NAW Interview with Raza Mir

Raza Mir

Raza Mir teaches management at William Paterson University, USA. He is the co-author of Anthems of Resistance: A Celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry and the author of The Taste of Words.  

In Urdu Poetry, Raza Mir offers a fresh, quirky and accessible entry point for neophytes seeking to enhance their enjoyment of this vibrant canon—from the poems of legends like Mir Taqi Mir and Mirza Ghalib to the lyrics of contemporary game changers like Javed Akhtar and Gulzar. Raza Mir’s translation not only draws out the zest and pathos of these timeless verses, but also provides pithy insights and colourful trivia that will enable readers to fully embrace this world.

Have you ever been enchanted by the spoken cadence of an Urdu couplet but wished you could fully understand its nuances? Have you wanted to engage with a ghazal more deeply but were daunted by its mystifying conventions? Are you confused between a qataa and a rubaai or a musadda and marsiya?

If yes, then you will love Raza Mir’s works.

NAW- Tell us about your book, The Taste of Words. How did you get the idea for it? How difficult was it translating Urdu poetry?

I have been  interested in Urdu poetry since I was an adolescent, but never formally learned the language. In school, along with English, I formally studied more ‘official’ Indian languages (Hindi and Telugu), and despite Urdu being my mother tongue, I never engaged with it (except orally) till I was in my teens. It is only my unhealthy obsession with Urdu poetry that finally forced me to teach myself the Urdu script, and resolve the helplessness I felt when the joy of hearing a good poem was rendered ephemeral by my illiteracy. My wife also confesses to the same experiences.

Like us, I know a lot of people whose interest in Urdu poetry vastly exceeds their ability to engage with it, partly because of their unfamiliarity with the script, but also because of its often mystifying and outsider-unfriendly albeit tantalizing metaphorical conventions.

For such an audience, I set myself the task of translating some of the paradigmatic pieces of Urdu poetry into English and in an idiom that is accessible to a modern and relatively heterogeneous readership.

During the course of translating these poems, I had to make some difficult choices. The most difficult one was related to rhyme and metre; should one translate poetry as rhyme to reflect its potential ‘singability’ (and risk it degenerating occasionally into doggerel)? Or should one strive to preserve the verbal integrity of the poem and eschew rhyme and metre, in the hope that readers will understand the underlying poetics by themselves? Not only did I mentally agonize over this question, I actually wrote the entire first draft of this book as free verse, before deciding impulsively that, sometimes, ‘not to rhyme, was a cryme’ (indulge in my puns, please!). Thus I chose to retranslate several—but by no means all—poems rhythmically. Even when I tried my hand at rhyme, I did my best to not inject myself, the translator, into the relationship between the poet and the reader.

NAW- Urdu perhaps is unique because of the wealth of poetic tradition which perhaps very few languages can equal but it has largely remained restricted due to lack of translated works. But tell us how you became interested in Urdu poetry? Who are your favourite authors?

My favorite poets predominantly belong to the “progressive” tradition in Urdu poetry. In the mid-twentieth century, Urdu was to receive a gift that would revive it in spectacular fashion as a language of revolution and hope, of social change and religious heresy, as a symbol of the human will to be free and as the defiant enemy of divisiveness. I am referring to the ‘progressive phase’ in which Urdu writers (and especially Urdu poets) became the vanguard of a literary movement that combined socialism, anti-colonial sentiment, inter-religious harmony, the foundation of a new nationalism, gender equality and an ethos of a shared literary and political heritage across all Indian languages and indeed across the globe. Poets of the progressive era include Josh Malihabadi, Firaaq Gorakhpuri, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Sahir Ludhianvi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Asrar-ul Haq Majaz, Ali Sardar Jafri, Jan Nisar Akhtar and  Kaifi Azmi (their works are translated in my book). Of the current crop, I am a fan of javed Akhtar and Gulzar, and a variety of feminist poets of Pakistani origin like Fahmida Riaz, Zehra Nigah and Ishrat Aafreen.

NAW- What can a novice reader expect from The Taste of words?

The intended readership of this book does not necessarily comprise Urdu experts or those who have read a lot of Urdu poetry in the original. Rather, I visualize an intelligent reader who, while interested in poetry as a genre, may not have a working knowledge of the Urdu script, and may not even be familiar with or fluent in Devanagri either. They would have to read poetry in English and other languages to varying extents, but their exposure to Urdu might primarily be oral (Indian film songs, CDs of ghazals and poetry, the company of Urdu-literate friends). They do enjoy the spoken cadence of the language, but might have been deprived of the non-trivial pleasure that comes from a reflective reading of the poems.

In this book, I have attempted to provide an entry point to Urdu poetry for such interested non-insiders. To these readers, I offer a quasi-formal introduction to the canon and the contemporary landscape of Urdu poetry, with a highly arbitrary and subjective selection of around 150 poems from approximately fifty poets.

NAW- Tell us about your other works.

In the field of Urdu poetry, I have co-authored with Ali Husain Mir a book on the progressive phase in Urdu poetry, titled Anthems of Resistance: A Celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2006). While writing about Urdu poetry is my passion, my vocation as an academic has led to other publications, for example, I have co-edited a book titled Organizations, Markets and Imperial Formations: Towards an Anthropology of Globalization (London: Edward Elgar Press.)

NAW- Tell us about your publishing journey.

I was fortunate to have this book commissioned by Penguin India, thereby avoiding most of the vicissitudes of the publishing journey. I had approached them to publish my first co-authored book, and while it did not come to pass, some of the conversations I had with the editorial staff matured over a period of time to a point where this book was visualized.

NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?

For a living, I teach management at William Paterson University. I am a quasi-fulltime dad to my two sons, aged 11 and 9. I read, I run, and lament the venalities of the world, that sort of quotidian thing that writing offers an escape from!

NAW-What are you currently reading?

Like many of us, I am reading several books concurrently. Among unfinished books, I count  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and (both for the second time), two highly entertaining books written by good friends, The Last War by Sandipan Deb and The Competent Authority by Shovon Chowdhury. In non-fiction, I am reading A Free Man by Aman Sethi and that Piketty book, which is wonderful.

NAW- What will you be working on next?

I am working on a novel set in Delhi in 1857. It is a whodunit tentatively titled Murder at the Mushaira, and involves several celebrated figures of Urdu literature as protagonists, subjects and occasionally, suspects!

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