Last week, a literary luminary from India came to Toledo for a private visit. I was honored to play host to him.
Satyapal Anand is an unusual person. A deeply spiritual man, he is a poet, short-story writer, linguist, literary critic, and humanitarian. He has taught English at universities in India, Saudi Arabia, Europe, and America.
But he is best known as a poet and short-story writer with equal fluency and facility in English, Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi. During a life that has spanned eight decades, he has written 50 books of poetry, short stories, and literary criticism. In 2001, his English work was included in The Best American Poems of the 20th Century.
I have been fascinated by him since my school days, when I used to read his short stories in Urdu literary magazines. That fascination grew over time, and I placed his name on a short list of people I wanted to meet.
Mr. Anand's literary repertoire is wide and his canvas wider still. He is widely known and read in India and Pakistan as well as among the Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi diaspora in Europe and North America.
But his literary accomplishments pale in comparison to the battles he has waged to free Urdu poetry from the chokehold of ghazal, a poetry form common to Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Hindi, and Bengali.
Ghazal had dominated Urdu poetry since the language began in the camps of Mughal armies invading the Indian subcontinent as early as the 11th century. Restricting poetic expression to ghazal is akin to confining English poetry to odes, sonnets, and sestinas.
Maurice Maeterlinck, the Belgian playwright and Nobel laureate in literature, said that at every crossroads on the path that leads to the future, tradition places 10,000 men to guard the past against us. Mr. Anand fought those 10,000 men.
Because he did, Urdu poetry has developed many forms of expression. He was not the first person to wage that literary fight, but he has been the most passionate.
Mr. Anand was born in a part of rural Punjab that is now in Pakistan. His early education in his village and at high school in a small town near Peshawar left a deep imprint on his personality. Those memories played a significant part in his adult life.
In 1947, India was divided into Muslim Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India. In an orgy of violence, Muslims killed Hindus and Sikhs fleeing for the safety of India, while Hindus and Sikhs put to the sword Muslims who were trying to cross the newly created border into Pakistan. Seven million people became refugees and 1 million people lost their lives.
That senseless brutality touched Dr. Anand's family. His father was brutally killed when the train taking them to India was attacked. The rest of the family finally made it to safety, but the impressionable 16-year-old had to confront demons the experience left behind to bring peace to his life.
"I had to forcefully yank out," he says philosophically, "the poisonous sapling of hatred from my heart."
Over the decades, he has nurtured old friendships from his youth and developed new friendships that cut across cultures, religions, and traditions. He has studied the sacred texts of all religions and developed an admirable inclusivity that is evident in his poetry.
Mr. Anand is one of those rare individuals able to merge literature and philosophy to help people understand each other in an increasingly polarized world.
Yet he didn't forget the dusty streets of his youth. In his poem "The Return," Mr. Anand discusses the memories awakened when he returns to the village of his birth. In the final verse, a laughing wind chides him for being away so long:
"Which was when the old woman wind
That had stopped in its tracks,
Burst out laughing;
'So, let's see who we've here," she said.
"Your cheeks, your eyes, your hair, your face
Nothing, but nothing has changed.
But where have you been all these years?
Promise you will keep coming back.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
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