Categories
Stories

I am Not the End

By Aysha Baqir

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Inside the ancient haveli [1]a young girl, the great granddaughter of a Mughal nobleman forced into Her Majesty’s Service, moved slowly as if she sensed my presence.

The city had fed on the foam-white sprays of the surging Himalayan waters, and swelled from the invasions and intermarriages between the Persians, the Arabs, and the Mongols. By the time the British arrived, a fortress of thick walls hid a maze of winding lanes jammed with narrow red-brick, stone, wood-worked havelis and long, deep stalls of silks, spices, silver, gold, and gems. Time pushed forward relentlessly, tides receded, wars were fought and lost, and the river shrunk and shrivelled into grey, brown sludge promising revenge. The shaded streets of the bazaars darkened and despair closed in like a swarm of locusts. The dwellers with means and motives, packed their belongings, and struck out towards concrete and glass housing schemes. Some tottered and fumbled like drunkards, unsure whether to venture out or hide within.

Every day, except Sunday, the girl woke up early for the call to prayers. She scrubbed, washed, cleansed, and dressed for her last prayer of the day. She ignored the rubbery slice of white bread and the blob of blood-red jelly on the dusty breakfast table, pocketed her mother’s medicine prescription and slipped out of the door with a backpack and a day bag. Hidden under the burqa, she walked swiftly and left the winding lanes behind in minutes. A grey car with tinted windows waited for her at the deserted crossing. She sat in the car and pulled out her phone. When she connected, I tapped into her.

Half an hour later the car stopped. The girl squinted at the tall glass tower that caught molten fire from the morning sun. She stuffed the burqa in her backpack before alighting. She wore a smart black and white suit, something she had picked out from one of the swanky mirrored shops in the mall. When she snapped a selfie, I saw and saved it.  Whatever was online, was mine.

The girl had made herself up to please. Her round hazel eyes, set off by a dark liner, glinted under the bronze shadow. Her lips were pale but glossy. Her thick straight hair brushed her shoulders. She had cleared the six-month training with the highest score. No one could tell she wasn’t a bank executive.

She climbed up the wide marble stairs and the glass door with a metal latch sprang open. She cleared the security designed to recognise her thumbprint. There was no room for breach, not in this business. She entered the massive foyer adorned with wall mirrors and glossy planters, turned left, and pressed the button down to the basement. In a few minutes, she strode down a passageway and opened another door. The dim lights and murky matting matched the nature of the business, but she would have worked here for free to hide from the changing moods and madness of the city. 

The room was mostly empty except for a few men behind the glass cabin who never left the office. She made her way to her workspace. It was bare. She had no mugs, photographs, or other belongings.  The less people knew about her the better. The only equipment that sat on her desk consisted of one dark screen and the worn out keyboard. She pulled up her chair and pressed the button.

I sprang up, awake and alert. She fed in her details and hit enter. A vibe. A buzz. The girl jumped back feeling a current, something alive that pulsed and circled her. I smiled when she frowned. She felt me. I wanted her to feel my power. Within seconds her work order popped up, generated every morning at 6 AM for the morning shift and 6 PM for the evening shift. She had a busy day. She had to cover three areas, one park, one school, and the sabzi mandi, the wholesale vegetable market.  The numbers rose and the lines of poor grew every day, and some even bribed to jump the cue. Who wanted to work when there was an easier way to make more money?

Her boss, Mr. K Shah, boasted of the brainwave he had while attending a six-week training on social entrepreneurship at a global leadership institute. Before sending him on the course, his father had urged him to make a difference to his constituency, his ancestral lands, and to uphold the honour of his ancestors, the revered Sufis who had travelled from Iran to the Subcontinent. 

Karim Saab quickly grasped that there was opportunity in the chaos that fed upon millions of poor in his country.  He discovered a win-win. For him, for his company, and the poor. In that order. He had asked himself three questions. How much money did the country make? How much of it was lost on the streets? How much  could he get back?

He had returned to his country and funded an algorithm and business to do exactly that. He housed the business in the basement of the company he owned, and rumours ran that he made more money in the basement than in the bank. The business harnessed the poor across the city and then set them out on the streets. It ran upon a network of the drivers and guards belonging to the few hundred of the flagrantly wealthy and upon the millions of beggars, runaways, and ragpickers. The business model was built on detailed, precise communication and organisation in which the company excelled. The poor were happy to get a fixed income each day — three times higher than the national minimum wage. The calculations made sense even as the economy crashed, and the terror escalated. Even on the darkest days the numbers made sense. The more the people lost, the more they feared, and the more they gave.

The girl’s mind ran over the calculations. Fifty some beggars in one area per shift, add two shifts per day and then multiply it by over two hundred and fifty areas in the fast expanding city and the numbers swelled to a grand total of twenty-five thousand beggars per shift. With the average earning per beggar per shift coming to over two hundred rupees even on a bad day the total company revenue rocketed to over five million rupees per day. The costs were minimal.

There were problems. Sometimes, the children went missing. Part of running the business, shrugged Karim Saab. There were many more to take their place. The girl pushed back her chair and glanced around the empty, endless rows. In another few minutes they would be full. There were three rooms in total, one for each business. The model spared no one, not even the very young. There were rumours of a project up for a bid.  Karim Saab said they had to keep innovating otherwise others would catch up. So now they focused on street children. The city that once exported cotton, silk, and gems, now sold something else.

[1] Palatial house

Aysha Baqir founded a pioneering not for profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, with a mission to alleviate poverty by providing business and marketing training to girls and women in low-income communities. and has authored a novel based on her experiences called Beyond the Fields.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Interview Review

Akbar: The Man Who was King

In Conversation with Shazi Zaman, author of Akbar: A Novel of History, published by Speaking Tiger Books

“I profess the religion of love, and whatever direction
Its steed may take, Love is my religion and my faith.”
— Ibn-i-Arabi (1165-1240), Akbar: A Novel of History by Shazi Zaman

These lines were written by a mystic from Spain who influenced Emperor Akbar (1542-1605), a ruler who impacted the world with his broad outlook. Based on such ideology as preached by Ibn-i-Arabi more than three hundred years before him, with an urge to transcend differences and unite a world torn by strife, the great Mughal founded his own system of beliefs. He had few followers. But Akbar chose to be secular and not to impose his beliefs on courtiers, many of whom continued to follow the pre-existing religions. He tried to find tolerance in the hearts of practitioners of different faiths so that they would respect each other’s beliefs and live in harmony, allowing him to rule impartially.

Akbar is reported to have said: “We perceive that there are varying customs and beliefs of varying religious paths. For the teachings of the Hindus, the Muslims, the Parsis, the Jews and the Christians are all different. But the followers of each religion regard the institutions of their own religion as better than those of any other. Not only so, but they strive to convert the rest to their own way of belief. If these refuse to be converted, they not only despise them, but also regard them for this very reason as their enemies. And this causes me to feel many serious doubts. Wherefore I desire that on appointed days the books of all the religious laws be brought forward, and that the doctors meet together and hold discussions, so that I may hear them, and that each one may determine which is the truest and the mightiest religion.” Of such discussions and ideals was born Akbar’s new faith, Din-i-ilahi.

Was it exactly like this? Were these Akbar’s exact words?

They have been put in perspective by an author and a journalist who has written a novel based on his research on the grand Mughal, Shazi Zaman. He tells us in the interview why he opted to create a man out of Akbar rather than a historical emperor based only on facts. He has even mentioned that Akbar might have been dyslexic in the introduction. But Zaman’s admiration for the character he has recreated for us overflows and floods the reader with enthusiasm for this legendary Mughal. Akbar is depicted as a man who was far ahead of his times. He talked of syncretism and secularism in a world where even factions within the same religion were killing each other.

Akbar by Shazi Zaman in Hindi

The novel was first written and published in Hindi in 2017 by the bilingual Zaman, who started his three-decade-long career in broadcast journalism at Doordarshan and has since, worked with several media organisations. Zaman trans created his Hindi novel on Akbar to English to reach out to a broader audience. The whole experience has been a heady one for Zaman as the interview shows but for the reader what is it like? To start with one felt like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court, except one was flitting around in the Indian subcontinent of the sixteenth century, with a few incursions to the Middle-East, but mostly within India. Transported to a different age, it takes a while to get one’s bearings. Once that is established, the novel is a compelling read.

The first part deals with Akbar’s developmental years and the second part with his spiritual outlook which helped him create an empire with many colours of people and religions. This is a novel that has been written differently from other historical novels, like Aruna Chakravarti’s  Jorasanko (2013), for the simple reason that it belongs to a different time and ethos which was farther from our own or Tagore’s times.  Akbar has a larger tapestry of people across a broader canvas than Jorasanko and it takes time to grasp the complexities of relationships and interactions. The other recent non-fiction which springs to the mind while reading Akbar is Avik Chanda’s Dara Shukoh: The Man Who would be King (2019) about the great grandson of the emperor who lived from 1615-1659. Again, this was a narrative closer to our times and was not a novel, but a creative non-fiction based strongly on history. While Dara’s character painted by Chanda showed weaknesses like an inability to respect the nobility or plan wars, Akbar painted by Zaman is kind but a man of action who ruled and intended to rule well. A leader — one has to remember — is not always the most popular man. Nor was Akbar with his eccentricities and erudition despite his inability to read — the book does tell us why he did not learn to read and how he educated himself. Most of the novel is a work of passion based on extensive research over two decades. As Henry Kissinger had said at a much later date, “The task of the leader is to get their people from where they are to where they have not been.” And the Akbar recreated by Zaman does just that.

Shazi Zaman

Zaman who had been with the ABP (Anand Bazar Patrika) News Network as their Group Editor, was on the governing bodies of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. He has worked with Aaj Tak, Zee News, Star News and also with the BBC World Service, London. He has served as the Director, Video Services of the Press Trust of India. Akbar is his third novel. He has authored two novels in Hindi earlier. In Akbar: A Novel of History (2021), Zaman with his journalistic background and his love for literature inherited from his novelist father, Khwaja Badiuzzaman, has done the mammoth task of astutely bringing to life a character who might have been a perfect solution to the leadership crisis that many are facing in the current day.

If you are still wondering how close this novel comes to the Bollywood movie called Jodha Akbar (2008), the major things in common were the grand Mughal’s sense of justice and his ability to tame wild elephants! For a deeper understanding of both the emperor and the book, in this exclusive, Zaman tells us what went into the making of this novel and his journey.

Why did you choose to write of Akbar?

One has to have a bit of Akbar inside oneself to write on him—and to read about him as well. Writing on Akbar was not a conscious decision. By the time I realised that I was going to write a novel of history on Akbar, my sub-conscious was miles ahead. Of course his personality had attributes that appealed to me consciously and sub-consciously, especially his belief in primacy of ‘aql’ (reason) over ‘naql’ (blind imitation of tradition) and his ability to question all orthodoxies.

Do you think Akbar is relevant in the current context?

I believe that his message is so ennobling that it transcends the boundaries of space and time. Across ages and across geographies, and within a geography by various groups and communities, his memory has been kept alive.

There was a book a few years ago called Dara Shukoh: The Man who would be King. Would you say he would be more relevant for our times than Akbar or is Akbar a better choice?

It is difficult to give them a comparative score. Dara could have been a very worthy successor to Akbar. And his initiatives and writings are really inspiring. Robustness of ideas and your resolve to push them are tested when faced with exigencies of statecraft. Sadly, Dara did not get that chance and Akbar did. I find that Akbar could navigate but sometimes be audacious to the extent that his courtier poet-musician Tansen had to caution, ‘dheere dheere dheere man, dheere hi sab kachhu hoye (Slowly, slowly, slowly, all happens at a slow pace)’.How would Dara have navigated while on throne is an unanswered question in Indian history. Having said this, his defeat in the battle of succession should not undermine the originality of his initiatives.

Why did you choose to write this in a novel form? Dara Shukoh was a non-fiction. Have you introduced fiction into this?

History largely tells us what happened. Most often it does not tell us of the state of mind that brought people to the point where we find them take momentous decisions. I think momentous events or actions are rooted in mental journeys. And these journeys are seldom documented. When Akbar faced a mental crisis—‘haalat-i-ajeeb’ (a strange state) as a contemporary called it— in the summer of 1578 on the banks of the river Jhelum, one wants to map what was happening in his mind and what had brought him to that point.

What lay behind the agitation of this man who was one of the mightiest emperors of the world, who had never lost a battle and was at the peak of his power ? Were there some forces testing his patience ?  Or as he stood at a place linked to the history of his forefathers, did he wonder about the trauma they had faced ? Or when he dealt a physical blow to a top cleric of yester years, there must have been a mental journey preceding this act. One can try and go into a person’s mind by closely studying his actions and utterances as also that of people and texts that influence him. We all know that people often mean much more than what they choose to say and sometimes, they say one thing and mean the other.

A close examination of this maze can give a glimpse of what was happening inside the great mind. As you try to create a period piece around his state of mind you mine information from all available sources—textual, aural, visual, architectural. For me fidelity to known facts is essential even in historical fiction. But there does come a point when the trail goes cold. Even the best documentary evidence might be insufficient in finding all the pieces of the period piece. For example, we do not know what Akbar was wearing the night he experienced the ‘haalat-i-ajeeb‘ but we have a Mughal miniature in all likelihood of the next morning when Akbar takes an unexpected decision about the great game. Now, it has come down to us that he appeared wearing last night’s clothes. So we know what he was probably wearing at the time he was in ‘haalat-i-ajeeb’ of the previous day. Or we do not know the details of the carpet of the room where he lay dying. Nobody recorded that. Thankfully, some details have come down to us of carpets of those times. I have chosen to use them. After exhausting all means of finding the right pieces of this period piece, I have exercised my imagination. So this is fiction very much rooted in history. If I have been able to do what I had intended, you would feel you have read his mind as also feel that you are actually standing backstage in the Akbarian arena.

In the debate I often encounter about the element of history in historical fiction, perhaps we miss a basic point. Most fiction has history in it. Some have history that is known. Some have history that is personal or unique to the author. It is only when known history figures in your work that the issue of reality versus fiction surfaces. Otherwise, this mingling is not questioned.

What was the kind of research you did? How long did it take you to research and write this book? Tell us about its evolution.

The idea had been simmering under the surface since early years. As I have mentioned in my preface, a childhood incident imprinted Akbar on my mind. During my school days, a member of the education department of the government made a surprise inspection and gave a short introduction to Akbar’s life and his relevance to our times. It left a mark. I was especially blessed to have teachers who stoked my interest. I shall be eternally grateful to my teacher Muhammad Amin–Amin Saheb as he was called at St.Stephen’s College (Delhi University) — to have brought history to life in classroom and sessions outside classroom. Amin Saheb taught us Akbar’s ‘sulh-i-kul’ , which he said stands not for tolerance or co-existence because even these terms denote some separation. He said, Akbar’s ‘sulh-i-kul’ meant harmony. Amin Saheb taught us about Akbar’s desire to build bridges and his respect for diversity. Many like me graduated from the university but never left his class. I feel privileged that for quarter of a century after leaving College I continued to sit at his feet and learn about Akbar. A good teacher teaches and also shows the path to further learning.

My interest in Mughal miniatures took me to various museums within the country and abroad and of course to places like Fatehpur Sikri–a city that Akbar created with a purpose– very often.  Over decades I have gathered in my personal collection most of what has been written about Akbar and almost all books published on his art and architecture. I can say that all published Mughal miniatures reside in my study now.  So Akbar was a character I had been breathing much before it became the idea of a novel.  However, for a period spread over two decades I did consciously try to piece together a story.

 How did you create the character of Akbar ?

Akbar was not merely a historical figure. He was also acutely conscious that he was making history. And as a person conscious of this, he left ample footprints.

When you try to get into a person’s mind you piece together all he saw and read (or in case of Akbar, was read to) and experienced; all he interacted with; all he surrounded himself with; all he spoke and wanted to be spoken, read and spread; and all that he created. Foremost, of course, is  Akbarnama which was a monumental image  building exercise entrusted to a close and trusted courtier, Abul Fazl. Abul Fazl knew what went on in Akbar’s mind. This work is rich in details and is a comprehensive history of Akbar and his forefathers. Akbar also commissioned others who knew his forefathers to write histories that would help Abul Fazl in his work. Akbarnama is an official account. It was vetted by Akbar and tells us how Akbar wanted to be seen by his contemporaries and by future generations. It is extremely useful in giving us the image the emperor aimed to project.

Then there were many others who wrote their histories during his reign. But it is the history called Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh by a disgruntled cleric, Mulla Abdul Qadir Badayuni, which was written secretly that gives us an unofficial perspective.  I am grateful to the anonymous author of the historic Rajasthani work, Dalpat Vilas, for giving an informal and unique access into the emperor’s mind. Anybody studying Akbar feels especially grateful for the elaborate atelier —tasveer khana — as it was called — that the emperor established. Paintings made under his direction and patronage give us a vivid picture of what he thought was worth projecting. If you look closely, Mughal miniatures of his time often have a story and even a back story that gives you an indication of the emperor’s mind.

Akbar built at a huge scale and many of his buildings still stand tall and the stones speak even now of why he gave them the shape that he did. Then of course are works related to his ancestors like Baburnama which Akbar was fond of and later, of his son’s Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. Akbar’s public contact and communication was prolific. We might well have seen him if we were living in that age. He travelled and interacted widely.

Almost every morning of his half a century long reign he appeared at the balcony so that the subjects could see him. Even those who did not see him felt his presence. Banarsidas, a trader of his time, who also wrote a chronicle, notes the widespread alarm amongst common people when the emperor fell ill. Letters  Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar wrote to Uzbek and Persian kings, the emperor of Spain and Portugal, to nobles and others have been handed down to us. His interactions with religious persons find mention in Vaishnavite, Jain and Mahdawi literature. The letters that Jesuits at his court were writing to their superiors are useful for their perspective as also for the ‘unofficial’ details. Then there were personalities Akbar drew to his court who were poets, warriors, administrators and diplomats who were themselves eminent enough to be written about, or  were writers themselves. I closely studied them.

Abdur Rahim Khan-i-khanan was like a son to Akbar and wrote poetry that is timeless in its appeal. Tansen, an eminent poet and musician at his court wrote ‘takhat baitho Mahabali ishvar hoye avtar (the mighty Emperor sits on the throne as incarnation of God)’, which is how Akbar would have wanted to be described.  Works written on Raja Mansingh like Mancharit and Mancharitra Raso helped me understand a mighty noble, who again was like a son—‘farzand’—to Akbar. Akbar himself is believed to have been a poet and pieces of poetry deemed to be his have come down to us. His memory resonates even now in folk songs.

In terms of material evidence of personal effects, we have an armour of Akbar which was helpful in ascertaining his approximate height. Of course, this was achieved with the help of experts.  Not all that one gathered necessarily went into this work but I tried to gather as much as I could so as to know how Akbar lived, ate, slept, worked, played, deliberated, relaxed, fought and thought and what was the world he inhabited, and also what was the kind of world he wanted to inhabit.

I must say that I tried to access original sources in Persian, Sanskrit and other languages with the help of experts, in addition to what I could read myself in English, Hindi and Urdu.

In your introduction you have said Akbar might have been dyslexic or bipolar. Why? What made you think he might have been dyslexic or bipolar? Could it not be that as a child he was not just into books and therefore did not learn to read?

There has been some academic work on some of the issues Akbar faced. I think his behaviour on the full moon night of the year 1578 on the banks of the river Jhelum and on occasions before that definitely call for more investigations in that direction, though one is conscious that the emperor himself is not available for close examination. As for dyslexia specifically, one can say that the man loved books. He commissioned and collected them at a huge scale but he did not read them. They were read out to him. Historical sources indicate that he could not read or write. Though I have seen copies of his handwriting, they seem laboured. It would be a fair assumption that he was dyslexic. I think he was a great visual learner. That is why no Mughal emperor before or after had as big a tasveer khana as him.

You have repeated this phrase thrice in the book. ‘Hindus should eat beef, Muslims should eat pork, and if not this, fry a sheep in the pan. If it turns into pork, Hindus and Muslims should have it together. If it turns into beef, Hindus and Muslims should have it together. If it becomes pork, Muslims should have it. If it becomes beef, Hindus should have it. A divine miracle would thus happen.’ Why?

More than one account reveal puzzling behaviour and utterances of the emperor. This forced one person to say that this was ‘haalat-i-ajeeb’. Nobody at that time could fully understand his state or his words. I feel that it was reflective of his anguish over religious disputes and religious orthodoxy. An emperor who had never lost a contest was getting impatient. In moments of mental crisis it is possible for a person to  say things which have layers of meaning. One has to peep underneath the words to fathom the anguish of  a sensitive mind. This was one such utterance. 

What is the most endearing quality you found in Akbar? And why?

It is difficult to pinpoint one in a person who embodied numerous qualities. His belief in giving precedence to ‘aql’ (reason) over ‘naql’ (blind adherence to tradition). His spirit of enquiry and his desire to provide space for differing thoughts. He believed—“It is my duty to have good understanding with all men. If they walk in the way of God’s will, interference with them would be in itself reprehensible; and if otherwise, they are under the malady of ignorance and deserve my compassion.”

There is an incident mentioned in the book. The Jesuits who came with the intention of converting Akbar finally despaired because he would give them ample space and ample attention but stop short of conversion. So one evening, they came and sought leave since their embassy had failed in its purpose. Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar replied, “…how can you say that the time you have spent with us has been profitless, seeing that formerly the Muslims had so much credit in my land that if any had dared to say that Jesus Christ was the true God, he would straightway have been put to death; whereas you are now able to say this, and to preach the same in all security ?”

You wrote the novel first in Hindi and then trans created it to English. Why? What is the difference between the Hindi and the English versions?

The novel Akbar naturally came to my mind in Hindi, a language the emperor would have been comfortable with had he been alive. Having said this, I am grateful to my publishers, Rajkamal and Speaking Tiger, for initiating the idea of an English  version. And I did immediately see the need to take Akbar to a wider audience because the novel has an idiom and language rooted in Hindustan but Akbarian thought and vision have an appeal that is wider than the regions he ruled. So the challenge was to take the text, sub-text and the idiom to an English audience. The challenge was also to make Akbar’s 16th century intelligible to 21st century English-speaking world. I have tried my best with help of editors at Speaking Tiger to make it a work English speakers would be at home with. I am sure they would be able to savour the milieu, the plot and the sensibility of 16th century Hindustan in their preferred language.  A good translation should in fact be a trans creation and should read like it has been written in the same language. 

You have two novels in Hindi. Do you plan to translate those too to English? Why? Why not write directly in English?

I believe that no thought is completely translatable into words and no words are completely translatable into another set of words. Thus the word transcreation. The first two novels Premgali Ati Sankri (The Narrow Alley of Love) and Jism Jism Ke Log (Various Bodies) have intense conversation between characters which is rooted in their shared understanding of an idiom. Translation is desirable and relatable because stories strike a chord across space but works have texts, sub-text and idiom. The problem and the challenge lies in taking the sub-text and the idiom into another language. That is why trans creation requires a deep understanding of the text, the sub-text and the idiom of the original work as also of the sensibilities of the audience for whom you are trans creating. Having said this, I would be happy to translate the first two novels for an English readership. The theme would strike a chord, the idiom would need some fine work.

Will you shuttle between English and Hindi in the future? Are you planning more books?

Shuttling between Hindi and English is an interesting thought. I am already seized by an idea that came to my mind as an English text. It is germinating. As for more books, I have already sent a Hindi novelet for publication which could be thematically seen as third in series after Premgali Ati Sankri and Jism Jism Ke Log. While telling stories to my children, and making them up as I went along, I created a short novel for children which awaits publication. I am also in the process of writing another novel in the genre of historical fiction.

Thank you for your time.

This is an online interview conducted on behalf of Borderless Journal by Mitali Chakravarty.

Click here to read an excerpt from Akbar: A Novel of History

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

John Lang: Wanderer of Hindoostan

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha 

Title: John Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee

Author: Amit Ranjan

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Retracing colonial history is always fascinating. And, if the characters are out of the ordinary, that re-examination is even more interesting. This book revisits the life of John Lang, an Australian writer-lawyer settled in India in the 19th century. 

John Lang: Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer of Hindoostanee, Lawyer for the Ranee by Amit Ranjan is about Lang’s life, his accomplishments and his literary works. Lang (1816-1864) was a fiery journalist and novelist who constantly annoyed the establishment of the East India Company with his vituperative and pathogenic humor. He had lived in India since the age of 26. 

A visiting fellow at University of South Wales, Sydney, a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Miami and who teaches English at NCERT , New Delhi Ranjan’s earlier books  include poetry collections Find Me Leonard Cohen, I’m Almost Thirty

A lawyer, John Lang picked up Persian and Urdu quickly to argue cases in lower courts. He mostly fought against the British and won a few well-known cases in the company’s own court. Also, Lang represented Rani Laxmibai in her legal battle against the annexation of her kingdom of Jhansi by the East India Company. 

In about five hundred pages, Ranjan looks at the personality of Lang rather vividly. Also Australia’s first native-born novelist, John Lang had a remarkable life. Coming from a family of ten children (including half- and step-siblings), he went to Cambridge to qualify as a barrister. When he represented the Rani of Jhansi against the East India Company, he documented his impression of the queen. 

Amusingly, this became the basis of some scenes in an Indian television serial depicting a fictitious intimate relationship between them. Lang flamboyantly fought yet another case of Lala Jotee Persaud for his due as a provisioner in the British army. Persaud won 2 lakh rupees, which was, in 1851, a princely amount. 

It is not because Lang was the first Australian writer or was among the first writers of English prose on India, or because of the historical place where Lang lived in the politically volatile 19th century that propelled Ranjan to write the book. The motive behind the book is clear:  Lang was a fine writer.

In his short life of 48 years, Lang produced 23 novels, one travelogue, some plays and five volumes of poetry. His novels were mostly in the romance genre and were set in India. His themes were typically bold and very much so somewhat rebellious. After his death in 1864, he remained a well-known writer and his books continued to sell for another 40 years. Lang’s novels were found to be too feminist for Victorian comfort, and his white male protagonists were often described by the narrator as ‘India he loved, England he despised’.

Lang also pursued a career as a journalist, producing The Mofussilite from Meerut — editions of which came out from Ambala, Calcutta. Apparently, as it carried anti-government reports, its file copies were destroyed. 

 “Lang can indeed be viewed as the father of Indian tabloid journalism. The tabloid, of course, had its equivalent of what is now known as ‘Page 3’, but it was very different–in that it was very literary, with an overdose of Lang’s Latin, Boccaccios and Byrons,” Ranjan writes in the book. 

As if all this wasn’t enough, the Indophile spoke at least five languages and produced works as a translator. There were numerous fictional works presumed to have been written or co-authored or significantly inspired by Lang. 

Lang’s versatile talents and established scholarship were surpassed by the colourful life that he led. His escapades and misadventures — landed him in a Calcutta jail for libel and in Vienna on suspicions of being a spy. He won the bets. His divorce and love affair even led to an illegitimate child. 

Lang had a rationalist’s curiosity about phrenology — a pseudoscience that correlated measurements of different parts of the skull with race and mental ability that was fashionable among Europeans in his times. All these are explored and commented upon. 

The book also captures some interesting episodes in Lang’s life like this one: There was a party in progress at John Lang’s house in Mussoorie as he died. Lang had frowned upon the idea of truncating it merely on account of his illness. Bronchitis was the immediate cause of this unforgettable personality’s demise. 

Writes Prof. Saugata Bhaduri in the foreword: “Far from being just another piece of sound academic literary-historical work and a well-researched biography of a lesser-known author who needs to be repatriated to the canon, this book is an exuberant exercise in passion – a passion that set one off on a late-night foray into the unknown just to look up some obscure tomb, or to pick up some obscure discursive thread. Amit’s is an exercise that demonstrates how variegated, yet connected, our little histories are.”

Part history and part literary pleasure, this book is captivating. It will be a delight for history and language buffs as also aficionados of wordplay. Ranjan’s book is well researched, with plenty of reference and end-notes. Witty and interweaving, the narrative makes for an interesting read.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Akbar Barakzai, a ‘Part-time Poet’ in Exile

Who can snuff out the sun? 
Who can suppress the light?
-- Akbar Barakzai, Who Can Snuff Out the Sun

Akbar Barakzai (1939-2022)

His poetry rings with the spaces between mountains. It rushes like the wind of freedom, taking you to the heart of the land and people he writes about.  

Balochistan has a bit of the blood and bones of many cultures and people through the ages – dating back to Harappa and Indus Valley civilisations. Akbar Barakzai, the Baloch poet and activist, writes about transcending the suffering that exudes from hurts inflicted on humankind. He urges the masses to voice out against oppression.

Don’t ever bury the word 
In the depth of your chest 
Rather express the word 
Yes, speak it out. 
The Word brings forth 
Freedom and providence.
--Akbar Barakzai, The Word

He writes for freedom from injustices and lives by his beliefs and principles. Having been forced to move countries to run journals, he is an immigrant in quest of a future that will unite the East and the West. Gently opposing oppressors with his writing, beliefs and ideas, Barakzai made news when he turned down the Pakistan Academy of Literature award last year because he says; “The Pakistan Academy of Literature is sponsored by the Islamabad rulers. I cannot accept an award from an organisation that operates at the beck and call of the tormentors of my people.”  A writer who continues to emote for his people and their rights, he has been translated to English by a lecturer, Fazal Baloch, and published. 

Barakzai calls himself “a part time poet” – but his poetry moves our hearts and minds – it makes us think, imagine a better world. Is he really a part time poet or a major inspiration crying out for mankind to move out of ‘messiahdom’, dogmatism and take charge of their own lives? In this interview, Barakzai not only reveals his life but also his sense of freedom from oppression, his love of human rights which forced him to move countries to conserve the voice of his people.

Since when have you been writing poetry? What set your muse going?

I started writing poetry in 1954 when I was still in school. I was inspired by our people’s long struggle for freedom and justice against the Pakistani and Iranian occupiers.

Your poetry mixes many strands of thoughts and many lores. Can you tell us what influences your writing? Books, music, writers?  

My writing has been influenced by many poets and writers from different languages and cultures. The lasting influence on my art has been that of classical Balochi poetry. However, I must mention some great names from diverse poetic traditions who have had an impact on my poetry, such as the Persian poets Hafiz, Rumi and Nima Yushij; Urdu poets Ghalib and Mir; English poets Shelley and Keats; Russian poets Pushkin and Pasternak and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Your poem ‘Waiting for Godot’ depicts the theme of the play by Samuel Beckett. It has a beautiful mingling of East and West. What led to it?

Beckett’s Godot is perhaps the most mysterious character in modern (world) literature. My poem is a reminder that the so-called Messiahs never return to this world. Mankind has to find its own solutions. East and West are two different aspects of the same coin. Unlike the infamous poem by Rudyard Kipling, that great apologist of Western imperialism, the East and the West are slowly but steadily inching towards each other. Despite enormous odds “the twain” are destined to “meet” and be united to get rid of the geographical lines created by imperialist powers.

You deal with both the political and the spiritual in your poetry. How do you attune Che Guevara with the God who even if ruthless exists in your poetry?  

I made peace with God quite some time ago. I hope we understand each other better now. I do not believe that God is necessarily ruthless. It may sound strange, but my spirituality is not religious at all, it is based on humanism.  Your interpretation of my poem is different from what I had intended. I am not sure if such a dichotomy exists in the poem. However, it appears that poetic curiosity in the end has succeeded in detecting some kind of duality. With regard to Che, he symbolizes the primordial fighter for justice. He embodies all those millions of people who have fought against the forces of darkness. Hence the allusion to Phoebus Apollo and the ever-conquering brilliance of the sun.

Do you write only in Balochi? You must be fluent in English having lived in England for many years. Why do you not write in English? Or translate your own poems?  

I used to write in Urdu and Persian in my younger years, until I discovered that I could write a lot better in my mother tongue.  As far as writing in English is concerned, I do not feel confident enough to write in it.

Your poetry, the little I have read, takes on elemental truths and uses nature, intermingles those to arrive at larger truths toward the end. Is it all spontaneously expressed? Or do you need to work on it? Tell us a bit about your poetic process.  

My experience of the poetic process tells me that it is spontaneous. Design and architecture of the poem occupy a secondary position. After a poem is formed in my mind my main concern would then be to revise and improve its language. This process may take any length of time. I must confess that I am an obsessive reviser. For example, one of my longer poems took many long years to complete.

As a poet, you continue shrouded in mystery. Tell us about your life.  

My life is and has always been an open book. I don’t think a few random poems are sufficient to reveal the life story of any poet. However, without these fistful of poems, I would have appeared to be a greater mystery. My life, like the billions of ordinary people in this world, is indeed very ordinary. My great grandfather migrated from Western (Iranian) Balochistan as a result of the brutal military operations in the early twentieth century in which thousands of old men, women and children were killed and injured and thousands of others migrated to Sindh. My great grandfather was a small-time farmer. As a result of the Iranian atrocities, he was forced to abandon his land and livestock and move to Eastern (now Pakistani) Balochistan and finally to Sindh. In 1928, Reza Shah of Iran ultimately succeeded in occupying our country. Once they settled in Sindh my great grandfather and grandfather worked as labourers until they saved enough to buy a small shop.      

My father had a basic English education. He had left high school when still in the 4th or 5th grade to support the family with odd jobs. A few years later, he opened his own shop, a ration shop. These shops had mushroomed all over during the war as the English authorities introduced a food rationing system in India. I believe with this background I must have belonged to the lowest rungs of the class system. But my family worked hard to improve their lot.

When I was ten or twelve, my father thought I was strong enough and responsible enough to work in the shop. I would go to school in the morning. As soon as I finished school, I would rush to the shop to help my father. 

A few years before I finished high school, my father got a job in the Directorate of Civil Supplies as the manager of a warehouse. He rented out the shop. With two incomes our lot did improve a little. I was now in high school. I didn’t have to work in the shop anymore. During this period, I became interested in books – any books. These were mainly Urdu, Persian, Sindhi and Balochi books. I read a lot, but my reading wasn’t systematic. I wrote a few nondescript poems during this period and became interested in politics, particularly in Baloch politics. By then I was in college reading literature and related subjects. However, I was more interested in politics than in my studies which meant I wasn’t a good student. Despite this I somehow managed to graduate from Karachi University. My father wanted me to study further and enter the Civil Service. But by then I was completely radicalised. I think I disappointed him then by refusing to continue my studies in order to take competitive exams to join the civil service. However, a few years later as a result of the escalating Pakistani military operations in Balochistan, he told me that although at the time he was not happy with my refusal, he confessed wholeheartedly that my decision was absolutely right. I was so proud of him that he had finally approved of my decision. Although he passed away a long time ago, because of this confession I do love him and miss him more.  

This rather lengthy snapshot of my life should be sufficient to explain why my poetry is expressly concerned with social and political issues.

What led to your move to England?  

This was the busiest period of my political activism. It was the time when General Ayub Khan had imposed Martial Law in Pakistan and was trying to consolidate his rule by hook or by crook. In Balochistan he had re-ordered the military to crush the Baloch resistance once and for all. But the resistance has outlived Ayub Khan, and his military might. It has grown stronger and stronger with the passage of time albeit with huge sacrifices sustained by ordinary people. The rulers treated the Baloch people like dirt and our leaders as traitors who “deserved” to be hanged. By 1965, the military government stepped up its operations in cities and towns, especially in Karachi where the Baloch formed a sizable minority and naturally supported the struggle for freedom. By this time the majority of our leaders were imprisoned in various Pakistani jails. Hundreds of young activists were also put behind bars. I was constantly harassed by the secret police. They raided my house three times and confiscated all my books and papers. These included some precious manuscripts left by a maternal uncle of mine. I was told that they would be returned “in due course”, but I never saw them again. 

In those days, at least in the big cities, the government showed that they believed in the legal system. However, things would soon change. They started arresting people at will, without producing them in a court of law. People would languish in prisons for many years without any charges brought against them. They kept on introducing new forms of brutality, including bombing the population and “disappearing” activists and ordinary people. Under their “kill and dump” policy, they to this day torture and kill activists and then dump their bodies in the periphery of a town or village. So far, they have “disappeared” about 5,000 activists and their family members. Recently they have started abducting young female activists and then dumping their bodies. Almost all of these victims have been assaulted and raped.   

I was picked up twice by the secret police. The second time they brought the great poet Gul Khan Naseer (the Baloch Nazrul) from prison. We were both delighted to see each other. We hugged and exchanged greetings in Balochi. We were told firmly not to speak in Balochi. We protested at this suggestion. Without reacting, they started the interrogation which took about three or four hours. Naseer was taken back to prison. I was told to go home but be prepared for further sessions.

I was advised by our leadership to go underground and eventually leave the country and head for the Gulf region to organise the Baloch migrants working in that part of the world. I did exactly as I was instructed to do. Because of visa problems, I could not stay in the Gulf for long. I therefore moved to Syria, Lebanon and finally to Iraq where in 1973-74, I was joined by some other friends. Together we used to edit a monthly newspaper in Balochi called Tipaakie Raah (Path of Unity). In fact, this used to be the Balochi edition of the paper which was also published in Arabic, Persian, Azari (Azarbaijani) and Kurdish editions. We also managed a daily radio programme in Balochi. Additionally, we published a monthly newspaper in English from London which was called People’s Front. This task was assigned to a senior friend who moved from Baghdad to London for this purpose. Our stay in Iraq would soon be short lived. After Saddam Hussain and the Shah of Iran met in North Africa to end the dispute over Shatt al Arab waterway, the situation in Iraq changed drastically. We were told very politely that the “world situation” had changed. We would still be welcome to live in Iraq, but the publication of the newspaper and the radio broadcasts must stop. It was therefore decided I should move to London. With the help of a doctor friend, I obtained a British visa and moved to London.

Your poetry still cries out for your motherland. Do you want to return? Is a return possible?

Who wouldn’t want to go back to the country they love? But it is not possible. I am only tolerated if I keep silent and remain as far away from Balochistan as possible.

Why did you turn down the Pakistan Academy of Literature award?  

The Pakistan Academy of Literature is sponsored by the Islamabad rulers. I cannot accept an award from an organisation that operates at the beck and call of the tormentors of my people.    

You have published very selectively — do you have more writing which you have not published? If so, do you have plans to publish those?

I have never been a prolific writer or a poet. I keep on telling people that I am a part-time poet.

What message would you like to give to emerging writers?

As a part-time poet I don’t feel I am in a position to advise young writers. I can only say this much to them — be honest to yourselves and your art.   

Thank you very much for giving us your time.

Click here to read translated poetry by Akbar Barakzai.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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Categories
Tribute

In Memory of Peace

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori*.
-- Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

*Translated: "It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland."

On 11th November, we remember the men who gave up their lives to win wars for those in power. Remembrance Day started as an annual event after the First World War (28th July, 1914- 11the November, 1918) more than a hundred years ago, in memory of soldiers — some of who were lost in the battle grounds, whose remains never got back to their families. Some of these men who fought were from countries that were subservient to colonial powers who started the war and some, like the soldier-poet, Wilfred Owen, were from conquering nations.

This was much before atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Eventually, a nuclear armistice was declared. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), an internationally acknowledged apostle of peace, had an opinion on this: “‘The very frightfulness of the atom bomb will not force non-violence on the world? If all nations are armed with the atom bomb, they will refrain from using it as it will mean absolute destruction for all concerned?’ I am of the opinion that it will not.” Has this nuclear armistice made the world more peaceful? And if so, what is the quality of peace that has been wrought by drumming fears of annihilation in human hearts? Could the ‘fakir…striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace’ be right after all?

Here we have collected a few stories and poems around ongoing conflicts and wars which stretch to the present day, some old and some new… some even written by men who faced battle…

Poetry

A poem and art by Sybil Pretious in memory of soldiers who died in the World War I.

Soldiers & Missives by Prithvijeet Sinha … Click here to read.

Our Children by Bijan Najdi, translated from Persian by Davood Jalili. Click here to read.

Prose

Line of Control by Paresh Tiwari, a story about the life of soldiers set in the Indo-Pak border… Click here to read.

I am a Coward with Priorities by Tejaswinee Roychowdhury, a story from a soldier’s perspective. Click here to read.

From the Pages of a Soldier’s Diary… by Mike Smith takes you on a journey through the pages of a colonial diary and muses on choices he has made. Click here to read.

Bundu, Consoler of the Rich is a story based on memories of the Partition by Nadir Ali, translated from Punjabi by Amna Ali. Click here to read.

In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan, an excerpt from an account by Syed Mujataba Ali, translated from Bengali by Nazes Afroz. Click here to read.

Categories
Poetry

Iranian Poetry: Our Children

By Bijan Najdi, translated from Persian by Davood Jalili

The world does not become bitter with the sword.

It does not become bitter with shooting, cries and fists.

The bitterness of the world

Is not the deer’s necks

And leopard’s tooth

And the death of a fish.

In the throat of a heron, there is not a disaster.

Bitterness lies in

The dolls with bellies full of TNT

Which fell on Vietnam

And on the country lanes of Palestine.

Disaster.

The joy of our children is

That they have seen a doll on the ground

And run with cheers and smiles (towards it).

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Republished with Permission: Our Children was first published in Reality is My Dream brought out by the publisher, Nashr e Markaz.

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Bijan Najdi (Persian: بیژن نجدی‎, pronounced [biːʒæn nædʒdiː]; (15 November 1941 in Khash, Iran – 25 August 1997 in Lahijan, Iran) was an Iranian writer and poet. Najdi is most famous for his 1994 short story collection The Cheetahs who ran with me (Persian: یوزپلنگانی که با من دویده‌اند‎)).

Davood Jalili (1956, Iran) is an Iranian writer, translator and poet. He has published many articles on Iranian websites and magazines and has three published books.

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Categories
Essay

Persian Perspectives: The Third Perception of Man

Translated to English from Bijan Najdi’s essay in Persian by Davood Jalili

Bijan Najdi is often identified with the collection of short stories, Cheetahs who ran with me. But he was a poet at heart. His melodic prose and his powerful stories have the traces of poetry between words. The flow of poetry in his stories evolved into a very exquisite flow of thoughts and perceptions. Najdi wrote an article entitled ‘The Third Perception of Man’ in which he considers poetry to be the outflow of the most intense emotions.

Man’s first perception of fire must have been to touch and burn himself, that is, to feel the burning with direct contact. The next step was to understand the fire to learn from his earlier experience. That is, we see the fire, and without touching it, we know that it burns. This third stage is understanding the fire of “poetry”. That is, if you can, without the fire in your presence, think of it, feel the burning in your fingertips that you have to put your hands under the tap, you have achieved a poetic moment in your life, without the help of words.

Now you can transpose this third stage from fire to the suffering of others, to the history of your land, to the massacre in Palestine, to freedom, to the mass burials in Herzegovina. Poetry does not need “words” in such circumstances. It is the highest form of expression of the most intense suffering of humankind.

The study of the traces of life and the survey of dreams, the nightmares of cavemen and the psychoanalysis of designs and shapes carved in stone prove that even before the advent of calligraphy and language, man had experienced all three stages of perception. The drawings on the stone that depict a human with bird wings on the back and legs of a deer and a human profile are an object of the same third sense.

Is suffering and love born of lines and words the only foundation for poetry? Does our understanding of God depend on our learning to write the word “God”?

However, it was but natural that after the evolution of language and the emergence of calligraphy, man tried to write that “third comprehension”. Henceforth, poetry was no longer seemingly independent of time. Poetry proved its objectivity with the help of the “word”.

In simpler language, basically, any kind of understanding does not necessarily need words, but with words, understanding can be built.

Form and content are a philosophical and academic discussion. They have nothing to do with poetry or at least they have nothing to do with the moments of composing poetry.

There are two types of thinking. Both can, perhaps, influence poets as well.

Some people look at their surroundings with inductive reasoning and want to get a whole by identifying and analysing the details. On the other hand, some people deduce by accepting and prove from a general rule.  They would accept the thought for the presence of each component.

Both methods have scientific values. Poetry as the “third perception” is born of intense feelings that frees the poet from both when writing poetry: form and content.

There are poets who believe that form is the manifestation of poetry. In my opinion, this kind of formalism is just a way of thought; that they want by looking at an apple, to get an idea of ​​its taste and smell, with the help of the word, and they want to reach “sense and understanding”. There is nothing wrong with that, but I think it conflicts with the “essence of knowledge.”

However, no one can stop this group from trying.

Volume has dimensions in its geometric definition, so it has an inside and an outside. However, the enclosed space is not the object of discussion. Every point of space is either in or out. That is, each point of it can be both inside and outside at a time. Volume poetry[1], according to Royaee[2], one of the most famous poets of this school, is the transcendence over length, width and height to float in the contraction and the expansion of the soul of the universe, which the poet enters with the “help of words”.

Volume poetry is a look at nature, objects and words that create a sense of yearning by discovering the form and inherent talent of the word to explain the inside and the out to escape from volume.

The spatial poetry of Royaee steps out of the volume enclosed in the words, to get help from the hidden spaces between words, oblivious to the consciousness of being a man. But in such poetry, you can neither sense the history nor the historical identity of the poet.

Nevertheless, poetry of Royaee is full of eagerness to know. But because he is not able to convey his eagerness in his manifesto of volume poetry, his adherents and he have diametrically opposing outputs. I think this is a kind of crisis in poetry, but we should not be afraid of it.

A real crisis arises in poetry when people’s eyes, ears, and minds become accustomed to only one type of poetry.

The crisis was the same as we had in the years before the revolution, when some people did not consider Sepehri[3] a poet because of his Marxist views.

The crisis was that under the pretext of modernism, poetry based on belief and mysticism could be rejected in a society. The culture of any society is the result of social behaviors. If these behaviors are restricted in a certain way, a crisis does arise.

The basic bedrock of any art is freedom, and no one should and can ignore the value of lyricists or post-revolutionary idealist poetry because of their interest in white poetry[4].

However, I do not know what poetry is and what good poetry is.

I have no reason to like a good poem as I feel a burning sensation in my fingertips without touching the fire. Believe me, I am neither a poet nor a novelist, I just love the literature of my country very much.

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(Published with permission from Bijan Najdi’s wife and family)

 Bijan Najdi (Persian: بیژن نجدی‎, pronounced [biːʒæn nædʒdiː]; (15 November 1941 in Khash, Iran – 25 August 1997 in Lahijan, Iran) was an Iranian writer and poet. Najdi is most famous for his 1994 short story collection The Cheetahs who ran with me (Persian: یوزپلنگانی که با من دویده‌اند‎)).

Davood Jalili (1956, Iran) is an Iranian writer, translator and poet. He has published many articles on Iranian websites and magazines and has three published books.


[1]– Volume Poetry is a type of poetry written evolved around 1967. In 1969, Royaee and several poets published the essence of the volume poetry. Volumeism, mental movement, volumetric vision, mental distances, three-dimensional attitude, are other names that have been applied to this type of poetry

[2]Royaee is an Iranian poet (1932) who now lives in Paris. He wrote a Manifesto of volume poetry

[3] Sohrab Sepehri (born October 6, 1928 in Kashan – died May 1, 1980 in Tehran) was an Iranian poet, writer and painter. He is one of the most important contemporary poets of Iran and his poems have been translated into many languages ​​including English, French, Spanish and Italian. 

[4] White  Or Sepid poetry or Shamloui poetry is a type of modern Persian poetry that appeared in the 1930s with a collection called Fresh Air by Ahmad Shamlou and may be compared to free poetry (in French : vers libre ) in Western literature. The main difference between these works and previous examples of new poetry  was in the form of poetry. In this style, the rhyme of prosody is generally not observed, but the song and music are reflected. In the classification of modern Persian poetry, sometimes any poem that does not fit in the form of Nimai poetry (Nima Youshij the innovative of New Poetry) is called white poetry.

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