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A Tale of Wonder: AND Haksar on translating Kathakautukam, a Sanskrit poem which speaks of longing for the divine

Some of the world’s greatest love stories are also the most ancient, and history has produced a slew of various kinds for us to choose from. So is Kathakautukam, one of those forgotten by time. The story of Kathakautukam runs in a vein similar to that of Bhakti saint Mira’s devotion to Krishna. They both refer to devotion and a longing for the divine, though Kathakautukam may be playing with that theme a little more subtly.

It is a Sanskrit adaptation of a Persian poem, written by the poet-scholar Srivara in 15th-century Kashmir. Noted translator AND Haksar has translated this Sanskrit poem into English; titled A Tale of Wonder: Kathakautukam, his book is written primarily in prose.

This book tells the story of Princess Zuleikha’s steely determination and effort to find Yusuf, the man she happens to dream of one night, and is unable to cast from her mind. Though the plot is fairly standard initially, it quickly develops into an amalgam of unpredictable twists, elaborate description and piercing emotions. The potency of Zuleikha’s emotions and longing are blindingly obvious yet poignant and evocative, as she pursues Yusuf over both distance and time.

A Tale of Wonder has two main themes: One, a princess in fervid search of a man she saw and fell in love with in her dream, and the other, a parable that featured in the original Persian love poem 'Yusuf Wa Zuleikha'. It was carried forward to the Sanskrit adaptation by Srivara. “The parable in the story is the search for the divine by the individual soul. This is quite common in the literature of both the Sanskrit and Persian cultural streams. It is always put in mystical terms,” states Haksar in an interview with Firstpost.

 A Tale of Wonder: AND Haksar on translating Kathakautukam, a Sanskrit poem which speaks of longing for the divine

The cover for A Tale of Wonder: Kathakautukam

The story of Yusuf, a well-known prophet in Christianity and Islam, is present in the Bible as well the Quran. “Zuleikha does not appear in the story by name in either of these scriptures, though she is mentioned in Persian literature. Zuleikha is a metaphor for the soul searching for the divine, which is embodied by Yusuf,” says Haksar. In some Persian versions of the poem, Yusuf is older and a much more ancient entity. From other parts of the story, it may be inferred that Yusuf is younger than Zuleikha. “It is possible to claim that the story has an element of incarnation,” guesses Haksar, “or of divine incarnation… The romance in the story is both narrative and descriptive. It has tragic elements that are eventually overcome.”

A Tale of Wonder also sees the confluence of cultures and religions, all of which interact seamlessly. However, due to the absence of proper knowledge, history, and research, it is very difficult to really know whether the mix of cultures in the story is truly representative of the trade and society of the time, says Haksar. It is possible to assume that if there was a meeting of cultures, it must have involved the meeting of people who would have indulged in trade. Even so, this is all hypothetical at best. But it is known that between what is today called Iran and what is today’s Kashmir, there was movement of people and thoughts.

In a sense, the nature of the cultural intermingling in the story could be used to hold a mirror to today’s society. Today’s environment is witness not just to cultural exchange, but also exchanges which are co-operative or confrontational in nature, says Haksar. More often than not, they are the latter. “Because of the society which we live in, with media and large scale promotion, confrontational exchanges often receive more attention, while co-operative exchanges tend to get swept under the carpet,” says Haksar. In the Kathakautukam, the confluence between Sanskrit and the Persian or Farsi language, and the confluence of the cultures they speak of, is evident. The exchange is not merely of languages, but also mystic and mythological. “When you have a situation like this, where there is an example of a co-operative exchange, it is worth bringing to public notice,” says Haksar, “Especially as this text originated in Kashmir 600 years ago – a place that sees a greater number of confrontations today, as compared to the past.”

The time and place of its writing reflect a cultural confluence that is mostly forgotten now. Additionally, the Kathakautukam is hardly known, even in academic circles, and had never been translated before. These aspects made the text a strong contender for translation in Haksar’s eyes. “To bring such a text into the public domain, I think, is significant,” says Haksar.

Haksar describes the process of translating Kathakautukam as a fascinating experience, due to its themes, time and place, and its poetic but clear language. However, he admits that it was a challenging exercise. “To find equivalents of words in an unrelated language is always quite difficult. Especially because in translation, one needs to convey both the literal meaning as well as the poetic content of the text which is being translated. One is trying to also convey the spirit and flavour of the text,” he mentions, “Oftentimes, one may have to compromise on one or the other.” Haksar uses both prose and poetry as mediums in the book, in an attempt to bring forth both the literal meaning as well as the poetic flavour to the translation.

A renowned translator, AND Haksar has made several other obscure Sanskrit works accessible through his translations, such as the Suleiman Charitra and the verse anthology Subhashitavali. The aim of his translation, he says, has always been to try and bring out lesser-known dimensions of Sanskrit literature before modern readers. “Including satiric, comic, colloquial works, and other first-time translations. It is a fact that good translation can make more Sanskrit works of all kinds available to interested readers who can’t read them in the original language,” says Haksar.

A Tale of Wonder: Kathakautukam was released on 29 March by Penguin Modern Classics.

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Updated Date: Apr 26, 2019 16:57:29 IST