She walked alone: I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Děd

Wear the robe of wisdom,
brand Lalla’ s words on your heart
lose yourself in the soul’s light,
you too shall be free. (146)

For Women In Translation Month 2019, as we watch signs of escalating global turmoil—rising racist and xenophobic tensions, political insecurity, increasing inequalities, and serious environmental threats—the voice of a fourteenth-century Kashmiri mystic may seem an unlikely source to turn to. Or it may make perfect sense. After all, her homeland, with its fractious and turbulent history, is in an ever more precarious state now. And eerily, some of her poems even seem to foreshadow this ongoing state of unease, one with deep and troubled roots.

There’s bad news, and there’s worse.
Autumn’s pears and apples will ripen
with apricots and summer rain.
Mothers and daughters will step out,
hand in hand, in broad daylight, with strange men. (36)

Lal Děd is Kashmir’s best known spiritual and literary figure. She has been revered by both Hindus and Muslims for almost seven centuries and, although scholars on both sides have wanted to claim her for their own and her earliest English translators wished to reinvent her through a Victorian lens, she has, and continues, to inspire those fortunate enough to come to know the body of work attributed to her. With this translation, first published in 2011, poet and translator Ranjit Hoskote offers a fresh approach to Lal Děd for the twenty-first century reader, one that is vital and alive, and supported with a thoroughly researched, detailed introduction and notes. What comes through is the spirit of a singular visionary seeker:

Across the expanse of her poetry, the author whose signature these poems carry evolves from a wanderer, uncertain of herself and looking for anchorage in a potentially hostile landscape, into a questor who has found belonging beneath a sky that is continuous with her mind.

Little is known with certainty about the historical Lal Děd, or Lalla, as she is widely and affectionately known. It is thought she was born in 1301 or between 1317 and 1320, and died in 1373. Her life has generally been understood in terms of an archetypal narrative—born into a Brahmin family she was married at the age of twelve, but was restless within these confines. As a woman, the rigid medieval society within which she existed offered little freedom. Her family eyed her meditative and spiritual leanings with suspicion, so at twenty-six she renounced her marriage, left home and sought a guru. Once her discipleship was completed she set forth into the world, becoming an itinerant wanderer and seeker. She founded no school, had no formal following, and appointed no successor, but she would have a profound influence on Kashmiri religious life and inspire generations of devotees to pick up her poems and carry them on, adding to them in a spirit of honour and devotion to her. As such, Hoskote sees the body of work attributed to Lal Děd as rooted in the life and teachings of a real person, but the product of a contributory lineage “comprising people of varied religious affiliations and of both genders”, a socially and culturally diverse living archive amplifying her voice down through the centuries. He expresses his understanding of the mystic and her poems—which he describes as “utterances” or vākhs—quite beautifully: “Lalla, to me, is not the person who composed these vākhs; rather she is the person who emerges from these vākhs.”

I didn’t believe in it for a moment
but I gulped down the wine of my own voice.
And then I wrestled with the darkness inside me,
knocked it down, clawed at it, ripped it to shreds. (48)

To complete this new translation, Hoskote spent twenty years immersed in Lal Děd’s teachings—working with the original material, earlier translations, and academic and religious commentaries. It was a journey of his own, one that took him from youthful  academic to early mid-life—from student to respected poet, translator, and cultural critic and curator. The intimacy of his association with the material is reflected in the extensive introduction which offers a thorough, yet fascinating, preparation for reading the vākhs themselves. He provides a background for understanding Lalla and her times, her importance, her placement within the spiritual histories and currents of Kashmir up to the present, and finally, his own approach to translating this material. The notes at the end of the book take a closer look, as needed, at each poem.

For this book, Hoskote selected 146 of the short verses that comprise the LD corpus and presents them in “a sequence that suggests the journey of an evolving religious imagination, from the phase of self-doubt to those, successively, of visionary experience, the discovery of wisdom, and the sharing of that wisdom through teaching.” This decision to order her vākhs along a trajectory that imagines the mystic’s growth and spiritual progress, while clustering companion pieces and utterances that share a common theme (often reflected in a similar image or final line), allows for an organic and rewarding initial reading—an encounter that opens up a wealth of avenues for return engagement, deeper contemplation.

My willow bow was bent to shoot, but my arrow was only grass.
A klutz of a carpenter botched the palace job I got him.
In the crowded marketplace, my shops stands unlocked.
Holy water hasn’t touched my skin. I’ve lost the plot. (12)

The imagery is sharp, often unexpected, sometimes relying on scenes and tasks from everyday life to address a wide audience in familiar terms, while at other times, the sensual and ecstatic comes through vividly:

I, Lalla, came through the gate of my soul’s jasmine garden
and found Shiva and Shakti there, locked in love!
Drunk with joy, I threw myself into the lake of nectar.
Who cares if I’m a dead woman walking! (68)

Toward the end of this sequence, as the focus turns to Lalla, the mature teacher, we find her tone more inclined to be firm, her wisdom offered with images from nature and daily life, her intention unambiguous:

I can scatter the battalions of southern clouds,
dry the ocean, play physician
to the most lingering fever and cure it.
But I can’t knock sense into a fool. (127)

I’ve finished what I can only describe as a first read-through of I, Lalla with careful attention to the introduction, and then the 146 utterances, each one a four or five-line verse. I thought I would read them all and attend to the detailed individual notes later, but that’s not possible. For each vākh that would strike me, pull me up short, or echo back to something discussed in the introduction, I would find myself looking up the relevant note.

Of course, this book’s not finished with me yet. I need to spend some more time with Lal Děd. At the moment, one of the most striking features is that, in light of the current state of affairs in Kashmir, her voice (and those of the others who, in devotion, contributed to and transmitted her teachings down through the years) is especially vital and important. Hoskote’s care, attention to detail, and obvious deep personal and political interest in the material, make this a valuable addition to the understanding of this revered mystic, and an inspiring volume for contemporary readers from all backgrounds.

The expansive possibilities of Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote

As someone who has lived a landlocked existence with an endless sea of prairie grass stretching to the east and the high cresting waves of the Rocky Mountains rising to the west, oceans have long held an inexorable pull on my imagination. Every family holiday that brought me close to either the Atlantic or the Pacific was magic. When I was younger I was drawn to stormy seascapes, images of rugged wave-ravaged shorelines, and stories filled with high sea adventure and intrigue. Now it is something else, something quieter, more metaphysical, that possesses me. From the far shores of Vancouver Island to a lonely beach on the eastern coast of South Africa, I’ve welcomed, however briefly, the untethering afforded by the impossible emptiness expanding beyond me, and revived that longing that no river, lake or landbound body of water has ever been able to fully resolve.

And so, I come to Indian poet Ranjit Hoskote’s  astonishingly rich, endlessly engaging Jonahwhale, a collection of poetry that returns, again and again, to gather inspiration, stories and imagery from the watery depths. For Hoskote, who grew up in Goa and Bombay, proximity to the sea has been a constant, one which he admits informs his life, his awareness and his writing. But as an accomplished translator and cultural curator with a seemingly inexhaustible curiosity that extends beyond boundaries, disciplines and art forms, his work cannot be confined to any specific thematic template. His poetry welcomes a wide array of influences, follows maps and legends that navigate an extensive territory, and resounds with an eclectic musicality. The poems in this collection run from multi-voiced epics taking their cues from historical, literary, or artistic starting points, to one line aphoristic pieces and everything in between. This book has accompanied me these past six months, and yet every time I open it I discover a line, a passage, or a verse that pulls me in anew, to reread, refresh, and reconsider.

I cannot assess or review such an impressive collection, I can only respond, which is perhaps the best I can manage with any of the poetry I have read this year.

Divided into three parts, or movements, the first section, “Memoirs of the Jonahwhale” summons voices from a wealth of historical, literary, and linguistic resources, some self-evident, others detailed in the poet’s endnotes, which, I understand, reflect Hoskote’s desire to honour his scholarly self rather than an obligation to explain his allusions. Some of these notes, crafted with a curator’s attention to detail, are fascinating in themselves and may well inspire a reader’s further exploration, but, as one would hope, context, background, and intertextual sources simply enrich the reading experience. They are not essential to the appreciation of the rhythms, images and intensity of his poetry.

A strong musical sensibility underscores the entire collection, and here Hoskote draws on an abiding interest in modern avant-garde music—composers like Brian Eno, Terry Reilly, and Steve Reich—a passion rekindled for me in recent years. It is, then, not surprising that my favourite piece is “Baldachin”. In memoriam Bruce Conner, the American filmmaker whose masterwork Crossroads combines classified footage of nuclear weapon tests with an eerily sublime soundtrack by Terry Riley and Patrick Gleason, the poem also incorporates the looped trigger line of Steve Reich’s Cuban Missile Crisis inspired composition “It’s Gonna Rain”. The result is an extended prose/verse piece that pulses with the energy of an impending storm:

You are the company the name is you poisoner you cannot pretend you cannot hide you cannot swim in these neon currents I am become Death the destroyer of worlds this ocean one open mouth swallowing islands this art of making things disappear in a glow that throbs in the eye that cannot sleep this frame that’s come apart leached the colour from every drifting current this voice that shakes the continents no earthly thing trembles on its breath this baldachin of milk-white smoke has nothing to hide no crystal globe no night of mean knives no shallows no depths all ploughed bare all punctured all furrowed It’s gonna rain It’s gonna rain It’s gonna rain

Beyond the sheer scope and wealth of Hoskote’s poetic vision, it is his keen sensitivity to rhythm, pacing, and visual space—the music and the architecture of a poem—that makes this collection so impressive, so endlessly engaging. If the first section contains some of the most ambitious epic offerings, complete with choral arrangements and refrains, the ten-part poem “Poona Traffic Shots”, which forms the second part, stands as sort of land-bound counterpoint tracing a cycle of rain-soaked ground voyages through countryside and memory, that calls back to the sea in its imagery:

The kick-starter has whooping cough, won’t purr.
.       A dead crow’s beak
points from the trash heap like the tip of a schooner
.       sunk in a shallow bay, a bruise
at first only grazed, then scooped by nautical furies
.       from the coast’s offered skin.

Moving into the final section, “Archipelago”,  the tone turns more intimate, not personal as these are not explicitly autobiographical or confessional poems, but smaller, sometimes quieter more focused, often inspired by art or classical themes. Like finely imagined poetic miniatures echoing history, the unforgiving beauty of nature and, as ever, rarely far from the water.

If literature can evoke a sensation so undefinable and expansive as that which I feel at the ocean’s edge, this wise and elegant collection comes close.

Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote is published by Penguin India.