An Evening with a Sufi: 5 Poems by Afsar Mohammad and an Afterword by David Shulman

Poems by Afsar Mohammad with translations in collaboration with Shamala Gallagher. Afterword by David Shulman.

Afsar Mohammad teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Festival of Pirs: Popular Islam and Shared Devotion in South India (Oxford, 2013). His next book, Muslim Histories Matter: 1948 Police Action and Postcolonial Hyderabad, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press (2023). Shamala Gallagher is a poet and essayist based in Athens, Georgia whose work has appeared in Poetry, The Rumpus, and other publications. David Shulman is Professor of Asian Studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Afsar Mohammad
Source: Author

A well-known Telugu poet and literary critic, Afsar Mohammad brings new attention to questions around Indian Muslim identity and regional belonging. He first rose to prominence in the 1990s during a period of invigorating literary innovation. This decade saw new Feminist, Dalit, and Muslim poets moving boldly beyond the Marxist imagination that had captivated the Telugu literary world for decades and fashioning a radically new poetics of liberation. Afsar is particularly known for his subversive use of language and the understated quality of his poems.

An Evening with a Sufi offers us the first collection of Afsar’s poems in English translation. Newly published by Red River Press, the volume includes a reflection on translation by Shamala Gallagher, an interview with the poet by Rohith, and two essays by David Shulman and Cheran Rudhramoorthy. Maidaanam is pleased to share a selection of poems from this exciting new collection followed by a thoughtful afterword by David Shulman.


ఉష్....మాన్!
Name Calling


Usman, Uushhhhhmaan....
Uuuussshhhh...maan... !

1

The sky is hanging 
Like your cloud-coloured goatee.

Trying hard to hide your body
In a dirty pajama
You scared all the children
Away from the river.

A body like a wound
Peeks from your torn shirt.
You’re the one street dog
Doggedly haunted by a ball.

I remember the evenings
You would run to my mother
Complaining to her that
I was with the naughty kids
Who never stopped teasing you.

I also remember
With just one cup of tea
All those burning oceans inside you
Would cool down abruptly.

2

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.

Several years past your death
I realize
You’re a wound as tall as a human body.

3

I’m the wound now
And when I go to sleep
The wounds open their huge doors
And amidst the wounds
I still tease you,
Heckling you: “Ushhhhhmaan....
చార్ మినార్ సూర్యుడికెదురుగా....
Across from the Char Minar

You see how one butterfly
left us a trace of its color
before killing itself
on this busy street

Here one thousand people
one then the other
crossed and walked on
without even looking 

Any afternoon when the sun
smiles like a white flower
on the head of the Char Minar
just walk straight into his look

It’s not so hard
to pour one look into
an ever-burning oven
a house of molten sights

Here where the butterfly forgot
its color and flew off into the dark,
stay right here and stare straight into life,
tell me how it looks

The thousand people who walked,
limped and ran by this road
told me at least a thousand lies
but in innocent tongues

వొక రొట్టిముక్కా, వొక దేశమూ, వొక షెహనాయీ
A Piece of Bread, a Country, and a Shehnai

In your final rest
on a rope-cot
were you still dreaming
of a piece of bread?

Beloved one,
we the people
of this country

of that country
can make anything

but a piece of bread
for you –

* 

Your death now
is dream-forgotten. 

Stingy dream, secret,
yesterday, the day

before, or early dawn
of some endless night,

snatched from
a broken sleep

like a cut thread

(Says Amma: don’t
forget the early

dawn dreams as they
might become real)

*

One festival
of breads

you drank the last drop
of sweet kheer

at my home,
sweet kheer slipped
into your beard – 

*

So said the Prophet: 
“All my dreams
are inevitable
truths” 

and squeezed his body
into a qibla

and swallowed the poison
in Fatima’s womb

and then slipped away
into his dream

that was like knowing – 

Then what was left? 

One Karbala

bodies piled on bodies. 

And from her birth pangs
from her broken sleep

Fatima began to broom the hurt field

with her braid. 

* 

When you poured your pain
into your pipe of shehnai –

did I ever tell you
all my history is a broken sleep

a shattered 
genderless dream that multiplies –

* 

Your dream of bread
is not far from her battlefield
anymore.

Your body at last on the rope-cot,
the last pinning glance of the war –

they are the same dream

one restlessness, one violent shriek

this is what
I am now

* 

When you left,
the shehnai turned alone
into her dark corner

and sang to herself
beating and beating
the ceaseless tune

of the dream you left
orphaned – 
Source: Iruvan Karunakaran (2017)
హైదారాబాద్: కొన్ని వానలూ
A Rain Lost in Hyderabad

1

Since there is nothing like evening here
I just dream an evening
In every bit of my sleep

When the trees erase their shades
When the sky dries out its final sunshine
A cold wave scoops me

I rush to my nest and hide in its wings
Before the dark night takes me

2

Never know if this was raining since morning
Or just began this noon
The lives that unfurl in the noons
Don’t know morning breezes

Getting up past noon
I realize the alarm was tired
Of alarming me and sighed itself off

I am best at reading time
In reverse

3

I am the crooked one

Who is born when all the rains and winters
Lose their hope of moving

4

Hyderabad is my altered self

A dreamless sleep
A sleepless dream

A waking slipped under a nap. 
ఒక సూఫీ సాయంత్రం 
Evening with a Sufi

I’ll never know 
the fate
of my worn-out
cap! 

I took a handkerchief from my pocket
and tied it on my head. 

It’s not 
right
for the human
mane to sway! 

The doors tightened 
on the still-closed grave,
waiting for the evening prayer. 

When the call sounded,
the sparrows
flung up in joy
and reached
home! 

After the evening prayer,
I knew the body of the Sufi
by the embroidered cloth that covered him
for many hundred years. 

I bent my own body down
to his feet, reciting verses. 
Two eyes changed to two tears
that shone on the embroidered cloth. 
The tears changed to two sparrows
flung up into nowhere. 

I had gone somewhere
inside him.
I couldn’t 
come out! 

*
 
His memory is like a worn Arabic text
I’m afraid to open,
afraid I’ll tear it. 
But once I made a pilgrimage there. 

How can this make sense? 

As I was leaving the shrine,
something exploded
into the cloud of sparrows,
then a flurry of severed wings. 

Everyone was running
here and there,
screaming! 

I ran into the shrine
again, into the shrine’s
pure silence. 

Now I watch a sparrow
with its bleeding beak
writing something
on the grave! 

Translating its pain... 

Where will I go now? 

There is a grave
to dig
inside me! 
In memory of Vali Dakhani, whose Ahmedabad tomb was demolished during the 2002 Gujarat Riots
Tomb of Vali Dakhini (2002)
Source: Sabrang Archives

AFTERWORD

The Poetic Textures of a Telangana Village
By David Shulman

 Like all good poetry, Afsar Mohammad’s poems are profoundly rooted in a specific landscape, with its colors, tastes, textures of wind and sky and soil. In his case, the soil is that of Telangana in the north-eastern dry and rocky upland of southern India.

Even if you have not been there and seen it for yourselves, you will still have access to the poems, in English; the universal tones and themes come through clearly along with the specifics of time and place. A somewhat different kind of understanding derives from knowing those textures and tastes, the intense bodily sensations of walking through a Telangana village—and to reach toward that understanding, it helps to know Telugu, perhaps the most musical of the south Indian languages (and indeed the primary language of South Indian music).

We know and feel language as embodied beings porous to sound. Take the following lines from Afsar’s Iftar Siren:

I’ve been like this for years
burning in the divine fire.
Unable to turn
into ashes.

I’m a fire-pit you try
and try to stamp out.
Yes, the fire-pit
is tired too.

We’ll listen to the Telugu in a moment. First, it should be clear that this a poem about the moment a siren announces the end of a day’s fast during the month of Ramadan; iftar is the post-fast meal that everyone has been waiting for.

Telangana is a land of mixed Muslim and Hindu communities, strongly interdependent, deeply interwoven in daily life, despite the differences in ritual and religious performances. Everyone speaks the distinctive Telangana dialect of Telugu, which has its own particular lexicon (with many borrowings from Persian and Urdu/Dakhni Hindi) and its own morphology and phonemics. Telangana Telugu is itself a continuously self-transforming, singing, whispering poem.

Now the Telugu text. The first four lines (two stanzas) in English are three lines in Telugu:

నేను ఎళ్ళ తరబడి
ఈ పవిత్రమైన అగ్నిలో కాలీ కాలీ
బూడిద కాలేక

nenu eḷḷa tarabaḍi
ī pavitramaina agnilo kālī kālī
būḍida kāleka

Try saying them or, better, gently singing them, without knowing the meanings. But then you already know the meanings.

The first line starts with the pronoun “I”—the always meditative, often  wistful or sad or troubled, sometimes very angry “I” of this poet.  What fire is he talking about? Apparently, it’s the burning sun of daytime that becomes one, as it were, with the fire that South Asians say is always smoldering in the human stomach.

Afsar tells us earlier in the poem:

I rarely see a sun burning
all day in the oven…
Suns that burn without rest
in an empty stomach.

If Ramadan falls in the hot season, then the daytime fast is a real challenge; the heat (believe me) is overwhelming. So there are many suns blazing in the poet’s empty stomach, and in the Telugu line there is also a sizzling onomatopoeic word that tells you what that fire sounds like:  bhagguna. The poet doesn’t have to describe it: the syllables speak it. The oven, by the way, probably an old-fashioned clay contraption, pŏyi, is a kind of darkness, cīkaṭi, the sun glowing inside it, like nightfall in the hot season when the day’s heat refuses to go away.

The scorched stomachs come very close to the opening of the poem and might be said to be its main subject. Now we understand the lines I quoted earlier:

I’ve been like this for years
burning in the divine fire.
Unable to turn
into ashes.

The last phrase is compressed, laconic, in the original:  būḍida kāleka, as if despite the overt meaning, the fire was also devouring the words of the poem, not even leaving behind a trace of ash—leaving only the “Qibla turning deep in the emptiness.”

And by the way, the Qibla, marking the direction of Mecca, the direction of prayer, is also located in the stomach, kaḍupu; and the emptiness, khāḷī khāḷīgā, is echoed in the burning of the divine fire, kālī kālī, which is how we started our reading.

But there is now another species of flame, the fire-pit that “you”, whoever that is (maybe this “you” is also “I”), try to stamp out. Like everything and everyone else on this fast day, the fire-pit is also tired, almost too tired to play its role. South Indian village festivals often include fire-walking, barefoot, over a pit full of coals.

I hope by now you can sense something of the haptic and sonic textures of this poem. Emptiness, inside and out. Hunger. Impatience. The dark oven. Endless, weary flames eating away at the awareness of the speaker-poet, who in his exhaustion may not even be able to utter the burning words of the prayer (in Arabic). An ironic note creeps in at the end: “Do you see how pure I am?”

What does the day of fasting mean? Before we let go of what now must be a complex, synaesthetic, moving flash of introspection, we should listen to the overtones that inform the poet’s self-description. He has been burning for years in a divine fire yet is still unable to turn to ashes.

These lines would fit perfectly into a Persian or Urdu ghazal, spoken by a Sufi mystic such as Hafez or Ghalib, striving to speak the intense internal conflict that relentlessly molds his life. Afsar’s modern Telugu semi-ghazal is continuous with that earlier tradition and thus even more dense and eloquent than we have so far seen.

These poems bear, indeed demand, close listening. Even today in the Telugu-speaking world, poetry is usually meant to be recited aloud or sung.

I want to say a few words about one more poem in this collection, a particularly rich and sadly beautiful statement that, like many of the poems, also hints (more than hints) of social protest. There is no way I can do justice to this poem—A Piece of Bread, a Country, and a Shehnai—in this short afterward. I think the readers can find their way into it, if they can stand the pain.

Just to be sure: the shehnai is a north-Indian reed instrument that, played by an expert, produces perhaps the most haunting melodies on earth. In the poem a shehnai player is dying, lying on a simple village cot, still dreaming.

Musician playing a shehnai (19th c.?)
Source: Wellcome Collection

It’s not just any shehnai player: this poem is, at least in part, a eulogy to the great shehnai master Bismillah Khan on his death in 2006. Anyone who has heard Bismillah Khan playing in person, as I had the good luck to do in 1998, can attest to the magic. It was an outdoor concert in Hyderabad, and midway through it the skies opened up and poured rain—because, so people said, even the heavens couldn’t bear the beauty of that music without weeping.

In your final rest
on a rope-cot
were you still dreaming
of a piece of bread?

“Final rest” is here civari sāri viśramistū: literally, “resting for the last time.” It’s more poignant, more hard-hitting in Telugu than in English.  And the piece of bread is “one, just one” piece: vŏke vŏka rŏṭṭi mukka. The dying man can only dream of it.

Indeed, the whole poem is, as the poet tells us, a jumble of dream fragments that stretch back to include the Prophet, and to the site of Karbala in Iraq where the Prophet’s grandson Husain and his half-brother Hasan, were killed, and to a sweet kheer desert in the  speaker’s home, and to hundreds, if not thousands, of shehnai performances.

The dying musician is poor, or remembers being poor, still hungry for a piece of bread. Like him, the poet, too, is dreaming: “all my history is a broken sleep” – vŏkānŏka kalata kala, “one, only one disturbing dream,” echoing that one, only one piece of bread. “My” could well be the voice of the country mentioned in the title and in the first few phrases.

A few lines later:

one restlessness, one violent shriek
this is what
I am now

“Restlessness” is aśānti, the negation of peacefulness; and the “violent shriek” is vŏka hiṃsā, the ancient Sanskrit word for causing harm to other living beings. The Telugu says these two mix together (reṇḍū kalisi) to define the poet at this moment (ippaṭi nenu). The dream, that is, is entirely real, as the Prophet said. Dreaming is “like knowing.”

Then death happens, offstage. The dreamer, we are told, leaves his dream behind. Earlier the Telugu text says that death is like dreaming, sometime or other, for some reason or another. Now the poet can answer the question he has asked more than once in the course of his poem: “Then what was left?”

The orphaned shehnai goes on playing by itself, in a corner – an unbroken raga (“ceaseless tune”). The poem, like the dream, like the music, like the dreamer, has broken free of its chains. The heavens can’t help crying.

 Not all of the poems in this collection are dreamlike. Many have the knitty-gritty quality of the Telangana landscape, including the often oppressive human landscape. It’s fair to say that most of them resonate with the inherited intertextual corpus of classical Telugu and other South Indian languages as well as with the South Asian ghazal.

These are modernist, maybe even post-modernist poems still alive with, or continuous with, the sumptuous pre-modern cultural worlds of the northern Deccan. All of them are couched in that bewitching, musical Telugu, hidden just below the English surface. If you listen well, you will hear it.

Telangana Landscape
Source:  Harsha Vadlamani (Atlas Obscura)
%d bloggers like this: