One of the most interesting aspects of contemporary Indian poetry in English is the ways in which—and the extent to which—it has used this imported, imposed, and sovereignly appropriated language to revisit religious, philosophical, and literary works from its own rich and multilingual past, while at the same time creating a modern poetic idiom (and canon) through the medium of translation. Keeping safely away from classic Hindu texts, most major poets and translators of the post-independence period have focused instead on syncretic and unorthodox spiritual figures, who grappled with various religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam) and composed in local languages, demotically diverging from the Sanskrit of canonical literature and brahmanical authority. No less interesting, their choices over the past four decades have followed the historical, north-south path of the bhakti (devotional) movement, starting in the 1960s with A.K. Ramanujan’s versions from the Tamil and the Kannada of the third to the tenth century, continuing north- and westward through Maharashtra, with Arun Kolatkar’s and Dilip Chitre’s focus on Marathi saint-poets (Tukaram in particular), and finally reaching the Gangetic plain with Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Songs of Kabir, and as far north as Kahsmir with Ranjit Hoskote’s I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Děd, both issued in early 2011.
Today it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how these bhakti poems originated, circulated and were preserved in oral form, let alone to understand the multiple levels (performative, ritual, cathartical, political) at which they functioned in the particular context of medieval India. Centuries of manuscript, print, and now also digital culture have thrice removed us from any form of textual production, consumption, and reception that is not mediated by technology. The word itself, poem, seems largely inadequate to describe the original output of wandering mystics and teachers whose creative acts and performances included ecstatic singing and dancing. Similarly misleading is the concept of textual authorship and authenticity in regard to a literary corpus that, in Lalla’s case, was first recorded in print in the 1920s, after circulating “widely and continuously in Kashmiri popular culture between the mid-fourteenth century and the present, variously assuming the form of songs, proverbs and prayers.” In the former case, Hoskote prefers “utterance” over previous solutions, such as “saying” and “verse,” to render the Kashimiri term vākh (which is related to the Sanskrit vāc, “speech,” and vākya, “sentence”), although he regularly uses “poem” throughout the book. In the latter, he proposes “a radical break with the established convention of treating Lal Děd as a single personality and interpreting her poetry as an account of the vicissitudes of a single life.” Instead, “[w]hile affirming that Lalla’s poetry is deeply anchored in the personal experiences of an individual who actually lived and suffered,” he argues that
the poetry that has come down to us in her name is not the work of an individual. Rather, it has been produced over many centuries by what I would term a contributory lineage, a sequence of assemblies comprising people of varied religious affiliations and of both genders, representing the experience of various age groups and social locations, including both literate and unlettered, reciters and scribes, redactors and commentators.
The resulting corpus consists of a couple hundred vākhs, 146 of which are translated and richly annotated by Hoskote, who also includes concordances with two “benchmark collections,” George Grierson and Lionel D. Barnett’s Lallā-vākyāni (1920) and Jayalal Kaul’s Lal Ded (1973).
Lalla, or Lal Děd, lived in Kashmir in the 14th century (depending on the sources, her birth date oscillates between 1301 and 1320, while she is believed to have died in 1373), during a time of rapid and violent change, involving Tartar and Turki attacks, the downfall of the last Hindu monarchy, and the ascent to the throne of Shams-ud-Din Shah Mir, a muslim adventurer whose coronation in 1339 “marks Kashmir’s transition from a Hindu-Buddhist past to a future that would be shaped by the gradual diffusion of Islam, although Hindus and Buddhists continued to dominate Kashmiri politics and culture for several generations longer.” A married woman who, according to legend, lost her social status and domestic comfort to find spiritual freedom and realization in a wandering, ascetic life, she became “simultaneously Lalleśvarī or Lalla Yogini to the Hindus and Lal-‘ārifa to the Muslims;” similarly, her message was shaped by Hindu (Kashmiri Śaiva) and Islamic (Sufi) influences, as well as concepts and practices of what Hoskote calls Tantric underground, a trans-caste, countercultural movement incorporating elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism.
These various philosophical and doctrinal threads are ingeniously interwoven in Lalla’s poetry, making its texture smooth on the surface yet rich and complex underneath. Despite her unorthodox views on philosophical systems and doctrines, references to Yogic theory and practice occur throughout her work. Thus, the sun “beneath the navel,” the “moon river flowing from the crown,” the long/hot and the short/cool breaths, in poems 53-54, refer to the technique of prāṇāyāma, during which the upward-flowing vital breath (prān), rising from the maṇipūra-chakra located in the region of the navel, meets its cooler counterpart flowing down from the “nectar moon,” the sahasrāra-chakra situate in the crown. Other poems reflect a typical bhakta concern with “inward and inner-directed evolution [rather than] with the pursuit of shrines and pilgrimages, rituals and scriptures, observances and sacrifices.” Yogic adepts and the meditation buffs are warned: “You won’t find the Truth / by crossing your legs and holding your breath.” And with scholars and priests she is even more explicit: “Master, leave these palm leaves and birch barks / to parrots who recite the name of God in a cage. / Good luck, I say, to those who think they’ve read the scriptures. / The greatest scripture is the one that’s playing in my head.” Elsewhere, Lalla’s poems document a spiritual quest studded with sharp images of renunciation and self-denial. She variously and repeatedly twists a knife in her heart, pestles it in love’s mortar, roasts it in passion’s fire and eats it up, or prays so hard that her tongue gets stuck to her palate, and her fingers are sore from turning the rosary. Yet in poem 139 she values altruistic compassion over self-centered purification through mortification: “Don’t torture this body with thirst and hunger, / give it a hand when it stumbles and falls. / To hell with all your vows and prayers: / just help others through life, there is no truer worship.”
Many of Lalla’s concepts and articulations have travelled long and wide enough to be familiar to a 21st-century reader. Some of them, like the river between this world and the next, have equivalents in Egyptian and Greek mythology; others have been primed and propelled by scholars and spiritual leaders for quite some time; and a few simply resonate with sheer relevance and wisdom in today’s world. Hoskote’s pithy and evocative translation does more than any previous efforts to reduce the semantic gap between Lalla’s world and ours. A fine poet himself, he does an excellent job stripping away “a century of ornate, Victorian-inflected renderings and paraphrases, and to disclose the grain and tenor of Lalla’s voice, the orality, vocality and spokenness of her poems.” And what he cannot convey in translation (i.e., the philosophical and allegorical mold into which Lalla’s “utterances” are cast), he sapiently provides in the notes at the end of the volume. These mirror and complement the introduction, yet at the same time, by fulfilling one need they create another, which unfortunately remains unmet. Despite the extent to which philosophical terms and concepts, allegorical figures, and linguistic variants are explained, their recurrence throughout the entire corpus forces the reader to go back and forth in search of definitions and clarifications, something which a glossary would have prevented, and whose absence is perhaps the only flaw in this otherwise sterling edition. Nonetheless, I, Lalla represents a valuable and timely contribution to the growing body of works on this author, Kashmir’s most loved mystic-saint-poet.