The Muslim Body Is More Than Its History Or Politics: On Poet Maaz Bin Bilal

Maaz bin Bilal is a poet of location, of great feeling. Locations animate within the colour of his poetic gaze as it projects itself onto the material plane; feelings localize within the materiality that engenders them. His work exposes the length, breadth and torque of the experience of a man of his place. The total project flowers (as the Amaltas) with the use of a gaze that seems consciously focused outward. It looks away from the self, as to MbB the self seems manifest in all that the gaze finds worth noting. The poetic self is an extension of its material stanchions. The topography of the poetic being draws itself into visibility in the telling way of the poet’s aesthetics: their mood, tone, choice of subject.

We always see the male Muslim body as one in the margins, as a vanguard for/of his political circumstances, or a body trapped within the lashes of history’s manias. “Ghazalnama” (Yoda Press, 2019) betrays, contradicts, challenges and thwarts all such commonplace assumptions by showing us a vulnerable side that falls in love, that flails, that hurts and cries, and above all, that can be happy and needs no one and nothing on its side. Not even history. That is to say, it urges us to acknowledge a man, and not his body alone. Behold a complete picture: spirit, body, mind, poetry. “Ghazalnama”, is an intelligent intersection between the literary traditions of Urdu and English, all that are as Indian, and as delicate as the poet Maaz Bin Bilal.

I spoke to him about his motives, the traditions he uses, what he reads, and why he makes certain unconventional choices.

Medha Singh: Why “Ghazalnama”? Why did you choose the English Ghazal for so many of these poems? How much is Agha Shahid Ali with you in this? What role has he played?

 Maaz bin Bilal: I am tempted to simply respond, why not? Perhaps, a writer shouldn’t have to explain her choices, it is like the onerous task of providing criticism to your own work. 

However, I’m also a critic, and a teacher by profession, which perhaps allows me to move past this kind of disdain. The collection is a record in verse of my personal journey, but also a homage to a form, a culture, a sensibility. 

 There is the line, the maqta, but consciously tongue in cheek, “will you better Shahid, Maaz?” in the opening ghazal, that should hint at Agha Shahid Ali’s silhouette as it’s present across this collection.

MS: It’s uncommon to find both translations and one’s own poems in the same book, not in the Indian poetry in English space anyway. What do you have to say about that?

 MbB: Well, Agha Shahid Ali certainly has a full volume, Rebel’s Silhouette, of translations of Faiz’s poetry, and also has the occasional translations of Ghalib and others in his books of poetry. A K Ramanujan is of course the other major Indian poet and translator. The contemporary poet Vivek Narayanan is also heavily into translation.*

I see my translation practice, especially of translating poetry, at one with writing my own poetry. Yes, the idea, the image, the rhythm exist a priori for translation, nonetheless, they require to be recreated in the target language, English here, anew. I try to do this with the utmost fidelity to the original, but the versification cannot but have my own cadences within it, and this exercise is as challenging, and sometimes more so, than writing original poetry. In both cases, I become a conduit to certain inspiration, that then must be honed at my editorial desk for hours. Writing original poetry too has always been about translating experience and thought into words, all of which are often multilingual in a general Indian context, but most definitely my own. This is why the conscious choice to work with the ghazal as a form which originates n Arabic but has travelled to India via Persian into Hindavi, Hindi, Urdu, Kashmiri and other languages. Elsewhere, a poem such as “The Law” is a response poem to Habib Jalib’s Urdu poem “Dastoor” literally meaning “Law”, where I extend his questions of law to the contemporary context, and retain his metrics as much as possible in English.

Annie Zaidi’s “Prelude to a Riot”. Source: Resh/Twitter.

MS: Who are you reading these days?

MbB: I am reading Annie Zaidi’s “Prelude to a Riot”. I have just begun reading it, but, so far, it is an incredibly astute in its observations on contemporary India through the eyes of its various (often female) protagonists/narrators. The emerging callousness of a large number of people is captured with great nuance. There is a constant dark humour, managed with a very deft touch that I am greatly enjoying, while also fearing the reality that lies underneath.

MS: There is a symbolist poem dressed as a mosque that appeared in EPW first. Tell us more about such experimentation. Why didn’t that poem work without the symbolism?

MbB: You mean my image or concrete poem “The Mosque”. As a footnote there suggested, it was written after the partial deconstruction of the historical Keriya mosque by the Chinese state. The situation, thus, was greatly linked to architecture and the structure of the mosque, and it made sense to try construct and establish the materiality and the very notion of the mosque in words, in discourse, and even visually on the page itself. The politics, the intent, in this case, governed the expression and the form I employed worked best with it.

MS: Is there a passage you’d like to quote?

 MbB: Perhaps the following stanza from “Snow” by Louis MacNeice, that feels especially pertinent today. We require such poetry more than ever before:

“World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.

I wish the world would be intoxicated by its delectable variety too, or be entranced and slow down by the timelessness of MacNeice’s romantic poem, “Meeting Point.”

MS: Who were you reading up when you were still writing “Ghazalnama”?

 MbB: “Ghazalnama” was collected from poems I wrote over almost eleven years. Tough to summarize who all I was reading during its life, or the completion that it achieved. Many are acknowledged in the collection for poems they directly influenced. There were Urdu influences, of course, not only those who are translated in the Urdu section, but many others too, and they all continued to influence the music and sentiment elsewhere. So, from Urdu: Mirza Ghalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Habib Jalib, Mir Taqi Mir and Momin Khan Momin (who I have not translated here at all), Brij Narain Chakbast, and others. 

In English, and from translation into English, I read widely, and I give names here in no particular order: Seamus Heaney and Louis MacNeice, Elizabeth Bishop, Patricia Lockwood, Carol Ann Duffy, Billy Collins, Agha Shahid Ali, Arun Kolatkar, Pablo Neruda, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Sridala Swami, Uttaran Das Gupta, Wislawa Szymborska, Vahni Capildeo, Rohan Chhetri and others.

MS: “Ghazalnama” is a political book, not just by way of bringing a language’s influence in English, one that belongs to a culture under threat, but also in what it’s saying at times  (Thirty killed or martyred in only three days/What vengeance is this that we seek about Kashmir?/ Pandits were driven out, and Muslims are curfewed in/of raw flesh and fury — a reek about Kashmir.”) Do you agree with that? Why and why not?

 MbB: Life is political, as are all our choices. Those who deny this are complicit with or condone the status quo. My poetry is my reflection upon the world I see around, an Anthropocene where nature is shaped by man, and human existence by the politics of men. The Urdu poet, Sahir, whom I have translated elsewhere had said,

“duniyā ne tajrabāt o havādis kī shakl meñ 

jo kuchh mujhe diyā hai vo lauTā rahā huuñ maiñ

I would translate this for immediate purposes as:

In the shape of experiences and incidents—

Whatever the world has given me, I return it (today).


MS: The book opens with Ballimaran, a place where you grew up. Do you sometimes feel that you’re very much a poet of location? (Delhi and Belfast are part of the full title), why and why not?

MbB: Yes and no. My poems do arise from what I see around me and experience, but in a digital world, one also sees what goes around thousands of miles away, and sometimes feels for it. Thus, the poem “Muslimah” is set around the world, and there are poems on Palestine, Kashmir, Rohith Vemula (the Indian Dalit student who committed suicide under pressure when he was denied his stipend), the Taliban, and others, places and people I have never or rarely met or encountered. I also try to articulate language(s) as a place we all inhabit.

Photograph courtesy of Mohini Gupta.

MS: What do you think of MFA courses in creative writing? Do you think they are more useful for fiction? As a professor, how would you design such a course? Surely something would be different from what happens in the United States these days, what would you imagine is ideal?

MbB: I don’t have personal experience of the MFA program. And in my career so far I have neither studied nor taught a full creative writing course, although I teach literary criticism. 

I do not think talent can be created, but one can learn to read well—with breadth and depth, acquire basic skills, a sense of rhythm, and hone the craft. 

If I were to design a course in creative writing, which at my teaching institution now does appear to be the writing on the wall, I would most definitely make a conscious attempt to expose students to multiple dialects of English and the multiple forms they use to express. I am not sure if this happens enough in the MFA context. Translation will also be key and hopefully in both directions that bilingual practitioners may work.


MS: There are so many poets across India writing between languages, you say you’ve absorbed the music of Urdu as it was read and recited around the household, ‘valourised’, you say in an interview. Do you see yourself composing Urdu couplets in the future?

MbB: I very much hope to write in Urdu, yes. Translation practice is also a training for the self for this purpose. But I do not see it happening in the near future.


MS: How do you feel about Sanskritized Urdu/Urduized Hindi for the genre of poetry? 

MbB: I must say the dyad you create here seems a bit odd to me. If you speak of Sanskritized Urdu shouldn’t the counterpart be Persianised Hindi rather than Urduized Hindi? Moreover, I do not think modern (Sanskritized) Hindi and modern (Persianized) Urdu are two languages. They are merely different dialects of the language Mira Taqi Mir in 18th century and even Ghalib in 19th century called Hindi, in which they thought and claimed they wrote. Just as Awadhi, Braj, Khari Boli etcetera are dialects of this same language. With regard to poetry, what is called Urdu has a meter and a sonics from a longer history that modern Hindi poetry (born at the hands of Bhartendu and others in late 19th century), with its emphasis on realism and prose poetry, lacks. Nonetheless, even these divisions are not watertight and most good poets transcend them at will. 


MS: Recommend a book or two for us. Thanks for talking to me.

MbB: I’d recommend Asiya Zahoor’s “Serpents Under My Veil” (Tethys, 2019) that I just finished reading, for the urgency and precision and empathy it brings to poetry from and about Kashmir. 

 And, thank you, for speaking to me, and your interesting and probing questions. 

Photograph courtesy of Sarang Sena.

Maaz Bin Bilal is a poet, critic and translator. He is also an academic. He teaches literary studies at the liberal arts school of Jindal Global University and has authored “Ghazalnama: Poems from Delhi, Belfast and Urdu”, and translated and introduced “Sixth River: A Journal from the Partition of India”, both published last year. In 2018 he got the Charles Wallace India Trust fellowship for Writing and Translation in wales. Maaz holds a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast, which he is now reworking into a monograph, “Heterodoxies of Friendship in E.M. Forster: Queer and Beyond”. He enjoys films and football.

*Neither Ramanujam, nor Narayanan use their translations as part of their own books of poetry.
*This interview was conducted before the CAA, CAB and Anti-NRC protests flared up in India.
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