When Anju Makhija was growing up in Mumbai, no Sindhi community gathering she attended was complete without some elder quoting or referring to 16th century Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif.
Years later, after building a career as a playwright, poet and freelance writer, and living abroad for nearly a decade, she decided to seek her cultural roots, and found herself returning to Latif, known as the ‘Shakespeare of Sindh’.
In Adipur, a town in Kutchh, she met 80-year-old Sindhi poet Hari Dilgir, and the two spent five years translating selected works from Shah Jo Risalo, Latif’s most famous collection of poems.
Their book, Seeking the Beloved, won the Sahitya Akademi’s 2011 prize for English Translation last month.
“Sindhi literature has not been translated enough. Even Latif, who is revered as a Sufi saint in Sindh, has been translated mainly by Pakistanis and Germans,” says Makhija, who believes that she is one of many post-Partition Sindhis who lost touch with their language after their families migrated to India. Makhija’s book is now one of the first comprehensive translations of Latif coming from an Indian author.
In the Sufi tradition, Latif was known as the people’s poet for being able to draw from both Islamic and Vedantic traditions. Poems in the Shah Jo Risalo are divided into 30 surs based on Indian classical ragas, and were originally meant to be sung.
“Latif’s verse has complex symbolism and he often transformed folk tales of his time into spirited allegories to explain divine love,” says Makhija. “Our challenge as translators was to take that oral tradition and make it contemporary.”
Makhija now wants to translate 17th century Sindhi Sufi poets Sami and Sacchal and is looking for co-translators. “Most experts in old Sindhi — the language that Latif wrote in — are now very old and dying,” she says.
(Anju Makhija will read from her book, Seeking the Beloved, at Kitab Khana, Fountain, on March 28 at 6 pm. The event will include singing of Sufi songs by Asiya Hamdulay.)