- Ghazalnama: Poems From Delhi, Belfast, and Urdu by Maaz Bin Bilal
Maaz Bin Bilal's debut collection of poetry, Ghazalnama: Poems from Delhi, Belfast, and Urdu, is an original and provocative offering in the landscape of South Asian poetry in English. This collection undertakes the significant task of transforming the terrain of lyric poetry from traditional expression of private feeling to active engagement with controversial issues in the public sphere.
As indicated in its title, Ghazalnama is an exploration of the ghazal, a literary form that consists of "syntactically and grammatically complete couplets" ("Ghazal"). Additionally, "the form also has an intricate rhyme scheme. Each couplet ends on the same word or phrase (the radif), and is preceded by the [End Page 265] couplet's rhyming word (the qafia, which appears twice in the first couplet)" ("Ghazal"). This form originated in Arabic and was later adopted into Persian and, through cultural transportation, found a home in the Indian subcontinent and in the Urdu language. Indeed, the Urdu section of the collection consists of Maaz's recreation of ghazals composed by acclaimed Urdu poets, such as Bulleh Shah, Amir Khusrau, Ghalib, Bahadur Shah Zafar (the last Mughal king of India), Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and Sahir Ludhianvi. In rendering the ghazal into English, Maaz follows in the footsteps of other English-language poets who have experimented with this form, particularly Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali. This section of poems translated from Urdu has great thematic range. Of these, "Let's Live in that Place" is remarkable for its taut simplicity and depiction of bleak despair in Ghalib's evocation of loneliness and oblivion. From moods of despair and alienation in Ghalib, Maaz moves from the depiction of a deep Sufi sensibility in the devotional lyric "Colour" by Khusrau, who sings in praise of the mystic Nizamuddin Aulia, to "Holi," attributed to the mystic Bulleh Shah, a poem which breaks down religious divisions in favor of common devotional practices. In "Holi," Maaz masterfully evokes the syncretic spiritual heritage of India, where Islam and Hinduism are inextricably interwoven like the warp and weft of a fabric. The poem opens "I will play Holi beginning in the name of the Lord, saying bismillah" (69), appearing to fuse a devotional bhajan of Mirabai, the Bhakti poet whose songs expressed her unrequited love for Krishna, with a Qur'anic invocation at the beginning of a ceremony. The poem goes on to represent the scene of all the maidens worshipping Krishna as their lover and responds to Krishna's question, "Am I not your Lord?" (69), with the Islamic refrain, "There is only one God" (69). This is a bold, imaginative act of fusing the monotheism of Islam with the devotional aspects of the Hindu Bhakti tradition, subverting the increasingly pervasive idea that these two religious traditions of the Indian subcontinent have always been mutually exclusive. The more modern poem of Sahir Ludhianvi, "Be it Gandhi, Be it Ghalib," laments the passing of two heroes: one credited with the successful campaign for India's independence and the other for the creation of an Urdu literary tradition. The poem is elegiac, mourning the passing of Gandhian ideals as well as the disappearance of Urdu as a living language in India because of the imposition of Hindi in Devanagari script as India's official language. In this poem, Ludhianvi mourns not the loss of religious traditions that Gandhi and Ghalib represent, but the ideals of non-violence, justice, equality, and harmony that each strove for.
The other sections of the book consist of Maaz's original poetry and map the trajectory beginning with his early life in Delhi, segueing into Belfast [End Page 266] where he spent several years as a doctoral student, and ending with a return to Delhi. The first Delhi section begins with many traditional themes found in ghazals, like the trials of romantic love, rendered in rhyming couplets. But there is an abrupt change in theme and form with the poem "Knowledge 1," which portrays the traumatic loss of the poet's father. Although...