Mohan Rana gave a reading recently as part of the Where Three Dreams Cross ‘season’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. He’s been working with The Poetry Translation Centre to render a selection from his several Hindi collections into English, most closely with Lucy Rosenstein and the poet Bernard O’Donoghue.
The latter read the poems in English after Mohan read in Hindi; his soft clear voice offering lilting repetitions and arhythmic developments alluringly. The English versions seemed pretty faithful to those tones; light, concrete, quotidian and yet also exploring loops of time, philosophical and metaphysical notions, specific Indian circularities and continuities as well as things irreducible and universal.
A Standard Shirt
by Mohan Rana
Between midday and nightfall
there comes a time
when the day’s noise and actions
are already done with,
just as now,
all desires quenched,
I am ready to sit down
on any chair.
A boy in a yellow shirt
has just passed by
and made me think
of a shirt of mine
in those old ordinary days.
So it was possible.
Yes, this life was possible.
And here I am, still wearing
a shirt just like that.
From Jagah, Dwelling
I went partly because so little writing is ever translated from the various Indian languages into English that the UK seems stuck in a self-satisfied Slumdog circuit, fantastically incurious about the subcontinent beyond visible/legible hoardings. It is the British disease; we like people from other places to come and tell us about -‘translate’/dilute- it in our terms and then leave it at that. Convenient, complacent, dumb.
So I walked the walk and was handsomely rewarded, because Mohan is a very fine poet who grew up in Old Delhi but has been a resident of Bath for 20 years. His poems conjure familiar images, times and places to me; habitual dawn and dusk walks through great cities, Delhi and Ahmedabad, old and new, very remote villages in the western extremities of India, riding through heavy monsoon rains beside the Narmada river. The poems are a portal to the interior world of boys with skateboards or green shirts in the gallery, for example, and to more universal places and times, real and imagined, within and beyond memory.
Larger elements shape the everyday in India with thousands of years of rehearsal and concretion. After Mohan’s reading there was a well-meaning question about influences, the answer to which is found throughout a written [spoken and sung] legacy that long predates northern Europe’s. In some puzzlement about where to begin, Mohan mentioned the Upanishads; a repository of songful teachings riddled with poetry and philosophical wisdom dating from some 2750 years ago.
The preceding Vedas are more like hymnals, of course, but I’m peculiarly fond of the Upanishads. I know, I can remember, how dauntingly monumental they seem before you trust yourself enough to read them like you would anything else. I’d recommend two very different versions in English, Juan Mascaro [whose Gita is my favourite version of that part of the Mahabarata, and whose Dhammapada is essential reading] made a peculiar but accessible thing out of them. Penguin UK published them first in 1965, a very slim and very Sixties version that is a perfectly good place to start.
However, Valerie Roebuck’s much fuller and exact translations which were first published by Penguin India in 2000 [2004 edition at 592 pages available here] is a far better, clearer and work-withable volume. Poetry and paradox [wordplay and pun, too, as she says] are elemental to these invaluable verses and I think help make them and subcontinental culture open and more transparent as a result. The verses or aural ‘teachings’ come with clear and authoritative explicatory notes too.
Against the context of AK Mehrotra obtaining a large number of votes in an apparently hopeless race for the Oxford professorship last year [which he ought to have got by default], I look forward to Mohan’s selection of poems being available to us all to buy and read tantalised/ingly on trains, under trees, to each other [in the rain]. Until then, you can visit his website, blog or this page of poems which includes those I’ve borrowed. There is a podcast of the reading here.
by Mohan Rana
I saw the stars far off –
as far as I from them:
in this moment I saw them –
in moments of the twinkling past.
In the boundless depths of darkness,
hunt the morning through the night.
And I can’t make up my mind:
am I living this life for the first time?
Or repeating it, forgetting as I live
the first moment of breath every time?
Does the fish too drink water?
Does the sun feel the heat?
Does the light see the dark?
Does the rain too get wet?
Do dreams ask questions about sleep as I do?
I walked a long, long way
and when I saw, I saw the stars close by.
Today it rained all day long and the words were washed away
from your face.