Literary Review

Rebellious love

Verses of a Lowly Fakir; Madho Lal Hussein, trs. Naved Alam, Penguin, Rs. 399.  

Repeat ‘Sain, Sain’ even if the parents


Start a romance, make the lover


Heer was in love since infancy.


she turned in her cradle, no respite for a


Like a butcher with his slaughter knife

the agony of separation rips into the veins

The troubles of a hundred years gone

once Ranjha glances her way…

— Shah Hussein (1538-99, as translated by Nadeem Alam)

A deeply romantic poetic mysticism flourished 500 years ago in Punjab. It was a form of rebellious literature, breaking away from hidebound rituals, taking freely from Hindu and Islamic traditions, and based entirely within the metaphor of love. All the yearning and pain of a physical relationship was transported to a spiritual sphere, and Sufi saints sang the language of the Bhakti tradition as they longed for union with their ‘beloved’, whom they worshipped.

None of these faqir-composers cared about themselves or their reputations; they were immersed in devotion. They could dance, plead, debase themselves only to get a glimpse of their “murshad” who could take a physical form or remain on an ethereal plane. The translated lines (above) from Shah Hussein’s kafis are an example of deeply felt passion, and how closely it connected to the folk narratives, in this case Heer Ranjha.

Shah Hussein, widely revered as a Sufi pir is a particularly interesting character because he revelled in his ignominy, calling himself fakir nimana, or the lowly fakir. The more he fell in everyone’s estimation the freer he became to express his love. Thus he would meander around the streets of Lahore with a carafe of wine and become infamous for his love of a good looking Hindu boy, called Madho Lal. He even changed his name to Madho Lal Hussein, and the two lie buried side by side at his shrine at Bhagbanopura, Lahore.

In this little treasure house of a book are some known and unknown kafis, translated with great sensitivity by the award winning Pakistani poet, Naveed Alam. But within it lies the importance and relevance of making these works accessible to a wider audience.

Of course, I did miss the earthy flavour of some of my favourite verses in Punjabi, which are a challenge to translate, such as:

Ghoom charakhra saiyan da

Teri katan wali jeevey, naliyan vatan vali


Budha huya Shahe Hussain

dandey jheeran paiyyan

uth savere dhoondan lagon

saanjh diyan jo gayain

This has been translated by Alam as:

Go round and round, O Handloom,

May she live, the one who spins you

May she live, the one who spools you

Shah Hussain, you dotard

gaps widen between your teeth, rise

and search for them in the morning

the ones who left in the twilight

However, as Alam points out, many of the original verses by Hussain might have themselves been changed by singers over the years. As I tried to match his translations to the poems that I am familiar with, I became unsure whether the words I knew were actually the ‘original’, or had the verses also changed somewhat (as they must have) while being translated. Added to this is my problem of mishearing words while they are sung.

So my request to the publishers would be to please bring out another version of this very important book, but with the Punjabi verses published in the roman script for easy identification. Or, better still if the book is accompanied by an audio recording of the verses, because much of the language used by Shah Hussein is fast fading away.

That little quibble aside, the book also reveals to us, yet again, how much this poetry has survived just through oral tradition, defying religious codification. This was despite the fact, as the translator points out, that it was studiously ignored by the amanuenses of that time who preferred it be marginalised. Apparently, the only exception who noted the presence of this Sufi saint was Dara Shikoh, who sought out these mystics.

Fortunately, the popularity of the verses, and their very human and plaintive refrain has survived the wrath of emperors, mullahs, pundits and puritans through the centuries. It is now seamlessly absorbed in popular culture and memory.

Indeed Bulle Shah, Aamir Khusro, Shah Hussein are now much more likely to be heard in Bollywood films than in Sufi shrines. And that is why it is imperative that we try to preserve some of the original poems (wherever they survive) in the translated form as well.

Kishwar Desai is an author, former TV Media professional and the Chair and Trustee of The Arts and Cultural

Heritage Trust undertaking the Partition Museum Project.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 20, 2021 12:03:33 PM |

Next Story