Two Translations of N. M. Rashid

by Haider Shahbaz

20100411_29N.M. Rashid (1910-1975) was an Urdu poet born in Gujranwala, Punjab. At the time of his birth, Gujranwala was part of the British Raj but was later included in Pakistan after the partition of 1947. His first collection of poetry, Mavra, was published in 1941 and was hailed as one of the earliest Urdu poetry collections to use free verse instead of the Ghazal form. He published three other collections: Iran Main Ajnabi (1955), La=Insaan (1969) and Guman ka Mumkin (1977, posthumous). His break from the ghazal form was not simply a break from traditional meter and rhyme, but he also introduced a poetry that was concerned with metaphysical themes and broke with the traditional themes of love that were tackled in the Ghazal. During British rule, he was also involved with the anti-colonial Khaksar Movement. His poetry appealed to me personally because he engages with themes of colonialism, the dynamics of love and eroticism between the oppressor and the oppressed, as well as modernist themes of the relationship between words and meaning. In this latter aspect, and in his advocacy of free verse, he reminds me of the disciples of Mallarme. Indeed, his friend and close collaborator, Meeraji, translated a number of Mallarme's poems. Rashid died in a London hospital in 1975 and his body was cremated according to his will.

I have chosen the two following poems to translate because they showcase Rashid's early preoccupation with foreign rule in India as well as his later preoccupation with the legacy of Islam (the second poem takes its first line, “Society is God – do not criticize it” from a saying of Muhammad).

(Before I take my leave, I wanted to say Eid Mubarak. But then I was reminded that 30 men were killed in a suicide bombing in Quetta the night before Eid. The insurgents who killed them claim to be avenging men who have gone missing in Baluchistan or who have been killed by the security forces to put down the separatist resistance movement in Baluchistan. I don't know anymore whom to mourn – those who kill or those who die. There was a time when Eid was Eid in Pakistan. Today, amidst these tumbling walls, it feels like no Eid to me. I can only hope that what Darwish said was true: “Every beautiful poem is an act of resistance.”)

And now, as Rashid said in his preface to Mavra: “After this meaningless preface, some meaningless poems.”


That face, those features, I cannot remember
A king's harem I remember
Next to the fireplace: a stripped body
Floor with carpet, carpet with couch
Alien gods of stone and metal
in a corner of the wall;
I can hear their laughter!
The roar of fire in the fireplace
furious – for these gods are insensitive!
Reflections on tall, tall walls
remind me of WHITE tyrants
whose swords lay in this room
foundations of WHITE rule!
That face, those features, I cannot remember
That nakedness I still remember
Unknown woman; alien body
on which, all night, my “lips” took
revenge – on behalf of my helpless gods
That nakedness I still remember!

[Urdu original here.]

“Society is God”

“Society is God – don't criticize it”
You do not see – society is idea
A rope of ideas
Light, long, delicate
Illusory inscription of Difference!
Those mornings of a million years ago
Those evenings of a million years ahead
You cannot see, you do not see
They are present now, present here
This rope roped in front of you
You can see, you do see
This rope is absence
which needs ages
To be presence
Cosmic years, cosmic ages!
In my garden, there is a young plant
Every time an airplane flies above it
It smiles and it sways
As if the force of its love,
the society of love,
made the plane powerless!
My plant says with arrogance:
“Look! How we are tied
at the two ends of this rope!
If there was no rope, where will you,
where will me, become linked,
Become One?”
My plant does not see
the distances, the differences
which are roped from genesis to judgment
from infinity to infinity
where this society, society that is
– Now
is nothing but a knot.

[Urdu original here.]