By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

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Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I wish there was a straight answer for this. I write, variously. In my columns, I want my voice to be heard, as I address urban concerns, particularly about my city – Mumbai. As a poet, I both reflect and construct, iteratively, as an architect, which I am. My muse is lower-case, infrequent. But when I do write, I write to be read/heard.

Tell us about your most recent book/film or writing/editing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I have a couple of ongoing projects.

I am translating Arun Kolatkar’s wonderful book of poems, Chirimiri, which I call “Palm Grease” (or a small bribe) which is in Marathi. I revel in his words, raucous and bawdy. I revel in his ability to look at the everyday, but with a slant. And I revel in the deep sense of Bhakti (devotion) that emerges from underneath the vulgate nature of his narratives. I look at Chirimiri as a reflection of his seminal Jejuri which is about the individual, a sacred place and ambivalence of belief. But it is the words, mostly. I revel in the way they turn out in English, which is deeply satisfying. I am about halfway through this book of around fifty poems.

I am also working on another book of translations of Muhammad Iqbal from the Urdu, which has a working title of Muhammad Iqbal’s India. I am in the process of translating several of Iqbal’s earliest published poetry, from his first collection Baang-e-Daraa. These poems speak about his country mostly and the love for it through its geography, its natural beauty, its syncretic culture and its sages and thinkers. This brings out an essential character of an Indian poet, largely relegated and appropriated to various agendas of identity. Iqbal wrote poems on Ram, Guru Nanak, Swami Ram Tirath, the Buddha and Ghalib. He even translated the Gayatri Mantra from the Sanskrit, intoned by millions every day in India as ‘Aftaab’ – the Sun. I hope this collection can be read as a companion piece to my earlier translation of Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawab-e-shikwa, published by Penguin Classics in 2012.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

As a translator, the aesthetic emerges from the spirit of the text giving voice. This varies widely depending on whom I am translating – there is the formal but angry Iqbal, the rebellious but deeply lyrical Faiz, the bawdiness and intellectual depth of Kolatkar, the quotidian and experiential angst of Hemant Divate, or Rahim, infused in his Bhakti of Ram and Krishna. Languages bring their own aesthetic to bear, and I usually work with it.

As a poet I write only in English. In English as an Indian language. My aesthetic, if I should describe it, would be related to the sound of words, the authenticity of the sounds, the comfort of knowing that such words could be enjoined in poetry to be enjoyed.

Indeewara Thilakarathne reviews Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician in the Ceylon Today

“But the universe, as a collection of finite things, presents itself as a kind of island situated in a pure vacuity to which time, regarded as a series of mutually exclusive moments, is nothing and does nothing.” – Muhammad Iqbal

iqbal frontMeticulously researched and brilliantly written biography of Allama Mohammad Iqbal by Zafar Anjum sheds light on the hitherto-unexplored areas in the life of a great intellectual, philosopher, poet and politician and his enduring vision for Pakistan and India. Although Sarojini Naidu acclaimed Inqbal in his life time as ‘Poet laureate of Asia’ and considered on par with Tagore, Iqbal is, now, a largely misunderstood and ignored poet in India. His role as a politician and philosopher in the independence of India and the subsequent creation of Pakistan was unique. Iqbal is considered as the national poet of Pakistan and ‘Spiritual Father of Pakistan’.

However, Zafar Anjum has noted with dismay that Iqbal’s vision for a peaceful and prosperous Pakistan has turned out to be a nightmare ‘Closer home, Iqbal’s dream of a separate state for Muslims in the north-western province was realised. But, unfortunately, that dream has turned into a nightmare. Today, Iqbal’s Pakistan is on the verge of collapse, ridden with violence, terrorism, corruption, and mismanagement. Not only Pakistan, India too continues to fail Iqbal’s expectations. As far as India is concerned, going forward, the onus of proving Iqbal right or wrong lies with the majority community. If Muslims are allowed to prosper in India as equal citizens in a peaceful and non-violent environment, with their cultural identity intact, then Iqbal will be proved wrong.’

iqbal front

Pakistani daily the Dawn reviews Zafar Anjum’s Iqbal

In Pakistan, much of the national energies are spent to eulogize the great poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, who is credited with being not only the poet of the East, but also the thinker who imagined, perhaps insufficiently, the birth of a new Muslim country from within undivided India.

Meanwhile in India, where Iqbal was born, lived and died while it was still a British colony without witnessing for himself the birth of Pakistan in 1947, the poet is now little-known save for one of the nationalistic poems he bequeathed to his love for Mother India, in his ‘nationalist’ phase, Saare Jahan say Achcha Hindustan Hamara.

In lucid prose, Zafar Anjum presents before the modern reader the life of a visionary poet, and possibly the last of the great  Muslim thinkers: The Indian Express

iqbal frontI must confess to being somewhat dismayed at the sight of Zafar Anjum’s Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician. For me, a near-perfect non-scholarly introduction to the poet’s life and work has long been Iqbal Singh’s The Ardent Pilgrim, first published in 1951 with a revised reprint coming out in 1997. Singh, a journalist of some repute, made Iqbal accessible to the English reader and in elegant prose located Iqbal on the cusp of a change between tradition and modernity. Over the years, a series of academic works in English — most notably Annemarie Schimmel’s erudite Gabriel’s Wing: A Study Into the Religious Ideas of Muhammad Iqbal — have tried to grapple with the complexity of Iqbal’s oeuvre and the dualities and contradictions that make him a biographer’s delight. But I have found none that match Singh’s simplicity and empathy.

Zafar Anjum’s book is a welcome addition to the corpus of Iqbal studies, writes Naresh ‘Nadeem’: Tehelka

iqbal frontThe volume says it is “an attempt to narrate Iqbal’s life once again for those who have forgotten him” and the author, Zafar Anjum, has succeeded quite well in the endeavour. The book is indeed a welcome addition to the corpus of Iqbal studies. The author acknowledges that it is not “a comprehensive account”, but he has done his best, and the volume, reasonably priced, may well spur curious readers “onto further reading”

Ziya Us Salam pays tribute to the great Urdu poet and Muslim philosopher Allama Muhammad Iqbal in The Hindu

iqbal frontIndeed, Iqbal was a genius without a parallel, a die-hard nationalist who, over time, transformed into an internationalist, a man once won over by the West who went on to be at the head of Eastern revivalism. Yet for a young man or woman growing up in 2014, Iqbal remains a mystery with most having nothing more than a passing acquaintance with his works. For entirely non-literary reasons, he has been denied a place in the pantheon of modern Indian giants.

Through a systematic approach, using a technique similar to that of a labourer building a skyscraper, brick by brick, Zafar, shows the real poet, the real philosopher, the politician. As said in the introduction, “Europe infused Iqbal’s life with a singular mission – to revive the dynamism of Islam to save humanity from the ills of materialism. A transformed Iqbal stopped considering himself a poet; to his mind, he became a messenger who used poetry to awaken humanity, especially Muslims, to its ills.”