Urdu is quizzical. First, as a language that is both spoken and written, it communicates thoughts, references, situations, objects, and describes subjective emotions. Urdu has a tangible presence—as alfaaz (words) one can hear and speak Urdu. Second, the appeal of Urdu lies in its metaphysical aspect: it is lughat (lexicon) that probes into the conditions of modernity, a script that embodies the fractures superimposed by the postcolonial nation-states, a site that fiercely contests being Indian-Muslim. Urdu, in this sense, denotes a space that one inhabits, an intangible way-of-being in the world, more a social rather than a linguistic framework. Third, Urdu has aawaaz (sounds), rhyme and rhythm corresponding to definite states of feelings. Urdu is a sensibility of hearing aawaaz when reading. In this way, Urdu is poetic, a distinct zubaan (tongue) that elicits a physical twirling of the tongue, lips, vocal cords, and constitutes a specific form of literariness. And finally, Urdu is a remnant, the last residual vestiges of a past, as well as, a living presence inextricable from Bollywood and modern music.
Urdu is simultaneously each of these. So when Raza Mir translates and puts together a collection of poems of fifty Urdu poets, starting from Amir Khusrau of 13th century to the contemporary Zeeshan Sahil, the first response is one of awe. The collection of Urdu poetry, rightfully named The Taste of Words, makes one dip into the early years of Hindvi/Urdu poetry; listen to Dagh Dehlavi; sing along Sahir, Sahkeel, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra, Gulzar, Neeraj; fervently hope in the revolutionary commentaries of Josh Malihabadi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri, and laugh with Sulaiman Khateeb and Sarwar Danda. This in itself is a commendable task. Mir makes it a further captivating read by providing an elaborate introduction that discusses the emergence of Urdu and the different schools of writing such as the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Halqa-e-Arbaab-Zauq, the ‘Delhi School’ of Urdu poetry, the marsiya tradition of Lucknow, and the Dakkani tradition of the Deccan. In ‘A Note on Poetic Form’, Mir explains the five literary structures and poetic forms predominantly deployed by Urdu poets—the ghazal, the qataa, the rubaai, the musaddas, and the nazm. For a reader unacquainted with Urdu poetics, these two initial chapters of the book will be invaluable. Also, Mir’s short descriptions that precede every poet’s work will enable readers to glimpse the historical and social context of each poet. Because Mir hopes with this book to provide his wife Farah, a non-Urdu speaker, an entry point to the immense repertoire of Urdu poetry and language, the book becomes a timely, accessible guide into the increasingly obscure and often intimidating linguistic peculiarities of Urdu.