By Ather Farouqui*
29 September 2021 marked the fourth death anniversary of Tom Alter—Thomas Beach Alter—fondly called Tom Saheb by me. Since he had many friends during his lifetime who loved him immensely, this important date does not go unnoticed.
This note relates to the recording of his poetry reading in July 2017, his last recording, which I was reluctant to release for four years. Those who did not know him closely would not have been aware of his immense love for poetry.
I had worked with Tom Saheb for almost eight years. We did two plays together: one of these revolved around the events of 1857 and Bahadur Shah Zafar, Sons of Babur, written by Mr Salman Khurshid: the play based on its Urdu version translated by me, Babur ki Aulad, has bagged over 50 performances across the world—from many Indian cities to London, Riyadh, Jeddah, and even Lithuania with a Lithuanian translation.
It was evident that over the years, Tom Saheb has developed a soft corner, much more than liking, for me, because of which he had made extraordinary efforts to perform my play, Marx My Word, based on the contradictions of the lives of opportunist communists with double standards.
Salman Khurshid sahib prepared the original note during his days at Oxford (Circa 1980). Almost half a dozen performances of this play had taken place at the NCPA’s largest theatre, Jamshed Bhabha Theatre in Bombay, and the Shri Ram Centre in New Delhi. With Tom Saheb’s death, neither Sons of Babur nor Marx My Word could survive.
Despite having no formal education in literature, let alone poetry, I enjoy poetry. Tom Saheb was neck-deep into it, and we often spent time discussing Dom Moraes’ poetry and his bohemian way of life; Tom Saheb was close to him during his lifetime. His wife, Leela Naidu’s biography by Jerry Pinto, Leela Naidu: A Patchwork Life (in later editions, the title was changed deleting A Patchwork Life), remains one of my favourite books after publication.
Once I asked him to look at my poems, a request certainly made in weak or repulsive moments. I am almost an illiterate, judging by the standards of those who know or claim to know poetry. It is a different matter that I have tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to study metre or versification.
I find, though with sincerest apologies, that most Indian teachers of English literature, especially even those working in the best universities, survive on jargon and have never given a thought to the issue of rhythm, the core of poetry, let alone the prosody. I can sum up my observation of rhythm in English poetry based on my rudimentary understanding of the same in Urdu. In theory, there is no way to define a metrical line if one does not know the prosody: it can only be felt with musical ears.
There is no logical, verifiable way to prove that a particular sound pattern in a verse is metrical. Judging from Urdu prosody’s standpoint, none of the lines quoted ahead from Tennyson’s poetry is metrical. Still, even an Urdu speaker with a sensitive ‘ear’ will know that the stanza is in metre and pleasant and melodic. Unless they have some knowledge of the English metric, the native speaker will not even realise that there is ‘something wrong with the following:
Break, break, break,
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
I did share a few and, out of curiosity, asked whether he had had a look at them after a long time. He had not but said that if he liked them, he would recite them along with some poems of Dom and Ranjit Hoskote during his next visit to Delhi. He stuck to his word. Unfortunately, it was his last visit to Delhi. It was the last week of July 2017.
He had booked a studio and chosen a poem by Dom of my choice, as usual, a complicated one like all his poetry and one part of Ranjit’s The Last Annals of Alamgir. I was sure that reciting my poems along with Dom’s and Ranjit’s, that too by Tom Saheb, would be my funeral! Three legends! In that situation, I could have only wished for a dignified honourable funeral! And, I hope I got that.
Since this is the last recording of Tom Saheb, and that too reciting poetry, I feel it should reach all those interested in it, including his biographers. Without adding more, let me conclude that I am releasing it after four years because poems of two legendary poets are also recited. I have no right to prevent this rare recording from reaching his admirers.
I am just an intruder, my adventure was simply childish, and I have no shame to admit and apologise for this.
*General Secretary, Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind), Urdu Ghar, New Delhi 110002