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Meghdoot

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Indian miniature painting of the monsoon

Aamer Hussein’s novel, The Cloud Messenger, is by all accounts a worthy addition to the genre which is sometimes called Diasporic Writing: novels by Indians living abroad, often dealing with the themes of displacement and alienation. Since I have not read the book, this blog is not about the novel, but about an ill-literate review by Philip Womack in the London Telegraph:

The title of this taut new novel from Aamer Hussein comes from a legend, in which clouds carry messages of love from separated lovers across the world.

Relationships, and their varying levels of permanence, are thus the main theme, as we follow the narrator, Mehran (who appears sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, adding to the novel’s dreamlike quality), in his tangled encounters.

It would not have escaped the attention of any literate Indian that the title of Hussein’s novel refers to one of the finest pieces of classical Indian poetry: Meghdoot (Meghaduta) by Kalidasa. Here is a plot summary from Sanskrit e-books:

Meghaduta is separated into two parts – Purvamegha (Previous cloud) and Uttaramegha (Consequent cloud). According to the story, Kubera, treasurer to the Gods, possesses a band of celestial attendees working for him, named the Yakshas. One of these Yakshas was so besotted and preoccupied with his wife that he absolutely disregarded his duties. As a consequence, he was cursed and banished into the thickness of earthly woods. Wholly demoralised, he kept thinking about his wife and felt her absence terribly. His wife also kept reminiscing about him all day and all night.

Then one day, monsoons started to splash upon earth. The Yaksha saw a rain cloud pass by and requested it to carry a message to his wife, then languishing on Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. The Yaksha then commences to describe the route the cloud should be taking in the northward direction. The description is so enamouring and so pictorial, that one can actually experience the scenes are flashing in front of the eyes in a vision. The Yaksha makes the route seem as bewitching as possible, so that the cloud takes his message to his wife, in the city of Alaka.

This source also leads you to out-of-copyright translations and commentaries: some almost 200 years old. Here is the opening verse, first in transliterated Sanskrit, and then a (modern) literal translation by Chandra Holm:

Kashchitkantavirahaguruna svadhikaratpramattaha
Shapenastangamitamahima varshabhogyena bhartuhu
yakshachakre janakatanayasnanapunyodakeshu
snighdhacchayatarushu vasati ramagiryashrameshu

“A certain Yaksha banished for a year because of his misdeeds, from his master whose curse deprived him of his supernatural powers, for whom the separation from his beloved was unbear-able, made his dwelling among the hermitages on the mountain Ramagiri, whose waters were made holy by the daughter of Janaka by bathing in them and where the trees cast a deep and rich shade.”

Next a copyright translation by C. John Holcombe which has been issued as a book:

A year from amorousness: it passes slowly.
So thought a Yaksha by his master sent,
For scanting duty, to the Ramagiry:
To mope in penance groves as banishment
By rivers Sítá’s bathing there made holy.

That English and Sanskrit are very dissimilar languages is well-known. These two translations show you how. The elegant compression of ideas that you can create in Sanskrit through compounding of words (samasa) is missing in English. So the translation of, for example, the lovely construction “snighdhacchayatarushu” must be inadequate: Holm translates this as “trees cast a deep and rich shade” and Holcombe as “groves”. It makes one long to see a German translation.

To return to the original review, I doubt that Mr. Womack’s article would have passed a sub-editor’s scrutiny if he had made a similar error about Ovidius Naso, another wonderful poet, but one who wrote in Latin. Kalidasa’s poem is not just a sheaf of pages to beat up Womack with. It might be that Hussein uses a knowledge of the permanence of the relationship at the center of Kalidasa’s poem to throw a distant light on relationships, present and far, in his novel. The context of banishment in Kalidasa could also add something to what he has to say about the diasporic experience. Wouldn’t it be interesting for the reader to know this? Surely Aamer Hussein and his fellows, who are trying to bridge cultures, deserve better reviews

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

May 1, 2011 at 4:39 am

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