Tahira Naqvi’s translation of Ismat Chughtai’s One Drop of Blood compels, cajoles and convinces the reader of the importance of catharsis in a perplexing world, where media, digitisation and Artificial Intelligence have taken over human relations and simple pleasures. The Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, with an “army” of 72 people which included women, children and old men, all dearly beloved family members, arrives in Karbala, where thousands of soldiers of Amir-e-Mu’awiya’s son Yezid’s army are baying for his blood. The Imam, who is denied water for three days in the burning sands of that inhospitable land, sends one after another of his band of faithfuls to battle the marauders and be slaughtered in the burning sands of Karbala. Why? To save Islam from falling into the hands of the bloody and debauched rulers, the Amir and his heir Yezid. Over 1,400 years later, Muslims from all over the world commemorate this event in the month of Muharram, which is also the first month of the Islamic calendar. It is a time of remembrance and mourning, in which all sorrows are sublimated in the greatest sorrow humankind has seen.
I ask myself, why would Ismat apa write the story of Karbala? This is not her style. Her oeuvre is different — Lihaaf (1942), Gainda (1938), Chotein (1942), Terhi Lakeer (1940) — explore themes which have no semblance to the martyrdom of Imam Husain. Did she turn to religion as a last resort? Ek Qatra-e-Khoon (1975) is her last novel. Most people think of their creator as they prepare for their end. But then, having chosen a subject which is heart’s blood for Muslims, especially Shias, why did she turn away from Islam in the end? Why did she ask to be cremated rather than buried in the Islamic custom? These questions are raised by one of the best translators today, Tahira Naqvi, in her translation of the novel.
I ask these very questions about the translator as well. Why did Naqvi, who had translated several Chughtai classics with skill and sensitivity, choose to translate this work? A book which strikes a discordant note in the life and work of the irrepressible Chughtai? Quoting the writer Mazhar Imam, Naqvi writes in her foreword, “The world of Ismat is the world of poverty, illiteracy and filth. The children that are nurtured in joint families like worms and insects, the stench and reek of toilets, maidservants covered in dirt and sweat, the stifled young girl peering through the curtains, is the one who gives birth to illegitimate children behind that curtain.” How does Ek Qatra-e-Khoon fit in this mahaul?
Shall I venture to say that Chughtai and Naqvi’s journeys run parallel? There is as much mystery about her writing this book as about Naqvi choosing to translate it. She writes about her initial hesitation when she took up the work, and later, her intense work on each sentence, not only because she wanted to be faithful to the text, but because of her own belief and practice, which was her driving force. As one who professes the same faith, I can fully identify with her.
My own Urdu literary journey began in 1987 when my dear friend and publisher of this book, Ritu Menon, asked me to translate Chughtai’s Lihaaf for Kali for Women. As a child, I had a feeling that Chughtai’s books were kept out of our reach. I could never have imagined her presence at the majlises in our house. It took the genius of Naqvi to bring this aspect of her to a non-Urdu-reading audience.
One has to understand the importance of Karbala for Shias across the world to realise the anomaly in this work. Chughtai herself was not from a Shia family. She was Sunni, though surrounded by Shia neighbours. She attended majlises, like most children, for the excitement of the Imambara gatherings and the delectable tabarruk (sweet or savoury) which is offered in the Imam’s name to all mourners. Children are the first in line. When Chughtai recalls how, as a six-year-old, she wept listening to Mir Anis’s account of the martyrdom of the six-month-old child Hazrat Ali Asghar, the Shia-Sunni divide melts away. Perhaps, that was the defining moment of her life, which was manifested many years later in Ek Qatra-e-Khoon.
Naqvi’s poignant preface ends with the lesson in universal resistance offered in this book. “Ismat’s narrative of the suffering of Husain’s family, the true anguish and sorrow of their lives during the battle of Karbala and later in the prison of Damascus, creates images which are raw and unforgettable. And, on his return to Medina, Hazrat Zainul Abidin’s last words become an anthem for the oppressed everywhere. ‘When the blood of innocent people is shed, the blood of Husain will become more vivid. People will chant Husain’s name when they take a stand against tyranny.’” This is a book for today. When we stand up for the thousands of Navlakhas, Bhardwajs, Varavaras, and yes, the George Floyds across the globe, it is the story of Karbala as told by Chughtai and brought before the world through this excellent translation that gives us courage to keep resisting.
Syeda Hameed is a former member, Planning Commission
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