Prime Edition

I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded

(Trans.) Ranjit Hoskoté

Penguin India

Pages: 246 Rs. 450

Hoskoté seeks to free Ded from political contests

Ranjit Hoskoté’s translations of the Vakhs of the Kashmiri poet Lal Ded provide welcome context and crucially bears the stamp of his own elegant style.

SRIDALA SWAMI  30th Oct 2011

Somewhere in the last half century, bhakti has become less the challenge to authority we have come to believe it is and more the default mode of engaging with religion, philosophy and spirituality.

The last time I checked, my TV had at least five channels oriented to religious discourse and bhajans. Hoardings advertising yoga camps or talks by gurus of all kinds assault our eyes every day. It seems to me that somewhere in the last half century, bhakti has become less the challenge to authority we have come to believe it is and more the default mode of engaging with religion, philosophy and spirituality. In such a context, I can't but ask myself what the role of bhakti poetry is in contemporary South Asia.

Ranjit Hoskoté's I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded goes some way toward answering or soothing my uncertainties. Hoskoté's translations of the vakhs of the Kashmiri poet known variously as Lal Ded, Lalleshwari, Lal- Arifa and Lalla, has been two decades in the making and is a work of both scholarly depth and poetic exactness. His 77 page Introduction sets the context for his chosen 146 of the 258 vakhs attributed to Lalla, and is a fascinating essay in its own right.

Somewhere in the last half century, bhakti has become less the challenge to authority we have come to believe it is and more the default mode of engaging with religion, philosophy and spirituality.

Hoskoté's thesis moves along interesting lines: he sees Lalla as not quite the bhakti poet that anthologists and literary historians claim her to be. He would like to see her, instead, as a poet 'whose ideas straddled the domains of Kashmir Shaivism, Tantra, Yoga and Yogacara Buddhism, and who appears to have been socially acquainted with the ideas and practices of the Sufis'. (xix). What Hoskoté does is to closely argue for a figure whose biography contains the sketchiest details, but whose words demonstrate the variety and richness of Kashmir's intellectual and social heritage of the 14th century CE. In contemporary terms, his introduction serves to place Lalla in a tradition that stands against the Vedantic mainstream.

That little is known of Lalla is not so much a loss as a freedom. The appropriation of Lalla began, in Hoskoté's account, in the 1980's, where both Kashmiri Pandit and Kashmiri Muslim scholars claimed Lalla for their own and attempted to purge her verse of what they saw as interpolations. Perhaps, given the turbulent times that the '80s inaugurated, this is no coincidence.

Hoskoté declines to look for a pristine Lalla, opting instead, to see the vakhs (collected from various sources; the account of what these sources are make for engrossing reading) as a product of what he calls a 'contributive lineage'. 'Lalla, to me, is not the person who composed these vakhs; rather, she is the person who emerges from these vakhs', Hoskoté says.

Yet, reading the vakhs themselves, shorn of context, can be a baffling and perplexing experience. Some of them fall clearly within a tradition that is familiar to readers of bhakti poetry and thus more accessible – Vakh 13, for instance, gestures to the familiar idea of the seeker as lover and the sought as Friend, and the quest returning to the point of departure:

Love-mad, I, Lalla, started out,
spent days and nights on the trail.
Circling back, I found the teacher in my own house.
What brilliant luck, I said, and hugged him.

Other vakhs are more unyielding and require a context that Hoskoté provides in the notes to each vakh at the end of the book. This makes the book an experience akin, if not to wrestling with the Arden Shakespeare editions, with its wealth of annotations at the bottom of the page, then to reading the notes to The Wasteland, which provide a much-needed way into the text.

It is not impossible to read and experience these verses by themselves; but I would suggest that the notes enrich the text with their exposition and are crucial in understanding the philosophical traditions that Lalla claimed for her own.

Vakh 103, for instance:

Pressed in winter's paws, running water hardens into ice
or powders into snow. Three different states
but the sun of wisdom thaws them down to one.
The world, all hands on board, has sunk without trace in Shiva!

It is possible to read the exquisitely compressed imagery as the dissolution of self into the divine; but knowledge of Kashmir Shaivism would add nuance to the vakh and separate it from the all-too-common tendency toward a new-age blurring of all philosophies into one indistinguishable mess.

Indeed, if Hoskoté did nothing else with these translations, it would be enough that he has insisted upon restoring complexity to the personality of Lal Ded and her words; unsurprisingly, that is not enough for Hoskoté, who has also managed to make Lalla's words shine through the filter of his own considerable poetic skill.

If no other lines remain, for me the beginning of vakh 28 will: Remove from my heart's dove-cote, Father/ the ache for too-far skies, Lalla says, but it could have been something Hoskoté himself wrote.

Kolatkar once said to Arvind Krishna Mehrotra that 'he was not done with a translation until he made it look like a poem by Arun Kolatkar' (AKM, Introduction, The Boatride & other poems, Arun Kolatkar). Hoskoté doesn't go quite so far, but his stamp is clear upon the continuum that is Lalla's verse.

C. Rajagopalachari memorably said, in his introductory comments to the Bhaja Govindam as sung by M. S. Subbalakshmi:

'When wisdom is integrated with life and issues out in action, it becomes bhakti. Knowledge, when it becomes fully mature is bhakti. If it does not get transformed into bhakti, such knowledge is useless tinsel. To believe that jnana and bhakti, knowledge and devotion are different from each other, is ignorance.'

Perhaps Hoskoté's approach, in light of Rajaji's remarks, is the answer to the question of bhakti as the default mode of approaching the divine in today's world: to complicate the discourse with genuinely intellectual iterations of bhakti. Hoskoté's translations certainly pose a challenge, inflected as they are with deep scholarship and political awareness.

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