Voices of Protest in Urdu Poetry – I

Translated by fowpe sharma

Meer Taqi Meer


The fire of the heart did not blaze up so much, O Moses !
The spark in the haystack equalled hundreds on Mount Sinai.

You ask about my origins, O people of the East !
Thinking that I am poor, you laugh at me with scorn.
Delhi, it was the choicest city of the world,
The finest minds of the age were its ornaments, there they were born,
By heaven’s wrath, this city was plundered, laid waste,
This devastated city is mine, now so forlorn.




When rotis warm a man’s inside,
Once inside, they swell with pride,
They exchange amorous glances with the starry-eyed,
Full of joy over the chest their hands can then glide,
            A delectation, a joyful diversion are these rotis.
A man who has stuffed himself, till ready to drop,
He leaps all around: hop, hop, hop,
The madman jumps over the wall, goes over the top,
Laughter, wine, the beloved, cup bearer and the wine shop,
            Uproarious is the march, all said and done, of these rotis.
Wherever you find fire, oven, pot and pan,
God’s manifestations there you can scan,
The fire in the oven lords over man,
All other lights, compared to this one, are wan,
            By this glorious light, come to our vision these rotis.
Whoever in front of him has the oven and hot plate,
Wherever the flour mills as gardens rate,
Pay your respect, genuflect, prostrate,
For all of these places are roti’s estate
            First of all to these houses, they make their run, these rotis
Illuminated by rotis, all hearts become replete,
It’s not flour, but exquisite light is your treat,
Every dough of flour is a delicious sweetmeat,
Nothing else can quench the stomach’s fiery heat,
            But the quenching of this fire is done by these rotis.

A holy saint was asked by someone,
How came these moon and sun on the horizon,
‘May God grant you your wishes’, he said ‘each and everyone’.
I know of no moon, I see there no sun,
            I do not see this one or that one, I just see rotis.
Then he was asked how can one the heart illuminate,
How does God manifest himself, when you meditate ?
 He replied: ‘Can’t you even discriminate?’
What is this enlightenment, what is this you contemplate ?
            A marvellous revelation, a phenomenon are these rotis
Lacking bread one can do nothing,
Visiting a garden or a fair doesn’t any joy bring,
Hungry and poor, even to God you cannot cling,
Truly it has been said, the hungry cannot devoutly sing.
            They remind us that God is the one and only one, these rotis.
Sweet bread some have in front of them, large portions,
Truly devout they are, they are the lord’s sons,
In front of them are buttered bread and sweet buns,
Mystics, miracle workers are these pious ones.
            Well-baked from the oven, they get their rotis.
For the sake of bread, red clothes some wear,
For the sake of bread, some grow long hair,
Some use a handkerchief as a headgear,
Miracles and manifestations are for its sake there. 
            All shapes under the sun are shown by these rotis.
The foot soldier dances as he performs his drill,
The rider shows off his horses performing skill,
With anklet bells the errand boy goes on dancing with a will,
Anywhere you look, you find the same story still.
            In a merry dance they find great fun, these rotis.
In this world the rotis carry on their merry dance,
It’s not just buffoons and jesters who go on and prance,
With covered faces prostitutes dance, hiding from a glance,
These are not veils, I can tell you in advance,
            With covered faces their livelihood is spun, for these rotis.        
The noblemen have managed to concealed their roots,
Truly, they have put on dignified suits,
Nobody eats the bread they bake, they are just fit for hoots,
Real noblemen are the cooks, they deserve our salutes,
            From their shops everyone gets anon, these rotis.
Nothing is good and bad, when the tale is told,
No friendship, no enmities, nothing fierce nor bold,
Nobody holds anybody dear, everybody is cold,
Lord of all is the one, whose hands the ladle holds.
            A servant, a slave, an unperson we become for these rotis,
Since ancient times the bread is our ferment, our feast,
Even dry bread for us is a real treat,
Thick or thin, unleavened, or leavened with yeast,
Of barley, of millet, O Nazir, or made of wheat,
            They bring about a happy abandon, these rotis.

* The round-shaped unleavened bread of northern India.


The Tale of the Cowrie

Those who have the cowrie, our confidence inspire,
Delicacies they can eat, when they desire,
Fine clothes they can buy for their attire.
If you comprehend this, great subtlety you acquire,
            Cowrie is a precious stone, a gem, a bijou,
            If you don’t have one, it can buy three of you.

If there were no cowrie there would be no discord,
Stable chariot, camelcart you could not afford,
Shaving your head, you could not become a faqir’s ward,
If there were no cowries, there would be no fair for the Lord,
            Cowrie is a precious stone, a gem, a bijou,
            If you don’t have one, it can buy three of you.

For the sake of a cowrie, carrying a sword, some forge ahead,
For the sake of a cowrie, blood they are ready to shed,
For the sake of a cowrie, even death they do not dread,
For the sake of a cowrie, they give up life instead.
            Cowrie is a precious stone, a gem, a bijou,
            If you don’t have one, it can buy three of you.

Thrashings and abuses they bear for its sake,
Even for shame they do not care for its sake,
Afflictions in many a land they dare for its sake,
Down a mosque they will tear for its sake,
            Cowrie is a precious stone, a gem, a bijou,
            If you don’t have one, it can buy three of you.

If you don’t have it, you don’t have the little grocer’s repute,
If you have it, you can become a money-lending brute,
Your agents with your ledgers, you can then depute,
Whatever you say, nobody dares to dispute,
            Cowrie is a precious stone, a gem, a bijou,
            If you don’t have one, it can buy three of you.
From the poor and the mendicant to the minister and the king,
It is a bewitchment, fascination it can bring.
They will perish for it, the old or the little offspring,
What can I say, O Nazir, it is such a wonderful thing !
            Cowrie is a precious stone, a gem, a bijou,
            If you don’t have one, it can buy three of you.


Mirza Ghalib

Ghazal (112)1

Not all, a few poppies, a few flowers, could see daylight,
Dust bore so many exquisite figures, that remained concealed from sight.
We still remember those revelries, those festivities,
But now they have all been forgotten outright.
During the day the seven sisters of the great bear* remained veiled,
But during the night they decided to come out naked like a sprite.
When Joseph was in prison, Jacob made no enquiries about him,
But, awaiting news about him, he lost his eyesight.
My rivals make me unhappy, but the women of Egypt,
Caused Zuleikha2 to become glad, as they admired the Canaanite.
Let my tears of blood become a flood, the time of parting has come,
I’ll imagine that the light of the eyes, is burning bright.
His is the sleep, his the pride, the night belongs to him,
Your tresses, in whose arms, become entangled in the night.
An academy came into being, as I entered the garden,
Hearing my lamentations, the nightingales sang ghazalswith insight.
Why dear God, do these glances pierce my heart so ?
Due to my ill-luck, my eyes remained shut tight.
As I went there, I had no reply to the abuses hurled at me,
All my prayers, could only the attention of the gatekeeper invite.
Exhilarating is the wine, whoever holds the cup in his hand,
It was, as if the lines of the hand, became the main arterial site.
A monist am I, all the rituals I abhor,
Even as the sects disappeared, in true faith they could unite.
If grief becomes routine, it comes to an end,
So many trials and tribulations I had, they all became trite.
If you go on weeping like this, Ghalib, then the people will see,
All of these dwellings will become deserted overnight.

*Ursa major.


Ghazal (170)

In my dark labyrinth, night’s sadness rages like a wild fire,
The candle, the harbinger of the dawn, is burnt out entire.
The ears get no news of the beloved, the eyes do not see her,
They are no longer jealous of each other, now live without ire.
The wine has removed the veil from the comely beloved face,
To satisfy your longing, no permission you now require.
The sight of the pearl in the necklace of the beloved,
The star of the jeweller has reached its climax, it can’t go any higher.
The splendour of the wine, the saki’s* daring, the inebriated glance
In the kingdom of fancy  lies the wineshop’s mute empire.

Saki: the cupbearer and, figuratively, the loved one.


(A pair of connected verses: ‘Qittah’)

Oh, you have just entered the heart’s garden,
Be warned! If song and intoxication you desire:
Take a look at me! If you want to learn from distress,
For listening to my counsel, attentive ears you require.
The beauty of the saki is an enemy of insight, of faith,
The singer robs discretion and dignity, as she strums on her lyre.
In the night we, every nook and corner is bedecked,
Like the flower seller’s apparel, the gardener’s attire.
Pleasure at the saki’s dance, hearing the melody.
It is heavenly as if one were listening to an angelic choir
Come morning , all the festivities have now ceased,   
All the fervour is at an end, the silence is dire.
The scar of the parting after the feast of the night, is like a snuffed out candle,
Even though still there, it was fated to expire.
From the unknown spheres come these notions in my head
Gabriel’s voice, O Ghalib, the scratches of my pen inspire.

(Post 1857: translator).


Inshaullah Khan Insha

Having girded up our loins, we are ready for death’s onslaught.
Many have already departed, others are getting ready for aught.
Do not mock us, Oh spring breeze, go get lost.
You are coquetting with us, while we are distraught.
Their meditations, O Saki, take them beyond the firmament,
That is to say those inebriated ones are lost in thought,
Like the footprints of the wayfarer in the avenue of desire,
We can’t even get up, so desperate is our lot.
So very helpless are we these days that for hours together,
Anywhere we see the shadow of a wall we rush to that spot.
Patience: what is it? What is this thing called honour?
We sit beating our breasts, with so much pain we are fraught.
Do not dare me for a kiss, I may dare too much,
Watchfully that one is sitting, tipsy she is not.
Do not ask about the noblemen of this our age,
Anybody you ask, says: he is doing nought.
A fresh bout of shyness has come over you,
Even though many a time our company you have sought.
When, O Insha, do the heaven’s gyrations leave us in peace?
Blissful we are that together here we have been brought.


Altaf Hussain Hali

A Widow’s Plea

(Part 3 of a 7 part Poem)

Wondrous and divine is Thy power,
Prosperity and wisdom, under Thee, flows.
I am Thy handmaid, full of distress,
I stand before thee I stand, in a beggar’s dress.
Against me, my own and others have turned,
At parents and in-laws I am spurned.
 Many a torment I have borne,
I leave this world, quite forlorn.
Thou knowest about my heart’s pain,
How can I my misery to Thee explain.
Not even a breath I had taken after marriage,
I gained nothing, but instead was harried.
My happiness caused me to become sad,
My laughter caused all the troubles I had
There was no peace in my heart,
My joyous self was torn apart.
I cannot cry, so miserable am I,
And if I cry, how much can I cry.
With laughter, I cannot myself amuse,
For quenching thirst, dew drops are of no use.
In order to sleep if I lie down in bed,
There is no pillow, just a broken bedstead instead.
Only death will give me peace,
Not the lonely bed, the grave will bring ease.
For me there is no entertainment,
Call me up to Thyself, this moment.
All the time I meet with spite,
From this widowhood, there is no respite.      
Oh the breeze! when there is spring,
The rainy seasons, that showers bring,
Oh, the summer’s moonlit nights !
The rainy season, full of delights.
I beat my head as seasons pass by, 
Even with wings, I could not fly.
Master of the faithful, of the world we survey,
Kings and subjects are under Thy sway.
Lord of those who fly or those without a wing,
Of this world, Thou art the king.
Ants, worms, tortoises, mosquitoes,
Toads, frogs, conchshells, drongoes,
All the birds and their flock,
Turkey, cuckoo, crane, peacock,
Leopards, lions, goats and sheep.
Because of Thee in peace they sleep.
Seeds could grow out of dust.
The trees got their upward thrust.
Wealth was given to the oyster,
From Thee the wasp got its nectar,
To the mines were diamonds are bestowed,
The deer was given musk by Thee, O Lord,
The spark was given to the glowworm.
The glitter of gold to the atom.
Everyone was treated with mercy,
I remained deprived, Oh poor me.
In my heart I think for long,
How come, to this city I belong.
Father, brother, uncle, nephew
Because of Thy mercy I have these too.
There is no one anywhere,
Who for me, has any care. 


Allama Iqbal

Capital and Labour

Give this message to the working man,
Not Khizr’s,3 rather the nature’s message.
The cunning capitalist has made mincemeat of you,
Unrewarded, for centuries, you remained his hostage.
Hands that produce wealth get their remuneration thus,
As if the money bags give him alms, not a wage.
The magicians of Alamut4 gave you a leaf of hashish,
And in your simplicity, you thought it was just some ordinary foliage.
Race, nationality, church, empire, culture and colour,
With these intoxicants the overlords built their cage.
For the sake of false gods you sacrificed yourself,
Enjoying your inebriation you lost your courage.
The capitalist won, with his cunning moves,
The ignorant working man was led into bondage.

Rise up ! The world is going to change its ways,
Your era will be ushered in the East and the West in the coming days.

                Great daring even a river refuses to accept
                For not long the dewdrop on the petal lies!
                The song of the republic is a cause for rejoicing,
                How long can Alexander and Jamshed5 hypnotise?
                In the womb of the world a new sun is being born.
                For how long, for the setting stars, will be your cries!
                The nature of man has smashed all the chains,
                How long will Adam bewail his fall from paradise.
                The season of spring asks the gardener with the healing touch
                From the crushed flowers how can you an ointment devise?

From the circumambulation of the candle, O moth, set yourself free,
Flourish and prosper in your own nature’s splendid glory.


God’s Edict (to his angels)

Arise, awaken my poor, free them from their bondage,
Down to the base, the nobles’ palaces raze.
Let the blood of the poor course with the fervour of belief,
Let the falcon the capitalist sparrow ravage.
The times of the republic, have now come,
Stamp out the traces of the ancient ways.
The field that does not yield a daily wage to the peasant,
Set every ear of corn of that field ablaze.
No curtain should there be, between the Creator and his beings,
A priest in a church I regard as an outrage.
Prostration before gods, circumambulation of idols,
Snuff out the candles in the temple, the mosque, they are a sacrilege.
Displeased am I at the marble slabs put up in my honour,
Build an earthen sanctuary to pay me homage.
This new culture is a factory mill for making expensive glass toys,
Teach the Poet of the East about passion’s craze.

The Voice of Karl Marx

This swindle of wisdom and knowledge, this display of debates and altercations,
The world will not stand for this exhibition of old cogitations.
What do your books O master of finance teach ?
They are an exhibition of crooked calligraphic notations.
In the temples of the West, its churches, its academies,
The lust for carnage conceals the thought’s manipulations.      


The essence of a man manifests by itself,
Under the control of an extraneous force is the woman’s lot.
The secret of her burning sorrow lies in the cunningness of desire,
Her existence is in the flames of pleasure of creation wrought.
The mysteries of life are revealed in this fiery blaze,
The dilemmas of being and of non-being are kept there red hot.
I, too, am distressed by the atrocious lot of women,
But it’s not possible to cut this Gordian knot


Hasrat Mohani

The rules of the republic are now well in place,
The kingdoms have now been overthrown.
Why shouldn’t the capitalist quake with fear ?
The power of labour is now well known.
(February 1929)

The implementation of a Soviet Constitution here is a must,
It may take one or two years or ten or twenty.
(February 1936)

Of Hasrat’s Path

For the treatment of the maladies of this world,
One must sow the future’s seeds,
The path of saintliness, of revolution I tread.
A Sufi and a believer am I, Communism is my creed,
Yes, in short, a Soviet Constitution is what we need.
(Bombay, February, 1945)

I Take My Stand on Communism

The labour of the day reflects the variegated splendour of nature,
I believe in fraternal equality, I believe in the Soviet polity.
The place of the individual is secure, as that of the common folk,
I believe in the concept of unity in diversity.
The communist constitution is based on the laws of finance.
I believe that the foundations of wealth lie in the community
In agriculture as in the crafts, the well-being of a man,
I believe lies in the system that prevails in society.
From the taint of devotion everybody is free in this place,
I believe that knowledge and wisdom are the final authority.
Barbarous is the pursuit and hankering after religions.
In the pursuit of peace and amity lies the real humanity.
If without labour there is any gain,
I believe that such wealth is a yoke of indignity.
(Kanpur, June 1945).


Why ask the nightingale so woebegone and forlorn ?
When the gardener himself asks: where was then the garden ?
The tricksters who fashioned the bomb, if they carry on like this,
The future, O Hasrat, will ask, where, oh where, was this London ?
(After September 1945).


1. Ghazal: Averse form in which the first two and all the even lines, rhyme.

2. Zuleikha:  Though not mentioned in the Bible or the Koran she is said to be the wife of Joseph.

3. Khizr: A prophet. He drank from the fountain of life and became mortal and will live till the Day of Judgement. He wears green robes (khizr means to become green) and helps the faithful in distress and guides those who have gone astray.

4. The magician of Alamut: Hassan ibn Sabba (died 1124) was the founder of the Nizari sect of Ismaili Shiahs (later known as the Khojas in India). He built a fort on a mountain in Alamut in north-west Iran. He became known as Sheikh al Jebel: ‘the old man of the mountain’. His followers were plied with hashish and were called Hashshashin (hence the word ‘assassin’) and were sent to murder his enemies: the crusaders and others such as the Seljuk ruler of Iraq, Malik Shah, and his prime minister, Nizam al Mulk. Death to an assassin was regarded as honourable and opened the way directly to paradise with all its rewards.

5. Jamshed: A legendary king of Iran known for his pomp and grandeur. He possessed a wine goblet, so the story goes, in which everything that happened anywhere in the world could be seen.

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