I trapped my breath in the bellows of my throat: a lamp blazed up inside, showed me who I really was. I crossed the darkness holding fast to that lamp, scattering its light-seeds around me as I went.
The poems of the fourteenth-century Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded, popularly known as Lalla, strike us like brief and blinding bursts of light. Epiphanic and provocative, they shuffle between the vulnerability of doubt and the assurance of an insight gained through resilience and reflection; these poems are as sensuously evocative as they are charged with an ecstatic devotion: Lalla does not surrender meekly to enlightenment but embraces it with wild passion.
The poet Ranjit Hoskote’s new English translation restores the jagged, colloquial power of Lalla’s verse, stripping away a century of ornate, Victorian-inflected translations and paraphrases. In a radical break with the established convention of treating Lal Ded as a single author, Hoskote instead proposes the theory that her name stands for a contributory lineage of questions and recites who followed in her wake. While introducing the reader to the philosophical, political and social contexts of the original poetry, Hoskote also attempts to address the troubled history of Kashmir through the figure of Lal Ded.
Emotionally rich yet philosophically precise, sumptuously enigmatic yet crisply structured, Lalla’s poems in Ranjit Hoskote’s translation are glorious manifestos of illumination.
Ranjit Hoskote is a poet, cultural theorist and curator. His collections of poetry include Vanishing Acts: New & Selected Poems 1985-2005 (Penguin, 2006) and Die Ankunft der Vogel (Carl Hanser Verlag, 2006). His poems have appeared in Akzente, Boulevard Magenta, Fulcrum, Green Integer Review, Iowa Review, Nthposition and Wespennest.
Hoskote was a Fellow of the International Writing Program, University of Iowa (1995) and writer-in-residence at Villa Waldberta, Munich (2003) and the Polish Institute, Berlin (2010).
1. Lal Ded: Life, Poetry and Historical Context
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.
The poems of the fourteenth-century Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded strike us like brief and blinding bursts of light: epiphanic, provocative, they shuttle between the vulnerability of doubt and the assurance of an insight gained through resilience and reflection. These poems are as likely to demand that the Divine reveal itself, as to complain of its bewildering and protean ubiquity. They prize clarity of self-knowledge above both the ritualist’s mastery of observances and the ascetic’s professional athleticism. If they scoff at the scholar who substitutes experience with scripture and the priest who cages his God in a routine of prayers, they also reject the renouncer’s austere mortification of the body. 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.
To the outer world, Lal Ded is arguably Kashmir’s best known spiritual and literary figure; within Kashmir, she has been venerated both by Hindus and Muslims for nearly seven centuries. For most of that period, she has successfully eluded the proprietorial claims of religious monopolists. Since the late 1980s, however, Kashmir’s confluential culture has frayed thin under the pressure of a prolonged conflict to which transnational terrorism, State repression and local militancy have all contributed. Religious identities in the region have become harder and more sharp-edged, following a substantial exodus of the Hindu minority during the early I 990s, and a gradual effort to replace Kashmir’s unique and syncretically nuanced tradition of Islam with a more Arabocentric global template. It is true that Lal Ded was constructed differently by each community, but she was simultaneously Lallesvari or Lalla Yogini to the Hindus and Lal ‘arifa to the Muslims; today, unfortunately, these descriptions are increasingly being promoted at the expense of one another In honour of the plural sensibilities that Kashmir has long nurtured, I will refer to this mystic-poet by her most celebrated and nonsectarian appellation, ‘Lal Ded’. In the colloquial, this means ‘Grandmother Lal’; more literally, it means ‘Lal the Womb’, a designation that connects her to the mother goddesses whose cults of fecundity and abundance form the deep substratum of Indic religious life. In writing of her in this book, I will also use the name by which she is most popularly and affectionately known, across community lines: Lalla.
Called vakhs, Lalla’s poems are among the earliest known manifestations of Kashmiri literature, and record the moment when Kashmiri began to emerge, as a modern language, from the Sanskrit-descended Apabhrama-prakrit that had been the common language of the region through the first millennium c. The word vakh, applicable both as singular and plural, is cognate with the Sanskrit vac, ‘speech’, and vakya, ‘sentence’. This has prompted previous translators to render it as ‘saying’, ‘verse’ and ‘verse-teaching’; I would prefer to translate it as ‘utterance’. A total of 258 vakhs attributed to Lalla have circulated widely and continuously in Kashmiri popular culture between the mid- fourteenth century and the present, variously assuming the form of songs, proverbs and prayers.
As we have received them, Lalla’s vakhs bear the definite imprint of an ongoing process of linguistic and cultural change, which is recorded at the level of form, imagery, concept and vocabulary. Some archaic words and phrases remain embedded in these poems, dues attesting to an earlier stratum of the Kashmiri language; some allegorical references may seem arcane on a first reading, their frames lost to view. We find Sanskritic terms and phrases here, drawn from a larger Hindu-Buddhist universe of meaning that extended from Balkh in the west, across Kashmir, Ladakh and Tibet, to China, Korea and Japan in the east, and southward through the Gangetic regions to peninsular India, Sri Lanka and South-east Asia. These Sanskritic elements share conceptual and linguistic space, in the vakhs, with more Arabic or Persianate locutions, indicative of dialogue with the Islamic ecumene that stretched, during Lalla’s lifetime, from Spain across North Africa and West Asia to China. Accordingly, we find occasional but unmistakeable hints of Sufi and possibly also of Sikh usage in this corpus of poems. And yet, much of Lalla’s poetry is accessible to the contemporary Kashmiri listener or reader, stabilised in the idiom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: compelling evidence that this oral archive has been updated from generation to generation. Clearly, Lalla’s poetry has been continuously read and shared by various assemblies of reciters, scribes and votaries during the nearly seven hundred years of its existence, and has been reshaped and enriched by what we might describe as the informal editorial attention of these assemblies. I shall amplify on this observation in the course of this essay.
As a corpus, the vakhs were first committed to print early in the twentieth century, and have since appeared in several editions, both in the original and in English translation. The line of transmission by which Lalla’s poems achieved publication may be traced as a three-stage relay, It begins in the realm of the oral, with the text of the vakhs being woven by various Kashmiri village reciters, Hindu and Muslim, using Kashmiri in a space of relative freedom and play. These demotic recitations dramatise Lalla’s importance as an incarnation of compassion, commonsense knowledge and resistance to authority. The relay then passes to the realm of the scribal with the oral text being subordinated to the more annotative and hieratic approach of Kashmiri Brahmin compilers and commentators who, using Sanskrit and Hindi, emphasise Lalla’s philosophical convictions and thaw traditional moral conclusions from her often unorthodox teachings. The relay culminates in the realm of print, when the scribal text is codified and formatted within the protocols of modern scholarship by compilers and editors: at first by the colonial scholar-administrator using English, followed by South Asian scholars using English, Kashmiri, Urdu and Hindi. In this third stage, the text is stabilised by the fixity of print, and this stability is soon reinforced by the editorial and interpretative scrutiny brought to bear upon the printed text by such modern discursive practices as literary taxonomy, comparative philosophy and religion, Indology and cultural anthropology.
The advent of print generated its own politics in late-colonial societies, where several visions of the nation, society and history were in conflict. Where previously numerous versions of a text had been freely and simultaneously available, printing technology eclipsed these with a single edition consecrated by the authoritative touch of modernity, and which, by bringing all the versions and variants together transformed simultaneity into competition. In the case of Lalla’s vakhs, it is significant that the printed text has encoded many of the fluctuations and ambiguities of the transmission line. The availability of such a contestable printed text from late-colonial times always carries the potential for a rivalry of claims to be exercised in the postcolonial period. With regard to Lalla’s poems, that potential has been actualised during the political and cultural crisis that erupted in Kashmir in 1989 and continues to the present day. To the extent that Lalla embodies a Kashmiri identity (if not ‘the Kashmiri identity’), a piquant battle has been fought around her by various claimants, under the banners of authenticity and historicity.’ I will address these issues later in this Introduction. Before we continue, it would be appropriate to offer a brief survey of the history and sources of the text of Lalla’s poems, as we have it today.
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