Translating Rasul Mir

  • Sonam Kachru
  • Publish Date: Jun 22 2016 6:46PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Jun 22 2016 11:26PM
Translating Rasul Mir



The poems offered here in translation will need no introduction to speakers of Kashmiri. Who among us has not heard “bal marayo” or “me chum miray lalawun nir”? Instead of an introduction, a translation of these poems of Rasul Mir, great-heart of the 19th century, calls for an apology. He just can’t be translated. So why pretend? 


These translations are offered to the memory of my father, Shiban K. Kachru, who labored long, in and out of the end of his days collecting, editing and translating the songs of Rasul Mir. His efforts can soon be read in a volume called Rasul Mir: The Romantic Poet of Kashmir, courtesy of Gulshan Books, Srinagar. As he brooded over the exact nuance of a finely crafted phrase, I sat beside him, or behind him, taking notes, holding dictionaries open for him, or a cup of tea, and watched and listened as he went back and forth between entries, in Urdu, in Kashmiri, in English, snorting through his nose at the careless way with words even our best lexicographers all too often show. His love for our language, and his knowledge, far exceeded my own. His ear for the weight of a line of Kashmiri, exquisite. My notes soon crowded-out the lines of the poems we read together, as a crow’s feet might spoil a freshly inked page.


Why do I offer these pale impressions of the experience of learning to read—or, rather, keeping in mind that one takes such music through the ear—why present echoes of the experience of learning to hear the literature of my mother tongue? I might tell you that not a few weeks after my father was gone, I, unworthy though I was, received a request to prepare some translations for the Simurgh Project organized by Sangam House. It was all I could do to continue the conversations I had begun with my father, but all too late. I worked up the notes as a gift in response to the gift of sharing with me his translations, and in memory of the love (the trial by another word), of translating.


So forgive me taking this occasion, almost two years after these echoes were caught, and receive at as a chance to overhear a conversation between generations. My father would have been the first to chide me for experimenting with the transmission of sound and sense. For example, I have deliberately taken the time to expand the refrain “me chum miray lalawun nir” the first time, to allow the connotations of mir (with the echoes of miray, and miri, as Grierson’s Dictionary of the Kashmiri Language records these, especially in concert with fire), to be audible. He hated such devices. But “Blue Lake,” I know, he liked, even if the idiom he would have found typical of a lost generation.


José Saramago in Death with Interruptions once gave us to see death in a particular light. She is at a concert, alone in a box, and she was pretty, possibly not the prettiest woman in the audience, but pretty in a very particular, indefinable way that couldn’t be put into words, like a line of poetry whose ultimate meaning, if such a thing exists in a line of poetry, continually escapes the translator.


So too there can be a little of death in translations like these, in the attempt to go on with a conversation tracking that which always eludes us at the limits of language, where sound and sense refuse to be parted. And voices will fail. But if there must be something of death, that is how it is, always where beauty and life are most fully blessed to come into their own. Rasul Mir knew it.



I, too, can’t bear the pain that’s yours
On being so far away from me.
I will die young.
What shall I do? You’ve abandoned me
To pity: to feel the pain that follows pain.

I will die young.

My neck’s in the coils of your serpentine curls:
What’s left is the tale—
So tell me,          
Which tales would you now have me tell?
I will die young

You’ve rent my heart—I’ll be damned 
If your nose isn’t a sword 
of silver! Now how many lions 
Among us has your blade laid low?

I will die young.

The sunshine, my sun, has shamed the light
Of the moon of Qandahar—I’m waiting,
wilting in your memory—I will die young.

In my dark, he spoke
(the seller of red gems)
to show me what’s evident: 
‘A jewel 
comes into view 
from inside stone’.

I will die young.
You’ve loosened me, my love,
to fall—I can’t stand on my feet.
Now whom have you fallen for? 
Are they more beautiful than me?
I will die young.

In this garden of love, flowers are wounds of my heart,
The swaying cypress sounds my sighs; with tears
I’ll fill rivulets—I’ll die young.

You’re upset; 
but I’ll run 
right on after you—
I’ll hold on, 
Grab you by the collar 
of your cloak—I swear I’ll grip its hem 
on resurrection day—
I will die young.

Go, my friend; 
my love is far—

I have to take pains
tend with care
the slow burning fire 
of love each day.

I stole out from my house,
none the wiser: at Blue Lake 
my day went down—night 
was for the traveller’s way

I have to tend the fire of love each day         

There was a cuckoo in Maidan Ḍur,
chanting the name of God. Caught 
in a net, she’s got no more to say—

I have to tend the fire of love each day

My mother-in-law she came at me 
with a sharpened reed, tore out 
from my headscarf the frail silk-frill. 
I’d leave for my mother’s,
But that’s now a far ways away—

I have to tend the fire of love each day.

My mother she raised me 
on candy and kheer; 
bathed me in pure milk: 
And this is now that body dear
forced to labor in loam, and the mud, and dust…

I have to tend the fire of love each day.

They’ve wrung me out: for the child 
I’ve not been blessed
to blossom with—this gut-pain 
for my child that is not, 
it sends me insane: Where 
can you hope to get
What God won’t give?
I have to tend the fire of love each day.

Rasul Mir’s from Shahabad Ḍur
He’s opened up a shop of laving tears: 
come, you lovers, come, drink up,
Cup after cup, drink it all away: 
I have to take pains, tend with care, the slow burning fire of love each day.

(Sonam Kachru is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He focuses on the history of philosophy and literature in South Asia, with a particular emphasis on Buddhism. He also moonlights as a translator of Kashmiri poetry, and some of this work has been featured in Another Chicago Magazine, Spolia, Almost Island, and Aufgabe (Litmus Press). He has been threatening to publish a book of translations from Kashmiri, Make Humans Again, and is under contract to produce a representative translation of the utterances of Lal Ded)