In its theoretical discourse, translation has often been described as “discovery”, “recovery”, “rewriting”, “retelling”, “criticism”, and so on. However, it has never been conceptualised as an act of “mourning” or a process of “grieving”, even though the tradition of grieving is one of the oldest in the history of human civilisation.
Theorists like Sigmund Freud and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross have clearly underlined the importance of allowing the process of mourning to run its full course because it’s only after grieving the loss of a loved one that one becomes capable of loving again. Interestingly, in his famous letter to his mother, Roman philosopher Seneca advised to her to confront her grief rather than delaying it with distractions like travelling abroad, checking accounts, and administering estate etc.
Even in local wisdom, the belief in making a shocked, bereaving person “cry” is dominant for one who cannot cry, be it a person or a society, slips into Freudian melancholia or still worse devastating mania.
While this conceptual framework drove the project of bringing Arun Kolatkar’s Sarpa Satra in Gujarati, it is not without significance that the motif of weeping women, so central to Kolatkar’s poetics, binds his collection of Marathi poems titled Bhijaki Vahi (2003). Bracketed between two powerful poems, “Ashru” (Tears) and “Shevat cha Ashru” (The Last Tear), the collection offers a vivid evocation of the suffering of nineteen women, hailing from modern history, mythology and legends, and the histories of their struggle against violent patriarchal religion, state and society.
“The Last Tear” logically becomes an invocation to the cosmic mother to bring an end to the cruel, corrupt, greedy and genocidal world by draining all that filth from her eyes, save for the last tear which will be useful for creating the universe afresh.
Sarpa Satra, which in its Marathi avatar is a part of Bhijaki Vahi, and in English, a standalone book, is essentially a subversive retelling of the apocalyptic rite of snake sacrifice, the opening myth of The Mahabharata, from the point of view of a mythical snake-woman Jaratkaru. Unfolding as a triptych, the long poem foregrounds a subaltern re-narration of the epic in an emotional, humane voice of Jaratkaru that give a lie to the authentic and elitist epic-history inscribed by Vyasa.
Using crisp, contemporary idiom, it also links the mythical references to contemporary social and political events. The allusion is hard to miss when she begins her address by asking, “What would your reaction be…” (italics added) to the distorted logic Janamejaya gives as justification for instituting a holocaust-like rite. By highlighting Janamejaya’s poor and unexamined sense of history, laid on him by crafty Uttanka and his guardians, and his scant understanding of Takshaka’s reasons for killing his father, Kolatkar pins down ravaging conflagrations to the ignorance and arrogance of political powers who,
“…view the world
through the dark prism of a wound
by the dirty bandage of history.”
On the other hand, like a serious historian, Jaratkaru traces the flames of the sarpa satra and the “grand funeral pyre” in which Parikshit burned earlier to the burning down of Khandava forest by Krishna and Arjun in which Takshaka’s wife had perished. She gives an elaborate and blood-curdling account of the ecological and civilisational devastation wrought by the act while, at the same time, comparing it with the pure, hygienic and sophisticated snake sacrifice, devoid of any blood or gore whatsoever.
“A nice yajna, this.
Not a single sacrificial post in sight.
No ropes, no knives…
no need to carve up the parts…
or to roast
the victim’s still bleeding heart in a spit.
Oh no. Nothing of the sort.
It’s all sorcery: mantras do it all.”
Her gross descriptions of the barbarity with which the duo unleash havoc on the Khandava ecology serve to expose the extreme cruelty and bloodlust lurking under formulaic rituals, sanitised religious meta-narratives and perverted scientific or legal discourses. Among the gruesome images of the chakra slicing a swarm of bees, a flock of hundred swans brought down by Arjun’s arrows, a bear bursting into flames, half-cooked turtles etc, the one which disturbs the most is where Arjun and Krishna are seen thundering around the burning forest in their divine chariots to ensure that nothing gets out of the inferno alive; the moment anything tries to escape, they drive it back into fire or simply mow it down.
This ghastly image graphically represents its real-life parallels like Kilvenmani massacre, or the Godhra and post-Godhra carnages, among many others. Similarly, the image of the fleeing lioness and the cub in her mouth impaled by Arjuna’s single shaft unmistakably evokes Kausar’s brutalisation in 2002, which has become the oozing scar in the collective memory of nation.
In a mix of shock and surprise, Jaratkaru, like the reader, asks why such wholesale destruction was wrought. Kolatkar answers,
The poet here brings out the materialist, instrumentalist, and colonising motivations behind these conflagrations of cleansing and dissociates them from religious, dharmic or even ideological compulsions. Arjuna’s expansionist dream is no different from Janamejaya’s desire for revenge or Somashravas’s greed for position and pelf; none of them stems from the dharmic obligation towards nishkam karma. On the other hand, they feel no qualms about assigning Agni, “the scared sacrificial fire”, the job,
“of a common
assassin, butcher or a mass murderer
to employ him
to exterminate an entire species
in cold blood
in violation of all the known laws
of gods and man,”
Concomitantly, the genocidal impulses of Arjuna and Janamejaya feed on their intrinsic distaste respectively for diversity and singularities. Arjuna’s desire to establish a monolithic, uniform, organised dominion leads him to turn a blind eye to the rich diversity of life that expresses itself with complete abandon in “God’s own laboratory on earth”.
Similarly, Janamejaya’s hatred for Takshaka homogenises an entire species into a cunning, scheming kind which can be dispensed with for larger good, in complete contrast to Jaratkaru’s identification of victims by their names. Kolatkar seems to project Astika as a true epitome of dharma and an alternative metaphor of divinity and leadership because his vision is,
“Not Spoilt by reading too many books yet,
by the smoke of too many sacrifices,
or clouded by rage, power, ego, pride
or any of the other
common diseases of the eye.”
Since his “brain is not maggoty yet / with perceived wrongs / or pickled in the brine of hatred.”, he so selflessly sets out to reclaim the last vestige of humanity from the engulfing fires of yajna.
Past, present and literary text
A question is often asked whether Kolatkar, who apparently wrote Sarpa Satra in the wake of Bombay riots of 1992, could have 2002 in mind. In answer, I turn to Walter Benjamin who in his posthumous text On the Concept of History (1940) draws on Andre Monglond’s idea that just as a photographic plate carries an image which can be physically developed later, a literary text has the capacity to present a meaning inconceivable at the time of its conception. In his Arcades Project, Benjamin quotes Monglond,
“The past has left images of itself in literary texts, images comparable to those which are imprinted by light on a photosensitive plate. The future alone possesses developers active enough to scan such surfaces perfectly.”
However, after mooting the idea of past texts pointing to future texts, Benjamin puts forward a caveat that the image of past flashes at a specific “moment of cognisability” and immediately disappears. It’s the creative genius, in effect, which captures the flitting image and develops it in the present context. Kolatkar beautifully poeticises this entire delicate process in his poem “The Butterfly”, which, “split like a second” has no future or pin-downable past. “A pun on the present”, it “opens before it closes / and closes before it o” before disappearing.
In Sarpa Satra, Kolatkar develops an image of past which lay hidden in the epic and imparts it current relevance while at the same time leaving in the text images that can be developed by future poets and (re)writers. The Gujarati translation of Sarpa Satra, in this way, is a rewriting that redeems the meanings and images that Kolatkar had so thoughtfully left behind. Further, it enlarges the thematic scope by punctuating the text with poetic and philosophical articulations concerning the genocides orchestrated the world over in last hundred years.
While such an intertextual attitude, constantly straddling the past and the present, is a tribute to the complex interdependence of literary texts, it is also a far cry from the political notion that past can be excised, expunged and sanitised to give meaning to present.
Humanistics of translation
The Gujarati Sarpa Satra has its genesis evidently in the disturbing turn of events in the socio-political and even literary spheres in the aftermath of 2002. The fitting, common-sense reaction to the most horrifying episodes in the region’s history could have been a collective expression of remorse, grief, handholding and so on, but conversely, what ruefully emerged were a set of fault lines along language, religion, region etc. and the forging of a fragile sense of identity based on these markers. (see “Diffusing Polarisations…”, Kothari, 2007) It made one rue, as Jaratkaru does,
“– people we thought of
Until, oh, the day before yesterday
As living volcanoes of conscience
Ready to blow their tops
At the first sign
Of any wrongdoing in the land
Or whenever the mighty strayed
From the path of justice –
Seem strangely silent”
For a variety of reasons, the response of the literati to the new zeitgeist, though not completely absent, reflected the larger petrification of the society and its upsetting Senecan distractions, “complete with song and dance, / fun and games, / gambling and chariot races”.
The book certainly tries to make an intervention in that climate of silence, amnesia and mania. However, it acknowledges the wider symbolism implicit in the original and transgresses linguistic, regional, cultural, and political boundaries to underscore what drives man’s inhumanity to man. Thus, the snake victims in the poem represent not only Muslims but also Jews, Armenians, Bosniaks, Rohingyas, Uyghurs, Tamils, and Palestinians.
Beyond the symbolism, the book aims to insert a necessary correction in the romantic discourse of a writer’s freedom about what and what not to (re)write. Arguably, in multilingual, multicultural, and multireligious societies where history and memory are exceptionally charged and contested spaces, the task of the (re)writer becomes extremely onerous. The imperative politics, or rather, the humanistics, of translation in this context is to provide alternative metaphors of writership; pitting Ketman-like Vaishmpayana, who recites the epic with his own embellishments as snake after snake goes to his doom, and Vyasa, who sits down to put the wretched chronicle of fratricide and an entire nation’s self-destruction in polished verse, against Jaratkaru and Kolatkar.
When a society’s sense of history is marked by ruptures and selective chronology, it becomes incumbent upon the writer to complicate its vision and fill the gaps in historiography with memories and ignored images of past. What Elif Shafak says about Turkish and Armenian societies and their cultures of amnesia and memory respectively is so pertinent.
“One day in my ideal world, I would like to see Armenians forgetting more and the Turks remembering more, but for that to happen, the Turks need to start remembering first.”
To know and remember what Jaratkaru has “been trying to forget” is Astika’s “right”, nay, his Dostoevskyan responsibility. Astika, a son of a man and a snake woman, unmistakably stands in for us as he embodies the essential co-existence of self (human) and the other (snake) and their intertwined histories. The recovery of the poignant memories of how we directed “these sacrificial jamborees” and “these celebrations of hatred” at our own body (politic), will hopefully shake us out of our state of shock and move us to shed tears which are long overdue.