No one could claim that poetry is dead in India; the closest we can come is the lament of the (English language) publisher who says that poetry doesn’t sell. We still think in rhyme and stanza, from the advertising jingles on TV to the slogans painted by the Border Roads Organisation on twisting mountain paths to the ancient mantra on trucks: “Bure nazar waala, tera muh kala.” This is what Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, poet, critic, a living, walking library, calls “a listenership”.
The “listenership” for Kabir and Lal Ded has stayed constant over the centuries; the words of these mystics of the 15th and 13th centuries have been internalised to the point where their dohas and vakhs form part of our subconscious grammar. To have fresh and definitive translations of two of the great mystics, by two of India’s most linguistically acute poets, is a major literary event. Ranjit Hoskote’s translation, I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (Penguin Classics) came out within a month of the release of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Songs of Kabir (NYRB/ Hachette India).
Both mystics left behind patchwork biographies; in their times, as in ours, chronicling the lives of saints and of poets came a distant second to chronicling the lives of rulers and warriors. But Mr Mehrotra and Mr Hoskote have a similar understanding of what is important, and what is unessential: “An authentic Kabir poem, in the thousands attributed to him, may never be found, nor does it matter,” Mr Mehrotra writes in his introduction. “If you catch the spirit, anyone can write an authentic Kabir poem. Innumerable anonymous poets have done so in the past and continue to do so even today, adding their voices to his.”
And Mr Hoskote, acknowledging the many gaps in the popular rendering of the life of Lalla, explains: “Lalla, to me, is not the person who composed these vakhs; rather, she is the person who emerges from these vakhs.”
These books stand testimony to the argument that only poets should translate poets. Mr Mehrotra, translating Kabir’s Chewing Slowly, begins with an epigraph from the late poet Arun Kolatkar. Chewing Slowly describes how the seeker finally finds the beloved, only after cutting the cord with family, in-laws and the town’s inhabitants. The epigraph Mr Mehrotra chooses is from Kolatkar’s translation of the 14th century Marathi poet Janabai: “god my darling/ do me a favour and kill my mother-in-law.” There they are, speaking to each other across the ages; two translators who are also poets, placing in conversation with each other two poets who are also mystics. Mr Mehrotra’s translations are superb, true to the ear, true to the line; soaring with Kabir’s own images and Mr Mehrotra’s occasional contemporarisations. “Kabir knows everything,” he writes, “including a Jamaican sect and the name of a London publishing house.”
If you pressed either poet, Mr Mehrotra or Mr Hoskote, they might not be able to tell you with exactitude when one starts a translation. Mr Mehrotra’s translations of Kabir may have begun, technically, just a few years ago; but as he references Cavafy and Kolatkar and Rasta poets, what comes through in these precise, richly shaped lines is a lifetime’s understanding of poetry. Mr Hoskote writes, “I began this translation of Lal Ded’s poems in February 1991, a month short of twenty-two; I am nearly forty-two as I come to the end of the process.”
Living with Lalla’s words for years and decades shaped him; he had begun to translate her vakhs because she provided a connection to his own Kashmiri past, a lost heritage. But as he continued, he moved slowly to an engagement with faith, his life as a poet following the arc of the poet he was trying to translate and understand: the very different experience of “a religious seeker, a social rebel, a woman”. “The translator is always humbled, broken and remade in the act of translation.”
There is no room to write about the meaning of their lives and work, the four poets who are inexorably twinned twice over in these two books. And perhaps this column is not the right place in which to explore the kind of faith – so sharply opposed to the unassailable, mean-spirited dogma that passes often as faith these days – that Kabir and Lalla had to offer. That exploration should be done by one better versed in religious studies and in poetry than this columnist.
But these two mystics shared a similar path, a similar way of thinking. This verse, written by Lalla, could have been spoken by Kabir: “First the washerman pounded me on his washing stone,/ scrubbed me with clay and soap./ Then the tailor measured me, piece by piece/ with his scissors. Only then could I, Lalla, find the road to heaven.”
To read these translations is to rediscover what you already know and love, but also to have the well-known, cherished dohas and vakhs of Kabir and Lalla made new. Both Mr Hoskote and Mr Mehrotra ask an uncomfortable but thought-provoking question: what kind of reception would a Kabir or a Lalla be given today?
Would they be ignored, would they be invited to the literary festivals of the hour, would their words invite bans for offending religious sentiments, or would they, perhaps, still have an audience? I don’t have answers, but it’s an interesting question.