Poems Come Home by Sukrita and translated by Gulzar
(HarperCollins Publishers Ltd India, 2011)
As a collection of poems, Poems Come Home is a curio shelf of a show-window that displays some of the finest poems from the past and present of Sukrita, the poet. When this curio shelf lightens up in a rainbow of colors: multivalent and multi-nuanced by translation in Urdu-Hindi by none other than one of the finest lyricist-poet, Oscar award winner Gulzar, then its kaleidoscopic gloss is blindingly captivating. The dedication: ‘Hindustani Ke Naam’, followed by the introduction by Sukrita and Gulzar prods the mind towards a certain kind of readership. Sukrita raises some fundamentally important issues related to translation: the concept of distortion in translation; loss and gain in translation; translation as a bridge between linguistic cultures and the concept of the ‘original’. “Is this really the ‘original’ that lurked somewhere in the English poems, now acquiring a fresh breath of life in the very process of recreation?” she asks. Or is it ‘two ways of seeing’ as Bluestone would have said in his critical notings on adaptation theory? It is true that ‘original’ as a word and a metaphor rests on the fulcrum of ‘gone by’. Probably yes, these poems were in a rented abode nurtured by the English language. Now they have truly come home: in Hindustani!
The mélange of poems presented in this anthology, with multiple valences, irresistible gracility, resonances and power, besides evocative imagery, pan out some newer concerns of Sukrita, juxtaposed cozily alongside some of her seminal and early concerns: the world of everyday tumult, the indigent destitutes that have always crowded her poetry; the inchoate communities and emotions, and well-staked out arguments about life and death. (“Compromise” deals with the bargain that Sukrita makes with life and death.) As a register of statements of personal poetry (confessional to an extent), it admits Sukrita’s long and deep engagement with ‘home’ as the ‘self’, as ‘identity’, as the ‘I’ coalescing towards a common identity; attempts to confront that identity; the pain of relationships, natural calamities; and the transience of memory spread on a sheet of white and innocent beauty of the mountains or even the Chestnut or Oak tree on the Shimla Hills!
Unlike her earlier anthologies, particularly the bilingual one, Rowing Together, the poems of this collection are not consciously arranged in thematic sections. The poems just come by. But on a closer read I did identify certain thematic clusters. The first cluster of 5 poems is about the “Homeless and the Dispossessed”. The second cluster of 3 poems under the section “Possessed” deals with obsessions of various kinds’ about hearing the call ‘to take a step forward’ (I) or an idea flowing from the mind (II) or possessed with the idea of keeping hope alive (III) . The four poems in “Space Contacts” dwell upon the larger theme of evolution of life; Shadow and Sun (I) Root, Flower, Rain (II) Metaphysical Stirrings (III) Emerging from/Longing for someone (IV). The fourth cluster is a set of 4 poems titled “Tsunami Snapshots”. These 16 poems still leave out 24 poems with themes of a varied nature. Broadly, under “Mountain Experiences” (my category) is, “Massey’s Tales”, one of the longest poems in this collection. Set amidst the Himalayan Oaks, the Chinars, it deals with the guard at the Viceregal Lodge recounting his strange fascination for the cold blue eyes of his former master. “The Chosen One”, a nature poem is again about Summer Hill, Shimla Monkeys and Chestnut tress. Closely associated to these experiences is the poem “To You, Whoever”, addressed to a snake. In fact snakes and reptiles do abound in Sukrita’s poetry. “Alone” and “How to Begin” as sister poems have to be read together.
In Gulzar’s hands the poetic nuances of Sukrita’s verse come alive! An experienced master craftsman of words, his eyes and ears catch and feel the minutest stirrings of the soul and mind in her poems. Every word that he has used seems inevitable: In her poem, “We the Homeless IV” ‘…reptiles/gnawing/at his insides’ has been translated such: ‘andar hi andar usko, kutarte, raingte keereh.’’ The word Keereh and none other could convey the true import of these lines; and ‘faithlessness’ becomes ‘kam imaani’ in “We the Homeless V”. This can only be the work of a seasoned poet like Gulzar. Consider the following examples of an astute translator at work with a mastery of language that is unparalleled: ‘vacant’ as ‘kore’ and ‘filling me/fiercely/with motherhood’ as ‘mere andar mamta ka/sailabh umarh aaya’. This way “We the Homeless I” becomes a new poem in his hands, the meaning of the poem has so beautifully been captured. “Parting Again”, the first poem in this anthology, is a fine example to understand the process of transcreation. Read the following: Sadness sits like/a snake in my belly/turning and twisting/giving me hysterics. Let us look at Gulzar’s creation: Udasi saap si, naabhi par kundli maar ke baithi huyi hai/palat ti, karvatein leti mujhe tarpa rahi hai. ‘Hysterics’ as a word has simply been understood and contextualized, thus, transcreated such that it appears cozy and apt in the re-creation.
One almost finds a rapprochement of sorts happening between English and Hindustani! Sukrita calls this dialoguing as ‘Tight rope walking’ in her introduction, where the original and the translation do not impinge upon each other, where beauty and fidelity are creatively transfused and the translations come out as breathing in an autonomous space. More than a technical transfer, this avatar acquires a life of its own. Examples of English and Hindustani dialoguing with each other abound (e.g. wealthy sinners as vasseele vale in “We the Homeless II”; ‘words’ as ‘alphaaz’ in “Ageing in America”) and capturing the Hindustani lurking in Sukrita’s poetry, for example, salt on old wounds (“My Lost Diary”) as Zakhmon pe namak chirkaate rehna; the contexts of Azaan, Namaaz and reference to the fourteenth night of the lunar month when the moon is only a slender curve, in “Above the Ground”, linking it up ably with prayers in Hindustani, is truly remarkable. It is at such instances that one ignores meaning - shifts in translation such as this one: Dark-Grey/Clouds half-sitting/on folded legs/for Namaaz/In the skies as do janoo huye baadal/parhne ko namaz apni (“Above the Ground”). This poem with cadences of Sufi thought, when read in translation is incomplete. Same is the case with “Many a Moment”, a poem about keeping dreams alive. By not translating certain lines of these poems, in a sense pollarding them, has Gulzar infused them with a new life? Tellingly, both the author and the translator choose to ignore this lack of completeness and do not mention this even in their introductions.
Stylistically, with a gentle use of paradoxical expressions (“We the Homeless IV”), the pages of her poetry are sparsely populated with words. (“We the Homeless III” is a fine example of the author’s minimal use of words and brevity of expressions): “Madamji, / Can you get me/My mai?/ My home./ Slapping the dust off himself/ The little boy/queried, his eyes rolling in hope. . . .(8)” This brevity is further nuanced in the translation too: “Gard jhaar ke/aankhon mein ummeed ghuma ke/poochha chhote chhokrey ne. . . .(9).”Ridden by almost a manic precision in utterance, Sukrita confesses that she is, ‘as sensitive to shedding words as using them.’ “Just a Little One” is one such example that captures the innocence of the child in short pithy lines. Feminine sensitivities are sufficiently evoked with impulses of motherhood (“We the Homeless I”) and sisterhood (“Ageing in America”), and of compassion for the old woman, (“The Mad Woman in the Avenue of Stars”), though apparently, the poet herself is most unconscious of this fact. Feminine sensitivities are sufficiently evoked with impulses of motherhood (“We the Homeless I”) and sisterhood (“Ageing in America”), and of compassion for the old woman (“The Mad Woman in the Avenue of Stars”). From a vantage point of a confessional poet, “My Lost Diary” is a personal poem about a painful memory of certain important relationships in life. Far from being mawkish, these poems are quite overtly feminist.
Sukrita is a poet of reality. In applying this phrase to her, I wish to call attention to the fact that in her poetry; the residue of the fundamental and the essential nature of life come out as experiential truths. Her poetry reflects inner dilemmas and tensions and often an attempt to, ‘perhaps sort them out for myself’. This also explains rather obliquely, the unconscious purpose behind placing the index at the end. It almost prompts a backward reading all over again. It would be unfair to compare her poetry with any of the contemporary poets, even women poets writing in English because her poetry displays a rootedness and a kind of bilingualism not found aplenty. A typical Sukrita poem ends rather than concludes and irresolution is offered as a very natural conundrum. “Cold Storage” translated as “Khat Ek” (literally implying “A Letter”) is a poignant page, imaginatively read out from India’s most sensitive past, the Partition, and its imprints on Punjab, the land of five rivers. Starting off with a semi-diasporic longing, replete with feelings of nostalgia and displacement, its protagonist, Vaddi Ma yearns to go back to Bhatinde, meri rano ke pas/…meri jarurat hogi usko/itne mahine ho jaye toh/gaye ‘okhi’ho jati hai. Poems rooted in real life like the “Corpses” or the four poems in “Tsunami Snapshots” have the broad theme of triumph over adversity such as the snakes creating “a lap of poison to keep death out of boundaries” (“Tsunami Snapshots I”) or the little head “hanging like a coconut…”(“Tsunami Snapshots II”) or a sense of awe and bewilderment at the passage of time, nature’s fury and ‘life itself’ (“Tsunami Snapshots III”), showcasing the other humanist concerns of Sukrita.
Translations also often lend themselves to comparisons. Since two of her collections have been translated, I cannot refrain from drawing a comparison between the two translations of “We the Homeless V” in order to only home in the point that mastery in the language in which the original finds a new home is so important. Let’s read this: With feline alacrity/My hand moved to cover/my bandaged finger/marking my faithlessness. Gulzar translates: Phurti se maine/patti-bandhi apni ungli ko chhupa liya,/aur apni kam-imaani ko-bhi. The other translation reads like this: billivaali phurti ke saath/mera haath meri patti bandhi unguliyon ko/dhankne ke liye barha/meri anaastha ko darshaate huye. Sukrita was unwittingly self-revelatory when she told an interviewer recently that Gulzar’s translations ‘brought the poems not just to an appropriate language but also captured the inner rhythm of the English poems that he rendered in meter in translation.’
The one poem that I consider as the very ne plus ultra of this collection is also one of the finest translated poems, “Insight” as “Roshni ke Daayare ke”. It reads like this: ‘In the centre of/that circle of light/Rising slowly/over the river of experience/panting and huffing/ Lies the truth of my life/so white/I cannot see it/ All colours merged,/Lives absorbed/the white becomes whiter/And I/More blind. Gulzar’s pen does the following to this poem: Roshani ke daayare ke/aen markaz mein/Tajurbe ke saare dariyaon se/dheere dheere uthti/haaphti aur kaampti/meri poori zindagi ki ek sadakat rakhi hai/safed itni/dhekh bhi sakti nahin mein/saare rangon ko samete/safed bhi ab safedtar hai/aur mein…/kuch aur andhi. In all, it is the nuanced use of Urdu words that has earned Gulzar critical cachet and this also remains the hallmark of the collection. “Voyaging at Ten” is an old poem of Sukrita’s, which finds its way in most of her anthologies. The poem displays a unique rootedness in an experience which in itself is no less than ordinary. As an example of two conscious craftsmen, sonorously blended together, both are faithful to the desire for brevity of expression and precision at its best. Read the following: ‘Between awesome expanses/of deep Blue oceans/and the graying sky’ as ‘bekarain neele samander (a fine example of brevity) /kanpati se safed hote aasmaan ke darmiyan’. Only Gulzar can transfuse such a poem with such exquisite metaphoric translation of the ‘shores’ as ‘support’: The shores are not/in sight…as saahil vo nazar aata nahin. The translation is truly beautiful in its use of urdu words: speck as nukhte; God’s creation as kaayenaat; Blue death as aabi kabrh.
Whose collection is it anyway! This is the quandary that you may find yourself in after having finished savouring this Hindustani delight!
An academic and a translator, Prem Kumari Srivastava is an Associate Professor of English at Maharaja Agrasen College, University of Delhi. A Visiting Shastri Fellow at University of British Columbia, Vancouver in 2010, she has several research presentations (national and international) and publications in books and eminent journals such as South Asian Diaspora, Routledge, Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi, Literary Paritantra, DEI and Creative Forum, Bahri to her credit. Co-Guest Editor of the journal Fortell (Forum for Teachers of English Language and Literature), New Delhi for four issues in 2010-2011, she has been appointed the Guest Editor again for its forthcoming Silver Anniversary Issue no. 25, Sep 2012. Her research interests are Cultural Studies (indigenous and the popular) American Studies, Religion of Saints and e learning: with an overarching focus on Gender. Her poems have been showcased in journals such as Kritya, Families: a Journal of Representations, and Your Space: Muse India. Adrienne Rich, Yeats, Jayant Mahapatra and Tagore are some of the poets who inspire her poetry. She is on the Editorial Board of Fortell and Literaria. Her Bionote can be viewed at: http://fortell.org/fortell/MEMBERS/EditorialBoard/PremSrivastava.aspx