I spent a year in the USA as an exchange student the year before Kennedy was assassinated. Fran, the mother of the family who hosted me, is 94 now and remembers Presidents who to me are just history. She still follows the news avidly, which today means in a state of undimmed outrage. ‘I will never,’ she says, ‘say President and That Man’s name in the same sentence.’
Where to find a strengthening tonic to fight political depression? Here’s one from the voice of Toni Morrison after the Bush recount-election of 2004 – you remember? That was the one we thought was disastrous because we couldn’t have imagined how much worse it could become:
“I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, ‘How are you?’ And instead of ‘Oh, fine—and you?’, I blurt out the truth: ‘Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election….’ He interrupts, shouting: ‘No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!’ ”
So. There it is. It’s the job of anyone who spins words to speak out – and for me personally 2016 was the year I found over 30 different platforms to speak from. I started with a modest aim, hoping to interest people in reading Uncertain Light, but as one humanitarian and political disaster followed another, I shed my modesty and got behind the message that was bigger than me. Why do I write fiction, anyway? I love doing it, but that’s not the only point – the people in my novels negotiate lives that are fictional but as real as I can make them, and their stories are underpinned by values that matter in this horrendously divided world. Each time I find a new reader willing to travel those roads with them I feel elated, because in their identification with someone different from themselves, the total store of empathy in the world has been increased. It’s an infinitesimally small thing, maybe, but it’s my own.
Just today I had an email from a friend saying, ‘Inspired by your comments that each of us has to find what we can do, please find my latest adventure.’ At an age when she is entitled to retire, and after a year of repeated bouts of surgery, Elaine has rejoined VSO – Volunteer Service Overseas – which she started with 40 years ago – and is going to Burma to use her considerable talents and experience working with small local groups who are trying to improve things each in their own way. When I first met her she was fluent in Lao, Thai, Welsh, and a couple of European languages, and I don’t doubt she will soon acquire a working facility in Burmese. (I drop that in for the readers of Uncertain Light who found it hard to credit the language abilities of its characters. People like that do exist.) She’s kind to suggest that anything I said was part of the spur, but on the other hand – back to Toni Morrison – when we speak out, we encourage each other. Effects are not always measurable.
Nor is it possible to predict how one thing will lead to another. Here’s my story of language learning, very different from Elaine’s. I grew up in multi-lingual South Africa, surrounded by the sounds of two Bantu languages, Setswana and Sesotho, but I learnt to speak neither because they weren’t valued in the white society I had been born into. By the time I reached adulthood and was challenging those attitudes, I had left. We started a new life in Zambia and – determined not to repeat that failure – I started learning chiNyanja, the language most spoken around me in Lusaka. But every Zambian I knew spoke better English than my struggling new phrases of chiNyanja, so I let it drift – a familiar story, the penalty of having a world language as your mother tongue. When after eight years we had – reluctantly – to leave, I looked back on that second failure and recognised the extent to which it had limited my interaction with Zambian society. The loss was entirely mine, and I vowed if I were ever again lucky enough to work closely with people of another culture, I would not again teach my language without learning one of theirs.
And that’s why I started learning Urdu – I was working with people from India and Pakistan, and I wanted to know them properly. It was a bonus I could never have expected that I found as a teacher a translator of Urdu poetry, Ralph Russell, who gave me a unique entrée into the culture of Urdu speakers. He taught me also about its origins in Persian poetry, and when I started work for Save the Children and was sent to Tajikistan, I discovered that the language – Tajik – was Persian by another name, and that my Tajik colleagues were as passionate about poetry as were my Urdu speaking friends. So when the story of Uncertain Light began to form in my mind, a central character emerged who loved both Urdu and Persian poetry.
That itself has turned out to be another beginning. Readers who knew nothing about either language liked the fragments of poetry in the story, and wanted to know more. I was invited to talk at the Wenlock Poetry Festival, and spent three days surrounded by poets, poetry-reading, poetry-lovers – until then I had no idea there was such a lively culture of contemporary English poetry. Now I am delighted to have some of these thoughtful, talented people as friends. At the same time I was launching a book of Ralph’s translations of Ghalib, and some people who had read my novel came to listen. By the end of the year I had introduced a couple of hundred English speakers to a quite different but vibrant poetic culture about which they had previously known nothing. Another small addition to the world’s store of empathy.
Poetry is not escapism, it’s a way of being sharply engaged. Ghalib had pertinent things to say about living through times when values he thought important were being undermined. The connections in meaning traverse centuries, languages and cultures. Any time Ralph was with South Asian friends you could be sure they would at some point quote poetry to each other, and that it would probably also be a way of commenting on the state of the world. Perhaps in the moment captured in this photo with his life-long friend, Som Anand, a journalist from a Hindu background, these two atheists are swopping verses that demonstrate Ghalib’s sceptical eye on the religious orthodoxy of his time:
They offer paradise to make up for our life below
It needs a stronger wine than this to cure our hangover
Discovering Urdu poetry took me into cultural realms I hadn’t even been able to imagine. It’s a society where a taste for poetry is universal. Millions of Urdu speakers in India and Pakistan cannot read but they get to know poetry in other ways. From childhood they will have heard fragments quoted by their elders. Verses from famous poets are painted on the sides of buses. In a village where few are literate there may be one person who can recite long extracts of classical narrative poetry, and others will gather round to listen. In towns and cities thousands of people attend events where poetry is recited or sung. Everyone is familiar with the traditional imagery of Urdu poetry, for many of the popular tunes that blare out from radios have words which derive from – and sometimes are – classical poetry.
Major poets are honoured as no political leader would be, and their influence has been at times more powerful. They straddle boundaries, political, religious, social. The Partition that divided India and Pakistan so bitterly in 1947 has left political tensions that still cannot be resolved, but it is irrelevant in poetry. Urdu speakers on both sides of the border venerate the same poets. Ghalib, by common consent one of the greatest Urdu poets, belongs to everyone – and it’s not just the classical greats to whom this applies. Most poets grew up steeped in centuries-long literary traditions but have used them to reflect on the complex present-day world. Just two examples: Javed Akhtar – Indian, atheist, social critic – has also been a screenwriter for Bollywood films watched by Urdu speakers everywhere. Zehra Nigah grew up in India, has lived in Pakistan since Partition, spends time each year in the UK, and she is highly regarded by Urdu speakers in all three countries.
As in many vibrant cultures that don’t depend on the written word, Urdu poetry is primarily heard rather than read. The verb for ‘to compose’ poetry is in fact ‘kahna’ (to speak) rather than ‘likhna’ (to write.) The marsiya, a genre of narrative poems about the martyrdom of Husain, is heard by millions of Shia Muslims each year when it is recited in the month of mourning at Husain’s death, and the power of great marsiya poets like Anis is appreciated far beyond Shia, or even religious, circles. There are equally strong secular traditions. Poetry recitals – mushairas – were regular events in aristocratic Indian circles long before the intrusion of western cultural influences. As Ghalib composed each new poem, he would test it out at mushairas in the court of the last Mughal emperor, where his status allowed him to get away with sharp social comments.
Mushairas remain hugely popular today. Last year in Jaipur, India, I stood at the back of an open-air poetry event (no seats left) attended by probably a thousand people. At the Lahore Literary Festival a month later one of the biggest draws was Zia Moyeddin, an actor and television presenter in both the UK and Pakistan, but perhaps most celebrated for his poetry recitals. The hall was packed to capacity to hear him recite from the ghazals of Ghalib, and guards at the door battled to keep back the crush of young men increasingly angry that they weren’t being allowed in. The organisers were worried – would they have a riot on their hands? ‘Rejoice,’ I said. ‘Where else do young men almost cause a riot because they can’t get to hear poetry recited?’
These are participatory occasions. The audience calls out appreciation, joins in if phrases are repeated, may be moved to tears by an effective recital, and afterwards many among them will be able to quote lines that they have only heard that once. Take a look at video clips of poets in action: Here is Zehra Nigah reciting her poem Daku (Bandit), about a mother’s feelings when her son, wanted by the police, pays a secret visit home to collect some of his belongings http://bit.ly/2ixIRuU . You won’t need to understand a word to see how it is being received. (Fast forward through the introduction but keep listening to the end for the audience reaction.)
A mushaira is not always a large-scale affair. It can also be an intimate get-together among friends, called perhaps to share the pleasure of a visiting poet but often with an invitation to those present to recite something of their own. I once asked a friend what had made him start composing poetry. He said he loved going to mushairas, and each time someone would say, “Come on Harris, it’s your turn.” It got so embarrassing that he had to either give up the pleasure of going, or start composing. To compose in the accepted forms is technically difficult but a startling number of people do consider themselves poets.
And now I have a new challenge, a new opportunity. I’ve been invited by the Poetry Translation Centre to help run a workshop of a kind they specialise in, to give people a sense of the wealth of poetry of languages they will never learn. Those taking part will not need to know Urdu, but, armed with word by word translations provided by my friend Rakhshanda Jalil – translator and literary historian – they will together have a go at producing poems in English that convey the same thing. If this idea appeals to you, click here for details, and come and be one of the voices that spreads poetry across languages. http://bit.ly/2iDMcvN
For inspiration thanks to Fran Miller, Toni Morrison, Elaine Moore. Photo credits: Angela Radulescu’s photo of Toni Morrison speaking at “A Tribute to Chinua Achebe”, New York City, 26 February 2008. Ralph Russell with Indian journalist Som Anand, photo by Prakash Suri. Crowds at Jaipur Literature Festival, 2016, PTI Photo.