Geeta Patel on Miraji

Miraji was a consummate poet of the streets, someone whose life was made replete through the journeys he took. One of the few photographs of him, taken as a still for a movie to be made in Bombay, brings him to life as a sadhu, mala in hand, long hair untamed, earrings dangling. One can almost imagine him, his thaila or shoulder bag laden with books and loose pages scribbled full of poems, a small bottle of alcohol tucked between them, wending his way on yet another sojourn, a yaatraa. He could have been a typical aashik, a lover, hollow-eyed, locks askew, bechain swinging between hope and despair, haunting the street, awaiting a glimpse of the woman he said he loved, Mira Sen, outside her firmly closed door, loitering outside Kinnaird College in Lahore where she went to college. As he describes in the first nazm of his collection Sah Aatishah (With Fire), "Aankh micholii":

I walk past my house a little, wish she were here. How quickly she eludes my glance. What must I believe? Does she abhor me? But this: she looked down so soon, in such silence. What can I believe, does she know my longing? And this? When our eyes meet, she shuts her door, and I, destitute, wander again.
But Miraji was a poet of the streets in many less conventional ways. If one can imagine galis as poetic paths, he also haunted the byways of libraries. He had forsaken a conventional education and was entirely self taught. The librarian at the Punjab Public library remembered him as the first one in and the last one out. Libraries became his avenues to other worlds, avenues he traveled inexorably, returning to Urdu from sojourns into translations from French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and closer to home, from Bengali, Sanskrit, and Braj. In absolutely essential ways these journeys transformed his being, became the lodestone for his poetry. Miraji was very young when he wrote many of his essays on poetry that he could have encountered only through such 'travels'; some of them, collected in Mashriq o Maghrib ke Naghmen, were composed when he was 18 years old. So from the inception of his first forays into writing the lovely nazms, giits and ghazals for which he became famous, he translated. And these translations are seminal for him as a poet.

A few poets have acknowledged how important translation is for their own composition. Perhaps Rilke in his ninth elegy alluded to the centrality of translation. Goethe, moved by the Sanskrit play Shakuntala and the profound lines of Hafez, sought out translation as inspiration for cycles of lyric. Kenneth Rexroth, in his essay "The Poet as Translator," characterized translation as a kind of going beyond oneself in the act of voicing someone else's lyric:

The translation of poetry into poetry is an act of sympathy—the identification of another person with oneself, the transference of his utterance to one's own utterance... to transmit it back into one's own idiom with maximum viability.
But Rexroth ventures further than this when, in discussing the British poet H.D's translations from ancient Greek, he calls her process and her verse: "the story of her own possession by the ghost of Meleager." For Rexroth the skimpiest understanding of translation is the common one: translation as a process of turning a text from one language into a text in another. Here the translator is almost absent, treated as a transparent funnel or conduit who enables what is most important—the new text. And usually what people look for when they think of translation in this way is fidelity, how close the translation is to the original. Rexroth brings the translator back into view, not just as someone who has to feel their way into the original by overcoming a self, but as someone who, in the process of translation, is taken over by the words that they are translating. They become something or someone else, and the two languages in their hands absorb these transformations.

To explain the place of translation in Miraji's life and work I would go even further. Adrienne Rich, in the United States, comes the closest to exemplifying what I want to say. Her poetic voice changed after she worked on Ghalib and she found in ghazal a form of lyric that made it more possible for her to enunciate love as loss. Miraji sought after different kinds of speaking when he translated; these then became his voice. But he also became another person through translation. And I am not sure how many poets have, like Miraji, held onto the spaces between translation and composition, composition and reading, reading and translation as though they were as necessary as breath.

Urdu has of course had its own a long history of translation. One familiar and perhaps apocryphal story of the origins of the language makes translation between the various communities of the camp or the market its birthing site. And among many of the notables in the history of Urdu literature whose names may be invoked in relation to translation was Altaf Husain Hali. Hali, who made some of his living from translating books from English, could be thought of as someone whose call for a new aesthetics—through islaah or the improvement or revision of Urdu poetry to produce Urdu's "nayii shairii" as poetry based in natural (that is, realist) description—was founded in translation. Nineteenth-century British realism transmuted into Urdu poetry might also have had the project of translation as its host.

"Nagarii nagarii phiraa musaafir ghar kaa raastaa bhuul gayaa, kyaa hai meraa kyaa hai teraa apnaa paraayaa bhuul gayaa." This matlaa, the opening verse in a ghazal Miraji includes in Tiin Rang (Three Colors), one of the poetry collections he compiled, scripted painstakingly in his own hand, fleshes out translation in myriad ways. It might be said to embody many of the features Miraji brings to translation. "From town to town the traveler journeyed, and forgot the road home, what was mine, what a stranger's, both lost to memory,'' he writes. "I don't remember why I am here, what I have to do. My memory has turned into a flickering lamp." A traveler, about whose travails Miraji also speaks in one of his longer, more elusively nuanced nazms, "Jaatrii," is someone whose raison d'être is forgetting, in the ways that Rexroth intends. Traveling enables the sojourner to extend beyond their skin; travel as a method of translating pulls the poet away from home, the places where their voice assumes its familiar cadences and tones. This sort of translation inhabits the skin and sinews of another's speaking and composition. So much so, that the differences between self and other, one voice and another lyric, dissolves, fades away. And the road home is lost to memory. What might this mean for a poet and writer like Miraji?

Miraji translated copiously throughout his life, while he was also writing essays and composing nazm, giit and ghazal. In his youth he translated the Bengali poet Vidyapati, Li Po, most of the symbolist poets, D.H. Lawrence, the Brontë sisters, Sappho, women poets writing in Japanese and Korean, Heinrich Heine; he went on to translate Anna Akhmatova, Muriel Rukeyser, and towards the end of his life he compiled three books of translations, one each from Mirabai, Omar Khayyam, and Damodar Gupta. In my book, Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings: Gender, Colonialism, and Desire in Miraji's Urdu Poetry, I investigate how translating Charles Baudelaire would invigorate Miraji's desire to revitalize the Urdu lyrical tradition that had lost its way after 1857. I suggest that translation opens avenues for Miraji that do not follow the conventions of realism that Hali intimated as a new path for Urdu lyric.

These are some of the avenues Miraji traversed in "nagarii, nagarii": that new ghazals might discover their lineages not in Perso-Arabic conventions but perhaps in the ordinary Hindi of the street, perhaps in the cadences and metaphors from Daccanii ghazal such as those attributed to Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah, who in piyaa baaj pyaalaa piyaa na jaaye sings in a language redolent with Braj. Miraji's ghazal offers an alternative sojourn that diverges from the one suggested by Hali: one of possession, rather than realism. "It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another," Walter Benjamin reminds us in his essay, "The Task of the Translator." Enchanted, seduced by another voice, the ghazal releases its own lingua franca under Miraji's delicate pen: "ghar kaa raastaa bhuul gayaa." In losing the way home the ghazal calls to mind the journeys mystics make, so necessary to Benjamin's evocations on translation: to shed their everyday worldly skin, to forsake the differences between oneself and those who are strangers to us. This ghazal shows us what translation can do to a particular form, but also tells us what translators must do: forgo the comforts of the familiar. And wending their way along the pathways of mysticism, translators become one with someone else, porous to resonances. Overtaken by other spirits they come to be other than they were when they embarked on their travels.

What are the effects for Miraji? You see them, as I have indicated, in his poetry. You also see them in his prose analyses of his own contemporaries who wrote in Urdu. You see them in his life. And each venue blends into the others.