‘Ghazalnama’: One voice, two tongues

Rihan Najib | Updated on August 05, 2019 Published on August 02, 2019

City of words: For poet Maaz Bin Bilal, language is a terrain, a space one inhabits . -Adarsh Jogani

Poet and translator Maaz Bin Bilal on his debut poetry collection ‘Ghazalnama’ and bending a language to suit his purposes

“Talab is thirst/ Talib, who seeks/ Taliban are seekers/ traditionally, of knowledge,” writes Maaz Bin Bilal in the poem Knowledge II. In unerring consonance with a post-truth era, it concludes: These days/ words, as I knew them/ I know, no longer/ mean the same”.

The poem belongs to Bilal’s debut collection, Ghazalnama: Poems from Delhi, Belfast, and Urdu, which was released on August 2. Described as a “verse collection” of his experiences in the worlds — both cultural and spatial — he has been a part of, Ghazalnama announces the arrival of a new poet and translator on the block.

Ghazalnama: Poems from Delhi, Belfast, and Urdu; Maaz Bin Bilal; Yoda Press; Poetry; ₹350


But Bilal (32), who met BLink at a cafe in Delhi’s Khan Market, appears to be nonchalant about inaugurating a new phase in his literary life. For him, Ghazalnama has been in the making for a long time. Poems in the collection date back to his days as a graduate student in Delhi, following him through his doctoral studies in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and his eventual return to the Capital. “It felt like a cycle had been completed,” he says. He is now an associate professor in the liberal arts school at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat.

Bilal spent a childhood in Ballimaran in the old quarters of Delhi, a place now frequented by weekend history aficionados and amateur photographers seeking to capture Delhi’s ruins in soft focus. Ballimaran’s foremost historical offering is ‘Ghalib ki Haveli’, the erstwhile residence of 19th-century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. Both location and resident feature heavily in Ghazalnama — the collection opens with the poem Ballimaran. Bilal has also translated several poems by Ghalib into English.

Sipping on his black coffee, Bilal lets slip the guarded anxieties of a debut author, becoming wary of revealing too much. He frowns when the conversation becomes “too autobiographical”. “Shouldn’t this be about the book?” he asks, gently steering the exchange away from himself.

Poet, translator and academic Maaz Bin Bilal


But the lines between poet and poem are invariably blurred, each dipping into the other for substance and form. For Bilal, who grew up listening to Urdu ghazals in the family drawing room, poetry was inevitable. “I was raised in a culture where poetry was valorised. Couplets would be memorised and exchanged, so I involuntarily absorbed the inflections of Urdu poetry,” he notes. The first couplet he wrote was at the age of three, “but I would hesitate to quote that here”.

Perhaps having been steeped in the sounds of Urdu poetry, his poems — most of them couplets employing the ghazal form — are lyrically intense, acutely aware of rhythm and metre. They demand not just to be read, but also read aloud. More importantly, they demand a mushaira — a gathering. His verses are political critiques, calling our attention to the world’s small and big cruelties. A poem on Kashmir is unreserved in its admonishment: “Thirty killed or martyred in only three days/What vengeance is this that we seek about Kashmir?/ Pandits were driven out, and Muslims are curfewed in/ Of raw flesh and fury — a reek about Kashmir.”

“It was a deliberate choice to write in English. I wanted to bend English to my own purposes — and bend it towards Urdu’s aesthetics and lyricism,” Bilal says. His childhood literature comprised the “usual suspects” of an English-medium private school education — “the Blytons, the detective fiction, etc”. Moreover, having completed his higher education in English literature, he says, “English is the only language in which I have literary competence.”

Urdu literature, in that respect, was a late arrival — but it coincided with the poet’s forays into original verse. Contemporary poet Agha Shahid Ali, in particular — who wrote ghazals in English — influenced Bilal greatly, and seeded the idea of Ghazalnama.

His relationship with Urdu is more than merely linguistic. Explaining why he had chosen to include Urdu alongside place names in the book’s subtitle, he says, “Here I’d like to use the word zameen — language as a terrain, a space that one inhabits, like a city. One lives in language.”

Pointing out that Urdu is also an urban language, originally and still spoken in cities such as Delhi, Hyderabad, Lucknow, he says, “Urdu is a particular place, in that sense; it belongs to a particular culture.” The word for civilisation, culture and literature, he highlights, is the same — adab. The same word translates into adaab, meaning respect. “It is a language that is immersed in a kind of etiquette and culture already oriented towards poetry, where the poetic gathering and poets are held in high esteem,” he says.

Bilal’s second book — Chhata Darya (The Sixth River), a translation of a Partition-era journal by Fikr Taunsvi — is forthcoming in a month. Translations demand discipline in two languages, and he is happy about the competence he has acquired in Urdu, even if his aim is to eventually write his own verse in Urdu.

“Poetry comes to me. I don’t sit down to write,” he says. “When I do, I feel I have produced bad poetry.” Sometimes a word or a turn of phrase catches his attention, which he mulls over until a poem takes shape. But no matter how much he shies away from autobiography, poetry is a mining of the personal. In Another Art, he concedes, “I hold a pen, tight, in mine, and write to gain loss/ to order chaos, find meaning in the echoes of lines.”

Published on August 02, 2019
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