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3 poems from I, Lalla - Lal Ded translated by Ranjit Hoskote

“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 looking for anchorage in a potentially hostile landscape, and into a questor who has found belonging beneath a sky that is continuous with her mind”

“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 Apabhramsa-prakrit that had been the common language of the region through the first millennium CE.”

- From Ranjit Hoskote’s introduction to I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded

When I read Ranjit Hoskote’s sensitive, charged translations of the legendary Kashmiri vate Lal Ded, I am reminded of Hamlet’s wondrous musing -

"I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."- and of Sylvia Plath’s exhortation - is there no way out of the mind? Hoskote illuminates the different positionalities that the poet takes, and every time I read her vakhs I chance upon a different facet of her prismatic exploration of the world - both inner and outer (is there a difference?). The translated collection I, Lalla carries a brilliant introduction by Hoskote that deals with questions of authorship, authenticity, tradition, translation, religious and philosophical context among other things. I find this introduction and the translations nothing less than colourful literary trapeze acts, where the writer’s pen slices through centuries, and changes colour as it translates and transforms. This is all the more significant asHoskote enunciates that little has been written about the poet-prophet’s life - “All that we know of her life has been communicated orally, through the medium of legend”.

Like the works of Kabir, Tukaram, Bulleh Shah, Mira, Andal, Mahadeviyakka and Basavanna, Lalla’s vakhs are disruptive, and defy easy categorisation into the blanket label of ‘mystic’. They’re often soaked in the surreal affect of the experience of enlightenment. (This selection of poets presumes some of my personal favourites. Each of these mystics that I have mentioned have unique backstories and contexts and there are secondary texts delineating them. I have found A.K. Ramanujan’s writings on mystic traditions, for instance, very interesting too). As i share Lalla’s poems with you, I implore you to get a copy of Hoskote’s brilliant translations that have just found a new home as hardcover.

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