––What a pleasure to read you, as always, Ranjit. I love how your poems and translations exist in the shared universe of vast, intricate beauty and equally vast confusion, with their speakers trying to make some sense for themselves. “Earth” posits that “Seeing is a kind / of spelling out,” while the speaker of “Tacet” asks, "Of what / am I the barometer?" Is that what we do as poets, try to “spell out” the world, or act as its barometer? Or are we simply, in Mir's words, a “volume of anxieties”? (Especially in 2020.)

Rebecca, I’m delighted to be featured in this issue of Volume––and thank you so much for your wonderful questions. Yes, I do believe that we poets are constantly trying to decipher the coded signals the universe sends our way. We’re trying to spell out what our senses grasp, on the level of intuition, a consciousness from which our Enlightenment training has kept us relatively aloof. We’re trying to figure out what our neural circuitry is trying to tell us, what our disrupted body rhythms and our dreams are saying to us.

As poets, we’re descended from the shamans or the augurs, except that our rites and modes of interpretation are fragmentary and episodic––we have to improvise them as we go along. Our poems are what we craft from our unease and uncertainty. So yes, we are, in Mir’s immortal words, a “volume of anxieties,” adding entries as we go along, traumas and syndromes. But we also register some measure of delight, some exhilaration, some leaping out of the individual bodied self to join with others in polyphony! After all, we poets are also descended from the griots, and we must preserve the stories and records of our people––people in the extended sense, now, of the multitudes we may never know or meet in person, but with whose destinies our own fates are bound up.

––As a translator, I am fascinated by your process of translating Mir, and particularly the difficulties the ghazal presents in terms of linearity. What were some of the negotiations you faced? I am also struck by how contemporary the sentiments are: “The heart’s not the kind of city that would flourish twice.” What was the process of discovering Mir’s voice and register in English?

I’ve finally accepted––after years down the Ghalib and Mir salt mines––that it is, except in rare cases, quite pointless to translate an entire ghazal. The mechanisms that give the ghazal its power and glory in the Urdu oral tradition simply evaporate on the printed English page. The rhyme or near-rhyme that prompts the listener to guess or complete the next round––that mingled suspense and expectation, that play of confirmation and surprise––it all gets thrown away on the page at one glance. There is no joy in second-guessing the poet and going “A-ha!,” no rising wave of approbation that will break in the customary applause: “Wah-wah!” And, of course, English translations that try and remain faithful to the rhyming patterns of the original usually end up as cringe-making piffle.

There is a fundamental difference between the structure of expectation in an Urdu ghazal in the oral tradition and––as a point of comparison––the structure of expectation in an English lyric in print. I think of paradigm drift as the basic condition governing the translation of one into the other. The Urdu listener cares nothing for a continuous narrative, and the ghazal does not offer it. The Anglophone reader expects coherence in the printed form, and is annoyed at not finding what was never meant to be there. What the ghazal offers is a fluid play of meanings, the diaphanous veil of possibility. The reader, especially the reader trained in the pieties of modernism, looks for the interlocking of images and the satisfying click of the conclusion.

In any case, apart from the Urdu poets who compiled their own divans or “complete works,” no one else had the entire ghazal in mind or even in notebook. Remember that Urdu listeners and anthologists kept intikhabs, notebooks into which they transcribed their favorite verses, often writing these down as they heard them at mushairas or readings. From such notebooks, these verses circulated in the public consciousness. The single verse, not the whole ghazal, was the unit of poetic currency.

Urdu poetry tends to suffer from a widespread misperception that traps it in notions of nostalgia, obsolescence, and the mediaeval. The truth is that two of the very greatest Urdu poets––Mir Muhammad Taqi ‘Mir’ (1723-1810) and Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan ‘Ghalib’ (1797-1869)––were intensely modern poets. Ironic, playful, irreverent, a connoisseur of shock, novelty, intellectual complexity and emotional subtlety, Ghalib was the contemporary of Heinrich Heine, Baudelaire, Whitman, and as seminal in his contribution to literature. He recognized no equals, let alone superiors––but of Mir alone, he wrote: “Mir ke sher ka ahvaal kahun kya Ghalib/ jis ka divan kam az gulshan-e Kashmir nahin” (“Ghalib, what can I say about Mir's poetry? / His collected works rival a garden in Kashmir.”)

As for me, arriving at Mir’s sophisticated, kaleidoscopic, passionate, self-reflexive, often irreverent poetry nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, after many years of working on Ghalib, I can only echo what he wrote about himself: “kin ne sun shi’r-e mīr yih nah kahā/ kahyo phir hā’e kyā kahā ṣāḥib.” In English, or Angrezi as we call it here in South Asia: “No one who heard Mir’s poems wouldn’t say: / Say it again, it’s to die for, say it again!”

––Along with being a poet and translator, you are a curator, and in fact you and I met at an exhibition in Mumbai where your poetry was featured among multimedia works of art. What does the intersection of poetry, art and translation look like for you? How do they all get along in your brain, in terms of creative process?

My poetry, my translation, my writing on art and culture, and my curatorial adventures all seem to go off in different directions––but they are all, as I have realized gradually, inspired by a passionate preoccupation with the way in which dissimilar, heterogeneous, diverse energies come together and produce something unexpected, unpredictable, unforeseen––whether in text, image, music, or cultural paradigm at large. I am deeply moved, also, by narratives that fall off the map, that become eclipsed or erased; and whether as a poet or translator, critic or curator, I seek these out and try to restore them to public view. In terms of creative process, my work in each domain nourishes the other––sometimes in more manifest ways, and sometimes more gradually and imperceptibly.

In 2018, I curated a large-scale trans-historical and trans-genre exhibition, The Sacred Everyday: Embracing the Risk of Difference, for the Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa. It was held at the Adilshah Palace in Panjim and the Convent of Santa Monica, Old Goa. The oldest objects in it were sixth-century Tantric goddesses sculpted in stone; the most recent were collages shaped from star maps and pages torn from used books, produced in 2018. Between these extremes in time were works by artists and architects in varied media, crossing the borders between religions, regions, continents, races, styles, and identity constructs. What brought them all together, for me, was an aesthetic delight in the hybrid and confluential as well as a political commitment to sharing this centuries-long body of evidence that flies in the face of all the fascist doctrines of singularity, primordial homogeneity, and ethno-nationalism now being imposed on us.

––Is "the homeland an ocean on which we’re scattered in all directions"? Asking for a friend.

Yes, absolutely! It’s the only way to think of a homeland today, when many of us are migrants to one degree or another, all vulnerable and in danger of displacement or marginalization, cast adrift––certainly some far, far more so than others. Out of such a centrifugal predicament, we try and compose provisional frameworks of home and belonging, lattices of affinity, friendship, common ground.

––Can you recommend two current favorites––one poet and one artist?

My current favorite poet would have to be the marvelous Sasha Dugdale; I’ve been reading her new book, Deformations, which shuttles between the unstable intimate universes of Eric Gill and Odysseus. And my current favorite artist is the superb Mohan Samant (1924–2004), who, although Bombay-born, spent most of his life in New York City; I’ve described him elsewhere as a “one-man avant-garde” who, alas, was largely written out of Indian and transcultural art history.
Ranjit Hoskote was interviewed by Rebecca Levi, via email, in November 2020.


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