National

Reclaimed In Translation

Vikram Seth reclaims the beauty and mesmerising magic of ‘The Hanuman Chalisa’ for all in his new book

Tribhuvan Tiwari/Outlook
Photo: Tribhuvan Tiwari/Outlook
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Much to the delight of readers everywhere, poet and novelist Vikram Seth has come out with a new book after a gap of about ten years. His English translation of ‘The Hanuman Chalisa’ (pub: Speaking Tiger Books), one of the “best-known and best-loved poems in the world”, was released at New Delhi on June 21. The bilingual edition features the original verses of 16th-century Bhakti poet Tulsidas in Devanagari and Roman script alongside Seth’s English translations.

Speaking at the book launch, Seth, who revels in the pleasures of both religious poetry and translation, called his translation of the ‘The Hanuman Chalisa’ a labour of love. He has dedicated it to Bhaskar, a character in his epic novel A Suitable Boy (1993). In the novel, Bhaskar learns the poem before he is five. When he is older, he resists the co-option of this poem and other religious texts by those with vested interests. “I learnt the ‘Chalisa’ because I had to know what my characters were seeped in,” Seth says. “How do you write about them from the inside without understanding the religious and linguistic texture of their world?” [Incidentally, Bhaskar will reappear in Seth’s novel, A Suitable Girl, a work-in-progress. In it, Bhaskar plans to translate the beloved devotional poem himself.

What motivated Seth to translate ‘The Chalisa’ into English? Many reasons: to share its mesmerising incantatory quality with those who can’t follow the Awadhi or Hindi of the 16th century; to acquaint or re-acquaint people with a poem which “encapsulates a whole culture in fewer than ninety lines”; to spread the joy, solace, and the delightful leaps of imagination that animate the poem; to reclaim its beauty at a time when the politics of division is pitting one Indian against another in the name of religion; to celebrate a text that consoles, gives people courage, and is “impressed in the memories and affections of millions”.

Translating ‘The Hanuman Chalisa’ in rhyme and metre threw up its own set of challenges. Seth writes about them in the Introduction to the book. He decided to use ‘‘falling metres’’ in his translation because he wanted to retain the “incantatory pleasure” of Tulsidas’ verses. But rhymes stressed on the last-but-one syllable (‘feminine rhymes’) are relatively rare in English. Another hurdle: it was impossible to recreate some of the “musical echoes and alliterations of the original, such as the repeated nasal vowels of the 23rd chaupai or the repeated retroflex sounds of the 36th chaupai”.

Despite the constraints, Seth is hopeful that his labour of love will appeal to readers. Translation, as he puts it poetically, is like “dancing in chains” and even if a translation can convey a small fraction of the joy of the original to people, the purpose is served. Seth’s fascination for translations dates back to the time he read Pushkin’s novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin. The 19th-century Russian poet’s work gave Seth the idea of writing his first novel The Golden Gate (1986). The rest, as they say, is literary history…

When asked about poetry having a dwindling readership, Seth is quick to dismiss such qualms. “So many people sing film songs,” he says. “Insta poetry has a big following, Rap songs are very popular. I think poetry is definitely a presence in our everyday lives.”

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Seth is in awe of ‘The Hanuman Chalisa’s’ power to move people. Whether you are a “believer or a half-believer”, ‘The Chalisa’ is bound to affect you, to lift your spirits. Hanuman takes on many roles in this hymn: teacher, warrior, advisor, friend, devotee, remover of obstacles, miracle worker. “Hanuman is not a self-aggrandising figure,” says Seth. “He is always worshipping someone or something.” The attempts to cherry-pick particular traits and portray him as an angry, vengeful god is nothing but politicking, Seth points out. “It is a tactic used by some to gain power,” he says. The co-option of Hinduism by power-hungry politicians creates divisions and weakens the country. India is a pluralistic nation that boasts of a wealth of cultures: Hindu, Christian, Islamic, Sikh, among others. “All cultures belong to us,” Seth says. To deprive us of the richness of any culture would spell disaster for the country and for democracy. “The 2024 Lok Sabha elections has placed some sort of limitation on autocracy,” he adds, a glint of hope lighting up his eyes. “Let’s see what happens now.”

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