The One Who Was Named Before His Birth

I’ve lived in many places but mostly I’ve lived in dreams. Dreams that know no borders, boundaries or place. Dreams which flow like dandelions when you blow on them, eyelashes when you wish upon them and air rippling through a wheat field in the scorching summer heat. But my nightmares know only one place — my Nani’s home. It’s where my parents die, my friend commits suicide, and head lice cover every inch of every room, physicalizing the feeling of death. The only nightmare that will never take place there is the death of my eight month old brother, Muzammil — the one who was named before his birth.

I still remember my reaction when I looked at his tiny body: utter shock. I expected a disfigured thing — eleven year old me was imagining Voldemort in his baby form — instead what I saw was maroon ruby lips, eyes which looked like they would open any moment, ears which were taking in every loud howl my Dadi made and a mouth which was open in a way that even as you got close to him, it made you think he was breathing. That is what we told Ammi. Lies of seeing, hearing breathing, stacked like the pile of files Baba would say he was working on while dust collected on top of them. We lied to Ammi till my Nana broke down in front of her while she was in the hospital and she knew right away that there was no baby. That she hadn’t broken what Dada called the “one son in one generation” curse that Baba’s family had been plagued with for generations, where there was only one son in a horde of daughters in every generation and since, sons were more valued than daughters, the daughter-in-law was to try her best to break the so called curse.

When Ammi came home, the usual strict demeanour of a principal which she was both at work and home had changed to something foreign. It was like you were expecting her to speak in her eloquent Urdu and instead she spoke in broken English. We were kept away from her room like she had caught the plague instead of losing her child. Nobody talked in my home anymore: you were only allowed to communicate in whispers which were to be translated into coherent words through sheer instinct. Everyone lived like ghosts floating from one room to another and if you dared to take his name even in your dreams, the guilt followed you around like an over-energetic puppy for weeks. No one understood what my aunt scream-whispered one day: But what do you do with a named stillborn?

Years later, Ammi wrote a poem of heartbreak, but when I spoke of translation as a collaboration and she said why don’t we collaborate on both the writing and translating, it changed itself to a poem about Muzammil. Though, the transition from translator to co-author and the subsequent collaboration was not as simple as the last sentence makes you think. We had forgotten that in this context, we were poets with distinct, individual voices first and then a mother-daughter duo. Thus, bickering ensued over line breaks, word choices, originality, rhythm, pronouns, the use of Urdu idioms which made the translation harder and everything in between. This is not how I wrote it, Ammi would say and I would retort, well, this is how we are writing though. The question of originality came up frequently as it always does when one translates, however, in this case, the two-authors, one translator paradigm erased the boundaries of sticking to the original work that I usually found myself confined in my earlier translations and I often made minor changes to the “original” work to have a better translation. At first, this made me uncomfortable even though I realized I held substantial power in this dynamic but the approval of the “original” writer, my Ammi, made me see things through.

The poem’s title is in Arabic instead of Urdu which is a conscious decision, tracing its origins back to the story of naming my brother — I named him after my favourite Surah in the Holy Quran which I was memorizing at the time, called Al-Muzammil. Conversations about this poem and the writing process opened up wounds that Ammi never talked about; all of this became a means towards talking about something that at one point, even the walls back home refused to echo. Breaching this topic with Ammi was just as scary as walking in the room where Muzammil’s body laid and my Dadi made the whole house cry with her feral howls which didn’t sound human for my untrained ears. Death was foreign to me then just as English is for Ammi now but with my assurances she believes that words which she couldn’t even write for a decade, can be translated.


آصفہ زین انراور حفصہ ذولفقار

کیوں ہم خفا ہیں؟

کیوں ہم جدا ہیں؟

کس بات کی ہے سزا؟

کیوں ہجر کی راہ سے مل رہی نہیں رہائی؟

کیوں ہم وہ چاہ رہے ہیں

جو ہم کھو چکے ہیں؟

کیوں خود کو جھونک ڈالا،

خود کی ہستی کو روند ڈالا

تلاش میں اس پھول کی

جو کھل چکا ہے موت کے باغیچے میں؟

کیوں چرچا کرتے ہیں لوگ،

کے مارا ہے میں نے اپنے خون کو،

بنا دی ہے سیاہ زمین اس کا پالنا؟

کیوں وہ جانتے نہیں ہیں، مانتے نہیں ہیں،

کے اتنا تو کوئی چاہ نہیں سکتا کسی کو

جتنا سوچا ہے ہم نے اسکو؟

کھو دیا ہے اسکو یادوں کے دھوئیں میں،

دل کو نہیں پتہ ہے کہاں جاکے روۓ وہ،

اس رنج کے ہاتھ ہیں نہ پاؤں،

.ہم نے زبان سے بھی ہاتھ دھودئے ہیں


Asifa Zain Unar & Hafsa Zulfiqar

Why are we angry?

Why are we separate?

What is this punishment for?

Why is there no release from this road of parting?

Why do I want

what I’ve lost?

Why did I put myself in the kiln,

razed my existence,

in search of the flower

which has blossomed in the garden of death?

Why do people whisper-talk

that I have murdered my own blood,

have made black soil his cradle?

Why do they not know, not believe

that no one can love someone as much

as I have thought of him?

Lost him in the smoke of memories

the heart does not know where to go and weep,

this anguish has no feet or hands,

I have been stripped of my tongue too.

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