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Living presence

Kabir, without the teflon


REVIVING A TRADITION: Shabnam Virmani performing at the Kabir Festival organised in Mumbai recently. There has been a resurgence of interest in the poet in the form of music festivals and translations of his verse

It's easy to tame Kabir into pop legend. But here's looking at him as a living presence, a shooting-fromthe-hip contrarian.

To tonsured monks and dreadlocked Rastas,
To idol-worshippers and idol-smashers,
To fasting Jains and feasting Shaivites,
To Vedic pundits and Faber poets,
The weaver Kabir sends one message:
The noose of death hangs over all.
Only Rama's name can save you.
Say it NOW.

Songs of Kabir, Arvind Mehrotra's vigorous and inventive book of translations, is a reminder of why having a mystic around isn't a comfortable proposition - either then or now.

It's easy to tame Kabir into pop legend - glamourously Sufi, but toothless. It's also easy to read him as good modern poetry, edgy, economical, lush with paradox. But Mehrotra's book reminds you that Kabir isn't just a dead satirist. He's instead a prickly, angular, living presence, a shooting-from-the-hip contrarian. Ruthless with posturing and entitlement, he's as unsparing with literary circuits and secular counter-cultures as he is with organised religion and theology.

"I came to translation when I started writing poetry, in the late 1960s, and the first poet I translated was Kabir, " says Mehrotra, Allahabad-based poet, academic and editor. "I didn't go to the originals - I was too young and too impatient for that - but to an anthology of Hindi religious verse in English translation. I forget its name. But unknown to me in Allahabad, Robert Bly was doing something similar with Tagore's Kabir;he was 'modernising' an existing older translation. "

A 15th-century Indian poet talking 'American' is obviously a contemporising device - useful, effective. But even if you're no purist, you do acknowledge a fleeting unease when Mehrotra's Kabir talks of 'Faber poets' and 'dreadlocked Rastas'. That's also when you realise that this very discomfort is probably what Kabir induced in the listeners of his day.

"It took me several decades to find the right idiom for Kabir, " says Mehrotra. "Since we in India don't have an English idiom of our own (unless it's the Indian English of Nissim Ezekiel's poem, Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T. S. ), I had to choose between the British and the American, and I finally chose the latter. For one, it came more naturally to me. All of us spout Americanisms without knowing it. Second, it comes without class markers. And finally, there was the example of poet Arun Kolatkar, who used the American demotic both in his own English work and in his English translations of Marathi poems and Marathi bhakti poets. "

But the question remains. Whose voice are we hearing really - Mehrotra's or Kabir's ? Is translation essentially about receiving or remaking? About sêance or authorship? Is the translator more conduit or composer?

Both, you could argue. But the ratio varies. And the ratio here is wildly in flux;it pushes at boundaries with an urgency that suggests an impatience with the original. "The desire to translate comes from a desire to share, " says Mehrotra. "You read something and you want others - who don't know the language - to read it too. What fascinates me about translation is how to break down a poem into its elements - rhythm, syntax, word-play, image, tone - and then put it back together again, in another language. The reconstituted poem will of course bear resemblance to the original, but it will also be something new. You might call it an act in two voices: the voice of the original and of the translator. "

And so Mehrotra isn't necessarily making himself a channel through which Kabir can speak. He seems instead to often be using Kabir as a channel through which he can speak. Given 'the performative improvisatory tradition' around Kabir's poetry, it is, he maintains, a valid translation strategy. "In the late 1960s, Adil Jussawalla, who was editing New Writing in India, asked me to translate the Hindi poets Muktibodh and Dhoomil. I tried to make them as exact as I could, down to the line breaks. When I translate Nirala, I do the same. But Kabir is different because there is no fixed text. Most poems ascribed to him come in several versions. This is part of the oral tradition;we know it from Homer. When the text itself is unstable, there seemed little point in sticking closely to it. "

There is perhaps an added rationale. When Kabir tells Rama 'We live under the same roof/ Sleep in the same bed', he is taking the liberty of being intimate with a god. He can talk to Rama any way he chooses because this is not a formal deity to be placated;he's an insider, so close that he is the bhakta's own life breath. When Mehrotra fashions a Kabir who knows Ezra Pound and Marcus Aurelius, he is in fact taking a similar liberty. He is staking claim to a voice that is as singular as it is collective. He is making Kabir his own.

It is this transgressive energy, you could argue, that has always characterised the bhakti tradition. In bhakti, the divine is abducted - from the preserve of scripture, the cage of temple sanctums, the grammar of ritual - and reclaimed by the devotee. In Mehrotra's translation, it is Kabir who's abducted - from scholarship and printed textual translation, from contested legend and sacred cowism - and reclaimed for a contemporary readership. Kabir here is both a 15thcentury weaver from Magaha and a world citizen of the 21st century. He speaks of Hari and Benaras with the same ease with which he speaks of 'Deathville' and 'Fearlessburg'. If he still remains Kabir, it's because the same breeze blows through the poetry - sharp, salty, dismissive of humbug.

"I decided to throw out the formulas, the stock images, and introduce contemporary images, but without violating the sense or drift of the original, " says Mehrotra. "Don't forget that oral singers in Rajasthan are still singing Kabir songs using modern metaphors and words like 'line' (as in railway line) and 'engine'. This is how folk traditions have kept themselves alive, by changing and incorporating new material. "

He acknowledges the inevitable impact of translation on his poetry. "Writing and translating poetry are, for me, parallel streams, with connecting channels, the waters intermingling constantly. In both, you are at a loss for words;in both, you give the work everything you have. As processes, the two are indistinguishable. "

With its briny slang and brutal irony, Songs of Kabir is emphatically not spiritual chicken soupism. Instead, you're left wondering if you'd really like to meet a man who says 'I fucked young men too numerous to count and stayed a virgin'.
Or a man whose mystical passion erupts into pure cannibalism (reminiscent of Ramanujan's translations of Nammalvar): ...only after I'd eaten/ my grandmother, / mother/ son-in-law / two brothers-in-law, / and father-in-law / ...did I find, ...the beloved that I've become/ one with.

It's easy to echo Kabir's contempt for phony pundits and manipulative muezzins. But how do we follow him into his crazed, white-hot passion for Rama? How do we follow him into those strangely threatening places of topsy-turviness where 'a frog swallows five cobras';'where bulls get pregnant';'where mice are boatmen/ and tomcats the boats' ? And what if his savage jibes were directed at our world, at us? How much political incorrectness can we really stand? Would we really want to know Kabir?
Perhaps not. But Mehrotra's translations ensure that we don't Teflon-coat him for our convenience. Try as we might, his laughter follows us across the centuries - derisive, exultant, fiercely untamable.

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