The celebration of the individual’s tireless attempts at mingling with the divine pulsates through the Sufi tradition, and Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi (1207-73) remains one of the finest poetic voices to have tried to capture it. British writer Farrukh Dhondy’s Rumi: A New Translation, launched on 23 November, tries to imbue the English translation with the unique flavour of Rumi’s lyrical Persian, in sometimes an admittedly “too modern" a fashion. The approach works with considerable dexterity in the narrative poems, but less so with the couplets and shorter verses.

Farrukh Dhondy

From Charles Sobhraj (‘The Bikini Murders’) to Rumi of the Masnavi, how did the transition come about?

The Bikini Murders was a novel. Having known Sobhraj, it was something that I had wanted to write for a long time. Rumi came to me in strange ways.

I was in Australia to do a movie about a Tamilian who ended up owning a whole city there. His name was Mahalingam. Now I’m a translator, not a pornographer. Anyway this Mahalingam was unwilling to talk. An agent friend of mine gave me a book of Rumi’s poems to read and pass the time. As I began leafing through the book, I realized that it wasn’t verse at all. It was more like a mistaken idea of pop. Now if Coleman Barks is a professor of Sufi poetry, I am the emperor of China (he chuckles). Another fellow, the famous Deepak Chopra, had attempted Rumi too. After all these disappointments, I decided to find out if Rumi really was that bad.

I got my uncle, who reads Persian, to recite some of Rumi’s stuff. Now the thing with him is that he doesn’t stop once he’s started. Anyway, I asked him to stop. I then translated a few quatrains into English and sent them to the agent friend. His response: Why don’t you do a book? So I got down to it.

How did you go about translating from Persian, since you confess to being alien to the language?

I don’t think that a translation is an imitation of the original work. It’s an avatar, much in the same way as Krishna is not Vishnu but Krishna is Vishnu too. You get what I mean?

Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint

To do all this I relied on my Persian-reading friends and also read the translations of Rumi by more accomplished translators like R.A. Nicholson and A.J. Arberry. I worked from 2007 to 2009 on the book.

In his lifetime, Rumi amassed a large volume of work. Did you restrict yourself to a few works while translating him?

No, I picked poems from here and there. See, you can classify Rumi into philosophical ruminations; poems of passion for the eternal, what you can call love poems, and his narrative verses, which also give us lessons to be learnt. So I picked up what I liked from different places; gave samples of all of them. But I didn’t fit them into a pattern. The Masnavi (Rumi’s long poem comprising tales and anecdotes) itself is composed of many volumes. It is just too big to be tackled at one go.

You mentioned that you have tried to keep the soul of Rumi’s poetry intact in your translations. What is the soul of Rumi?

If you read Rumi, you will understand that his central inspiration is the love of an unknowable infinite which is within and without you. At the risk of inviting brickbats, I’d say that in that way he is pretty close to the Bhagvad Gita.

Rumi has been tackled by translators like Nicholson and Arberry. What’s different about your version?

Nicholson and Arberry’s translations are very old-fashioned. I wrote as if I’m talking to someone. Sometimes, I must say, my version is too modern. There are certain things that people would ask you not to say, but I have gone ahead and said that. Somewhere in there Rumi says, “The donkey has his head in the mud, all he does is eat and fuck." And I have said it too.

Every writer comes away from a writing experience richer in learning. What did you imbibe from Rumi?

All about Sufism! Before this, I knew nothing about its history. I had to read a few books to catch the essence of the sect. I realized that Sufism is so vast. And that it comes to us through Nanak, Kabir and Lal Ded. I imbibed everything that I read.

It is surprising how standard it all is. All the familiar images of the saqi, the gardens and terraces make appearances here.

Rumi: A New Translation by Farrukh Dhondy, Harper Perennial,180 pages, 299.