Who would have imagined that Allama Iqbal’s most remarkable and controversial poems in Urdu-Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa, would be rendered in English by an agnostic, known to the literary world as a lawyer, novelist, historian, diplomat and columnist? It took Khushwant Singh more than a year of rigorous research to translate these two beautiful poems and put them in readable form.
“I have translated these two poems as part-payment of the debt of gratitude I felt I owed to Allama Iqbal for once again offering me the priceless gems of the Urdu language. Reading and rereading Iqbal has been the most exhilarating experience of the later years of my life”, says Khushwant Singh.
Dr. Jagannath Azad, a reputed scholar on Iqbaliyat, has written extensively on Iqbal but never attempted to render Allama’s most famous poems (Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa) in English. However, the first attempt was made by A. J. Arberry but his translation proved to be a damp squib. He did not know a word of Urdu and rendered these poems into English on the basis of their English translation by an Urdu-knowing friend. No greater injustice to these poems, full of Islamic history and religious fervour, could have been done by a scholar of his stature.
The translation of Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa by Khushwant Singh makes Iqbal come alive on the page, literally. No other English translation captures the essence and thematic undercurrents of Allama’s verse in Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa as eloquently and authoritatively as done by Khushwant Singh.
Khushwant Singh’s translation has been instrumental in rekindling the Allamic flame which had been almost snuffed out in India for many reasons.
Allama Iqbal defies translation in true sense of the term. His verses have both historical and spiritual overtones. His expressions are deeply steeped in Islamic lore. It is almost impossible to understand them without profound knowledge of Islam and its civilising role in history. That has been both the weakness and strength of his poetry. Its weakness lies in its appeal being confined mainly to the followers of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW); its strength, on the other hand, consists in the hypnotic spell it casts on the readers irrespective of their religious affiliation.
Despite Iqbal’s affinity with the West and his three years’ sojourn there, he could never come nearer to it, unlike his contemporary Rabindranath Tagore, whose book of poems Gitanjali, translated into English, won him the Nobel Prize for literature. Even today, the West’s ignorance of Iqbal is colossal. The eminent English novelist, E.M.Forster, in a radio broadcast on B.B.C in 1946, presented Iqbal as ‘an orthodox Muslim’ and ‘anti-humanitarian in his outlook’. This unfounded, unjustified and unwarranted prejudice against Iqbal stems from the fact that he is hardly reachable to the West, for fewer of his works have been translated into English.
Unarguably, Allama Iqbal is the most stimulating poet of the subcontinent. If Rumi-the spiritual mentor of Iqbal – is the widely read, and is a popular poet in the USA, Allama Iqbal dominates the literary landscape of the subcontinent. Many scholars of Iqbaliyat consider Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa as the magnum opus of Allama Sir Muhammad Iqbal, for their poignance, penetrative power and fervent pleas to the Almighty Allah.
It is said that translation is always approximate and not accurate, but Khushwant Singh deserves accolades for translating Allama’s most famous poems into English accurately, lucidly and masterfully without compromising with the message embedded in the two poems. It took him more than a year of rigorous and painstaking research to get them in readable shape. His rendition is as musical, stimulating and soul-shaking as the original ones. The rhyming verses in English, conveying the plaint and answer to the plaint, are not only soul-stirring but spiritually invigorating as well.
Shikwa (The Complaint) was first recited by Iqbal in 1909 at a gathering of the Arjuman-i-Himayat-i-Islam in Lahore. It created a sensation and has ever since remained one of his most controversial compositions. Some of his critics objected to some of the vocabulary used by Iqbal, particularly the use of the word harjaee (unfaithful) for God.
The theme of Shikwa is the poet’s complaint against Allah for having been unfair to the Muslim Ummah. Iqbal poignantly pleads his case for the beleaguered and battered Muslim Ummah which has lost power and prestige in its own lands. The complainant holds Allah responsible for the downfall of Muslim Ummah and for its continuing defeats and humiliation at the hands of the infidels.
Khushwant Singh is recognised as a skilled translator of Urdu and Punjabi verse, especially the religious verse. He has done a marvellous job at translating these two difficult Urdu poems. His attempt to rhyme each stanza to give it a semblance of metered English poem has been highly appreciated by his critics. The translation of Urdu poems which are deeply immersed in Islamic lore by an agnostic, not-so-well-versed with Urdu language is not only incredibly amazing but also brings to fore the literary genius of the grand old man of Indian literature.
The Jawab-i-Shikwa was first recited by Iqbal in 1913 at a poetic concert in Lahore. Jawab-i-Shikwa is the answer to the plaint. As if written by the Almighty, He argues with the complainant and holds Muslims responsible for their own downfall.
Abdaal Ahmad Bhat is Assistant Professor, Government Degree College Pulwama