After Ezra Pound, Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Bly, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra has energetically tried his hand at translating Kabir’s poetry into English. His Songs of Kabir, published by New York Review of Books, carries a preface by Wendy Doniger. He spoke to Yamini Deenadayalan about why Kabir should be allowed to understand chromosomes, the Indian poetry scene and why Indians have attention deficit disorder.
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, 64
Excerpts from an interview
Is there an ‘authentic’ Kabir poem?
The idea of Kabir is a constructed one and it is still under construction. A few thousand ‘Kabir’ poems have been written from the 1400s to today, and people are still writing them. Poems can come in more than one version, sometimes in as many as six or eight. Like the blues in music, the singers would change the songs, as it pleased them. We don’t know anything about the historical figure Kabir, except that he was born in Benares and was a weaver by profession. We don’t know if he travelled to Punjab and Rajasthan, where some manuscripts with his poems are found.
You have said that words like ‘train’ and ‘engine’ are used in some folk versions of Kabir. How have you approached your own translation?
In tone and choice of words, I try and stick to a conversational tone and to everyday language. I have Kabir say in one poem that though people consider him to be mad, it’s not that he was born “With an extra chromosome”. The historical Kabir, and the Kabir of the manuscripts, obviously did not know about chromosomes, but the Kabir of the folk tradition might have. He certainly knew about ‘train’ and ‘engine’, as a researcher in Rajasthan discovered while collecting Kabir songs in the 1990s. The folk tradition, whether in art or literature, is not pure, never has been, which is what keeps it alive and interesting.
Kabir is often deployed as an ambassador for modern secularism. Does that match your interpretation?
The idea of the secular Kabir arose after Independence, when he was seen as someone upholding Hindu-Muslim unity. In fact, he was a thorn in the flesh of both communities. He was too disruptive to have been likeable, too unorthodox in his views. He abused both Brahmins and quazis. He made fun of Hindu gods, of idol-worship, just as he made fun of turning towards Mecca to pray five times a day. Were someone to sing about the same things today he’d probably be lynched, or at least would find his house stoned by the Bajrang Dal. Our ‘modern’ times are also less tolerant. Kabir, a bhakti poet, was the opposite of secular. Though he called his god Rama or Hari, this Rama is not to be confused with the god of the Ramayana. There are poems where Kabir says that god is the husband and he, the young wife and they never meet even though they sleep in the same bed. The poems sometimes have an erotic undertone, which is not unusual in bhakti poetry.
Do you read other contemporary poets? For example, this week we’re reviewing K Satchidanandan, Sampurna Chattarji and Meena Kandasamy.
To be honest, I have of late read little contemporary poetry, or little of anything else. This is partly because when you’re working on something, you read in that area and other kinds of reading get neglected. But I hope this will soon change, now that the Kabir book is done.
Do you think Indians still read poetry today?
There is a readership, certainly, but the problem is of getting the word around, in a literal sense. There should be a ‘listenership’ as well as a readership, with one feeding into the other. When was the last time that an Indian college or university had a poet over for a reading? How do we expect more people to read poetry when they might not even know what books exist, let alone what is inside them.
Bookstores say there’s no demand for it; and readers say that they don’t buy poetry because it’s so hard to find. It’s a Catch-22 situation. Bookstores need to get more adventurous. There are extraordinary poets around. For instance, Arun Kolatkar’s works are available individually but not in a collected form. Manohar Shetty’s wonderful new book, Personal Effects, came out recently, but it’s published by a small press in Goa and not easily available. We probably need more anthologies — more poets together. Individual volumes rarely get noticed these days. I don’t know when I last saw a poetry book being reviewed.
Why don’t Indian critics step up? What is the state of reviewing and criticism in India?
Shoddy to say the least. Whether it’s reviewing poetry or fiction, we have a low threshold. There’s a problem with our use of English. Indians don’t know how to write. The problem is of writing muddled prose. We use it for decorative purposes. Words are used as ornaments, to adorn sentences. But words are primarily meant to communicate, we seem to lose sight of this fact. The English in The Hindu’s literary section, the sentences make little sense, either on their own or in context. This used to be called babu English. If editors knew better, they’d toss the piece back at the reviewer and ask for a rewrite, but it never happens.
Kabir was too disruptive to have been likeable. If someone sang like him today, his house would be stoned by the Bajrang Dal
The other problem is that editors want a 400-page novel reviewed in 48 hours. [And] there are no specialist poetry reviewers — just like you wouldn’t send an academic history book to a nonacademic, you can’t send a poetry book to someone who doesn’t understand poetry. We muddle along, but we’re always beaming at each other because we’re all so successful. Or at least we appear to be so. This is a peculiarity in India, a situation of extreme literary poverty. We need 2,000-3,000 word reviews.
Do you think there’s a readership for longer pieces?
I haven’t seen the 4,000-word essay yet and am told Indians can’t concentrate on longer pieces. Are we are a semi-intelligent breed if we can’t read more than 600 words? In the US and UK, the broadsheets carry 2,000 word interviews and profiles of authors,at least.
So what’s the point of a publishing boom if there’s no critical culture?
No point at all, if you ask me. So long as you are alive, you can promote yourself — have a book launch and go to the Jaipur, Kovalam or Gangtok literary festival. It’s the critical culture that keeps a book alive, long after you’re dead and gone, when you are no longer seen at lit fests and launches. If you’re not there to flog the book, no one else will flog it for you. It’s happened in the past and it’ll happen again.
Yamini Deenadayalan is a Features Correspondent with Tehelka