Mantra Mukim reviews Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's Collected Poems 1969-2014

(Penguin Books India, 2014)

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Prakrit love poetry, and translation

Like a panel of small bright birds, perched on a page, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's English translations of Prakrit love poems have the quickness, the immediacy, and the beauty of those classic illustrations in Salim Ali's The Book of Indian Birds. One almost starts (t)reading softly, so as not to scare them away. At the same time, Mehrotra's imagist stanzas reverberate with a Modernity, with an idiom, that is crucial to Indian English poetry as a whole. His translations from Gathasaptasati, arguably one of the oldest anthologies of Indian poetry, seem to contain both the intended 'image' (in a Poundian sense) and a history of poetic choices.

Penguin's newly published collected edition of Mehrotra's work, in a happy surprise, includes not only his published poetry, but also his unpublished poems and a selection of his translations. Fencing a very rich landscape indeed, this volume makes some of Mehrotra's earliest collections, like Nine Enclosures and Middle Earth, accessible after years of absence. His latest collection, The Transfiguring Places, came out in 1998, and since then Mehrotra has published a number of books, including a collection of essays (The Partial Recall) and a groundbreaking translation of Kabir. Penguin's collection not only anticipates Mehrotra's new poetry (some of which appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Almost Island this year), but also, significantly, acknowledges the importance of his translations from other languages by placing them alongside his English language poetry.

These translations include those of Prakrit love poems, Kabir, and various modern Hindi poets including G. M. Muktibodh, Nirala, Manglesh Dabral, and Vinod Shukla. With this selection of texts, ranging from progressive Hindi poetry to pre-classical erotic verses, Mehrotra has consciously charted for himself a personal and a poetical tradition. These texts influence and modulate Mehrotra's English poems in their craft and content in the same way that the English poems feed into the 'other'. Any effort at discerning 'the real Mehrotra' between the two would be an interpretive misfire.

His translations of love poems from Maharastri Prakrit—from a celebrated collection of seven hundred verses compiled in the second century C.E.—were first published in 1990 as The Absent Traveller. They record the lives of amorous housewives and pining lovers, located outside the courtly world. The verses are pithy in their gatha (song) form, and come free of any colophon or commentary. Like a sidewalk conversation, they are direct and communicative, and—to an eavesdropper's dismay—entirely without context. This is one reason why Gathasaptasati has attracted immense critical work over the centuries, from Early Sanskrit scholars to nineteenth-century classicists, and indeed now, within the much-established field of Indology. Yeats referred to the "fascination of what's difficult," but in this case we are faced, perhaps, with the fascination of the elusive.

Mehrotra's translations, not unlike the gathas themselves, reside in the bottleneck of language, where embellishments are shunned for concrete, tangible images. They are rendered using the common Imagist techniques of compression, austerity, and rhythm, while maintaining a haiku-like internal movement. The volume's epigraphs from Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams highlight Mehrotra's additional debt to Modernism, both as a translator and a poet, allowing him to render the Prakrit poems fresh and readable. Although his translations adhere to the Arya meter of the original Prakrit, his poetics are far from unmediated import. Both his translations and his English poetry radically use and revise Western models, while at the same time relying upon each other. This dual movement, where the translator is as much the site of translation as the translated text, entails a gatha-becoming of the poet Mehrotra and Mehrotra-becoming of the gathas. The barrage of prosaic translations of the gathas that haunt libraries across India should tell us how significant this 'becoming' is.

One way of understanding Mehrotra's contribution, and its modality, is to look at some of the major shifts in Indian English poetry with regard to translations. Bruce King notes of Mehrotra's English poetry that his "influences include the collage-Cubist methods of Apollinaire and Ezra Pound [ . . . ] Such assemblages are meant to enclose the reader within the poem itself, without poems having a visible subject." King locates Mehrotra's experimentalism in a rubric of Modernist influences and understands his work vis-à-vis aesthetic developments in twentieth-century Europe and India. He contrasts Mehrotra's work with that of his predecessors who still maintained an arcane vision of poetry as something spontaneous. In Mehrotra's worldview, "Good writing is seen as a construction which develops from curiosity, originality and chance."

However, King neglects to accommodate the translation projects that Mehrotra has engaged in over the years, not even acknowledging their existence, let alone the dialogue they share with his English-language works. King's otherwise excellent introduction to Mehrotra and modern Indian poetry is, due to its unwillingness to discuss translation, incomplete. This is also the case with his reading of A. K. Ramanujan, another major poet, translator, and contemporary of Mehrotra, whose translations, running to hundreds of pages, merit only a single line's mention. Any introduction to post-independence Indian poetry must, surely, at the very least mention translation. At best, it should also examine a poet's creative work in English for connections to his or her translated texts. For example, when reading the interrogative stance and the confusion of metaphor at the beginning of Mehrotra's poem 'Locking Up' (The Transfiguring Places, 1998), one cannot help but be reminded of a Prakrit love poem:

Was that a barbet I heard
In the jujube tree?
Or walking sticks rattling
In an empty cupboard? ('Locking Up')

Aunt, can a glimpse
Dreaming of water
Slake thirst? (The Absent Traveller)

The Indian poets A.K. Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, and Dilip Chitre share Mehrotra's fondness for using translation to shape his own poetry. Most post-colonial writers were in what Kolatkar has called a 'supermarket situation,' shopping for tradition, poetics, and thought. While Kolatkar reclaimed the two Marathi Bhakti poets, Tukaram and Janabai, the Tamil Sangam poetry (second century C.E. onwards) gave shape to Ramanujan's theories of linguistics and Indian history. Translations were crucial in delineating a literary and cultural identity for these poets in a society grappling with the failures of Nehruvian socialism. Kolatkar, at one point in time, felt that his own work couldn't be published if Tukaram's remained unpublished. From Nissim Ezekiel's Poetry India to Mehrotra's Fakir, these poets have consciously attempted to incorporate other languages, other histories, against the one that they are forced to inherit. As Laetitia Zecchini states in her recent book on Kolatkar, "Modernism in India was reinvented through incessant translational and transnational transactions." This wasn't an invention of the nationalist kind, far from it; it ran counter to the grand narratives of a Sanskritic and Brahminical past.

The yardstick of Kolatkar's or Mehrotra's translational success cannot be merely their so-called fidelity to the original text. To say that a modern translation moves away from the original text is lazy critical practice, and naturalizes one kind of translation over all others—usually the one that gratifies the conventions of literary criticism. Mehrotra's versions, loyal or not, have the potential to unsettle not only older translations, but also older readings of a text. His translations, and those of his contemporaries, must be seen as more than mere imitations of their originals. A.K. Ramanujan makes the point clearly:

I am not the kind of translator who is a ventriloquist, who can become the voice of the ancient poet. I also don't believe in that. Ultimately the language you translate into comes from yourself. As hard as you try, you just cannot get away from it. It has to come from your expressive needs.
Ramanujan and Kolatkar share with Mehrotra an aesthetics of translation, a diction that makes them easier to distinguish amongst their contemporaries. A comfortable use of American demotic along with a distinct blues phraseology can be found in almost all of their work. But, as mentioned earlier, these trends are not entirely unmediated; the concrete Imagist sequences are interspersed with local curses and epithets. These vernaculars are narrow alleyways cutting across the broader, and better recognized, high streets of Modernist syntax. Their translations are notable both for their linguistic singularity and their interpretive revision:

god my darling
do me a favour and kill my mother-in-law (Janabai translated by Kolatkar)

You had one life
And you blew it. (Kabir translated by Mehrotra)

Look here:
being naughty
grabbing our dolls
and doing wild things
won't get you anywhere. (Nammalvar translated by Ramanujan)

The stylistic gestures employed here suggest more than a formal involvement with the original text; they point to the highly creative ways of reading that Modernity occasions. Mehrotra hints at this when, in his introduction to Gathasaptasati, he writes "to translate such a book is then to share the excitement of reading." The fact that these translations owe so much to their re-reading of the source text sets them apart from other such ventures. This applies to Mehrotra's updating of other ancient poets, too. For example, the verses of the medieval saint Kabir have been renewed in numerous translations before, but none have dared to dedicate a poem thus:

Yogi man, this one's for you. (Kabir Granthavali)
Mehrotra's highly original reading of Kabir's colloquialisms has freed itself from established interpretations that all but erase the older poet's linguistic flirtations and 'excess.' This, without doubt, tells us how these translations, like any contemporary poem, are cognizant of modern readership. Bent upon the original text, fishing for images that are still alive, both Mehrotra's Prakrit love poems and his recent renderings of Kabir avoid using coeval imagery to try and reproduce the original text's 'authenticity.' They are diligent attempts to 'translate the reader,' as Ramanujan puts it—the focus is not just on producing an alternative translation, but an alternative reading that allows today's reader to participate in and access an older text. Three translations of Kabir, quoted in Mehrotra's introduction to Songs of Kabir, reify his departure from tradition:

How could the love between Thee and me sever? (Tagore)

Why should we two ever want to part? (Robert Bly)

Separate us?
Pierce a diamond first. (Mehrotra)

Re-reading the Prakrit gathas is not only a modern prerogative. It has long been subject to conflicting interpretations, starting with Anandvardhana's Dhvanyaloka (820-890), which reads its verses as an apt model for dhvani: sound, or suggestion. Two other prominent readings are Mathuranath Shastri's, which locates all the verses in the dramatic mode, and Gangadharbhatta's, which reads them entirely for their erotic beauty. Mehrotra becomes part of this interpretive latitude the moment he annotates his edition with Gangadharbhatta's commentary, and nods to Anandvardhan in the close attention he pays to breath patterns and musical pauses in the poems themselves.

Maharastri Prakrit articulated the domestic and erotic lives of people who inhabited the fringes of a courtly world described so elaborately in Sanskrit literature. The poems employ images as direct and universal as "cupped hands, a pregnant woman, a man staring," and represent the love—or lost love—of the common citizen:

Unable to count
The days of separation
Beyond her fingers and toes,
The unlettered girl breaks down. (The Absent Traveller)

Prakrit, playing second fiddle to Sanskrit until its decimation, has for a long time been considered both linguistically and morally degenerate, especially since Brahmanism, an offshoot of Sanskrit culture, started regulating discourses on love, education, and religion. In reality, Sanskrit rhetoricians themselves were modelling their theories on Prakrit works. The following lines challenge these discourses on multiple counts. They puncture the logic of male desire, not only by letting the female subject speak, but also by letting her speak in a language of utmost sexual freedom:

Always wanting me
To come on top
And complaining
We're childless,
As if you could brim
An inverted water-jug. (The Absent Traveller)

Mehrotra maintains that "Translations [ . . . ] shoot to kill, and having obliterated the original, transmigrate its soul into another language." This "soul," I would think, pertains to a language's lived reality, its social and political context. Thus a translation cannot help but carry within it the traces of conflicts in which the original was involved. Today, even in their English versions, the Prakrit love poems hold the same disruptive value, and are set against the inheritors of the same Brahminical discourses. They are contending a society whose State and media often come together to maintain a false (read: Hindu) cultural continuum, fashioning itself in the image of nationalist histories.

The Prakrit love poems have no time to waste. Mehrotra's translations bear the source text in nimble images, quick-paced metre and neat symbols. However, Mehrotra does not coerce the translations into speaking like an older text is often made to, with coy reverence or deliberate archaisms. His translations speak to us as any of 'our' own poems would, which is why Mehrotra's presence in the texts is as another poet, who reads his predecessors and chooses to transcribe his reading into poetry. The transcribed poem does not deny its ancestry, but nor does it shy away from making a claim for its present.