all are translated and transliterated into English, it is the last category that forms a significant part of the book.

The poets included range from Daagh Dehlvi of the Delhi School of Poetry from the Mughal era, Josh Malihabadi, who dominated the Urdu literary scene in pre-independence days, Sahir Ludhianvi, the first lyrical poet and songwriter of the film industry, to progressive writers like Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Jaan Nisar Akhtar (father of Javed Akhtar, who is also featured), and postmodernist poet Zeeshan Sahil.

The initial few chapters give the reader an overview of the language, its evolution, the various poetic forms and themes—from spiritual and religious, to romance and political. Aadil explains the difference between genre and form; ghazal and nazm; and why he has given preference to some poems or poets. There’s a chapter on other types of poetry and a pronunciation guide too.

That only two women—the late Parveen Shakir and Ishrat Afreen—find place in the book is perhaps an indication that conventional Urdu poetry is male dominated. Aadil writes that Shakir (1952-94) is often regarded as the first poet to freely use the word ladki (girl) in her poems, which was uncommon in those times since most poets used the masculine syntax to depict a lover. For those interested, there’s a YouTube video of Shakir reading her ghazal Kuch To Hawa Bhi Sard Thi.

Afreen, a prominent feminist poet, has a distinct voice. Sample this couplet from her Dhoop Utha Li Main Ne (I Picked Up My Share Of Sunshine): Bheed bahut thi bane-banaee raaston mein/Raah nikaali main ne apne hisse ki. It loses its sharp edge in the English translation though: The ready-made pathways are full of people/ I have carved my share of road.


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Humsafar: The World Of Urdu Poetry, by Hitesh Gupta Aadil, Fingerprint.

Aadil has given preference to poems where the use of complex Persian words is minimal, making it easier for the reader to follow them; the meaning of some difficult words is provided at the bottom of each page. Interestingly, there are emojis placed at various places in the book: a heart sign for author’s choice; a music note symbol next to poems which have been rendered into songs; and a camera pictogram for those adapted into a film song.

At the same time, there’s a blog-like feel to the book; the language is plain; the information basic. The author, who uses Aadil as his takhallus, or non de plume, does not give his personal take on the poets or their work. By way of example, the opening sentence on one of the most quotable poets of Urdu reads: “Mirza Ghalib is the apostle of Urdu poetry for past, present, and future generations...."

Even the translation is literal. He strips the poems bare: they are neither lyrical nor rich in imagery. Take these two lines from Faiz’s Raaz-e-ulfat Chhupa Ke: Raaz-e-ulfat chuppa ke dekh liya/ Dil bahut kuch jala ke dekh liya. The translation reads: Already tried to hide the secret of love/Already tried to torment my heart.

Poem titles get a similar treatment. Maulana Hali’s Jeeti Ji Maut Ke Tum Muhn Mein Na Jana is Don’t Go In The Mouth Of Death; Majrooh Sultanpuri’s Koi Ham-dam Na Raha becomes None Of My Companions; and Ahmad Faraz’s Ranjish Hi Sahi is translated as Bitterness It Is, Still, Come.

Aadil writes in the book that most anthologies prefer to rhyme the translations, which, he thinks, makes the translation slightly hard to understand. In the tug between “what sounds nice" versus “actual thought", he explains, he went with the latter. If one were to read just the English translations, the world of Urdu poetry would sound very dull .

Despite that, the anthology works as a good reference guide, a jumping off point for those not familiar with the script but are interested in exploring Urdu poetry or literature.

Personally, as a newcomer to Urdu poetry, the book stoked my curiosity—much akin to going down a rabbit hole. I looked up YouTube videos of poets—there’s one where Faiz, in a pinstripe suit, says, “Likho wo jo dil pai guzarti hai" (write what you feel; from your heart); listened to different versions of Faraz’s Ranjish Hi Sahi and Faiz’s Dasht-e-Tanhai (though the latter poem is not included in the book); and turned to Rekhta dictionary every time I did not understand something.

Humsafar is also accessible in that it is one of those books which you don’t necessarily need to read in a chronological order. In the middle of a busy day or during a quiet moment, flip open a page, and read aloud a poem or two—great poets demand that reverence.

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