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On The Selected Poetry of Amir Khusrau

In the Bazaar of Love: The Selected Poetry of Amir Khusrau.

Translated by Paul E. Losensky and Sunil Sharma

Penguin Classics India, 2011. 164 pages.


The Introduction to this book keyed me into an insight that had escaped me until now: That the genderless nature of Persian facilitated the common Sufi practice of conflating the beloved (the poet’s love interest) with The Beloved (God, or Allah). It is a crucial bit of information that helps me understand how that mystical bivalence came to be.

Amir Khusrau was a poet-musician of 13th century India. His father was a Central Asian (Turkic) Muslim from Transoxiana who arrived in India to work as a policeman in the wake of the Islamic invasions of South Asia. His mother was the daughter of a recent Indian convert to Islam, at a time when conversion was politically and professionally expedient. Khusrau identified as Indian but wrote mostly in Persian, the learned language of the time. A smaller number of poems were written in the local “Hindavi” dialect. It is the rough historical equivalent, perhaps, of a Roman legionary’s son in Gaul writing mostly in imperial Latin, with a few poems in the vernacular of the locals.

Khusrau, like Rumi and Hafiz, was wildly prolific. The first half of the book, translated by Losensky, consists of selections from his ghazals. The numbering suggests a staggering output: Ghazal #1850?! Ghazal #1968!?!? The man stayed busy. This overproduction of ghazals seems to be a function of the somewhat standardized subject matter: Love. It is a very rich and basic theme on which endless variations can be played; the ghazal, in rhyme-rich languages like Persian and Urdu, offers an excellent field for the poet’s invention, both musical and imagistic. The translator has chosen, like many contemporary translators of Rumi and Hafiz, to translate the ghazals, for the most part, into standard contemporary free verse. Sometimes three lines, or four lines, or nine lines can cluster within the same poem. “You drive my ruined heart and soul insane. / Don’t twirl your hair in sport / and break those chains of pure musk.” These are best sampled a few at a time; I don’t recommend reading them straight through, as I did, lest the pleasures come to seem repetitious. I would have preferred a translation that at least preserved the couplet structure of the original. A rhyme and refrain are too much to ask of a translator; too much violence would be done to the original. But the ghazal is a highly disciplined showpiece, and I would have liked to see some of the bone structure of the form. Only rarely does a sense of the refrain come through: “Are you the sun? / The moon? I do not know. / A fairy? An angel? / I do not know.” Overall, though, Losensky does a decent job of creating readable, contemporary-sounding poems.

The second part consists of some of Khusrau’s lesser-known, non-ghazal poems, including macaronic poems, narrative poems, and smaller lyrics and riddles. These are a nice change after 86 pages of the heart bursting with musk for you at dawn in the nightingale’s eye and all that. The narrative poems are a little “problematic,” if considered with a contemporary eye. Hindu princesses are enslaved and married off before puberty, and it’s all the right and proper order of things, it’s how conquerors treat conquered peoples. “He clung to her like a hunting falcon to its prey…. The diamond-tipped drill was ready to drill into the pearl, a challenging task…but the tool was hard.” This would be rather harder for us to take as a rapturous scene of mystical consummation if it took place between a white slaveowner and a black slave woman, or a Spanish conquistador and a captured Mesoamerican princess. The second narrative poem is more intentionally harsh: A sultan marries four wives, whereupon he discovers three of the four to be unfaithful to him–one of them gallivanting with (gasp!) a native-born Hindu man. So he drowns the first wife and does this to the second: “He whipped her body so / that the petals fell off that jasmine. // Her lover the muleteer too / received his fit punishment. // The memory of luxury would torment her / as long as she swept scraps from the stalls.” As for the third one, “he thrashed her all over with thorns / like a lancet breaking over each hair. // The blue welts caused by the sharp thorns / were just like the marks left by needle stings.” He condemned her to pick up camel dung for the rest of her life. The fourth one is faithful, the ideal wife: “When she approached the royal throne, / she kissed the ground in adoration. // She stood still in quiet obeisance, / not moving until she was summoned. // She kept her head bowed demurely, / ready to submit to slavery.”

I was puzzled why the translators selected these as examples of Khusrau’s narrative poetry. Is there even nastier stuff hiding in the larger work from which this was excerpted? Maybe this selection is for the best; this selection tests our ability to read Khusrau in his own time, on his own terms, keeping in mind his own assumptions about the inferiority of other religions and women–that is, to project ourselves, as readers, into a mindset and historical understanding that allows us to appreciate his artistry, without necessarily “approving” of or sharing his outlook. A worthwhile exercise, I guess, in an era when readers are increasingly prone to judging (and canceling) past writers on ideological grounds.

Sunil Sharma, on occasion, goes on a tear of highly sophisticated off-rhyming. Urge/vizier, answer/blunder, wise/wife, alert/fort, market/pickpocket, nature/pleasure, no heir/oyster: Then these ingenious nebulous sound-matings just disappear, and he goes back to unrhymed couplets until further notice. An interesting glimpse of what he could have done with the rest of the poems.

This collection filled in an important blank in my own understanding of the Indian poetic tradition. I had love and admiration for the later Urdu ghazal writers of South Asia, enjoying Ghalib in the original and in translation; I knew of Khusrau as an important predecessor of his (Ghalib wrote in Persian as well as Urdu), but I had never read Khusrau’s work itself. While I still prefer Ghalib’s sophisticated and dense verse to Khusrau’s somewhat repetitive play, this book has shown me the crucial link between the two literary worlds of classical Persia and the later Urdu tradition. To get a sense of Khusrau’s musicality–and perhaps he is best enjoyed today off the page–here is a link to one of the greatest South Asian musicians, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, singing one of Khusrau’s poems. The onscreen translation offers a translation into unrhymed couplets, the ideal form for the translation of ghazals into English. Worth a listen.