Sascha A. Akhtar on the literature of South Asia, and young people translating Urdu poetry.

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Whose legacy do we care about? We, the collective human we. Thinkers, tinkerers, artists, writers, bakers – we, the people. Since the 90s, when globalisation became a buzzword, we’ve been promised a vision. Boundaries will disappear; we will become ‘global citizens’. Hegemonies will fall. This idea promises an evolution that takes humanity beyond insular knowledge bases, beyond the limits set within individual states – it allows us to dream the dream of heteroglossia, of infinite variation, of a kind of empowered living. But I return to my question at the beginning and ask another: what does a truly ‘global vision’ entail? We will all have different answers to this.

For example, for whatever reason, I feel a burden. I cannot explain why; no one placed this on me. My burden is the literary history of the Indian Subcontinent. A state whole once, split apart. I care about the richness of this culture being learnt about, known, admired as I admire it. Until very recently, I saw it as still struggling to put itself back together, to be seen, to be known – part of the wider vision of literature.

Recently, I was offered the opportunity to promote the translation of Urdu poetry and judge the Stephen Spender Trust Urdu Spotlight Prize. This afforded me time to contemplate in greater depth the scope of the burden I mention. I realised that the task of bringing the literary culture of South Asia to light was much more fraught than I had fully understood.

The division of the country with an imaginary border (and of course the preceding 200 years of subjugation to the Empire) created splinters, fractures across time, across space. There is a trauma deep within the land and the people. Manuscripts lost. Publishers no longer extant. Books of poets destroyed, and in violent ways.

As I see it, our histories – the South Asian people, with our connections to the Indus Valley, one of the world’s first ancient civilisations ­– have been damaged. I wonder if, perhaps, the real archive of the literary history of South Asia is, in effect, cultural history as spread all over the world, living, often buried deep in the memories of immigrants and refugees.

In curating Urdu poems for young people to translate, I thought simply to talk with other Urdu-speaking people and ask them of poems from their childhood, or knowledge of poems from relatives. You see, oral tradition has a highly developed form in South-Asian literary culture; music, singing and poetry have, historically, been closely linked. This was reiterated for me in curating the Urdu poems. There are some that no one has ever read, and yet every word is committed to memory. They are often childhood memories. For example: the poem Ranjish He Sahi, written by Ahmed Faraz, and popularised by Mehdi Hasan. This was a poem I included because a young poet from Pakistan shared with me that, over decades, it has been her family’s healing song from grief. She remembered it as a child.

A few young translators chose this poem. There was such a poignancy in hearing one of them tell me about their connection to it – again, a connection through family members. Not only had the poem travelled across time and space, but also across trauma and divide. It had endured. But in the case of immigrant families, it needs digging up.

The lack of opportunities for South Asian engagement with our own tongues bothers me very much. In the 80s, South Asian children were actively dissuaded from speaking their mother tongues at home! These were seen as necessary measures for ‘integration’, but for many it resulted in a deep sense of sadness.

It is interesting that the language one grows up with at home is called ‘the mother tongue’. And if language is our mother, losing that takes on the deep resonance of the loss of a mother.

In the UK, South Asian minority groups include Indians (1.45 million; 2.3% of the country’s population), Pakistanis (1.17 million; 1.9%), Bangladeshis (451,500. 0.7%), Sri Lankans, as well as third-generation Asians, Asians of mixed parentage, people from Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives, and some from the Middle East.

In talking to individuals from the South Asian community, I have learnt how a feeling of rootlessness can travel from first generation to second. Whole generations of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians have spent their lives unaware of the vast spectrum of our own history. Our stories. Our feminists. Our revolutionaries. Our poets. In our languages.

No memories, except memories of a memory. Which feels like an absence you cannot shake off.

I return, then, to my very first question: whose legacy do we want to preserve? This has always been the problem – choosing. One over the other. Hegemonies. Preference. Racial bias. Censorship. Some of us, though, want it all. The whole story, made up of all the stories, all languages in all their subtleties of the communication of ideas and all their mysterious musics. I would prefer it in fact if no language died – and if it has, that we resuscitate it. Find the different bodies it inhabited in the form of stories and return those bodies to it. Allow it to live, and to breathe again. 

In a time of rising nationalism, the world over, such activity becomes even more important, if only to have the ability to counter the language that seeks to dominate or impress its ideology. To learn of the liberations of others. To learn anthems of resistance. To be inspired. To know others have had the same experience as you. To collaborate. To connect.

For example, if I was not aware of the Urdu progressive poets – their humanism, their alchemical powers over emotion, transforming the old romantic trope of the solitary suffering disappointed lover into the suffering of humanity at large, the internationalist vision, the acts of beautiful fraternal kinship expressed by poems such as Ali Sardar Jafri’s:

Habshi mera bhai
Jangal jangal phool chune
Bhai ke paaoon laal gulab

This African, my brother
Picks flowers in forest after forest
My brother, whose feet are red.
Red as roses.

and Faiz Ahmad Faizs’s Aa Jao Africa, while imprisoned, interred for ‘seditious activities,’ a poem so full of empathy, love and solidarity that it leaves you bereft for a future you so desperately longed for, but at once hopeful that one can exist ­– yes, were I not aware of this entire part of my literary culture, and humanity’s-at-large, perhaps it would be a lot harder to dream and envision an outcome that speaks only of tolerance, pluralism, acceptance and deeper levels of understanding between us all.

I leave you then with something close to my heart: Langston Hughes’ potent piece ‘Gandhi Is Fasting’ from 1943, written in solidarity based on racial identity:

Mighty Britain tremble!
Let your empire’s standard sway
Lest it break entirely –
Mr Ghandi fasts today

You may think it foolish –
That there’s no truth in what I say –
That all of Asia’s watching
As Gandhi fasts today.

All of Asia’s watching
And I am watching too
For I am also jim crowed –
As India is jim crowed by you.

You know quite well, Great Britain,
That it is not right
To starve and beat and oppress
Those who are not white.

Poetry reminds me that ultimately, we find there are only two languages, that of the oppressed and that of the oppressor. And where there is resistance, there is hope.

Sascha A. Akhtar is an educator, translator, writing mentor, performer and author. Over a span of 20 years she has published six poetry collections and a collection of short fictions set in Pakistan entitled Of Necessity & Wanting (2020, The 87 Press) which has been shortlisted for Best Debut Fiction by the UBL Literary Awards For Excellence 2021. Akhtar currently teaches poetry at University of Greenwich and is a Poetry School London tutor. Her work has been widely anthologised and translated into Armenian, Portuguese, Galician, Russian, Dutch and Polish. Akhtar’s translations of the work of writer Hijab Imtiaz(1908-1999), the first female pilot in the Subcontinent will be published by Oxford University Press, India in 2022.

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