All translations cut both ways. While, on the one hand, they rarely capture the nuances or flavour inherent in the original or even measure up to the fervour enshrined in it, they do serve in reaching out to a wider audience. This, latter aspect is especially and significantly heightened when the original in question is starkly socio-political in its content and has, as one of its primary aims, the creation of a widespread awareness of an unjust socio-economic and political system and its destruction. The volume under review serves this task only partially. An anthology of poems that deals with the conflicts manifest in the social, political, economic and religious life of Iran during the last three decades or so does, at the outset, call for a brief introduction which would delineate the contemporary history of the country or explain the reasons accounting for the emergence of this poetry of revolt. An introduction of this kind would not only have added weight to the poems by providing a backdrop to them but would also have given the general reader a clearer picture of the issues involved.
The book contains the English as well as the Hindi and Urdu translations of the Persian originals, many of which have been published for the first time here. It, therefore, makes itself available to wider section of readers. The fact that both Hindi and Urdu can claim close literary linkages with the Persian’ language makes the task of translating them relatively simpler and the end-product· emerges as more palatable and true. The English version (barring three poems) translated by Keshav Malik, creditable though it may be, is an attempt at mirroring a reflection and as such—not surprisingly—suffers from certain lacunae. Based on the Hindi translations of the Persian originals the English version ~ropes in its attempt at capturing both the rhythm and the imagery.
However, the poems included in this anthology do succeed in bringing out the essence, the fervour and the ethos of the Iranian struggle. While for most of us the struggle is closely identified with the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, the book by dipping into the clandestine literary output during the three decades or so preceding the revolution, gives to the perceptive reader a glimpse into one of the many strands contributing to the building up of a movement of socio-political discontent. Most of the poets chosen by the author for translation have a strong leaning towards the Communist ideology and belong to one or other of the many leftist groups in Iran. As such, their poetry becomes also a component feature of the party work and is used as an instrument for expressing reality, mobilizing support and, in short, for carrying forward the struggle against social injustice and political tyranny. Their poetry provide an insight both into the conflicts manifest in Iranian society as well as into the personal commitment of the poet to his beliefs and his strength in upholding them despite threats to his life or governmental efforts to coopt him into the system.
The three poets in the selection after Nima Yoshej, for instance, have died as martyrs for the cause they upheld. Golesorkhi, an active Communist, and Mushiri, an ex-army man of the Shah’s militia, were hanged while Oskoii, a twenty-eight year old school-teacher belonging to the Fedayine-Khalq (a guerilla organization) was shot dead by the SAVAK for daring to protest against the Shah’s regime. None of the poets in this selection is, by any standard, an arm-chair revolutionary nor are they merely, or only, poets. Hence their poems cannot be evaluated from a technical point of view alone. Here the significance of the content out weighs the literary form.
The poems speak of the pain, the agony and the hope of a people. They speak of the mauling of human dignity, of persisting inequality, of rampant corruption and of justice denied, of a system that had become as Hushang-e-Ebtehaj in ‘The Hanging’ tells us:
… an unscrutable universe
where white lie and blue venom are king,
the preserve of a blood thirsty breed.
… wherein human right or the right to be human
make no sense—freedom being the freedom
to spill blood or pick pocket
But Freedom is in chains.
They speak also of the tortures inflicted in the dark dungeons of Kasar, Evin, Hesar and Ghezelghalash; of the branding and mutilation of prisoners, of the dead and the undying in spirit who proudly bear their suffering with courage, Khosrow Golesorkhi in ‘The Untitled Poem’ epitomizes one such comrade.
A fatal wound, the foe,
has carved deep on your chest.
standing erect, you didn’t fall:
In you are ·melodies of sweat and blood,
in you migrating birds. in you songs of victory,
you eyes have never been so bright.
Because of your blood,
Toopkhaneh will come alive
with a people’s waking rage.
It is this undying faith and conviction that the masses will rise up in anger against oppression that sustains them through their darkest hours. Marzieh Oskoii in ‘The Prisoner’ writes of this
I, winged being locked
in this dark dungeon,
wings clipped, willing flight,
watch the falling rain drops,
the night’s dark will melt.
I hear a noise
rising from afar,
and my mind at once
gulps the furore of liberty.
When the masses did rise up and revolt in 1978 they paid one of the finest tributes to these brave poets by raising as slogans some of the couplets penned by them. Mohsen-e-Mihan Doost—represented here with four poems titled ‘Pinnacle’, ‘Up to the Golgotha’, ‘Witness Hour’ and ‘Unglimpsed Spring’—was a particularly popular choice.
In 1979 this struggle culminated in the overthrow and dismantling of the Pahlavi dynasty. The ensuing euphoria and joy is evident in ‘Red Clouds’ by Susan Mihan Doost then a ten-year old sixth standard student of Mashhad.
Today the clouds are dyed a red,
the sun glows brighter overhead—
today the birds fly unafraid.
Do they? To some of the poets included in this collection, as with the general mass of the people in Iran, perhaps they do—to Siyavoosh-e-Kasraii (represented here through his poem ‘Another Vietnam’) who belongs to the Tudeh party which acknowledges Ayatollah Khomeini as the rightful leader of the country, to Mohammad Ali Ahmadian who looked up to the leadership of the Daste Khuda (God’s Hand or Help i.e. Ayatollah Khomeinil or to Javed-eMohaddesi, now residing in Qom, who wrote
Yet, if only we retread
the path the haloed Koran laid,
take the very toddler steps we took,
we may yet regain the perished
the pearl of faith.
Pockets of dissent, however, exist within the country itself. There are groups which question the manner of the consolidation of the revolution: the post-revolution attitude towards women, minorities and national and sub-national groups or the dominating role of the clerical order in the national politics. One such section belongs to the moderate group (National Front) which would wish to modernize the country by placing faith in modern institutional structures and values without denying, at the same time, the important role religion and religious leaders have played in national politics. The other section, which consists of extreme left groups like the minority group of the Fedayin-e-Khalq, sees the post-revolution scenario as a betrayal of revolutionary hopes. While the former is more a dissatisfied group than a dissenting one and is always at pains to clarify that a criticism of clerical control or administration is neither an indictment nor a sentence on it, the latter is vociferously critical. Saed Soltanpur, who as an exile in London had established a committee called ‘From Jail to Exile’ to highlight the tyranny of the monarchical regime in Iran, could not have been very happy with the turn the revolution took for his post-revolution play ‘Abbas Agha’ was a satire on the Revolution. While none of the poets in this collection is tortured or hounded for his ideological differences with the regime they do keep a low profile and live quiet lives at present.
Some of the poets here appear to be rather prophetic. Take, for instance, Marzieh Oskoii who was shot dead in 1973. In ‘I &m a Woman’ she not only fights to establish ‘woman’ as an important member of society but also foretells of the significant role she would play in the revolution to come.
(I’m a woman)
A woman, for whom, in your shameless
there is no word
corresponding to her significance.
Your vocabulary speaks only of
whose hands are white,
whose body is supple,
whose skin soft,
the hair perfumed.
I am a woman,
a woman whose skin is the mirror of
and whose hair smells of factory
A woman in whose chest
is a heart
full of festering
wounds of wrath,
in whose eyes
reflection of the arrows
of liberty is flying.
It is she whose hands have
through all her sorrows, to also man
Or Ne’mat-e-Mirza Zade who predicted in ‘Image of Liberty’ that American imperialism would be humbled and
I shall one day
streak high above you
the ‘you’ referring to the Statue of Liberty by which America falsely swears while it uses its torch to set Bolivia and Vietnam on fire and its sword to exterminate Che Guevara’s and Lumumba’s. It beautifully establishes an immediate rapport with all freedom-loving people.
In all sixteen poets are represented with thirty-seven of their poems including four written by Nasira Sharma herself during her visits to Iran in the period of the upheaval. While the task she set herself in translating the original Persian poems to Urdu and Hindi is commendable, one discrepancy inherent in the title of the book needs to be noted. Since most of the poems were written during the years spanning the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (that is from 1941 to 1979) they cannot be termed as ‘echoes’ of the revolution. They are more in the nature of being harbingers to it.
Saroj Nagi is Research Scholar, Centre for West Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.