Translated by Ranjit Hoskote
'Wisest to play the fool. Lynx-eyed, play blind./Prick-eared, be deaf./Polished, lie dull among the dull./ Survive.'
When I first heard those lines, read out at the Poetry Circle, Bombay, many years ago, it seemed as if they could be a paraphrase of James Joyce's advice to the artist: silence, exile and cunning. But then Ranjit Hoskote said they were lines from a 14th century mystic, Lal Ded, otherwise known as Lalla Yogini to her Hindu followers or Lal-'arifa to the Muslims who revered her equally.
But then for almost as long as I have known him, Hoskote has been working on these translations. They have lived inside his head for at least 20 years and in that time, he says, so much has happened that there is barely a line or two in this book that came from his first fumbling attempts to wrestle with the lioness of Kashmir.
I did not know anything about Lalla until I started reading this book and was rather startled to find that many translations had preceded this one. I tried some and found that they suffered from the not uncommon desire to render the mystic into something familiar, something easily digestible. Yet this is a woman in Hoskote's translation "whose mind-horse straddles the sky", "who wore herself out looking for herself", who dared alone to "cross the field of Emptiness." To try and shape her into something ordinary, to make of her an English poet as others have done, would be to do her great injustice.
This will always be the problem with the mystic and the mystic's experience. When her "mind melts away" and "a void mingles with the Void", how can she put this into the words of common commerce? When we approach her, she is "dancing naked"; how can we not make her some exotic other?
And yet the mystic herself tries. She brings back her experience—strange ore from a mine we can all access but dare not—and shapes them into the words of the everyday: metaphors of boat rides, wine cellars "full of good stuff", the ass in the saffron gardens. But within this, there gleams the numinous: "He who strikes the Unstruck Sound,/ Calls his body and emptiness his home,/ Who has neither name nor colour nor family nor form,/ Who meditating on Himself, is both Source and Sound,/ Is the god who shall mount and ride this horse".
Hoskote's success is that we get the feeling of a complex woman, struggling with her times. It is an earthy translation, its rhythms and cadences much more imaginative and intuitive than those which have gone before.
It is no ordinary task, this. How can you make sense of that unless you agree on an elastic or god-deformed definition of sense? The lake that is smaller than a mustard seed but provides sustenance to cloud-elephants?
One way is to provide a context within which this strange creature, sometimes an exultant insider, sometimes a heart-broken straggler, can reside. This is where the introduction and end-notes offer us some way "to find towpaths, trails; follow the portents fugitives trust/ to guide them out and back" as Hoskote the poet, as opposed to Hoskote the translator, has said.
Like all the voices of mystics, Lalla offers no easy solutions. She says it plainly: "My Master gave me just one rule:/Forget the outside, get to the inside of things." Like all the other mystics, she rejects the easy solution with breath-taking and epigrammatic force: "Hermit or householder: same difference."
This is a book to have and to hold. It is beautiful because it is respectful. It is a great translation because the originals have given way to new meanings. "New moon, new mind," Lalla says. New language, new poems.
PS: That's a crocus on the cover. It's where saffron comes from.
Jerry Pinto is a Mumbai-based writer.