Here is a splendid book, The Mystic and the Lyric on four women poets of Kashmir, viz. Lalded, Habba Khatoon, Rupa Bhavani and Arnimal written by the noted author and translator Neerja Mattoo whose contribution to the Kashmiri culture is immense and commendable. The detailed write-ups on these four women poets of Kashmir have come out of the soul of Neerja Mattoo. The book is her tour de force, and reflects her critical sense, incisive judgement and analytical understanding of these four outstanding poets. The reader is overawed by Neerja’s in depth study of literature especially poetry poured out by these four Kashmiri poets. The translations of the vaakhs of Lalded and Arnimal and of the lyrics of Habba Khatoon and Arnimal are exquisite although we shouldn’t forget the Italian dictum: “Translators are traitors” which is a universal phenomenon. Neerja’s verse translations seem original compositions …..competent, clear and effectual.
Many scholars and researchers have written on Lalded, and many more have translated her vaakhs into English. Much has not been written on Rupa Bhavani, Arnimal and Habba Khatoon. They have been ignored. But Neerja in her book has tried to undo this apathy of the authors and readers towards them. She has translated their poems including those of Lalded into chaste Queen’s English.
Lalded was born in Kashmir in the fourteenth century when Islam came there. Saiva faith was still practised. The Islamic Sufis, who came to Kashmir, challenged the beliefs and practices of the Brahmins. Lalded made the Saivite faith accessible to the people. The outcome was the birth and growth of Rishism which proved that spirituality was the same in both Islam and Brahminism. Even Nund Rishi paid a rich tribute to her when she was born. She held discussions with the Iranian Sufi Mir Syed Ali Hamdani who came to Kashmir to spread Islam and with her guru Siddha Srikanth. She spoke out prophetic words of profound philosophical value. Her verses are known as vaakhs which answer spiritual questions. Mysticism and practical wisdom are fused in them. They belong to the moral and ethical branch of Kashmir Saivism. Their ultimate aim is to lead man into a state of felicity and give an over-all view of the Saiva gnosis by depicting the ecstasy of those who “break through to the Oneness”. We encounter a consciousness that many things are so secret and holy that they can’t be communicated in words. Bodies are many but their soul is one. “Truth is one but is spoken by many names.” The vaakhs voice common yearnings of man. They are a journey through “the dark night of the soul.” They are very popular among the Kashmiri speaking people around the world who often recite them in their day-to-day life. These vaakhs express the longing of the soul for its return to the divine Being. Neerja writes:-
With strands untwisted I tow my boat
I wish He’d hear and pull me over
Water seeps through my unbaked bowls
O how my heart longs to go home!
I feel that Lalded is far ahead of Rabia and Meera Bai who sang of separation from God and the ultimate union and divinity. Rumi comes close to Lalded. His experience was the realization of this union and a means of ultimately bringing it to Light.
They say that Lalded walked through the streets naked. Actually, as Neerja says, life of the spirit rather than that of the flesh became real for Lalded and that in her ‘fine madness’ she became unaware of her body. Neerja’s translation reads:-
And that is why I dance in naked abandon.”
A Greek philosopher, while walking through the streets of Athens with a torch in his hand, is supposed to have said to the citizens of Athens: “I am looking for a Man.”
Neerja Mattoo writes about the 16th century Kashmiri poet female poet Habba Khatoon delicately. Habba Khatoon in her lyrics voices the feelings, emotions, sufferings and longings of women, and celebrates the world of senses. She laments and complains. Her songs are highly seductive and musical. She sings of the various facets of a lover’s condition and craves for fulfilment in love.
Habba Khatoon revels in the wealth of Kashmir’s natural bounties and celebrates them in most of her poems. Her enjoyment is incomplete without the company of the object of her desire. Neerja’s translation reads:-
The lilacs are all in bloom
Did no word of my plight reach your ears?
She is painfully aware of the social constraints and the restrictions on women:-
“The birth of a daughter is a smear on your name…..”
Neerja says that in her songs we find her longing to go ‘home’. In her later poems she is deeply pessimistic even while trying to be philosophical. Hers are lyrics steeped in romanticism, highly metaphorical and symbolic, that build a charged atmosphere of passionate love. Her images jump from one object to another, and the effect is awesome. Her lyrics are a part of the collective memory of all Kashmiris.
In the Introduction to the Rupa Bhavani section Neerja Mattoo says that Rupa Bhavani (1625-1721) was a mystic and poet known as Alakheshwari or simply Saheb. She was born in the scholarly Brahmin family of Madhava Dhar at Safakadal, Srinagar. She was married at the age of seven. She renounced the submissive housewife’s way of life and left her husband’s home. She practised penance and went into long periods of meditation in search of spiritual awakening and salvation. She communicated her experience of cosmic consciousness to a few of her devotees through her utterances. The family accused her of being a witch. She broke free and charted a course of her own life. Her father supported her and was the first to acknowledge her sainthood. A temple and shrines were built in the places where she lived. The members of the Dhar clan to which she belonged, still make an offering of sweets at her shrine twice a year, and fast on the anniversary of her death. The below written stanza as translated by Neerja Mattoo sets the tone of her mystic journey and self-realization:-
Think that He is Immanent, Omnipresent, your Friend
Omnipotent, Unparallelled, Self-created, All-pervading
Turn the eye inward, find Nirvana unveiled, attain the Highest Abode.
Rupa Bhavani’s force and weight of her thought-provoking poems are presented through use of the device of ‘metaphysical conceit’. Moreover, her vaakhs reveal a personality well-versed in the Vedas, the Upanishads, Vedanta, and Saiva philosophical thought. She talks of non-duality for she has felt the presence of the Universal Spirit residing within her own self.
Neerja says that Rupa Bhavani was a socially concerned human being who called for the cleansing of all evils from the Kashmiri society. She rejected ritual and mere form in religion.
In the Introduction to the fourth section of the book Neerja Mattoo writes about Arnimal who was born in Palhalan in 1737 AD when Kashmir was under Afghan rule. She was married to Bhavani Dass Kachru of Rainawari in Srinagar. He was a scholar of Persian whom the Afghan Governor of Kashmir liked and appreciated. He wrote Behr-i-Taveel in Persian, went to Kabul, became part of the court and adopted the ways of the elite, while Arnimal suffered the fate of a forsaken and lonely wife.
Arnimal composed lyrics of romantic sensibility and pure passion. In her poems she longs for the earthly lover, viz. her husband whose rejection she doesn’t accept. She expresses the anguish of being a helpless woman. Her rich vocabulary and diction are a proof of her mastery of the craft of poetry. Arnimal’s soft words with powerful arraignment are her strength.
Neerja Mattoo’s The Mystic and the Lyric is a solid, substantial and a strongly written book meant for the non-Kashmiri English knowing readers and Kashmiris. The command of the sound effects of the verses of these four women poets is marvellous. We find in them form, intensity, cadence and virtuosity. Diction, word-order and architecture of the English translation are perfect. The translator has caught the spirit of the original in this translation. The linguistic intricacies, nuances, diction, word order and architecture are perfect and flawless. Neerja has caught the spirit and magic of the original Kashmiri.