He of whose first published work Agha Shahid Ali wrote “discovers language, as one would a new chemical in a laboratory experiment", Ranjit Hoskote is complex even at his simplest, and sublime at his most convoluted turn of phrase. I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded then—vakhs, or seemingly simplistic four-line verses composed by the 13th century Kashmiri poet which have been translated over a 20-year period by Hoskote—are nothing short of a modern poetic con. “They are a trap," Hoskote laughs, even as operatic tenor aptly booms out of the corners of the little Italian café at lunchtime. “Do not think the words are what they are."
As the verses unravel, between the Sufi traditions of referring to the poet in third person—Brand Lalla’s words on your heart (vakh 146) and the Shaivite traditions We’re beyond Shiva and Shakti here (vakh 115)—generations, religiosity and centuries of sociopolitical context merge underneath the simplicity of the words.
Poet-saint Lalla, first mentioned in the Tadhkirat ul-Arifin in 1587, was born in or around 1307 into a Brahmin family. Married at the age of 12, she was ill-treated and often starved by her family, whom she renounced at the age of 26 to take ascetic vows at the feet of her Shaivite guru. Often seen as a predecessor to the Bhakti poet-saints, Lalla’s verses disseminated her rich phraseology into the local languages which keenly absorbed her, and it. Now part of the Kashmiri lexicon of Hindus and Muslims alike, she is often claimed by both. As vakh 1 puts it, as though equally for Lalla and Hoskote, Going on a pilgrimage is like falling in love, with the greenness of faraway grass.
The entry point to Hoskote’s lifelong fascination with her Kashmiri vakhs began after school when a cousin lent him S.K. Raina’s book of Lalla’s verses (Pratinidhi Kashmiri Kavyitriyan), sparking his own exploration of his part-Kashmiri origins and a generational journey of migration from a troubled land. He began work on it in February 1991, and the first draft was ready in May that year. Despite an offer to publish, he held on to it, intuitively knowing it wasn’t ready. “My first question was what was my relationship with belief. I was engaging with mainstream Marxism, taking an anarchist position and then, Babri Masjid happened. I was torn between a political religiosity that could be something extremely dangerous, organized religion as fossilized and the recognition of the sacred."
Then there was a matter of what language to write in. “I had read the several pre-existing translations of Lalla’s work and to my mind, they were all flawed. There is an idiom preserved for the translation of religious poetry in this country. For decades it has the been the practice to make these things sound too ‘poetical’, pompous and deeply inflected with Victorianism. I wanted to bear witness to her work appropriately."
Not that Hoskote views his work as a break with the academic traditions of Lalla’s previous translators. The bibliography lists the 120 works of his predecessors. “The first fixity came only with the first print edition. So all of us working post that print edition now have to keep that huge changing landscape of work in mind. I wanted to list everyone who has ever worked on Lalla," he says. “In India particularly, there is a tendency to see ourselves as swayambhu, self-perpetuating, when in fact everyone works in a lineage. It is also a work of scholarship. It is in many ways a radical account in the distinction it makes between the historical Lalla and the contributory lineage, and in the emphases within that."
The beginning of that journey was learning to identify Lalla’s own voice; this Brahmin girl who renounced home when even male renunciants remained householders in the 14th century. Let them hurl a thousand curses at me, pain finds no purchase in my heart... (vakh 93). “My own regular poetic voice is classical and restrained while Lalla was sharp and jagged. This work gave me the freedom to explore the colloquial. She was a spoken voice following in the line of an oral tradition. She is not seditious or pedantic at all," Hoskote observes, noting that his own colloquial voice has rarely been colloquial at all. Was the resulting tome an adoption of his subject’s voice, a schizophrenic break within the writer’s own, or a personal evolution in language? Which of these took 20 years to come to fruition? The evolution, Hoskote says, was mostly conscious. “My own language became fluid and communicative. We are all scribal, print and digital poets. In reference, Lalla is open-source software open to multi-user editing. When you are recapturing the curve in oral poetry, then you also have to put yourself back in the social situations of oral poetry. You don’t get a second chance in oral poetry. What you say is what people hear. So your language has to communicate and has to be memorable."
There are verses that have distinct Sufi and Persian-Arabic influences which would not have been possible in the 13th century, Hoskote points out, and yet, it is not as if they dilute her essence. As vakh 44 puts it, You can stir as much salt as you like in water, it won’t become the sea. To remove these add-ons is to kill her. There is no coming to a source of origin. “When you spend that much time with Lalla’s voice, the research takes on the shape of an archaeological excavation. You identify what is hers. You see where recitors; men, women, lay people, Hindu priests, the Sufis, the common people, editors, have reinterpreted her, have added to her voice or made it their own. They have brought in their own concerns, their different cadences and tonality and that is really crucial. I argue this at some length in my introduction. There is an idea that a translator must purge and prune the interpolations. However, I find that with oral tradition, interpolation is what makes the tradition," Hoskote explains. In vakh 99, Hoskote interpolates with the language of his own digital age; but Shiva can play hard to get: hold on to that message, and in vakh 12, A klutz of a carpenter botched the palace job I got him—both translations that retain the colloquialism Lalla, or one of her multiple personalities, would have used. “They are in fact different voices in the 146 vakhs and even within the 146, I do have different tonalities. There are some that are far more colloquial, some that are far more in your face, some that show restraint. So there is a pluralizing of the voice even in the original and that’s what I bring across. You begin to ask questions as to why that is, and then you begin to develop a very rich picture of the lines of transmission of her poetry," he says.
The variations in recital, in language, between sects, classes, the accounts, notations and memories of Lalla weave into a single tapestry. “There is no her," Hoskote underlines. “There is no longer one Lalla." As poet and translator, Hoskote disembodies the poet’s myriad voices surgically from the mythical image of Lalla as a single person and re-embeds it in the Kashmiri sociopolitical context that spans five centuries. In doing so, he brings into context the question of ownership of poetry. The scribal tradition, which anchors poetry, gives it fixity, where it often dies as opposed to the oral tradition which disperses ownership of verses to the wind, where it is picked up to be transformed, to live. Lalla, by her sheer disembodiment, and the lack of ownership of her own verse, wove herself into the language of the local people. In vakh 114, she proclaims, Hey priest man, that’s the only lesson you need! “By adopting the words of Lalla, with the act of wresting poetry from the elite, the intellectuals, she became a political statement empowered by language. This kind of articulation became a politics from below. It took the power of articulation away from the royal court, scholars, intellectuals and gave it back to the people. Poetry, as the voice of Kashmir, enabled the people of that land to articulate many, many things. The act of reciting a vakh was not a religious act, it was a political act." Poetry, as the voice of a people, breaks down the atomized notions of what it means to make culture. As a result of this mass movement, the merging of the cultures is mirrored in the vakhs. “There is not even a linguistic original, you do have an old text called the Mahanay Prakash, but there is no original Kashmiri text for Lal Ded. What you have is what you have," Hoskote shrugs.
Hoskote’s research then negates the popular thought of Lalla as precursor to the Bhakti movement. He explains: “I am convinced the Bhakti movement is a creation that exists only in the head of metropolitan university professors who actually know nothing about Sufism or Bhakti. Also the tendency to believe that Bhakti is somehow a break with Hindusim or Sufism with Islam—it’s absurd. Sufism is an expression of Islam just as Bhakti is an expression of Hinduism. Anyone who imagines that these are bohemian spaces to work from is clearly mistaken. Lalla predated the poet-saints commonly labelled as Bhakti. In my view she is far more linked to the Siddha, Niyogi and Natha sects in the Shaivite traditions. My work re-embeds her in that travelling tapestry far more securely than merely as a Bhakti saint." A trained ascetic who put in years of spiritual practice moored in tradition, and a yogini, the disciple of Saiva saint Sed Boyu, Lalla’s verses are less spiritual abandon based in Bhakti yoga than they are the acquired wisdom of an ascetic following jnana marga (the path of knowledge).
In the current context of a torn Kashmir, this disembodiment of a historical Lalla is relevant, Hoskote says, to understand that there never was an idyllic Kashmir that was once a time of peace. “You will find those who say ‘Where is the old Kashmir?’ And yet, you will find that this notion of Kashmir is mythical. Historically, Kashmir always had a troubled history, as is with all cultures of great confluence. These poems don’t have a cultural message. What they do have is sociopolitical context. There is one vakh (104), clearly a much later vakh, easily a 19th century vakh, but I keep it to make that point;…Shiva lives in many places. He doesn’t know Hindu from Muslim. The Self that lives in you and others; that’s Shiva. Get the measure of Shiva.
I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded, translated by Ranjit Hoskote, Penguin, 246 pages, ₹ 450.