Book Review by Basudhara Roy
Title: Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems
Poet: Afsar Mohammad
Translator: Afsar Mohammad and Shamala Gallagher
Publisher: Red River
I’m sorry, my Lord. My poem is not your slave, it’s a sickle with its head to the sky. My poem is not a damsel timid in your moonlight, it’s a tiger prowling in a shadowed forest. My poem won’t be your grand constitution, devoted to your happiness at all costs. - ‘Outcast’s Grief’ from Evening with a Sufi
Not all poetry can be read with the same eye or ear. Certain poems demand to be seen and heard on their own terms, offering to the reader their own canons of understanding and appreciation in imaging an idea that, through them, has just been born into thought. Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi sets out to be one such thought-provoking book of poems.
A slim collection of twenty-six verses selected and translated from Afsar Mohammad’s extensive oeuvre in Telugu by Shamala Gallagher and the poet himself, these are existential political poems that are as theoretically perspicacious as they are urgent and astounding in their overwhelming sincerity. Like Eliot’s The Waste Land, Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi aesthetically documents a difficult world, especially one criss-crossed with systemic hegemony, and bereft of equality. An engagement with these poems is a direct invitation to the reader to embark on an epistemological tour into a sharp symbolic landscape that encapsulates visceral records of social meaning.
The title, to begin with, itself upholds a strong symbolism. Its ‘evening’ bespeaks the twilight of civilisation, the personal-social moment of the unleashing of despair, and a decadent global landscape thriving on inequity and deprivation. And yet, evening, in these poems, is also the transitional period of awareness, self-reflection, evaluation, and the collective envisioning of an egalitarian dawn. These poems, therefore, become investigations and articulations of both fatigue and rest, of falling apart and re-gathering, and of old failures and new beginnings, leading us to look at the idea of the Sufi or Sufism anew.
“For me, Sufism is nothing but a tool of resistance,” avers the poet, indicating how Sufism, as a philosophy, offers a vigorous counternarrative to transnational policies and practices of discrimination, marginalisation, disempowerment and exclusion. “In my village Sufism, I see how people of diverse colours and castes share food, rituals and stories. As a village person, it’s not a far-fetched utopia for me — but an everyday reality. My writings are nothing but reminders of that shared realm of life.”
In Afsar’s poems, Sufism becomes a political as well as existential search for a vision of oneness. This vision is, at the same time, philosophical and social, local and global, integrating and intimidating in the way that most revolutions are – “The drop that can swallow a desert” (‘Another Word’) or “Where walls are knocked down,/ we won’t need the splendour of curtains” (‘The Spectator is Dead’) or “I always speak the language of war.” (‘A Green Bird and the Nest of Light’)
Identity surfaces as a significant theme in this book. Most of the twenty-six poems in Evening with a Sufi embark on a complex exploration of identity on geographical, cultural, social, historical or linguistic terrains. However, the book’s conceptualisation of identity is far from monolithic. Germane to the vision of these poems is the essentially dialogic space of identity and its characterization as an ever-contingent work-in-progress.
Mark the first poem in the collection, for instance. Titled ‘Name Calling’, an ambiguous phrase that poignantly addresses the phenomenon of naming as an act of use and abuse, the poem captures the essential seamlessness of names and identities. The protagonist of the piece is a boyhood contemporary called Usman who is visibly an ‘other’ to the speaker of the poem, the difference between them marked out distinctly in class terms and perhaps also (less evidently) in terms of physical ability – “You scared all the children/ away from the river./ A body like a wound/ peeks from your torn shirt.” It is, however, to this social pariah – “the one street dog doggedly haunted by a ball” that the speaker feels affiliated in his later life:
Now I don’t see much difference between you and me. We are the same.[…] Usman, times never change only the roles change.
Muslim, Telugu and Third-world migrant, the poet reads the theory and experience of otherness on a number of sociological axes and through a variety of cultural lenses. In ‘The Accented Word’, he uses the idea of accent to explore the complex genealogies of language on the intersections of purism and cultural hegemony, contemplating variously, through the three sections of the poem, on linguistic integrity, capitalist subordination, and postcolonial erasure:
Words are stillborn babies. Their blood has gone bad with white poison, their words have gone bad from the accent. I’ve been poured, shared, and bathed in white poison since I was little and now I want to speak out for myself. But my voice is in chains and my language is poisoned, and the language of my time is poisoned. We live on the brackish water of life.
While Shakespeare’s Caliban in The Tempest felt that the colonizer’s language profited him by teaching him “how to curse”, Afsar’s poems approach language with utmost caution, forever mindful of the possibility of trampling and obscuring buried histories of domination and betrayal. Many of the poems, here, are metapoetic in their thrust, assiduously exploring the value of meaningful postcolonial poetic creation from the inescapable inequities and ideological loopholes of language: “a market piles up words sounding like poetry” (‘The Accented Word’) or “How long this slavery to white poems?” (‘Outcast’s Grief’) or again as in “Poetry: / just one dried leaf.” (‘Walking’)
In ‘A Piece of Bread, a Country, and a Shehnai’, bread, music, war and pain – all come together to avow our subcontinent’s shared heritage of poverty and cultural intimacy brutally shredded by politico-religious separation. In ‘No Birthplace’, the speaker of the poem is as much the Indian subcontinent as its hapless postcolonial citizen faced with the inability to reconcile its historical legacy of cultural plurality with the blind spots in its mythological and ideological machinery:
Come, divide me by myself, I say. Not by forty-seven. My laughs, screams, harangues, deaths, and rapes — They’re all yours too!
It is interesting to note how Afsar’s poems consistently invigorate and socially translate the idea of spirituality through sinewy sociological imagery with the result that spirituality is transformed from a closeted and socially-indifferent personal practice to a welfare-oriented everyday social ritual. In ‘Iftar Siren’, the idea of fasting as self-purification is ironically brought to bear on the understanding of the hunger-stricken socially dispossessed as perpetually cleansed while the overfed victimisers walk about unconcerned:
What a great life. In the holy month, do you see how you are all becoming pure? I’ve been like this for years burning in the divine fire. Unable to turn into ashes. I’m a fire-pit you try and try to stamp out. Yes, the fire-pit is tired too.
The haunting and incendiary metaphor of hunger as fire and the stomach/body as the fire-pit, tired of being stamped out or dispossessed, makes these poems powerful bandages for social injustices as well as flaming flags of protest. In ‘Qibla’, the posture of prayer, again, pivots on the stomach – “a belly turned deep/ into itself/ in which I obscure my body,/ feet, hands and everything/ for a long time” – suggesting the omnipotence of hunger as surpassing all acts of asocial faith. The poem concludes with considerable uncertainty of the efficacy of prayer and with an ideological pun on “arms” (arm/armament) as a means of erasing human hatred.
The stupendous yet composed energy of the book needs no forestatement. Every single word here is deftly chosen, well-placed, and tersely poised to make emotional leaps on command. The images are taut, the sentiments thoroughly grilled in the fire of creative originality, and everywhere, there is a sense of potential unruliness held firmly in check by a balanced and farsighted imagination.
In considering these poems, one must not forget, also, their complex linguistic history. Though translated from the original Telugu, the Telugu language itself includes, for the poet, “the entangled history of Urdu, Hindi and English — the languages that indeed shaped my emotional realm.” Arriving into English via such multi-layered linguistic travails and travels, these exceptionally well-translated poems infuse postcolonial English with a visceral depth, a spiritual profundity and a razor-sharp urgency that would be difficult to come by in the original English.
Accompanied by a very relevant author interview and insightful essays by the translator and valuable first readers of this collection, Evening with a Sufi arrives, in its essential philosophy and call for humanitarian action, with a new theory and praxis for the world, determined to reconstruct rather than redeem it.
Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Drawn to gender and ecological studies, her four published books include a monograph and three poetry collections. Her recent works are available at Outlook India, The Dhaka Tribune, EPW, Madras Courier and Live Wire among others.
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