Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s new translation of Kabir is hip, hopping and wise, says Sampurna Chattarji
“ A KABIR poem has no time to waste; it hits the ground running.” So says Arvind Krishna Mehrotra in the introduction to his translation of the Songs of Kabir. This statement sums up what we can expect from the book, which aligns itself to the improvisatory school of Ezra Pound, Rabindranath Tagore and Robert Bly rather than the scholarly school of Charlotte Vaudeville, Linda Hess, Nirmal Dass and Vinay Dharwadker. We can expect speed, yes; economy, yes; but also, and perhaps most importantly, we can expect speech. Mehrotra’s translations will speak the lingo of the street — often, identifiably, the American street — and they will do so with an all-knowing grin, as if signalling us to wise-up or be let down. There is a supreme confidence in this stance, and a teasing bait for scholars who, as conjured up in the concluding image of his introduction, will continue to pore over and get exercised by the core texts attributed to that “supremely anti-authoritarian master” — Kabir.
Mehrotra would like to win us over to his side of the improvisatory-fence, the cool ‘with-it-ness’ of the language, and as it happens, he (mostly) succeeds. If I have one quarrel with this approach, it is the significant tonal shift it entails. The beautiful anchoring rhythms of the originals — which sit opposite their English counterparts in this wonderfully presented bilingual edition — grip you as you read them aloud. In the translations, the grip of song is loosened and the flow of speech carries you along. Attempting to recreate that measured resonance in English may undoubtedly have led to rigid unreadable verse, and I am grateful that Mehrotra has not done so. But, even as I celebrate wholeheartedly the fluidity, the modernity, the ease that is gained in this translation, I mourn the inherent formal music that has been lost.
Having said that, it’s hard to put the book down! You can read it from cover to cover as if it were a thriller, not least because it teems with places we have been, mentally, spiritually, physically; characters we have met in our lives, in our dreams, in our nightmares; situations we have faced, feared, run away from. “I live in Fearlessburg,” Kabir the weaver says. Wish I did too, the reader says. “O pundit, your hair-splitting’s/ So much bullshit,” Kabir says. True, the reader says. “Everyone’s a sucker,” Kabir says, “Not me.” If only, the reader says, I could be like you. Off to paradise? the reader says. Forget it, Kabir says, “I’m okay where I am… Spare me the trip.” After all, “Is there a paradise anyway?”
This book is Mehrotra’s riff on Kabir’s songs, and the result, though uneven, is irreverent, slangy and wise.
Chattarji’s latest poetry collection Absent Muses is published by Poetrywala.