Poets and writers who choose to translate the works of saint poets and mystics have their work doubly cut out. Writers who have done so often say they were “called” to it. Believers may understand this sentiment, as the task of translating mystical texts requires a different kind of preparedness. As one writer puts it, “…one must be ready to forsake all that one has known or knows and tread into the unknown. Then, if one is receptive, the field of infinite possibilities opens up.”
Last evening in Mumbai, I had the opportunity to meet Ranjit Hoskote, a poet, writer and curator, who has several books to his credit, including a translation of the Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded’s vakhs. Along with him was Dr. Gieve Patel, a medical practitioner, artist and writer, who has recently translated the verse of Akha Bhagat, (1591–1656) the celebrated medieval period poet of Gujarati literature.
Gieve describes Akho’s satirical verses – they are termed chhappa – as “… a pageant of human absurdities.” A goldsmith by profession, Akho’s residence in Ahmedabad, a small room in Desai ni Pol in Khadia, is known as Akha no Ordo and the lane is named akha bhagatno khancho. Our layered conversation involved the unraveling of personal journeys and inspirations, which led the two to undertake a task that many would find daunting.
Gieve said that he had been given the texts in Gujarati many years ago and it took him a while to actually attempt a translation. Ranjit’s book meanwhile is a result of 20 years of work. Among the many things that emerged in our conversation was that despite diversity of form and the difference in periods, most writing on the sacred carries within it a universality of experience.
Good translations of also carry a sudden epiphany of awareness. This is visible, for instance, in these samples of Gieve’s translation of Akho’s verse, and Ranjit’s translation of Lalla’sVakh.
Where the creature is there is the Creator, but you wander elsewhere,search in faraway places.
The first false step, says Akha, was that you forgot to look within.
A thousand times at least I asked my Guru to give Nothingness a name.
Then I gave up. What name can you give to the source from which all names have spring?
The two, who will be speaking about writing on the sacred at the upcoming Literature Live! Festival, also spoke of guides and gurus and the poet’s special ability to find both within.
I was reminded of a Sheikh from the Naqshbandi order who I had met a few nights ago in New Delhi. Of German origin and living in Morocco, he was on his way to Kashmir. That night he conducted a zikr with foreigners and conservative Muslims, unmindful of tradition, aware only of the sacredness of the moment. He’d said, “One’s purpose is to seek the truth. Joy resides in the heart. The joyousness within is an indication of your acceptance of truth in your life. Your task is merely to illuminate that which you already know.”
In some ways poetry and prayer are interchangeable.
The author is a published writer and independent arts consultant