An English translation of 26 of his poems introduces Afsar to non-Telugu poetry lovers

Afsar is adept at imagining, creating, and transfusing innovative imagery and the translation ‘Evening with a Sufi’ has mostly done justice to his works..

ByN Venugopal

Published Aug 07, 2023 | 3:30 PMUpdatedAug 07, 2023 | 3:32 PM

Afsar, Telugu poet, Evening with a Sufi

Afsar, an accomplished Telugu poet with five collections in the last three-and-a-half decades to his credit, recently came out with his first collection of translations into English. The event in itself was a cause for celebration.

The collection Evening With a Sufi, translated from the Telugu by the poet himself along with renowned translator and poet Shamala Gallagher, carries only a tenth of his original body of work, but then this 26-poem bouquet represents the diversity and force of his poems.

Though some of his poems have been translated into English and other languages earlier, their publication in a single volume is certainly a historic moment. It is worthwhile to locate Afsar in the Telugu poetic tradition and assess the poems included in this collection.

Afsar is usually referred to as a trendsetter in Telugu poetry, which has a history of over a thousand years of classical tradition, and a hundred years of modern experimentation.

Poetry of politics

The hundred years of modern Telugu poetry witnessed a variety of movements and trends in both content and form. Most of the movements were inspired by contemporary social or political ideologies and brought in remarkable changes in themes and treatment.

Modernism, romanticism, progressive ideology rooted in the Bolshevik revolution, humanism, nihilism, revolutionary ideology rooted in the Naxalite upsurge, and various trends of Dalit, women, minority religion, Adivasi, and regional identity politics informed poetry of these hundred years.

One unmistakable element of all these trends is that all this poetry could be termed as poetry of politics, whether open or implied, overt or subtle.

Gurajada Apparao, the first modern Telugu poet, ushering in content about politics in a famous poem on patriotism, also spoke of the treatment it deserves: “The nightingale of poetry should sing hiding itself behind the leaves.”

But his successive generations seem to have diluted this direction in form and thought it fit to speak overtly. Progressive poetry of the 1940s turned into prosaic, verbose works within a decade.

In the 1960s, Digambara Kavulu used epithets and commonplace expressions, so much that some of the fine critics of the time dismissed their poetry. The criticism might have been coloured by ideological and content reservations, but the problems with form cannot be denied.

In the 1970s, the nihilism of the earlier decade was sought to be corrected with the entry of the revolutionary literary movement. However, this course correction, perhaps inadvertently, took away the essential nature of metaphorical expression and wanted poetry to be overt and direct. The widely cited definitions of poetry at that time were “a poet is a revolutionary who arms people” (Sivasagar) and “poets append tongues to walls” (K Siva Reddy).

Afsar brought in a fresh breeze into Telugu poetry

Come the 1980s and there was Afsar, of course, as part of a new generation of poets and writers.

His particular significance lies in the fact that he continued the tradition of poetry of politics going on for a hundred years, but also brought in a change from the previous decades in having a sharp focus on form and style, and metaphor and expression.

In a way, he brought back Gurajada’s dictum, without losing political focus in content. Thus his work has brought in a fresh breeze into Telugu poetry, with remarkable experimentation, novelty in expression, ever newer styles, all along capturing the prevailing social and political themes. Of course, he also dived into so many unexplored oceans of life and brought out jewels of poetry.

“All the symbols went missing,
the metaphors fell off.

just one dried leaf.”

When he wrote this, it was not at all a sense of despair, but a search for a new expression, new metaphor, and a new green leaf.

‘Sufism is nothing but a tool of resistance’

Across his five collections — Raktasparsha (1986), Ivaala (1991), Valasa (2002), Oorichivara (2009), and Intivaipu (2018) — Afsar has penned over 300 poems in a little over four decades. Each of them could be analysed as political, despite versatility in themes.

Afsar has a felicity to turn the personal into political or vice versa, just like Neruda or Faiz or any other good poet.

Afsar himself reveals the two dimensions that characterised his mindset — Sufi traditions at home and the historical radical left movements in the world around him. He also goes on to say that “Sufism is nothing but a tool of resistance and… I want to separate it from its supposedly spiritual meanings”.

Coming to the present collection, Evening With a Sufi, there are two sections of poems, each having a baker’s dozen, along with two great write-ups by David Shulman and Cheran Rudhramoorthy, a translator’s note by Shamala Gallagher, and in incisive interview of the poet.

As a reader and friend who has been closely following Afsar since at least 1981–82, I did not refer to the original works while reading the 26 poems even as the Telugu works might have been lingering in my memories while going through the translations.

I wanted to visit these poems as any non-Telugu reader would. Even then it felt familiar and the original, from a few years or decades ago, would come to my mind and trigger a comparison. But I think even in the case of a non-Telugu reader, it would be familiar in terms of the universality of the theme and style.

The translations have come out very well and convey the actual import of the poem as well as the tone of the poet. Afsar’s poetry is known for its layered, pluralist structure and the English rendering has almost captured and transformed that into another language.

Afsar is also adept at imagining, creating, and transfusing innovative imagery, and the translation has done justice in almost every occasion. Afsar’s poetry is very flexible in coalescing elements of nostalgia and current commentary, history and dream, lived experience and surreal imagination, and a loving/lovable home and sense of homelessness.

‘Opens up many festering wounds’

The English versions have succeeded in being faithful to this plurality and unity in diversity. As the translator rightly pointed out, “sometimes the meaning of a line outstrips the usual bounds of meaning, latching onto something farther away from the normal world but no less vividly particular…” in Afsar’s poetry.

David Shulman’s fantastic response to the translation, with his own understanding of the nuances of the original language, should only be read word by word. It cannot be retold or paraphrased.

Discovering the universal appeal in Afsar, Cheran Rudhramoorthy says, “Afsar’s poetry opens up many festering wounds that I, along with so many other poets and writers all over the world, have suffered.”

Gallagher, in her beautiful note on translating Afsar Mohammed, says “the trajectory of the book: political anger –> formation of a self –> explosion into bliss”; but I doubt the sequence. I think the three are intermingled and interwoven so tightly that they can neither be separated nor sequenced.

Afsar’s poetry emanates from the formation of a self, Muslim, migrant, exile, Dalit, oppressed, Sufi… in one phrase — a resisting radical — and that self continues to feel and express bliss and anger simultaneously at both the personal and political as well as individual and social planes.

(N Venugopal is the Editor of Veekshanam, Telugu monthly journal of political economy and society. These are the personal views of the author)