Not Your Father’s Kabir

by Hasan Altaf

200px-Kabir004The poet Kabir died in 1518, so it is jarring to open a translation of his writings and read the following line: “O pundit, your hairsplitting's/so much bullshit.” It is even stranger to look up and realize that the poem bears an epigraph (“It take a man that have the blues so to sing the blues”) from the American musician Lead Belly, who was not even born until 1888. A quick scan through the volume reveals more epigraphs (Pound, Coleridge), a dedication (one poem is for Geoff Dyer) and vocabulary that Kabir himself could not have come up with: “Smelling of aftershave/and deodorants/the body's a dried up well…” Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's Songs of Kabir is not, it is safe to say, your father's Kabir.

We have certain expectations when it comes to literature of this sort – the literature that we call “classical” or “ancient” or “historical” (to say nothing of that literature we call “sacred”): We want grandeur, pomp and circumstance; we want even a touch of the archaic – no thee-ing and thou-ing, necessarily, but some whiff of the past, something epic, removed from the mundane and the modern. Those translators who subvert this expectation and leave that desire unfulfilled are not always looked on kindly: A review of Anne Carson's An Oresteia, for example (Carson's, and indefinitely-articled, because she took one play each from Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides to refashion the story of the house of Atreus; call it a remix) took umbrage with her diction, her use of the word “car” rather than “carriage.” Agamemnon comes home from Troy in a car; what, did he roll up in a Volvo? Did he have to stop somewhere for gas before reaching Mycenae?

Mehrotra's Kabir has, at first, a similar effect. It's jarring to hear this poet speak in a language that is so simple, modern, familiar; Kabir should sound old and wise, like the saint he was, like a holy book or, at the very least, like Yoda. This Kabir, though, calls the pundit out on “bullshit” and ask the muezzin the simple question, “What's your problem?” In another poem, we get this: “I fucked young men/too numerous to count/and stayed a virgin” – it's like hearing your grandmother start speaking like your friends, using curses that could put them to shame.

Some people might close the book at that point, go looking for another translation that better captures the dignity or the grandeur that we seek in this kind of literature. But although some of Mehrotra's devices remain awkward (as when he has Kabir wish for a megaphone), eventually the strangeness becomes rewarding. The language of these translations makes them more immediate, brings Kabir closer to the reader – the distance of “time” and “great literary and historical and cultural value” is lost, and readers can approach him without all that baggage. One poem in particular makes this clear; Mehrotra translates:

I'm grapefruit

And I'm sweet lime

I'm Hindu

And I'm Muslim

I'm fish

And I'm net

I'm fisherman

And I'm time

I'm nothing

Says Kabir

I'm not among the living

Or the dead

The sentiment remains recognizably ancient (almost Zen: I'm fish/and I'm net), recognizably Kabir (na Kaashi na Kailash mein), but the language itself is very much a twenty-first century language, very much our language. In her preface to this edition, Wendy Doniger writes that the “slang, neologisms, and anachronisms… are a brilliant means of conveying much of the shock effect that upside-down language would have had upon Kabir's fifteenth-century audiences” (“upside-down language” referring to this kind of riddling poem). Mehrotra himself, discussing other translations, describes the corpus of Kabir as a kind of pada, which for a medieval or even a modern singer “was not something whose words had unalterably been fixed… but something that was provisional and fluid, a working draft, whose lines and images could be shifted around, or substituted by others, or deleted entirely.” He compares this to the blues, rendering the epigraph from Lead Belly even more appropriate.

I remember thinking, the first time I read (or was forced to read, at the hands of my three-years-older brother) Shakespeare, that someone should have updated the language, brought it out of that Elizabethan skin and made it new, more appropriate for the modern age. Thankfully, this reaction did not last very long (I blame it on the entirely understandable derision of a child for his sibling's interests), but the underlying point remains, I think, valid. Literature that is “destined to endure as a piece of literature,” as Lydia Davis put it in The Paris Review, is usually that literature that we ourselves feel compelled to update, to bring out of the past, to bring out of its origins and into our own lives.

The literature that is in our own languages, we often simply turn into films: Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, for example, in which the words remained in the original but the setting became more our own. With literature that is foreign, this duty falls to translators. (Davis was discussing her new translation of Madame Bovary; the quote was in context of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, which had been translated into English once, but if “destined to endure,” at some point would have to be translated again.) When the work is both foreign and ancient – Kabir, Sanskrit literature, Greek drama – the translator's job is doubled: They have to not only render it in a language understandable to us, but also, somehow, to make it fresh, make it breathe again.

The precise, footnoted and annotated word-for-word translations are, of course, valuable, but translations like Mehrotra's Kabir or Carson's Greeks are equally so, and having both available to us is a greater wealth than either would be alone. The former provide us with the meaning, with what was actually said; the latter show us its power, the heart behind the words. It is a testament to Kabir that, so many years later, we are still reading his work, still learning from it, and it is a testament to Mehrotra's translations that even with a poet of this stature, a poet who has been translated and studied so much, he could make the words seem fresh and new. This Kabir is our Kabir, speaking to us, for us; this Kabir is one of us.