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Kashmir's wise old Grandmother Lal

ADITI DE
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I trapped my breath in the bellows of my throat:

a lamp blazed up inside, showed me who I really was.

I crossed the darkness holding fast to that lamp,

Scattering its light-seeds around me as I went.

I learnt dohas by Kabir and Tulsidas, even sang bhajans by Mirabai, at school in Rajasthan. In Bangalore, I skimmed through the soulful vachanas of Akka Mahadevi, though in translations of variable quality. But the vakhs of Lal Ded — the 14th century Kashmiri mystic — blew me away more powerfully. Perhaps because her spiritual and spirited poetry was new to me, brilliantly translated by Ranjit Hoskote.

I read her against a tumultuous interior landscape. At a time when Kashmir evokes images of a troubled paradise. In an age when columns on religion, yoga and meditation have found niches in business dailies. Within an India wracked with soaring everyday stress levels in a competitive, corrupt, unrelenting world.

Lal Ded, I thought, was seldom more relevant. Translated as Grandmother Lal or Lal the Womb, she is demystified on these pages as a fecund, giving yogini. For over seven centuries, Hindus have idolised her as Lallesvari or Lalla Yogini, the Muslims as Lal-arifa. Across religious lines, Kashmiris call her Lalla. Her vakhs are among the earliest records in Kashmiri literature.

Folklorists, historians and scholars have different takes on Lalla. The saint-mystic was said to have been born a Brahmin. Married at 12 into a family that ill-treated her, she renounced her home and became the disciple of a Saivite saint 14 years later. As a wandering mendicant later, Lalla began to compose these vakhs or poems. Hers was a radical choice in her time, tilting against all social conventions.

Oddly enough, though Lalla's influence pervades all strata of Kashmiri life, she neither created a movement nor had especial disciples. Her poems became part of oral lore, traversing families, generations, even religions.

Of Lalla's 258 known vakhs, Hoskote has sensitively translated 146 vakhs for 21st century readers, by going back to “the original, word by word, line by line, clause by clause.” These unique renderings, as easy to read aloud as to mull over, trace an inward journey that renders an individual awakening. Lalla shines through in lines like these: Who trusts his Master's word/and controls the mind-horse/with the reins of wisdom,/he shall not die, he shall not be killed.

Hoskote began this labour of love 20 years ago as a bridge to his “ancestral past, to a homeland and a language that I had lost, as the descendent of Kashmiri Saraswat Brahmins who migrated to southwestern India in several waves of diaspora between the 9th and 14th centuries.” Staying the course, he has wrought an unforgettable book, with a beautiful kong-poush/saffron flower by Bhavi Mehta on its jacket. His scholarly introduction places Lalla in the context of history and legend, politics and linguistics, oral and printed texts.

Sifting through scattered clues, rumours and oral narratives, he concludes: “She is the play of versions, not an absolute entity… Lalla, to me, is not the person who composed these vakhs; rather, she is the person who emerges from these vakhs.” That could well be true, whether she was a single yogini or a composite of many ever-questing beings who straddle yoga and Tantra, Kashmiri Saivism and the solo soul.

Hoskote writes of visiting Sheikh Balki's shrine in Pakhar Pora and the ruined sun temple at Martanda. He recalls, “The earth was alive with sturdy walnuts, tall pines, the poplars and flowering apricots of spring; but wherever there were settlements, we found a spiky creeper. It grew around the walls that surround public buildings and private homes; it curled around schools, mosques, abandoned temples, half-asleep hotels. Concertina wire is the most widespread form of vegetation in Kashmir today. It grows everywhere, even in the mind.”

Perhaps this marks a time to take stock — of the 21st century, of India, of Kashmir, of ourselves. To rewind to a calmer, more spirit-centric era. Like counselling, like vacations, Lalla could prove part of the answer in this quest. For her deep vakhs will certainly strike a resonant, luminous chord within each reader:

Resilience: to stand in the path of lightning.

Resilience: to walk when darkness falls at noon.

Resilience: to grind yourself fine in the turning mill.

Resilience will come to you.

(This article was published on August 4, 2011)
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