Weekend Poem: Couplets by Javed Akhtar

Poets are not, usually, household names in our world today. Certainly not in the West anymore. There are still, though, countries where poets are known amongst the masses and their works are recited from memory in everyday conversation. The Indian poet and writer, Javed Akhtar, is one such popular persona. In India, he is more well-known as an award-winning Bollywood movie scriptwriter and songwriter. Yet, his Urdu poems and ghazals are also more appreciated than, say, the works of his Western contemporaries in their respective homelands. And, poetry gatherings, known as mushaira or mehfil, still manage to attract crowds of thousands from time to time.

Akhtar comes from several generations of Urdu poets and writers. In the days of kings and emperors, his ancestors were highly-respected and offered patronage in royal courts and aristocratic mansions across the country. Throughout most of India, and alongside Sanskrit, Urdu was considered a language of culture and refinement and appreciated across caste, class and religion divides. The Indian aristocracy, like that of other societies, cultivated Urdu writers, poets and artists with a reverential and deferential indulgence. After the British colonists started to push English as the predominant language in India, these ancient Indian languages (along with several others) rather fell out of favor. In particular, as kingdoms and fiefdoms fell apart, so did their patronage of the arts. Writers and poets then turned their attention to the pressing political and social issues of the time and became vocal in all matters related to India’s independence from the British colonialists. Many of them became living legends for their unforgettable rhetoric and were often imprisoned by the British for whipping up crowds into a freedom-demanding frenzy with their essays and verses.

The road to success has not been an easy one for this poet-writer. Having lost his mother at the age of eight, he was given to the care of various family members by a father who was a brilliant poet and, it appears, put his art before his kin. Yet, language, poetry and music were part of Akhtar’s DNA from an early age. He saw and heard, as a child, many literary luminaries, his father’s contemporaries, who visited their home. Growing up, his interests in the movies, fiction and Urdu poetry blossomed, winning him several prizes while at University and driving him to seek out a career as a writer.

Yet, in the 1950s, after arriving in Bombay’s fast-growing film industry, as many writers and poets did then in search of work, he discovered that fancy words and ideas were not likely to be enough. Living hand-to-mouth, he was often homeless and hungry for days in a row, relying on the kindness of friends and strangers for a place to sleep or a meal to get by. He started his writing career by ghost-writing a few movie scenes here and there, being the errand boy or clapper boy on movie sets, etc. His estranged relations with his father meant that he could not expect help there. When asked to ghost-write an entire movie script for a famous writer for what seemed, at the time, a princely sum, he roiled in an existential conflict for three days before turning it down. Despite other rejections and insults, he kept trying to get his own work out there. Survival became an art form.

The turning point came some five years later. He met a man who became his partner in movie-writing. Salim Khan, a struggling actor, met Akhtar on a movie set. The rest is Bollywood legend. They co-wrote several blockbuster movies — Khan would do the stories and plots and Akhtar would do the dialogues (in Urdu, which then had to be translated into Hindi). Not only were they the first scriptwriters in Indian cinema to collaborate openly like this, but they were the most successful (some say, in the history of Bollywood so far) and celebrities in their own rights. Their movies borrowed broadly and unreservedly from Western cinema but added strong and liberal doses of social messages and highly-charged melodrama that Bollywood is known for. As with all good things that do not last forever, their partnership ended in just under two decades. Life does not offer a Bollywood-ish “happily-ever-after”, a theme that Akhtar often illustrates through his poetry.

In the 1980s, Akhtar turned to writing movie songs and has continued to this day. As a lyricist, he has brought together both the Urdu meter and rhyme traditions of his forbears and a unique worldview of his own into his songs — whether mournful ballads, joyous love declarations, foot-tapping catchy tunes or rousing socio-political/religious themes. There is an unabashed sentimentality in much of his songwriting, perhaps rather too much for Western sensibilities, but his profound poetics imbue the songs with a singular and everlasting beauty. And, the Indian diaspora the world over and across generations enjoys his entire musical oeuvre immensely, starting with the first songs from the seemingly timeless and ever-popular movie, ’Silsila’, which had brought together the greatest cast and crew of its time in Indian cinema.

It wasn’t till after the death of his father in 1976 that Akhtar started writing poetry that stood on its own. Having lost one of the chief sources of his lifelong angst and rebellion, as he describes in the introduction to this collection, he wrote his first poem in 1979 as a way to “make peace with both my father and my legacy”. Around this time, he also met his second wife, the renowned actress, Shabana Azmi, who is also the daughter of a well-known poet, Kaifi Azmi (a contemporary of Akhtar’s father). No doubt, they both provided much encouragement and inspiration as well.

With that, let’s turn to this collection. Originally published in Urdu in 1995 as ‘Tarkash’ (meaning ‘quiver’), it was first transliterated into Hindi — meaning that it was made available in the Hindi script for non-Urdu audiences, though the language remained Urdu. There are translations in other regional languages as well as an audio version in Akhtar’s own voice. This English translation is by David Matthews, a former long-time professor of Urdu at the University of London. Matthews writes, in his wonderful introduction, of the difficulties of translating Urdu poetry, especially the ghazal form. Given the intricate and complex rhyming and meter traditions that date back to medieval Persia, it is difficult to render the exact and multiple meanings of certain phrases and words, especially in a Western language such as English. Still, Matthews’ English translation, entitled ‘Quiver’, has been put together with, clearly, great care and love. There are poems, ghazals and standalone couplets covering a gamut of themes with a range of moods from deep introspection to ironical wistfulness to realistic neo-romanticism.

More than anything, Akhtar’s standalone couplets prove the power of his language — how just two brief lines can say so much. So, here is a sampling below. And, for those who can manage Hindi, enjoy the Hindi script directly below each with the original Urdu words. Despite the wonderful translation, the original Urdu (transliterated into Hindi as mentioned earlier) has its own charm — a beautiful, supple, eloquent language with many unique words that cannot be found in any other language.

Couplets (excerpted from ‘Quiver’)

From counting coins, my hands grew gnarled — and that was sad.
I lost the softness of my touch — and that was bad.

गिन गिन के सिक्के हाथ मेरा खुरदुरा हुआ
जाती रही वो लम्स की नर्मी, बुरा हुआ

My house has been surrounded by high buildings
I have been robbed of my share of the sun today

उँची इमारतो से मकां मेरा घिर गया
कुछ लोग मेरे हिस्से का सूरज भी खा गए

What verse shall I recite for you? I sometimes think
the new ones are obscure, the old ones far too hard.

कौन-सा शेर सुनाऊँ मै तुम्हे, सोचता हूँ
नया मुब्हम है बहुत और पुराना मुश्किल

All of us are just one step away from happiness
In every house, we always seem to lack a room

सब का खुशी से फ़ासला एक क़दम है
हर घर में बस एक कमरा कम है

It might provide you with some amusement
To hear the reason for my fall.
I’ve played with life, as if my life
Does not belong to me at all.

अपनी वजहे-बरबादी सुनिये तो मज़े की है
ज़िंदगी से यूँ खेले जैसे दूसरे की है

The ways of this city are fine. Rejoice!
Jokes on the lips and blisters in the voice.

इस शहर में जीने के अंदाज़ निराले है
होठों पे लतीफ़े है आवाज़ में छाले है

See! Here is love and union and separation!
So, let’s go back; there’s much work to be done.

लो देख लो ये इश्क है ये वस्ल है ये हिज्र
अब लौट चले आओ बहुत काम पड़ा है

She does not even know that I exist, as if
She is a sundial; I, a moment of the night.

मिरे वुजूद से यूँ बेख़बर है वो जैसे
वो एक धूपघड़ी है मैं रात का पल हूँ

My little lamps ran out of oil.
So why complain about the wind?

उन चराग़ों में तेल ही कम था
क्यों गिला फिर हमें हवा से रहे

Someone robbed my sea of wind,
And left me with a sailing boat.

सब हवाएँ ले गया मेरे समंदर की कोई
और मुझको एक कश्ती बादबानी दे गया

~ Javed Akhtar, ‘Quiver: Poems & Ghazals

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