A Poet's Journey: Afsar is an eminent poet now in Telugu
Afsar is an eminent poet now in Telugu, but when he first wrote his poem in 1979 he had no idea where this journey would lead him to.
Afsar is an eminent poet now in Telugu, but when he first wrote his poem in 1979 he had no idea where this journey would lead him to. After four decades of being a poet, consistently writing in Telugu and English too, Afsar created a niche for himself
Afsar's poetry is an invitation into a new, rare, relevant world of poetry. The vision and deep lyric emotion in his poems, the existential grief, the heartbroken feeling for others, the sudden ravishment by bliss – make up a sensibility of contemporary anguish: in the deepest and most universal existential sense, but also in a sense that is particular to the poet, Afsar: one that could not spring up from the position of selfhood of anyone else anywhere else in the world. It is a sense that is particularly Deccani being, particularly post-partition Indian, and particularly Telugu and Urdu hybrid realm of the Telangana ethos. It is a sense that is particularly unafraid of feeling's bare wire, unafraid of seeing into the firepit of the destroyed world, responding with equal parts gentle compassion and rage. As the music of these lines sings from these pages, just as Bismillah Khan's forlorn and ethereal shehnai sings to itself after his death ("turned alone / into her dark corner [...] / beating and beating / the ceaseless tune") it would be wise for the world to take note.
Like many principled poets of difference, Afsar refuses to choose: refuses to see a divide between high, ethereal art and the multiplicities of oral traditions that take root in the dirt. As Telugu itself comprises a classical tradition and a radically multiple modernity, so too does this work. But the uniqueness of Afsar's poems is stranger and more brilliant than that. These poems are spoken from a marginal position, but they are unusual – radical – in that they use the marginal position to critique the notion of position: there is a seamless transition from the outskirts to nowhere, from the lines of battle to the other shore. Each shore is a mirror looking back on the other. The result is a blaze of strange and transcendent light.
We discover early in Afsar's poetry that the poet only learns about himself by learning about the marginalized other, his double. This knowledge is structured such that it cannot be accessed any other way. The poet realizes that Usman's position in this childhood group of friends is a microcosm for his own position in the world. Just as the poet cannot separate himself from Usman, he cannot separate himself from the ranks of everyone society casts aside. But the association is a troubled one: the poet continues to tease Usman, even while united with him inside the same wound. The layers of wit and tragedy here are profound. In such a short poem, we find ourselves staring in the face the complicated contemporary situation of love and hate.
Afsar's is the oracular voice of the margins, inhabiting various bodies. It is no less the voice of the body who waits perpetually in its "dirty pajama." In this way Afsar speaks from something much more productively complicated than a self. In "No Birthplace," Afsar tackles the subject of search for origin: though this poem speaks its profuse beauty in the voice of a person searching for identity, he subtly clues us in to the notion that the speaker is India by invoking the crucial number forty-seven.
The speaker of the poems of the first section wheels impressively across a range of habitations of identity, while managing to be essentially itself – speaking in the characteristic fireworks of emotion, in a language of bitingly good image and deftly scathing social critique. Sometimes, as in "Name Calling," the speaker inhabits the fiction of Afsar's own autobiography; sometimes, as in "Iftar Siren" or "The History of my Five Fingers," the speaker seems to be an archetype of the subaltern; sometimes the speaker is more particular and symbolically significant, as in "A Green Bird and the Nest of Light," in which the speaker takes on the voice of a martyr of war. Throughout, the gleaming and striking language is the glitter-quick thread that links everything.
Now we come to poems that are spare and mysterious, their lyricism serving a riddling purpose. Take, for example, "Walking": Something like a strange object I cannot keep still [...]
On this earth Green signatures How long it's been since I've seen In these poems, the touch is lighter but the grief no less great, the sharpness of emotion transmuted. The divine in these poems reminds me of Rumi's: a similar joy, but tempered with a deeper sadness. Redemptive beauty and irresolvable loss appear in the same breath:
You see how one butterfly left us a trace of its color before killing itself on this busy street ("Across from the Char Minar")
In these poems, everything – painful or joyful – seems to appear in tandem with its opposite: everything has paradoxical purposes.
Hyderabad is my altered self
A dreamless sleep
A sleepless dream
Afsar's poems invoke comparisons to a range of immense poets tormented by and violently loving the world. In the unflinching, attentive political eye as well as the moments of sweetness, he recalls Pablo Neruda; his identification with the commoner and his call for change recalls Nazim Hikmet. There is Tomas Transtromer in his interior images, particularly in the second half, sheer vividness but also silence, Hafiz in the tone of lust in calling for the divine, Rumi in the moments of reaching it. Mirabai in the kindness of the incarnation of God in the common world. Mostly, though, it is only Afsar, or only the fragments that amount to a self, troubled by the other and its own presence, foregoing reconciliation and turning to the flame.
- Extracted from
Shamala Gallagher's article. Shamala is an Indian-Irish American poet and essayist based in Athens, Georgia. She co-translated Afsar's poetry into English, which would be out soon with a title 'Evening with a Sufi'