Book Review: Afsar Mohammed’s ‘Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems’

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By Nishi Pulugurtha

Afsar Mohammad has been writing poetry for several years now. Widely read as a poet, Afsar wrote in English initially before he turned to Telugu to write poetry. He is also someone who has worked in the area of Telugu literary criticism, and religion and literature in South India. In an interview with the poet Rohith, that is included in the volume under review, Afsar speaks of his engagement with languages. What he says in that interview about language is something that will resonate with many who straddle several languages: “If home and home language should be in sync, that’s an impossible task for me.” The language that he spoke at home was Urdu. He goes on to speak about how he needs to cross these several linguistic bridges to write a poem in Telugu.

Afsar Mohammed’s Evening with a Sufi, translated from Telugu by Afsar Mohammed and Shamala Gallagher and published by Red River, is a collection of poems that has been selected from several of his poetry volumes in Telugu. The twenty-six poems are representative of his oeuvre. Afsar does note that his poems are rooted in the regional and that translating them into English has not been an easy task. Shamala Gallagher writes in her note on translating Afsar, that his work is “particularly Muslim, particularly post-partition Indian, and particularly Telugu.” There are poems that clearly reveal this aspect in the volume. While Gallagher goes on to talk about his marginal position while he writes, Afsar’s poetry blends in the calm with an anger that seethes.

The twenty-six poems in the volume are divided into two sections. “Name Calling,” the first poem in the volume speaks out, bringing in names, memories, loss and longing that haunts.

Now I don’t see much difference between you and me.
We are the same.
Except I don’t have tears in my eyes.
Mother’s not here to share my stories.
Usman, times never change
only the roles change.

“No Birthplace” speaks of a searing pain as he notes the changing world. Using images that are harsh at times, the poem voices the angst of modern times, of the divisiveness that troubles.

I roam through country after country,
imagining that each one is mine.

Each village, each house, I imagine, is mine

But not even a bee can tell me my address.

Language and personal relationships figure evocatively in the poem “Sunset”. A yearning too lingers on in the lines.

What has slipped into
dark hollows?
The alphabet I learned
In this pale lamplight,
mother. Father,
all the games I played
on the wide meadows
of your shoulders.

“The Accented Word” also brings in language into the poem – something that Afsar talks about in his interview with Rohith in the book (referred to earlier). Lines at the beginning and at the end of the poem are italicised as if they frame the poem, speaking of words and blood, of accent and the mother tongue.

All my words until now
were cut off from their blood

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I go back to my mother and her tongue.
I speak from my accent.
Real accent.

The poem speaks of words, language, voice, and poetry using images that tear and hurt bringing out the various complexities and the politics of language.

“Outcast’s Grief” uses the image of Ekalavya to speak of the outcast, the other, the outsider:

Who cares who I am?
My body is meant
for the gutters.

It is the harsh images that hit out strongly in most of the poems, revealing an aching discomfort that gnaws while at the same time evoking the passion of a Sufi. The repetition of the lines, like a refrain, in “The Wall Next to Death” bring in elements of this passion.

The wall doesn’t,

                          say anything

doesn’t move,

                            doesn’t take a turn.

Poems like “Walking” and “In the Middle of a Poem” speak of poetry:

Someone walks on either side,
hazy, indistinct.
Someone sighs behind the shoulder.
The Poem stops. (“In the Middle of the Poem”)

There are poems in the volume that bring in the city of Hyderabad – “Across from the Char Minar” and “A Rain Lost in Hyderabad.” The walk right up to the iconic monument of Char Minar, a symbol for the city that looms large in the area, is beautifully presented:

Any afternoon, when the sun
smiles like a white flower
on the head of the Char Minar,
just walk straight into its look. (“Across from the Char Minar”)

In “Evening with a Sufi,” Afsar speaks of conflict, of deaths, of massacres in the name of religion. Written in memory of Wali Gujarati whose grave was desecrated the poem raises an important question, “How can this make sense?”

Now I watch a sparrow
with its bleeding beak
writing something
on the grave,
translating its pain.

With illustrations that hark back to the idea of the Sufi in the title of the volume, the volume includes an essay by Shamal Gallagher where she speaks on translating Afsar. An essay by David Schulman refers to the language in the which the poems were written originally pointing out the nuances and melody, the rootedness of the Telugu language that would possibly give a non-Telugu reader an idea of the melody of the language. The interview of Afsar by Rohith also includes personal photographs of the poet, of the poet’s mother who is an important presence in many of the poems. The Afterword by Cheran Rudhramoorthy also speaks of the nuances of translation. Throughout the volume several images of poems and quotations in the Telugu script are presented, thereby focussing on the idea of translation and language.

Afsar’s poetry does speak of hope amid all the turmoil. While they speak of wounds, of hurt and discomfort, the poems also stand as testimony to the times. The poems resonate with the pulse of Telangana and of the Deccan. While they are rooted in a particular place, they wonderfully voice the universal.

Bio:
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University and Rabindra Bharati University. Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film. She is a creative writer and writes on travel, Alzheimer’s Disease, film, short stories and poetry. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Café DissensusColdnoonQueen Mob’s Tea House and Setu. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019).

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