Jaipur Literature Festival 2021: Mehr Farooqi discusses her new biography of Ghalib, and the challenges of translation
The author, among other things, talked about the important journey Ghalib undertook to Kolkata, and his discovery of the printing process and the bookshops of the city.
Every year there are a few sessions at the Jaipur Literature Festival that inevitably encapsulate the general “soundness” of the particular edition. On day 3, Ghalib: A Wilderness At My Doorstep, seemed to be an early contender for this time around.
The prospect of Mehr Afshan Farooqi discussing her new literary biography of the poet Ghalib with Rana Safvi was quite a promising one (and the effort on their respective sides was not lacking). Only, and not for the first time in so many days, the virtual platform which is meant to bridge the physical divide in these times, ended up being an impediment to the experience. With often muffled and broken audio, it was not only difficult to follow the conversation, but one also felt like the festival organisers didn’t quite do their part to address the problem, considering the time they had on their hand and the fact that the session was pre-recorded.
But back to the meat of the session: Farooqi began with the basics – describing what a Diwan meant, and Ghalib’s selection process, and talked about how her research for the book went on and on, to a point where she believed there will be no end to it.
The author, who is currently the associate professor of Urdu and South Asian Literature at the University of Virginia, described the important journey Ghalib undertook to Kolkata, and his discovery of the printing process and bookshops in the city. Once there, he grasped the reach the medium had and its potential to get him wider recognition. His collection Gul-e-Rana was published soon after. Farooqi also points to the fact that while many know him as an Urdu poet, Ghalib also wrote prolifically in Persian. She touched upon how, as a young poet who wanted to try something new, and dabbled in metaphysical and existential questions, Ghalib drew inspiration from poet Abdul-Qādir Bedil.
Discussing the many challenges of translating Ghalib’s works in English, especially his ghazal poetry, Farooqi said she felt like she was constantly apologising to the poet for her efforts. While she had to consider elements like rhymes, rhythms and meters — not to mention the subtleties weaved through them — she worked at translating the same pieces multiple times (displaying the various possibilities to read the text), and providing explanations behind her through process, while also commenting on parts which couldn’t be translated to satisfaction. Working on prose was a different story though, something the author says she has better time with, to the extent that she feels like Ghalib would be patting her on the back for a job done well.
Transporting listeners back in time to when the poet was active, Farooqi talked about how poetry used to be a full-time occupation in the day, where one had patrons, as well as active competitors. Singing one’s own praises and advertising oneself was common, and Ghalib was hardly being arrogant in some of his seemingly self-obsessed pieces, but rather practical. In a world where poetry was your bread and butter, presentation was important. She also pointed to how in a time when Persian was formal and more prominent, Ghalib stylised the Urdu prose, and made its use more casual and accessible.
Talking about her father, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, an Urdu language poet, author, critic and theorist, who passed away recently, the author said she owed everything she has learned to him. He was someone who, even in her childhood, took her to bookstores, and not to toy stores. Her purpose with the book, like her father’s work, was to go beyond what we thought we knew already, and discover something new, something that we had missed.
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