An Evening with Latif

Seeking The Beloved

I attended an evening of Sufi Sindhi music organized by The Kabir Project – the evening was a wonderful experience to say the least.

My interest in Latif had been piqued due to the detailed mention he got in The Empires of the Indus, with his risalos being quite popular and a big celebration in Bhitai on the day of his urs. He is quite obviously one of the most famous icons of Sindhi culture. More about the Shah:

Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai (1689-1752) is one of the greatest Sufi poets along with Rumi (1207-1273) and Mir Dard (1721-1785), but relatively speaking lesser known. His poetry draws on the power and beauty of Vedanta and Islam melding the two philosophies into one poetic and spiritual vision. His major work is the “Shah Jo Risalo” and his poems thrive today as a vibrant oral tradition being widely sung, quoted and loved by both Hindu and Muslim communities in the Sindh region on both sides of the Indo-Pak border. He takes the popular love legends of the region and speaks through the voices of different woman protagonists. Sometimes he is Sasui, sometimes Moomal, sometimes Sohini and sometimes Marui… and through their journeys of seeking the Truth he expresses his own. His poetry creates a tantalizing dance of expressions between the sensual yearnings for the earthly Beloved and the deeply meditative yearnings for the transcendent Beloved.

What made the event outstanding was the organization – the music was completed by a sampling of Sindhi cuisine, including their samosas, tosha, daal and halwa. There had souvenirs available in the form of t-shirts and books. The artwork and the presentation playing in the background was absolutely fascinating. Shabnam Virmani, as the emcee weaved a number of stories and kep the audience enthralled. even the sign boards to the venue said, “Seeking the Beloved? … This way”.

Just putting down a few couplets that I really liked

all bear
some burden of sorrow
I carry a full load

I seek
sellers of sorrow
most have left
the marketplace


ordinary ears
do not decipher whispers

throw away
sell these
donkey ears

tune into the inner ear

The only comment would be that the second part (Waee music) was probably not very mellifluous and for popular consumption. While the authenticity of the experience is very important, the organizers should have kept public taste in mind.

Khshar Bhar ko Kyun Pyaar Kiya Tha

I had written another of Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s in the past in this blog and for some reason, I feel that I need to keep coming back to it every once in a while. He has this amazing ability to write very simple things which touch our hearts. And for some reasons, for me, things that are closest to my heart are oftentimes expressed so succinctly and brilliantly in the Hindi language.

अर्द्ध रात्रि में सहसा उठकर,

पलक संपुटों में मदिरा भर,

तुमने क्यों मेरे चरणों में अपना तन-मन वार दिया था?

क्षण भर को क्यों प्यार किया था?

[Suddenly, in the middle of the night, your eyes brimming with intoxication, why did you give you heart and soul to me? Why did you love me for a moment?]

‘यह अधिकार कहाँ से लाया!’

और न कुछ मैं कहने पाया –

मेरे अधरों पर निज अधरों का तुमने रख भार दिया था!

क्षण भर को क्यों प्यार किया था?

[All I could say was, "Who gave you this right?" Why did you love me for a moment, placing the weight of your lips on mine?]

वह क्षण अमर हुआ जीवन में,

आज राग जो उठता मन में –

यह प्रतिध्वनि उसकी जो उर में तुमने भर उद्गार दिया था!

क्षण भर को क्यों प्यार किया था?

[That moment will live forever in my life. Even today, I feel that passion, a reflection of the bliss you filled my heart with? Why did you love me for that moment only?]

The Shield of Achilles

by W. H. Auden

I have always liked W.H. Auden‘s poetry. It gets under your skin, and disturbs you, even though it is funny on the surface. All of us would remember The Unknown Citizen, a verse that describes what modern human civilization has been reduced to, where men are mere numbers, record names in the state file cabinet on whom the state maintains statistics, but no face, no disposition, no countenance.

Digression enough. Coming back to The Shield of Achilles, which was published in 1955 and which Auden won the National Book Award. The poem is a take on the passage in Book 18 of Homer‘s Iliad, where the smith god Hephaestos makes a shield and armor for Achilles at the request of Achilles’ mother, the goddess Thetis. (Achilles’ armor was lost when his friend Patroclus wore it into battle and was defeated by Hector). In the original poem, Homer described cornucopia inscribed on the shield, the planets, gigantic cities, fields full of produce, cattle (heifer) and so on.

Auden takes a very different view. Thetis looks for symbols of wealth and power, but she finds desperation on the shield. Instead of crops and full fields, she finds ‘A plain without feature, bare and brown’, signs of desperation all around, troops lined up for battle without a twinkle in their eye, ‘an unintelligible multitude’, men who respond not to invocation, but to ‘a voice without a face’. She wants to see sacrifice and worshipping, but instead finds ‘three pale figures were led forth and bound/ To Three posts driven upright in the ground.’ This reminds us of Christ, ‘That carries weight’, and for whom there was no help. But unlike Christ, ‘they lost their pride/ And died as men before their bodies died’. She wants to see beautiful men and women sashaying across, athletes competing for the grand prize, but all she finds is a street urchin killing birds, chaos and anarchy, rapes and fights, a world where word is meant to be forgotten, and where it was unimaginable that ‘one could weep because another wept’. The great warrior Achilles, the man slayer, could not live long. Not when the world around him was such.

The poem has a lot of reflection of modern times, times of poverty and anarchy following the Second World War. The contrast that the poet draws between the idyllic world of bravery and self-sacrifice that Homer had described and the modern world with its disregard for rules, for honour and for pride, where men are but war machines without a thought for why they move to battle, and prisoners are executed without any thought for their weakness, is exceptional. The poet has matched word for word, phrase for phrase, every word of Homer that alluded to honour has been decimated to a symbol of our troubled times.

The verses below have been copied from here. This article was very helpful for understanding, while a good account of Auden’s life in short is given here.

    She looked over his shoulder
   	   For vines and olive trees,
     Marble well-governed cities
   	   And ships upon untamed seas,
     But there on the shining metal
   	   His hands had put instead
     An artificial wilderness
   	   And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
   No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down, 
   Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
   An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line, 
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
   Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
   No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
   Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

     She looked over his shoulder
   	   For ritual pieties,
     White flower-garlanded heifers,
   	   Libation and sacrifice,
     But there on the shining metal
   	   Where the altar should have been,
     She saw by his flickering forge-light
   	   Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
   Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
   A crowd of ordinary decent folk
   Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
   That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
   And could not hope for help and no help came:
   What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

     She looked over his shoulder
   	   For athletes at their games,
     Men and women in a dance
   	   Moving their sweet limbs
     Quick, quick, to music,
   	   But there on the shining shield
     His hands had set no dancing-floor
   	   But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone, 
   Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
   That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
   Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

     The thin-lipped armorer,
   	   Hephaestos, hobbled away,
     Thetis of the shining breasts
   	   Cried out in dismay
     At what the god had wrought
   	   To please her son, the strong
     Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
   	   Who would not live long.

Indhan by Gulzar

A poem by Gulzar sahab. I have always loved Gulzar sahab’s poetry — always found his songs a cut above the regular fare at Bollywood. They are musical, harmonious, rhythmic both in words as well as meaning:


छोटे थे, माँ उपले थापा करती थी
हम उपलों पर शक्लें गूँधा करते थे
आँख लगाकर – कान बनाकर
नाक सजाकर –
पगड़ी वाला, टोपी वाला
मेरा उपला
तेरा उपला
अपने-अपने जाने-पहचाने नामों से
उपले थापा करते थे

हँसता-खेलता सूरज रोज़ सवेरे आकर
गोबर के उपलों पे खेला करता था
रात को आँगन में जब चूल्हा जलता था
हम सारे चूल्हा घेर के बैठे रहते थे
किस उपले की बारी आयी
किसका उपला राख हुआ
वो पंडित था –
इक मुन्ना था –
इक दशरथ था –
बरसों बाद – मैं
श्मशान में बैठा सोच रहा हूँ
आज की रात इस वक्त के जलते चूल्हे में
इक दोस्त का उपला और गया!

– गुलज़ार

Indhan literally means fuel. The poem starts off describing uppla, or cow-dung cakes used to feed the fire in the villages (and cities) of India. The end however is philosophical because in the larger picture what are we humans but the fuel to the fire of life. The multitudes whom we know as brother and sister, father and mother, spouse and friend are drops of oil in this yagna of existence. All we do is fuel the fire in the crematoriums. A translation is given below:

When we were young
Mother splayed some dung
On the wall
Called it upla

And we
Put faces on,
Eyes, ears
A nose
The upla with a turban
A cap
My upla
Your upla
We named them as we pleased
Chosen after our hearts

The playful sun
Spread its warmth each day
On our uple
And when the chulha was lit that night
We gathered around it and waited

Whose turn was it going to be tonight?
Who would burn to ashes?
There goes Pandit
That was Munna
This was Dhashrath

Years later
I’m at the crematorium
Tonight, I watch
As another friend is lost to the burning chulha
One more upla reduced to ashes


The poem has been shamelessly lifted from Kaavyalaya and the translation is from The Little Magazine. I liked both the resources immensely.

Have also been spending time reading Jhaansi ki Raani (Subhadra Kumari Chauhan), Maa Keh Ek Kahani and Arya (Maithili Sharan Gupt).

Walls R U’s

A few days back I suddenly remembered Robert Frost‘s Mending Walls (which I produce below). I am not sure why. Perhaps it is because for sometime now I have been thinking of the walls we build between us, which hampers communications, free flow of thoughts and ideas, a clarity of the canvas on which we all work. How many times would you feel comfortable talking to a complete stranger? How long does it take to ‘break the ice’ even between people who seem to work together, stay together?

With all the 2.0ing of the world around us, has it actually brought us closer to people than farther away? How much do you know about your co-worker, room-mate, common friend? What has been your sibling upto for the last fortnight? Where is your best friend from school?

Walls have always been built. Perhaps they are required. Why don’t I write everything about myself on my blog? But then, with the increased avenues of communication — the internet, the IM, the blog, the social-network, the mobile phone, SMS — perhaps we don’t even get to understand and instrospect where we need a wall and where we don’t.

Maybe I am just crazy.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Madhushala – The Tavern

One reason I love Hindi poetry is because they can package both meaning and rhythm together. I haven’t seen much of blank verse in modern Hindi poetry (I am not an expert on it).
Madhushala is the poem for which perhaps Harivansh Rai Bachhan is most famous. The way he captures the nuances of a Tavern (Madhushala) and the life story of a person who is a compulsive alcoholic is unparalleled. And if it is sung to you in the voice of Manna Dey, can you but not feel the intoxication in the words itself, the kicks of the rhythm, the rhapsody of rhyme, the delectation of the verse, the transport of liquer in letters weaved into strings of poetry.
The verses below are the ones sung by Manna Dey. I have taken the english translation from here. The full text (along with a full translation) is available here.
Raah pakad tu ek chala chal, paa jaayega madhushala. 

मदिरालय जाने को घर से चलता है पीनेवला,
‘किस पथ से जाऊँ?’ असमंजस में है वह भोलाभाला,
अलग-अलग पथ बतलाते सब पर मैं यह बतलाता हूँ –
‘राह पकड़ तू एक चला चल, पा जाएगा मधुशाला।’। ६।
With the intention of going to the pub, the drink-seeker starts from home
He is confused as to which path should he choose to reach there
Different people show different paths, but I suggest only one thing
Take one path (any one) and just keep going, you will get MADHUSHAALAA.
सुन, कलकल़ , छलछल़ मधुघट से गिरती प्यालों में हाला,
सुन, रूनझुन रूनझुन चल वितरण करती मधु साकीबाला,
बस आ पहुंचे, दुुर नहीं कुछ, चार कदम अब चलना है,
चहक रहे, सुन, पीनेवाले, महक रही, ले, मधुशाला।।१०।
Sounding like a spring, the liquor’s falling and filling the lives
There are sounds like those of pretty, intoxicating girls playing at the water
We have almost reached, just a few more steps to go
The very thought is making the drink-seekers sway and MADHUSHAALAA redolent.
लाल सुरा की धार लपट सी कह न इसे देना ज्वाला,
फेनिल मदिरा है, मत इसको कह देना उर का छाला,
दर्द नशा है इस मदिरा का विगत स्मृतियाँ साकी हैं,
पीड़ा में आनंद जिसे हो, आए मेरी मधुशाला।।१४।
It [madhu] flares like a red sword, but don’t call it fire
Don’t even call it the abscess of the heart
Pain is its intoxication and receding memories its bar-tender [provider]
That who endures or enjoys pain only must come to my Madhushaalaa
धर्मग्रन्थ सब जला चुकी है, जिसके अंतर की ज्वाला,
मंदिर, मसजिद, गिरिजे, सब को तोड़ चुका जो मतवाला,
पंिडत, मोमिन, पादिरयों के फंदांे को जो काट चुका,
कर सकती है आज उसी का स्वागत मेरी मधुशाला।।१७।
That, whose fire from within, has burnt all holy books of his religion
That, who has demolished all his personal religious structures- temple, mosque or church
That who has freed himself from the clutches of religious priests- Pandit, Imam or Bishop
That alone is today welcome in my Madhushaalaa.
लालायित अधरों से जिसने, हाय, नहीं चूमी हाला,
हर्ष-विकंपित कर से जिसने, हा, न छुआ मधु का प्याला,
हाथ पकड़ लज्जित साकी का पास नहीं जिसने खींचा,
व्यर्थ सुखा डाली जीवन की उसने मधुमय मधुशाला।।१८।
If one has not yet kissed a "drink" with his lips,
And has not yet felt the "pail" with delight and trembling hands.
If one has not yet held the hands of the bashful "bar-tender" and pulled her towards oneself,
Such a person has totally wasted his life’s wonderful Madhushaalaa.
बने पुजारी प्रेमी साकी, गंगाजल पावन हाला,
रहे फेरता अविरत गति से मधु के प्यालों की माला’
‘और लिये जा, और पीये जा’, इसी मंत्र का जाप करे’
मैं शिव की प्रतिमा बन बैठूं, मंदिर हो यह मधुशाला।।१९।
He [the drink-seeker] imagines the beloved bar-tender as the priest, and the drink as holy water of Ganges,
And counts rapidly [a mantra] on the rosary of his pails,
His only mantra is "Take more.  Drink more."
[In his imagination] he becomes the image of Shiva and his temple, Madhushaalaa.
एक बरस में, एक बार ही जगती होली की ज्वाला,
एक बार ही लगती बाज़ी, जलती दीपों की माला,
दुनियावालों, किन्तु, किसी दिन आ मदिरालय में देखो,
दिन को होली, रात दिवाली, रोज़ मनाती मधुशाला।।२६।
Once a year [you] celebrate holi by lighting a fire and
Only once a year [you] celebrate diwali with fire-crackers and illuminating houses
However, someday [you] should come and see in the "bar"
Every day holi and every night diwali, celebrates Madhushaalaa.
अधरों पर हो कोई भी रस जिहवा पर लगती हाला,
भाजन हो कोई हाथों में लगता रक्खा है प्याला,
हर सूरत साकी की सूरत में परिवर्तित हो जाती,
आँखों के आगे हो कुछ भी, आँखों में है मधुशाला।।३२।
Whatever may come to [my] lips, tastes only "liquor" at the tongue
Whatever may come in [my] hands, feels only like the "pail"
Every face [before me] turns into the face of the "bar-tender"
In front of [my] eyes there may be anything, but in [my] eyes, there’s only Madhushaalaa.
सुमुखी तुम्हारा, सुन्दर मुख ही, मुझको कन्चन का प्याला
छलक रही है जिसमंे माणिक रूप मधुर मादक हाला,
मैं ही साकी बनता, मैं ही पीने वाला बनता हूँ
जहाँ कहीं मिल बैठे हम तुम़ वहीं गयी हो मधुशाला।।६४।
Hey [my] charming lady, your beautiful face is like the golden "pail" [to me]
which is teeming with the wonderful, sweet, intoxicating wine.
I am the bar-tender and I alone is the one who drinks
Wherever we two get together, we have Madhushaalaa.
दो दिन ही मधु मुझे पिलाकर ऊब उठी साकीबाला,
भरकर अब खिसका देती है वह मेरे आगे प्याला,
नाज़, अदा, अंदाजों से अब, हाय पिलाना दूर हुआ,
अब तो कर देती है केवल फ़र्ज़ -अदाई मधुशाला।।६५।
Within two days of presenting me with the wine, the bar-tender [my love] got tired.
Now she just fills the pail and quite curtly places it before me.
That enticing and seducing charm in presenting the drink no more exists.
Now the only one who still fulfills its obligation is Madhushaalaa.
छोटे-से जीवन में कितना प्यार करुँ, पी लूँ हाला,
आने के ही साथ जगत में कहलाया ‘जानेवाला’,
स्वागत के ही साथ विदा की होती देखी तैयारी,
बंद लगी होने खुलते ही मेरी जीवन-मधुशाला।।६६।
In this brief life, how much can I love, how much can I drink
Right on arrival in this world, I became ‘destined-to-go’
Parting and farewell arrangements I have seen just following welcome
Barely upon opening, started to close my life’s wonderful madhushaalaa.
शांत सकी हो अब तक, साकी, पीकर किस उर की ज्वाला,
‘और, और’ की रटन लगाता जाता हर पीनेवाला,
कितनी इच्छाएँ हर जानेवाला छोड़ यहाँ जाता!
कितने अरमानों की बनकर कब्र खड़ी है मधुशाला।।८९।
No ones’ fire-of-the-heart ever got abated after drinking
Every one who drinks, only asks for more and more
The departer leaves behind himself so many desires and ambitions
All those aspirations get buried under the grave of Madhushaalaa.
यम आयेगा साकी बनकर साथ लिए काली हाला,
पी न होश में फिर आएगा सुरा-विसुध यह मतवाला,
यह अंितम बेहोशी, अंतिम साकी, अंतिम प्याला है,
पिथक, प्यार से पीना इसको फिर न मिलेगी मधुशाला।८०।
Yam will arrive as a wineserver and will bring with him dark wine
After drinking it, the cheerful drinker will never regain conscious again
This is the last intoxication, last wineserver and the last pail
Hey Traveller, drink it with love, for you will never again get Madhushaalaa.
गिरती जाती है दिन प्रतिदन प्रणयनी प्राणों की हाला
भग्न हुआ जाता दिन प्रतिदन सुभगे मेरा तन प्याला,
रूठ रहा है मुझसे रूपसी, दिन दिन यौवन का साकी
सूख रही है दिन दिन सुन्दरी, मेरी जीवन मधुशाला।।७९।
Day by day, the beloved wine of my existence is dropping down
Day by day, the pail of my body is disintegrating
Day by day, the beautiful wineserver of my youth is getting annoyed with me
And day by day, my lovely life’s Madhushaalaa is drying up.
मेरे अधरों पर हो अंतिम वस्तु न तुलसीदल प्याला
मेरी जीव्हा पर हो अंतिम वस्तु न गंगाजल हाला,
मेरे शव के पीछे चलने वालों याद इसे रखना
राम नाम है सत्य न कहना, कहना सच्ची मधुशाला।।८२।
The last thing on my lips shouldn’t be the basil but the "pail"
The last thing on my tongue shouldn’t be the holy water from ganges but the wine
Those who join my last procession, must remember one thing
They shouldn’t say "Ram is the truth", instead say the truth is Madhushaalaa.
मेरे शव पर वह रोये, हो जिसके आंसू में हाला
आह भरे वो, जो हो सुरिभत मदिरा पी कर मतवाला,
दे मुझको वो कान्धा जिनके पग मद डगमग होते हों
और जलूं उस ठौर जहां पर कभी रही हो मधुशाला।।८३।
Only that must weep on my corpse, whose tears are full of wine
Only that must sigh, who is intoxicated after drinking
Only those must lay shoulder to me whose legs jerk and quaver
And I must be cremated on the site where once stood Madhushaalaa.
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