lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

How have the mighty fallen

One thing, as they say, led to another. Reading poetry is hard work.

Writing to me after a recent post of mine, Chenthil sent a translation of a poem of his:

The majestic elephant
that defeated many an emperor
in rousing battles
is now blessing people
for a rupee
just like me stringing words
for you, the reader's, praise.

This is a powerful idea. I tried to read the original Tamil version, but the script defeated me. The image stayed with me, though. I tried to figure out why. Then it came to me that Chenthil, true to the ideal of poetry that it should make one think, left the idea and image incomplete. He left it for readers to fill in the blanks and supply the missing comparison from their own experiences and levels.

This is about reduced circumstances, about how the mighty have fallen. There is a proverb in Telugu, selling firewood in the town where you once sold flowers. This is about loss of station and dignity.

Those were my first thoughts.

So who would the poet be? Can one imagine Kalidasa writing advertising jingles? Shakespeare? Yes, he wrote for money. Actually, Kalidasa too, since he wrote under the patronage of a king. Writing was a profession for them. Almost all Telugu classical poets wrote under patronage of kings.

Vyasa wrote for posterity. Valmiki wrote to sing of the perfect man. For me then, it was Valmiki, the Adi Kavi. I know that the Epic of Gilgamesh is older, but there's no stated author there, after all. And this is very much an Indian image and concept.

C Rajagopalachari, in his English rendition of Ramayana says:

The story begins with the visit of the Saint Narada one morning to Vaalmeeki's aashrama. After the usual welcome Vaalmeeki asked him: "O, all-knowing Narada, tell me, who among the heroes is the highest in virtues and wisdom?"

Knowing through his supernatural power why Vaalmeeki put the question, Narada answered: "Raama is the Hero that you ask for."

Thinking further on this, I read the poem to my husband. So what is the Tamil version, he asked. I confessed I couldn't read it, not well enough to repeat. Naturally, he asked me how I would render it. Having no idea of the original version and going by the translation, what that conveyed to me and how it moved my thoughts, I extemporised:

The war-elephant that rampaged in battle
Now bestows blessings for coin.
I sang the story of the perfect man,
Now I bleat for your attention.
Yours truly, Valmiki

I mailed it to Chenthil, and immediately regretted the levity that 'yours truly' introduced into a poignant idea. Truly, Internet makes it easy and regular when it comes to regretting hitting the Send button. But Chenthil said this was forceful, but asked in an aside if Rama could be called the perfect man, given the slaying of Vaali and Sita's ordeal by fire.

I thought further, and tried this out:

The war-elephant that rampaged in battle
Now bestows blessings for coin
I sang the world's first poem
Now I write ditties for your praise.

I decided that if I wanted to have a go at translation, I needed to read the original. I nag very well (ask any of my blogging friends). So I nagged Chenthil into sending me a transliterated version. I may have trouble reading the script, but I can follow classical Tamil, after all:

perarasargalai perumporkalil
vetri konda yaanai
otrai roobai kasu
vaangi aasi tharugirathu
inthak kavithai padikkum
un paaraattukkaga
vaarththai valaikkum ennaip pola.

The war-elephant that
Unmade emperors in mighty battles
Now bestows blessings for coin
Like my twisting words together
For plaudits from you, Reader.

Now his translation seemed perfectly fitting. I beat a hasty and chastened retreat. How have the mighty fallen, indeed!



Anonymous dipali said...

Profound indeed:)

8:04 am  
Anonymous Hehhh said...

The flip side of the title is aptly depicted in Ozymandias. Where Chenthil's poem brings out the tragedy of the decline, Shelley's induces a feeling of " he had it coming to him!"

I guess human jealousy will always prefer Shelley's version :-)

10:17 am  
Blogger Lalita said...

Dipali- Yes, that poem stayed in my thoughts so much that I had to write it out of my system.

Hehhh- Strange, I thought of Ozymandias, too. In fact I thought I'd use that as the title, but went biblical.

12:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You gave a lesson in translation and appreciation of poetry all in one go.

Echoing hehhh, desiring the Lady's scope and her art; me too, me too.

Secret Admirer

10:31 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Anon- Get original, why don't you? While you are at it, get a name.

11:50 pm  
Anonymous Sivaram said...

Hi !
Came across this blog while googling for Gilgamesh and could not resist reading further.

One point strikes me, why is it taken without criticism, that writing jingles for preader's praise/ pelf is somehow ignoble or at least worse than writing for 'posterity' ?

We all are here only to strut and fret our hour on the stage, and then be heard no more !!

6:24 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Sivaram- Welcome. You are right, poets writing under patronage are no less brilliant than poets writing for so-called posterity. I only meant that Vyasa wrote the contemporary history of the great tribal war that Mahabharata must have been to recite it to the descendants; and Kalidasa or the Bard, they wrote for pelf, it was their livelihood but it doesn't take an iota away from the poetry at all. But Valmiki wrote, yes, of contemporary history again, but he wrote under no aegis.

Chenthil's poem or my musing about it wasn't to belittle writing for money, at all.

I have Google Adsense on my site, after all. Perhaps my grandchildren will collect, heh.

Do drop in again, you sound fun. Gilgamesh, you say?

11:38 pm  

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