NYRB News


A Letter from the Editor

I’m nothing
Says Kabir
I’m not among the living
Or the dead

It is true, in a way—true at least that next to nothing is known about Kabir, a mysterious figure from medieval North India who is one of the world’s great religious poets. During his life, which is said to have extended for well over a hundred years, Kabir was celebrated as a poet and as a sant, or holy man, and many legends, some as unlikely as his reputed lifespan, have grown up around his name. It is generally accepted, however, that he came from a low-caste Hindu family that had recently converted to Islam and that he was a weaver—someone, in other words, very much on the outside of good society. Kabir’s songs have come down to us both through a number of written sources—none, however, that can be traced to Kabir’s hand—as well as through a lively, extensive, and very varied tradition of oral performance, and they continue to be sung in the fields and on the streets of India. Some of the songs are otherworldly, others are biting send-ups of the world and its ways, while Kabir’s God is a shapeshifter whose only true and always unseizable form is the form prepared within the heart of the true devotee. In Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s wonderful new translation, Kabir’s work takes on a startling and unforgettable new shape in the English of our time.

    From Dante to Dickinson, from Han Shan to Hopkins, religion and poetry have been close, if often uncomfortable, companions. Why? Religion, like poetry, you could say, is nothing if it is not a form of realism. (No doubt this is why both are so attractive to frauds.) Religion is preoccupied with first and last things, birth and copulation and death, as it is, too, with the ongoing war of hope and despair within the individual and in the world at large. Religion poses questions of good and evil that reason parses with difficulty, if at all. As to poetry, its realism is to pay particular attention to the difficult business that all our meanings and feelings are entangled in words. As Kabir says,

Except that it robs you of who you are,
What can you say about speech?
Inconceivable to live without
And impossible to live with,
Speech diminishes you….
Strike [a pot] that is full,
Says Kabir, and hear the silence.

The lines are as matter-of-fact as mystical, and they go to the heart of Kabir’s riddling genius, invoking silence the better to violate it, so transforming both speech and silence into the uncertain quantity of song.

    Paradox is central to Kabir’s vision. Mehrotra’s selection starts out with a series of so-called “upside-down poems”:

What is this untellable tale about?
The ogress and the dog make bedroom eyes;
The big cat prowls the jungle;
In my family of five, all hell breaks loose.
Led by drum-beating rabbits, a herd
Of antelopes mounts an attack….

What indeed is this about? Beginning in a state of bewilderment, Kabir’s work explodes in questions. Negatives abound:

Listen carefully,
Neither the Vedas
Nor the Qur’an
Will teach you this….

Elsewhere he says,

My home…
Is where there’s no day, no night,
And no holy book in sight

To squat on our lives.

He is no less questioning of rites and observances, whether conventional or unconventional:

If going naked
Brought liberation,
The deer of the forest
Would attain it first.

And he dismisses the powerful with withering scorn:

“Me shogun.”
“Me bigwig.”
“Me the chief’s son.
I make the rules here.”

It’s a load of crap.
Laughing, skipping,
Tumbling, they’re all
Headed for Deathville.

    There is at times something almost nihilistic about Kabir’s assault on worldly forms. Certainly he is much possessed by death. And yet he never rejects the world itself (presented with the prospect of going to paradise, he responds, “I’m okay where I am…./Spare me the trip.”), and his poems are as full of yearning as they are of savage mockery. Seeking union with the divine, Kabir’s voice attains a wry and poignant intimacy:

If we’re still strangers
To each other, who’s
 
To blame? Did I
Blunder or did you
 
Never know
What a heart desired?
 
One could go on.
Enough, my Lord.
 
Invite me over, says Kabir,
Or come over yourself.

    As I hope my quotations here suggest, Mehrotra has invited Kabir over into a vigorously individual English, bitter and salty and sweet and utterly free of the bland music of so many contemporary versions of “spiritual” texts from the Psalms to Rumi and Rilke. Mehrotra’s Kabir is never ingratiating. His poetry is as starkly convincing as that of his near contemporary, the jailbird Francois Villon. Poet and translator meet across the centuries to call in question the way we live now and to urge us to take the risk of revelation. And then we are left to our own devices. After all,

The yogi’s a solitary
 
You can’t meet him.
He’s left the country
We’re citizens of
And he’s not coming back

Edwin Frank, Editor
NYRB Classics

cover

Songs of Kabir
Selected and translated from the Hindi by
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Preface by Wendy Doniger