This essay was originally published in the Full Stop Quarterly “Cultural Politics of Land” issue (Fall 2023). Subscribe at our Patreon page to get access to this and future issues, also available for purchase here.
Abdul Manan Bhat and Partha Chakrabartty first met in Philadelphia at a protest they attended to raise their voice against oppression and persecution of Kashmiris in the wake of the illegal revocation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution by the Narendra Modi-led government in India. This was a time when the Indian state had banned the internet, and severed phone lines and messaging services in Kashmir, leaving Kashmiris abroad, including Abdul Manan, with no way of communicating with their families and friends for well over three months. In that moment of silence, and in the tradition of the passing of a burning candle from one poet to another in Urdu mushairas, Abdul Manan offered his poems to Partha and invited him to attempt translating them into English.
The translations that poet and translator would fashion together, with their shared knowledge of each other’s languages to guide them, would go on to be published in literary magazines, even as Abdul Manan’s ghazals would come to be sung by stalwart ghazal exponents in Kashmir, and get featured at the Little Museum of Poetry in Piacenza, Italy. Abdul Manan and Partha would also enjoy the privilege of publicly presenting their work and being in conversation as poet and translator on more than one occasion, notably alongside celebrated Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut Izgil, and his translator Joshua Freeman.
Abdul Manan’s words in Urdu and English have reached you now, and we hope the tradition of words sparking words, thoughts sparking thoughts, and poems sparking poems will continue with you.
Partha: We are speaking of horizons of liberation, and we are speaking of poetry. And we are speaking of your poems and poetic practice, since you often meditate on the possibilities and impossibilities of liberation, and on the importance of imagining an after. What, according to you, is the relationship between poetry and liberation?
Abdul Manan: In speaking to dispossession, poetry produces entire landscapes of liberation, not just instances of it. To that end, my poetic form of choice, the ghazal, is as much an invitation to belong, to congregate, as it is a formalized system of arranging syllable, sound, image. The fate of our metaphors is tied to the fate of our assembly, a responsibility that informs much of my poems and poetic practice. The ghazal is a cumulative form that builds on established metaphors in a non-linear fashion. The garden, the desert, the prison, the pathway, the nightingale, the rose, the thorns, the skies, the hunter, the birds, the speech, are all relationally deployed in order to introduce variable meanings along familiar terrains. I see tremendous liberatory potential in its cumulativeness. Its thrust on familiarization tells me that I am not alone, that we are not alone. When writing a ghazal, my poetic voice is not just my own, just like my pain is not just my own: “when there is no cure for the pains in the world/then why should there be a cure for mine?” (jab nahi chāra-i gham-i dunyā/phir mere dard kī dawā kyun ho). The very elements of my poems are made possible by a litany of non-chronological contemporaries and by deeply held associations searching ceaselessly for more associations.
This element of the ghazal is important to my broader understanding of the relationship between poetry and liberation. In one sense, if we take poetry to be an invitation to congregate on the basis of permeable metaphors that link one context to another, one pain to another, we see different horizons of liberation coalesce into each other on their own terms. We realize that the many dispossessed and brutalized peoples of this world, Palestinians, Kashmiris, Uyghurs, are not alone in imagining their respective liberations, a realization that has great precedent of thought and action in the twentieth century and is made urgent by the fact that their respective occupiers are not alone in their colonial projects. My attempt through the ghazal has been to partake in its invitation to congregate and, to the extent that I am capable, extend that invitation to others who, following the influential leftist Urdu-language poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, continue “to grow flowers in pits of fire.”
To another strand in your question, poetry that meditates on questions of ongoing dispossession and militarization does not approach “an after” but dwells in it, which is to say, it inhabits many afters. As I have said elsewhere, poetry does not end militarization, but it inhabits a time where such a thing happens, a position that is not without its set of anxieties. As you point out in the question, my poetry oscillates between the possibilities and impossibilities of liberation, but by this I do not imply that liberation is an impossibility. For me, horizons of liberation are populated by variable desires to be free but also by a feeling that we are at a harrowing distance from our destination. The material realities of dispossession, realized by sheer military might, imposes upon my poetic voice a reasonable anxiety: What if we fall short of where we hope to be, what if that distance is never covered? I try to think productively about the anxieties that are part of imagining and inhabiting “an after.” The impossibility of liberation is neither an empirical statement about the state of affairs, nor a defeatist view of the probability of liberation, but a recognition of anxieties that are part of embarking on a liberatory project. The conditions of dispossession are such that our visions of liberation are consistently under attacks of erasure, and this anxiety of many impending erasures is part of my poetic project. One of my poems, “Threshold” (Dehlīz), ends, “the maps to our destination waft in sand/ in such a fix, what to do, oh friends? / Either we resolve to cross the horizon all the way, or we stop now.” (aur manzil key nishān ban rahe hain rēt par/aise mein yaaron kaho kis ṭaraf ko jayein hum/ya ufaq ke pār hon ya abhi ruk jāyen hum).
There are so many strands to unpack in your answer. Please allow me to navigate through several of them.
First, your wonderful idea of the ghazal as an invitation to congregate across time and space led me to think of a poem recited at one such congregation recently: a virtual meeting of a few dozen activists where, during an interlude, a poem was read aloud. I still recall how more than any other activity the reading of poetry seemed to rouse the group assembled there. Poetry became tonic: I like to think of the uses of poetry in the political present. But even more germane is the poem itself; I remain obsessed months afterwards, and I wanted to present it to you as a dilemma or provocation when thinking about poetry and the horizons of liberation. The poem that was read at the congregation was “Torch” by the late great Manglesh Dabral, an Indian Hindi poet and journalist. I’ll attempt a translation of some phrases and lines; the poem remembers the first time a child’s father brings home a flashlight, called a “torch” in India, which was memorable because it was “the first engine of light” in those parts, one whose light beam, “like a miracle / split the night in two.” On seeing the torch, an elderly neighbor asks the child’s father for some kindling for her stove from the torch, expecting it to contain fire. The father laughs and tells the lady, “Aunty, this Torch contains only light and no heat / it shines in the night / and illuminates the rough and stony mountain paths.”
The elderly lady answers:
“Oh, it would have been good if along with light the torch also contained some
I lie awake at nights worrying about how I’ll kindle my stove the next day
What use is it having light in the night for us commonfolk?
It is only big, fancy people who need to see at night”
My father didn’t answer, and was quiet for a long while.
Even after so many years, that incident and its torchlight
the grandma seeking fire, and my father’s silence travel
all the way to the dilemmas and poetry of our times.
What thoughts do Dabralji’s parable provoke in you? How does your poetics, and the poetics of our time, contend with the dilemma of light and heat, in a time when grandmas across the world lie awake at night, worrying about what tomorrow will bring? What kind of “torchlight” does the ghazal provide in the “dilemmas and poetry of our times,” times marked by neo-colonial, political, and military conflict?
Thanks so much for sharing this moving incident and an even more moving poem. I find the parable remarkable on two accounts. It enables a series of interlinked invitations to congregate: “Torch,” as a poem, enables you and I to have this conversation. Torch, as a motif in the poem, allows the father, the child, and the elderly lady to summon a range of emotions, spanning excitement, anxiety, desire. These are permeable congregations, I think. As you so helpfully pointed out, the poem dwells on the possibilities of heat and light for “seeking fire.” I approach themes of heat and light in my own work from the Islamic Persianate ghazal literary landscape, which enact specific literary, ethical, and political work. Allow me to do that here.
The noted Urdu and Persian poet Ghalib boasts, or complains, that “some thought of passion occurred to me, and the desert caught fire” (kuch khayal āyā tha vehshat kā ki sehra jal gaya). He had only begun to contemplate passion, and such was its heat that even the desert, with all its experience in things hot, could not help but burn. The element of boast is clear here. However, there also looms a certain complaint, that there is no space in this entire universe for us to even contemplate, let alone embody, passion, for even the desert proved incapable of entertaining it. Heat is a repository of incalculable passion, a sword with multiple edges that hangs as much on those who embody passion as on the desert that it threatens to burn.
Passion, as it features in my own work, realizes the different costs afforded to different subject-formations that strive to congregate on various terrains. In other words, for some people the cost of congregating is much higher than others. A dispossessed people, say Kashmiris or Palestinians, are forcefully prevented from congregating not only in their own lands, but also in the landscapes of language. Just as the physical geographies of these places are brutalized, their language-geographies are also under constant attack. Any attempt to congregate, on land and in language, threatens the powerful. One could perhaps re-read Mahmoud Darwish’s remarkable sentence in this light, “The earth is closing in on us . . . where should the birds fly after the last sky?” There are no natural limits in the landscapes of language. The earth is made to close on us, the sky brought down upon us through concerted efforts of dispossession, in the hope of making our metaphors immobile. And so, this question, where do we go from the last sky, animates the movement of my poetry. My attempt is, following Ghalib, “to make an abode on the other side of the sky” (manẓar ik bulandī par aur ham bana sakte/ʿarsh key udhar hotā kāsh keh makān apnā).
You spoke powerfully about a reasonable response to the anxieties generated by the reality of dispossession, the distance from the after, and therefore in dreaming of an after, and how one can maintain one’s negative capability, hold space for that anxiety to see what it can produce. This tells me also of the idea of bearing witness, which has been at the heart of so much poetry, and I’m thinking specifically of Anna Akhmatova in the opening pages of her poem “Requiem”:
No, not under the vault of alien skies,
And not under the shelter of alien wings—
I was with my people then,
There, where my people, unfortunately, were.
INSTEAD OF A PREFACE
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent
seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad.
Once, someone “recognized” me. Then a woman with
bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had
never heard me called by name before, woke up from
the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and
whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I answered: “Yes, I can.”
Then something that looked like a smile passed over
what had once been her face.(translated from the Russian by Judith Hemschemeyer)
I wanted to hear your thoughts on bearing witness, on the anxieties of exile that Akhmatova seems to invoke with these opening lines, and poetry in an age where one bears witness from a distance, and indeed where both the technologies of witness, and the technologies of dispossession, and the ever-present danger of erasure you mentioned, or worse, follow one into exile.
I doubt I can do justice to Akhmatova’s revelatory lines in the span of this interview. “I was with my people then / There, where my people, unfortunately, were,” provokes so many associations from the Persianate literary tradition (which is my literary vantage point to versify exile and witnessing). I’m thinking here of Muhammad Iqbal, Khalilullah Khalili, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mahjoor, Ada Jaffery, and going farther back, Masud Sa’ad Salman, Maulana Rumi, Hafez, Naziri. The whole premise of being a witness is coterminous with producing different practices of contemporaneity, something that I think Persianate literary traditions equip us to do quite effectively. So, instead of answering your question directly, maybe it’s more worthwhile to share an Urdu ghazal (one, as it happens, translated by you) in which I oscillate between the non-contemporaneous and the contemporaneous in literature as well as in experience. As readers will note, its refrain comes from the capacious Urdu phrase judā honā, which translates to “being different/being apart from/being separate from.” I appreciate the way your translation retains the refrain as “another.” It also might be of some relevance to share the afterlife of this ghazal. This ghazal about being in another place/state/color/gathering was composed and sung by a prominent classical singer in Kashmir. I watched his performance from my living room in Philadelphia, thankful for such love, but equally startled at how the poem that was once with me is now simultaneously in “another place.” That “another place,” I have no hesitancy in saying, is where all poems yearn to go.
Something in the urgency of your lines in “Dehlīz” (Threshold) and the invoking of horizons and non-chronological time, down to my vision of you typing away in your room, on your typewriter, under the gaze of Faiz Ahmed Faiz on your wall, has put me in mind of the way liberation can be conceived of outside the terms of both linear and cyclical time, as an ever-present and ever-urgent work, one that is as endless as the schemes and desires of domination, and in an infinite dialectical relationship with it . . . We can paraphrase Faiz as singing: “That after that we awaited for so long, this cannot be that after, can it?” (Wo intezaar tha jiska ye wo seher to nahi). In this light, there is no final destination, and your call to embark on the journey is a call one answers anew every day, up until the moment one encounters that other threshold, the threshold of death. In a way, the work many who walk this path embark on is a project they know will outlive them. In terms of bearing witness, and thinking about death, I think of the remarkable story of Miklos Radnoti: a Polish poet condemned to the Bor labor camp under Nazi Germany, who managed to buy a notebook from a farmer in which he wrote down poems, using the pages sparingly, only writing down finished lines. This notebook would be found on Radnoti’s body when it was exhumed two years after he had been murdered, along with the rest of the column of prisoners who were forced into a death march in 1944. Among these poems was one written on the back of a Cod Liver Oil label and then inserted into the notebook. It was about the execution of the musician Miklós Lorsi:
I whispered to myself, “Lie still now.
Patience is blossoming into death.”
I have read that, at the Bor camp, two columns of prisoners were formed; Radnoti, unsure of which one would survive, had smuggled some of his pages to his fellow prisoner, Sándor Szalai, in the column he had not been placed in, I presume in an effort to increase the chances of at least some of his poems surviving. As it turned out, all those he wrote down did survive: Szalai’s column would be liberated by a band of Partisans when they finally marched out of Bor; the poems held by Radnoti would be published even as he was on his final death march.
Your poems, too, are haunted by lost friends, and the shadow of death. I wanted to ask you to think about these two horizons, the horizon of liberation and the horizon of death, and of voices and visions and forms of witness that outlast both liberation, and death.
As I read through this intriguing set of questions, laced with the concerns of the “after,” effortless words of the Urdu and Punjabi poet Munir Niyazi gaze at me, “As I arrived at the shore of one river I saw / I was faced with another river, oh Munir” (īk aur daryā kā sāmna thā munīr mujhko/meñ īk daryā ke pār utrā to meñ ne dēkhā). Niyazi presents the infinitude of “the after” as treading through one river only to be faced with another one. Probed further, Niyazi’s lines also destabilize “the shore.” The shore here is a relational location, continuously receding for those who have many more rivers to cross. Rivers seem permanent and shores impermanent. In this non-linear, dialectical condition, then, what becomes of horizons, of both liberation and death? I find this to be a question that can only be approached through its shadows (something I also try to do in my poetry). When one is faced with many more rivers that need crossing, and as the ground on which we stand melts away, the gaze gets fractured between the ground on which we stand, the endless rivers that seek our drowning, and the possibilities of horizons, the after(s). The horizons of liberation and death, to my fractured gaze, appear as bound together. They do not stand apart from each other, that is to say, they are constituted through each other, exuding fragrances and colors that arouse as much as they haunt. We the dispossessed are invested in producing horizons of liberation, even as just contemplating the end to this violence includes the possibilities of our own demise. By that I mean, the violence of the dispossession is so comprehensive that the anxieties caused by it extend even into horizons of liberation.
I want to draw out another point from your question, that of distance. As you pointed out, a lot of my poetry is located in the time-place of separation or exile (hijr). I think that dispossession produces many grammars of separations, and it thrusts the dipossessed into daunting distances from themselves, their loved ones, from their sense of place as well as place-making, and from the different “afters.” We are faced with new and evolving grammars of forced separation, which means we are also faced with the task of producing our own grammars of return. I think my small attempt through poetry is to forge a grammar of return because, as I have said elsewhere, if the pain of separation is ours, if the scars of the journey are etched on our bodies, then the metaphors to convey that pain as well as the language of cure ought to be ours too.
Abdul Manan Bhat is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he specializes in sufism in Persianate societies, embodiment and Islamic sociality, and modern Persian & Urdu poetry. From Srinagar, Kashmir, Abdul Manan is an Urdu poet. He has recited poetry upon invitation at poetry readings across South Asia, North America, and Europe. These include Faiz Literature Festival (London), Festival of Ideas (London), Twelve Gates Arts (Philadelphia). A number of his poems have been sung by prominent classical singers in Kashmir.
Partha P. Chakrabartty is an occasional editor, writer, translator, and activist. His writing can be found at the Mint, the Wire, Firstpost, and Open Magazine, among others. His poetry and translations can be found at nthposition, Burning Bush 2, the Alipore Post, nether, Soch, and Saaranga.
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