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Lost in translation

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Surinder Deol doesn’t have the tools it takes to draw Sahir Ludhianvi’s literary portrait Sahir-A Literary PortrayalSahir Ludhianvi was among India’s most talented Urdu poets. After joining the film industry in 1950, he also became one of the most popular. If you’ve grown up with Hindi film music, you’re likely to know many of Sahir’s…

Surinder Deol doesn’t have the tools it takes to draw Sahir Ludhianvi’s literary portrait

Sahir-A Literary Portrayal

Sahir Ludhianvi was among India’s most talented Urdu poets. After joining the film industry in 1950, he also became one of the most popular. If you’ve grown up with Hindi film music, you’re likely to know many of Sahir’s poems, even if you don’t know they’re his. You might know the multi-religious “Allah tero naam, ishwar tero naam, Sabko sanmati de bhagwaan” from Hum Dono or the critical-nostalgic “Yeh mahalon yeh takhton yeh taajon ki duniya” from Pyaasa. You might have sung one of his immortal love songs, from the irresistible “Yeh raat yeh chaandni phir kahan” (Jaal, 1952) or the wistful “Chalo ik baar phir se ajnabi ban jaaye hum dono” (Gumraah, 1963), all the way to “Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khayaal aata hai”, an early Sahir poem around which Yash Chopra crafted his 1976 romantic classic Kabhie Kabhie. Nearly 40 years after his death, it is high time that Sahir was attentively translated, analysed, studied.

But Surinder Deol’s Sahir: A Literary Portrait does not deserve to bask in the late lyricist’s reflected glory. Deol, who left India in 1983 to work at the World Bank in Washington, DC, now lives in Maryland. Other than his most recent book, The Urdu Ghazal: A Gift of India’s Composite Culture, he has previously published a novel, a collection of poems and a book-length rendering of Ghalib’s poetry into what he calls “American free verse” (The Treasure, 2014). I have not read these other books. But Deol’s translations of Sahir are lacklustre at best and often distressingly unpoetic. He is painfully literal, and even then, not always accurate. “Sard jhonkon se bhadakte hain badan mein shole,/ Jaan legi yeh barsaat kareeb aa jao>” becomes, in Deol’s inexplicable rendition, “Cold flames, hot flames engulf my body,/ This downpour will end my life./ Come up to me!” Meanwhile the crisp simplicity of “Chalo phir aaj usi bewafaa ki baat karein” gets stretched into a torturous “Today, let us talk once again/ about the graceful one/ who lacked constancy”.

In his preface, Prof. Gopi Chand Narang, former president of the Sahitya Akademi, whose book on Ghalib Deol translated in 2017, proclaims Deol’s translations to be “effortless”. But translating Ludhianvi is no easy ride. Deol at least seems to recognise that when he mentions reading Pablo Neruda in English and Coleman Barks’ renditions of Rumi. But these inspirations notwithstanding, Deol remains preoccupied with the dictionary meanings of Sahir’s Urdu usage, with little sense of what sounds poetic in English. So we get a book strewn with such lines as “It is just a demand of my wreckings” or “I want an answer/ from the foggy spoilers/ of my wishes and dreams”.

Deol is no literary scholar: his comments on individual poems are banal and unsatisfying. He is no biographer either, merely compiling a few snippets into an introduction. If you’re looking for a Sahir Ludhianvi biography to read, Akshay Manwani’s The People’s Poet (2014) is still your best bet.

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