Assimilating an alien culture

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Assimilating an alien culture

Sunday, 04 November 2018 | SACHIDA NAND JHA

Assimilating an alien culture

Ei Thik Jeevan

Author : Hare Krishna Jha

This book is a promising attempt at translating the works of Walt Whitman into Maithili and making his potent ideas available to a larger community of readers, says Sachida Nand Jha

Selected poems of American poet Walt Whitman have been translated into Maithili for the first time and published in a book titled Ei Thik Jeevan (This is Life) by a practicing poet, Hare Krishna Jha. The selection of poems as well as their translation is worthy of attention and appreciation.  Both in terms of consistently maintaining a certain kind of faithfulness to the source text and showcasing flawless fluency in the target text, Jha has done a wonderful job at translating the poems representing an apparently alien culture.

While groping in the dark, struggling to find clues to the future after abandoning his studies of Engineering and Physics, Hare Krishna Jha came across a book — The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell. In the very beginning, Russell talks about what Whitman has to say in his “Song of Myself”: “I think I could turn and live with animals/They are so placid and self-contained... No one is demented with the mania of owning things”. These lines touched Jha and made him realise that poetic expressions can be so simple, yet so profound, so direct, yet so moving if ideas and emotions are told the ways Whitman does.

Whitman has been consistently understood as a path breaking poet who very effectively gave a materially complex and spiritually nuanced voice to the persona of his poems and in turn to the millions of anonymous, even voiceless others  across the world who read his poems. They could relate with his ideas even though he in America which was perceived to be place of infinite opportunities for enterprising human beings. Scientific and technological advancements had opened up possibilities of diverse kinds. People were preoccupied with the explorations of all those available opportunities which constituted what is popularly termed as the American dream.

In countries like America, England, India and other parts of the globe, Whitman evidently made tremendous impact on generations of people. These included prominent literary figures like Emerson, D H Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw and Pablo Neruda. They were so overwhelmed with the creative versatility of Whitman that they chose to bestow enormous praise on the influential poet in ways more than one. Emerson found his poetry so stunning that he wrote him a letter of appreciation immediately after he finished reading his poetry. Lawrence understood him as a visionary poet of cosmic consciousness. And Pablo Neruda found in him not just a poet par excellence but also an excellent mentor who kept influencing and inspiring him for the entire span of his literary life.

Indian sage Aurobindo considered him the most remarkable poet after Valmiki and Homer. Whitman had another admirer in Swami Vivekananda who found his collection of poems “Leaves of Grass” spiritually satisfying and termed Whitman a spiritual genius capable of uplifting the consciousness of his readers to the transcendental level of blissful experiences. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore went on to say that Whitman had been a champion of mystic consciousness. Tagore also expressed his indebtedness to Whitman’s way of writing poetry in free verse in which the latter also wrote poems later.

Despite all kinds of accolades thrown the way of the American poet, Hindi and Maithili literary world remained rather indifferent to Whitman for a long spell of time. Whereas TS Eliot, an English poet of American origin, proved to be a kind of pervasive presence in Indian academia and Pablo Neruda an enduring influence on some of the major writers, Whitman was for some reason ignored in spite of the fact that Neruda unequivocally acknowledged the tremendous influence of Whitman in enabling him to grow as a poet. The kind of reception an inspirational poet like Whitman deserves in the literary cultures of Hindi heartland was conspicuous by its absence.

As far as Maithili literary universe is concerned, not only the majority of common readers but also some of the writers had not much information about what the poetry of Whitman has to offer till Jha discovered him. Once discovered, he could not part ways with the visionary poet who cast a spell over him. Indeed Whitman shook and moved his inner core to the extent that he kept reading, rereading and passionately reciting the poetry of Whitman whenever and wherever he got any opportunity to do so. His persistent efforts to imbibe and internalise Whitman continued for years before he began to translate some of his poems into Hindi during the period of 1977-80. He showed his translations to his literary friends, acquaintances and his favorite teachers. Despite all their encouraging words about his translations, he did not feel confident about the quality of his own translations. Utterly disappointed, he soon abandoned the acts of translation altogether.

But his political activism and love for Maithili motivated him to write poetry. And his preoccupation with poetry writing encouraged him to read poems of other poets. So, he came across Pablo Neruda whose “Memoirs” had already dominated the domain of world literature having attained the status of a classic. Soon, he started translating Neruda into Maithili instead of Hindi. This time, his translations worked well and it turned out to be an extremely satisfying experience. Such satisfaction prompted him to translate Neruda in Hindi too. Both Hindi and Maithili translations made him almost entirely engaged with the poet whose unequivocal acknowledgment of indebtedness to Whitman kept reminding him of his own translations of the American poet.

Soon, Jha restarted translating Whitman in Maithili. And it proved to be a very fruitful exercise. His abilities to integrate himself with the poetic consciousness of the poet helped him throughout to translate the selected poems of Whitman in a highly meaningful way.

It is his passionate desire to absorb and assimilate the essence of Whitman’s cultural thought to the best of his receptive capabilities that governed his translation works. And he fairly succeeded in his efforts to obtain Whitman, as he attempted, in his mother tongue, Maithili. It is noteworthy that his translation has indisputably raised the bar for the activities of literary translations in Maithili. In fact, this poet-translator has set a precedent which holds the promise to become the benchmark for future translations of Whitman’s poetry into Maithili in particular.

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