Ranjit Hoskote’s I, Lalla recasts the poems (vakhs) of the 14th century mystic Lalleshwari as the collaboration of many authors over six centuries. Excerpts from a conversation during the Poetry With Prakriti Festival.
You’ve entitled your book of translations as “I, Lalla”, and believe that although there was a historical figure (a poet and mystic) by that name, over the centuries the body of work that was attributed to her was in fact composed by multiple people, many Lallas. So on the one hand you have the palimpsest and on the other, a persona that emerges from it. What was your experience of working with both?
It’s actually an inference you make after going through the material – you realize that it’s actually a polyphony. The corpus attributed to Lalla is a collection of many tonalities, lines of argument, different kinds of musicality, and different bodies of imagery. And it is possible through some turns of phrase and choice of words to infer that certain pieces came from earlier or later periods. There are certain internal evidences. For instance, certain administrative references (which existed in the 18th century but not in the 14th). Or when Shiva is referred to as “sahib”, as a word for “lord”. The poems have been continuously rephrased for contemporary usage; they are not frozen in an old Kashmiri text. There is no mythic old Kashmiri text.
You’ve used the word “confluentuality” to situate Lalla in spaces which are, alternately or at once, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other identities. This is a confluentuality that unnerves those with narrow sectarian interests. Tell us more.
I think the hard-edged identities of religion or ethnicity are to a great extent modern constructs. If you look at pre-modern India, what you’re really looking at is a set of intersecting geographies. The three major dynamics are trade routes, pilgrimage routes and invasion routes. You find a constant migration of people: new cults, new texts, new religious ideas and also new secularities. From the 12th to the 18th century this is what you have. A lot of this activity is in fact confluential – people who extend themselves beyond what is permitted to them canonically. We’re still playing out the politics of the 20th century to a large extent – which was a really divisive, annihilative politics, creating hard-edged identities at the expense of the other. In a situation like that everybody suffers but what are most damaged are forms that developed at the intersections. A particularly sad example internationally would be the culture of the Arab-speaking Jews, a flourishing culture from Morocco, Iraq and Syria, which completely fell between the lines of Zionist and Arab interests. It’s impossible to continue, pushed into an either/or logic. The imagination becomes less capacious in these terms.
The term secularism is often upheld as the preferred, politically correct narrative – how does an essentially syncretic figure like Lalla add to or complicate the debate?
Secularism is technically an equidistance from all religions. In India it’s come to represent an ability to embrace all religions. The tragedy is that however you interpret it, it involves simplifying or damaging the sense of all religions, their richness of detail. If by secular you mean something that is skeptical of the sacred, then that’s a fundamental lack of understanding about the religious imagination. My problem with this is that secularists tend to embrace the cultural concepts of religion while shying away from the philosophical and ideological.
This work is also interesting in the debate about cultural authenticity. You’ve said that “authenticity suggests an original against which comparisons can be made”, and that Lalla is “a perfect argument for how culture is always a hybrid invention”.
Until the earlier 20th century, the vakhs were orally transmitted. In the 1920’s there was a print version, which assumes authority, so what were earlier versions became variants. So long as it was oral or in the form of script it was still an open-ended text. This theory I’ve put forward of a contributory lineage allows us to look critically at the whole concept of authorship. From my point of view the corpus is full of performers, writers, editors and the unlettered people of the [Kashmiri] valley. In the nature of how such contributions work, what is important is not the name of the author (which cannot be known) but attributes made.
Men on quests of faith had the acceptable trajectory of being a son, a householder, a retiree and then a renunciate to look to. Female seekers like Lalla had to reject the system entirely. What are your thoughts on how gender might have come into play in the life and work of Lalla?
In the life more than the work. I would think the Kashmiri Saivite tradition has always been a tradition of householders. Even if there were ascetics who retreated to the forests, they were chiefly householders. For Lalla there was no other option. Her spiritual quest was at odds with what was expected of her as a woman, so she took up the life of a wandering seeker. The conventional reading has been to talk about the historical personage using scanty biographical evidence, mostly chronicles. To my mind this is not the most productive way to do this. I am more interested in the poems. The vakhs themselves contain very little personal information. I find it difficult to reduce it to a gender position. A statistical example would be that there are not more than four or five references to female labour in the vakhs. The rest are of male labour. It is wishful thinking to regard this in a gendered sort of prism.
You’ve worked on these translations for two decades, and as you belong ancestrally to the Kashmiri diaspora, lived with the idea or presence of Lalla for much longer. How has Lalla shaped your own writing or sense of the world?
I think that as with all translation projects, you are shaped by what you translate in ways that are manifest and sometimes not so manifest. It’s been very important to me in terms of extending my own work. Many people have commented on how these translations don’t sound like my poetry. The aim of the translations has been to restore the jagged, colloquial, very sharp quality of the originals. It’s been an amazing opportunity. It has allowed me to sort through a number of ideas about the sacred and to understand the sacred as something that stands beyond orthodoxies. The sacred is compelling and it is elusive; it eludes the names and the forms.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.