Let’s Not Tell a Single Soul (ಯಾರಿಗೂ ಹೇಳೋಣು ಬ್ಯಾಡಾ)

Let’s not tell a single soul
No, not a single soul. |Refrain |

That climbing on a horse with wings,
Perched side by side like little twins,
We’ll go swaying and awaying –
Let’s not tell a single soul
No, not a single soul.

That to a yard of yours we’re going,
Its flowers all flowering, its fruits all flowing;
There we’ll have a merry feasting –
Let’s not tell a single soul
No, not a single soul.

That holding hands we’ll dance and dance,
We’ll bend and bow and spring and prance,
And, untíring, play-skip entranced –
Let’s not tell a single soul
No, not a single soul.

That in a field of malligē flowers,
We’ll sit with my cheek stroking yours
And softly sing some duet bars –
Let’s not tell a single soul
No, not a single soul.

That turning into little snakes,
We too’ll sway our hoods and shake;
Amid the flowers, the green, the lake –
Let’s not tell a single soul
No, not a single soul.

That sleeping deeply, unbodied,
To a joyous magic land we’ve dreamed
We’ll steal away – unheard, unseen –
Let’s not tell a single soul
No, not a single soul.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ನಾದಲೀಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Note: Do read the Afterword.

I’ve taken a shot at singing both the original Kannada poem and the English translation. The tune of the Kannada song, if one may be discerned, is taken from this lovely recording by Shimoga Subbanna. (Of all the recordings made of the song, this is by far the most melodious and felicitous. I urge you all to listen to it. In fact, it is largely responsible for making me want to translate the poem. The only reason I haven’t offered that recording instead of my own is because it is missing one stanza of the poem. As it is, Mr. Subbanna has sung stanzas 1, 2, 3, 6, 5 in that order.)
The English translation’s recording, I confess, is of my own tuning. With the original poem having been tuned so wonderfully, I thought it would be somewhat of a letdown to simply recite the translation. I just hope the singing isn’t more of a letdown.

The Kannada poem as a song:

The English translation as a song:

Afterword:

Da Ra Bendre was among that tiny group of poets whose work becomes not just widely popular but also “required literary reading” in their own time. The foremost modern lyric poet of the ನವೋದಯ (navōdaya: ~ new dawn; renaissance) period in 20th-century Kannada literature, several of his (early) poems were included in textbooks. Naturally, this meant his poems were discussed in classrooms – often by teachers who were themselves hard put to make sense of (the nuances of) the poem! While it is likely that most of them just chose to gloss over the matter, they were a few souls brave enough to take the issue up with Bendre himself! (I say “brave” because of how quickly Bendre was known to fly into a temper. However, it is worth noting that he had great appreciation for the rasika, the sahrudaya, the invested reader – and was always willing to help them with their difficulties.)
Related to this poem is the story of one such (invested) teacher. It is a story I heard very recently (and “third hand” at that), but I reckon it is (mostly) true and, what is more, quite engaging. Of course, since it is a recounting of a retelling of a telling, I have taken the liberty to create a (plausible) narrative.
The story goes that a schoolteacher assigned this poem was hesitant about reading it out and explaining it to his students in the 8th grade (or thereabouts). His reason? The intimacy found throughout the poem – and especially apparent in lines like “ಗಲ್ಲ ಗಲ್ಲ ಹಚ್ಚಿ ಕೂತು (We’ll sit with my cheek stroking yours)”. Just how was he to talk to young children about such intimacy without himself feeling embarrassed or having to answer questions he’d rather not answer? Unsure, he decided to go to Bendre himself. “Maastra, how do I talk to such young children about such displays of affection?”, he asked, “I’m likely to begin to feel embarrassed and self-conscious myself”. Bendre is supposed to have smiled at this and simply said, “Is that so? Well, go back, read the poem again and come here.”
Baffled but unable to question the varakavi, the teacher went back and read the poem, wondering all along what he needed to read a (seemingly simple) love poem like for again. After all, it seemed straightforward enough, didn’t it? So it happened that he returned to Bendre the next day, no differently opinioned. “Did you read it again?” asked Bendre. “I did, maastra.” “And you didn’t see anything that answered your question about how you could teach it to your class?” “No, maastra, I didn’t.” “Okay then, read it again and come back tomorrow”, said Bendre.
Baffled but obliged to obey, the schoolteacher returned home to the poem and read it again; doing his best to find the key to Bendre’s (rather unhelpful!) suggestion. Try as he might, he was unable to find the answer to his question, a way that would allow him to speak about the poem without feeling self-conscious. So back to Bendre’s he went the next day, feeling rather foolish and wondering what lay in store.
“So you found your answer?” asked Bendre. “No, maastra, I didn’t,” replied the teacher, looking crestfallen.
“Okay then, tell me again why you think you’ll find it hard to teach your students this poem.” “Because of some of the details, maastra – of the cheeks of the lovers touching and all that.”
“And what made you think the two of them are lovers?” The teacher was taken aback. “But isn’t that obvious, maastra; it’s a love poem after all, isn’t it?” “Yes, yes, it is a love poem…but why did you think it was about a man and a woman?”
“Well, because…” the teacher’s voice trailed off. He’d said it was obvious, hadn’t he? But why was it obvious? He couldn’t quite say.
Smiling, Bendre said, “Look, tamma, you aren’t the first one to interpret the poem the way you did, but I actually wrote the poem for my son (when he was a little boy). I was imagining doing all these secret things with him; sailing away on a flying horse, playing like little snakes, nuzzling each other’s cheeks, holding hands and dancing…do you see now how you can teach your students this poem?”
The schoolteacher nodded. “What a lovely poem, maastra,” he said, his voice filled with emotion. “I’d be proud to read it out and teach it to my students.” Then joining his palms in a namaskaara, “And now, with your permission, maastra, I’ll take your leave. Thank you very much for all your help.”
“Go along and come back sometime, tamma,” said Bendre, as he took a teaspoon of sugar from his pocket and gave it to the teacher.

Glossary:

1. maastra – the (Dharwad) Kannada way of saying “Master” – which is how most older people addressed Bendre (the young ones called him “ajjaara” or grandpa)

2. tamma – the Kannada word for a younger brother

3. namaskaara – a gesture of reverence made by joining the palms of both hands (at around chest level)

Rasika (ರಸಿಕ)

When he lived, Da Ra Bendre was known for his temper and his enthusiasm to engage in a quarrel. He himself attributed this temperament, with no little pride, to the ಮಣ್ಣಿನ ಗುಣ (maṇṇina guṇa: ~ quality of the soil) of his beloved Dharwad. He was, to use a felicitous Kannada word, a ಜಗಳಗಂಟ (jagaḷagaṇṭa: ~a quarrelsome fellow). It is said that when asked once why he’d chosen not to spend time abroad as a poet-in-residence, he answered with, “What am I going to go and do there when I haven’t even finished with all my quarrels in Dharwad!” As he grew in stature as a poet, so did criticism of his work – often poorly informed and occasionally malicious. Never one to take an insult lying down, Bendre confronted these critics both in his poetry and in person.

Contrariwise, Bendre held a particular affection for the rasika**, the sahrudaya. Indeed, one could go as far as to say the rasika-sahrudaya, no matter their rank or qualification, was Bendre’s “favourite person”, the raison d’etre of his poetry. This is borne out not only by Bendre’s poems but by the many generous things he had to say about them in his prose writings. Here are a few excerpts.

Poetry is the rest-home built to bring the joy of happiness to the rasika, the kindred spirit.”

“Like the poet, the rasika too has the “illuminating eye”. He too has the facility to “get the eyes to open”.

“But the sahrudaya is not slave to his nature. His words are not those of praise or criticism. It is his nectarine-sight that serves as a poem’s touchstone. To be exposed to that sight is a grace, to be removed from it a curse.”

To all those sahrudayas who have continued to welcome the poems of ‘Ambikatanayadatta,’ ‘Bendre’ conveys his gratitude: that his scribesmanship is not simply a waste, that his happy, wanton singing is not completely fruitless.”

**The ರಸಿಕ (rasika: ~ one sensitive enough to appreciate the rasa) or the ಸಹೃದಯ (sahrudaya: lit. a person of the same heart) is a major figure in classical Sanskrit poetics. Indeed, it is he or she – with their capacity to grasp the essence, to appreciate the nuances, to experience the joy felicitously-written words can offer – who drives the creation of poetry. Yes, there would be no poetry without the poet – but (perhaps) there would be no poet without the rasika.

The poem below is one of several Bendre-poems about the rasika.

Kannada Poem’s Recitation:

Rasika (ರಸಿಕ)

My heart and your heart – a salt-ocean apart;
All song is like a forest-cry!
If everyone’s drowned in their own tears,
Which heart’s companion to friendship’s plea?

When will it come that wit that lifts
And strings the pearls within the soul’s recess?
More sharp than pin, more fine than thread;
Can such words bear the tongue’s impress?

Like a fragrant flower-garland’s sent,
Like melodies set out on flight,
I’ll send, rasika, with a happy sigh
These heartfelt words for your heart’s delight.

English Translation’s Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

 

Paper Boat (ಹಾಳಿ ಹಡಗ)

Long before Jagjit Singh was singing a soulful ghazal about the lost childhood of paper boats and even longer before paper boat was a quirky, new-age brand with attractive packaging, Da Ra Bendre was writing a sonnet about the paper boat. Not a run-of-the-mill sonnet, mind you, that merely romanticized the innocence of his childhood days – but rather an image-rich oct-sestet (ಅಷ್ಟಷತ್ಪದಿ) that even now stands out for what Bendre himself described as “the strangeness of the twist imparted [when moving from the octet to the sestet]”.

Given the strangeness of this twist – its ಚಮತ್ಕಾರ (chamatkāra (n): ~ wonder) – and the various interpretations it allows for, I think this a good time to say something about what it means to translate poetry like Bendre’s — poetry that is not just remarkably euphonic but frequently rich in meaning, in suggestion, in allusion, in metaphor, in native imagery.

Like I say in the About section, my translation (or transcreation) has always looked to avoid the trap of “literalness” and offer, instead, the spirit of the original poem. But what if that spirit itself is one of mystery or elusiveness or ambiguity or complexity or all these things at the same time? Does “literalness” gain importance then?
Well, in such a case, I’d say the duty of the translation or transcreation becomes to retain, to the extent possible, the poem’s qualities, with the caveat that it never (deliberately) stretches past the original’s own reach. (An example of stretching past the original’s reach to create a kind of “fusion” is Fitzgerald’s rendering of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. He is said to have taken so many liberties with the original that his immensely-popular work is often referred to as the Omar-Fitzgerald Rubaiyat. Fitzgerald apparently called his work a “transmogrification”.)
The retention can be effected in different ways: by seeking to understand the poem’s nuances of meaning and suggestion and using that learning to create a translation that is itself nuanced, though perhaps in a different way; or, in the case of a poem that challenges the translator’s understanding, by offering a translation that challenges its reader in equivalent fashion.

This particular poem is one whose “strangeness of twist” I cannot claim to have “fully understood”. Consequently, I have tried to present a translation that retains – as literally as possible – the imagery of the original. After all, like I have said before, my reason for translating a Bendre poem is often my own desire to better understand the poem.

Kannada Poem Recitation:

Paper Boat (ಹಾಳಿ ಹಡಗ)

I will set sail these paper boats,
Like one would do in boyish play,
Until the cloud-hid sun shines forth again;
(The scrap of home will be its load.)
Within this mud-watered-unity
That marries the culvert and the lake,
Let the current chart its destiny:
What is a flimsy boat against a crazy rain-and-breeze?
Let the books account the profit and the loss;
What I praised in wonder-dance is here.

The heart, like cloth, crumples and fades,
The breath is dimmed by hunger and by thirst;
Building varied fairied lands, making channels
Flood happily, cutting and sniff-scattering
The jasmine-of-the-skies, and breathing life
Into the pictures of the mind, 
comes forth
A heaven that has birthed itself.

English Translation’s Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection, “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Benediction (ಹರಕೆ)

Kannada Poem’s Recitation:

Benediction (ಹರಕೆ)

The slow-paced step is slower now, within doe-
Eyes’s about to sprout an anxiousness;
(The fresh-greenness of the body’s faded now.)
Its youth undone, the blood’s red-freshness’
Quickly turning old. Coquette who wished to
Count the feathers of the flying bird! Your
Heart’s as desolate as an empty temple’s show;
Sweet murmurs can be born no more;
Now grown, you stand past outstretched hand.

Sister, let the day’s fatigue just fade away;
May the soaring hawk not swoop this way
Or boy-wind tie you up in impish play.
Don’t visit here, you bee who steals the flower’s
Scent; let come spring’s desired-success-shower;
Above, may your moon-star give you cover.

English Translation’s Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection, “ಕಾಮಕಸ್ತೂರಿ”, first published in 1934.

Afterword:

I remember being at the 2016 Ranga Ugadi organized by Ranga Shankara, Bengaluru’s best-known theatre space. The year’s theme was Bendre and the centerpiece of the second day’s festivities was a reading session of his poems by various well-known Kannada cultural figures. One of them, I recall, prefaced her reading – of the poem ‘ದಶಾವತಾರ’ – with her description of Bendre as a man with a “ಮಹಾ ಹೆಂಗರುಳು” (mahā heṅgaruḷu), or in other words, “a great woman-like sympathy”.
The poem “ದಶಾವತಾರ” – the ten avatāras – is part of a series of poems called “ಕರುಳಿನ ವಚನಗಳು” – or “words [born] of the gut” – written from the point of view of a mother that relate her various happy and spontaneous exclamations at her beloved infant’s ways and plays.  To those who know about Bendre’s growth as a poet, the influence of Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Crescent Moon” on these poems is obvious. (Speaking for myself, the poems in “The Crescent Moon” are some of the most exquisite poems I’ve ever read.)
If the incident mentioned above is relevant, it is because this poem too exemplifies the ಹೆಂಗರುಳು Bendre possessed. While a deep sensitivity characterizes all great poets, Bendre’s sensitivity was (for a male poet) unusually “female directed”. A number of his early lyric poems are either written from a woman’s point of view or are sympathetic responses to a woman’s various life experiences.
It is notable that this is another oct-sestet – one that rhymes this time. You’ll notice that the translation has, in spite of my trying, 15 lines rather than 14. Its rhyme scheme too is different from the original’s. Then again, that’s the reason I prefer to think these poems are as much transcreations as they are translations.
P.S: I think it worth reading this poem in conjuction with this one.

Gumma (ಗುಮ್ಮ)

The literature of the Navōdaya period (that began in the early 1900s) in Kannada literature was inspired by the emergent literature of the Bengal Renaissance as well as by the Romantic tradition of English poetry. This inspiration extended to the verse forms of the Romantic tradition and included the sonnet.

As the foremost lyrical poet of Kannada’s Navōdaya period, and an inveterate seeker (and inventor) of new poetic forms, Bendre’s experiments with the sonnet began in the early 1920s. However, it was in his 1938 collection “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ (Uyyāle: The Swing)” that the sonnet-fruit swelled forth in all its fullness. Naming his avatāra of the sonnet the ಅಷ್ಟಷಟ್ಪದಿ or the oct-sestet (and, by doing so, choosing the Petrarchan form over the Shakespearean), Bendre says in his introduction that “the new qualities [of his sonnets] are their lack of rhyme, their unpredictable use of enjambment, and the strangeness of the twist imparted [when moving from the octet to the sestet]”.

As a translator, I will admit that the sonnets of “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ” have provided respite of a sort. In particular, Bendre’s (deliberate?) eschewal of his famous, near-ubiquitous (end) rhyme has allowed the translation – or transcreation – to stretch its limbs a little bit more, to spread itself with a little more freedom in its attempt to emulate the various ways and plays of a Bendre poem. Conversely, this eschewal has often been (more than) compensated for by a denseness of thought and language! In any case, I have looked to approximate the technical dexterity of these poems using what may be called a rhythmic “free verse”. (Bendre may have chosen to forego rhyme but his preternatural sense for rhythm and aurality remained.)

Here is a sonnet from the collection that illustrates some of what was said above. While the English word bugbear works as a translation for gumma, I have retained the original for its flavour.

Kannada Recitation:

Gumma (ಗುಮ್ಮ)

Keep quiet, kanda, the gumma’s come; oh my, what
Are those eyes of his! How red his tongue – like embers
In the darkness black! Faking slowness, he comes (and
comes); keep quiet, kanda, don’t you cry! He might just
Come here if he hears your wail; Oh my oh my!
Shut your eyes tight, just fall asleep, don’t ever see
His misbegotten face; here he comes, oomph-hmmphing,
Stay calm, kanda, don’t even peep, the gumma nears.

Don’t come, gumma, he’s gone to sleep; this is mira–
Culous! Like fish gulped in to a water-whirl,
His mind’s at rest; his breath is like a baby-breeze
Swirling through the leaves; it’s acting crazy now –
With what dream-girlfriend’s breathing is it twinned;
There too, gumma, make sure that kanda is not scared.

English Recitation:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection, “ಉಯ್ಯಾಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Beyond the Mind (ಅಚಿಂತ್ಯ)

Among Shankar Mokashi Punekar’s many affectionate and insightful quotes about Bendre’s poetic genius is his description of Bendre’s poetry as “a poetic essence born of the constant embrace of the heart (ಭಾವ) and the intellect (ಬುದ್ಧಿ)”.

Interpreted judiciously, one may understand this to mean that every poem of Bendre’s holds within it, in varying degrees, elements that appeal to both the heart and the mind; that both stir the heart and stimulate the mind. Given the exquisite romanticism of Bendre’s lyric poems and the intellectual inquisitiveness of his early sonnets and later poems, Punekar’s assertion seems very reasonable.

This particular poem seems a good example of the “intellect” of Bendre’s poetry. Like Bendre says himself in his foreword to “ಮೂರ್ತಿ  (mūrti: ~ idol)” – a set of connected poems that, through their exploration of the birth, life, and death of a stone, allegorically describe the human experience – this “first part of the [longer] narrativepoem is the philosophical face of a metaphoric symbolism”.

It is worth noting that the fifth stanza with its several Hindu philosophical references was particularly challenging to transcreate leave alone translate. Once again, it is the liberties the English language allows me to take with it that makes translations like these that much easier.

Kannada Recitation:

Beyond the Mind (ಅಚಿಂತ್ಯ)

No one has seen the truth,
The truth cannot be seen;
Is it smaller than a grain of sand?
The prideful man who says
That he has seen the truth;
Are the secrets of a grain of sand
Mórsels for men’s eyes?

You silver-tongue who thinks
You’ve caught within your net of words
That truth that goes beyond the sight!
He alone knows who knows
The truth of truth is beyond truth;
And you say that you have caught its breath!

Pick up a grain of sand,
Enclose it in your fist;
What does it say? What is
Its goal? Its life? Tell us from which
Despoilèd golden age emerged this
Debrised gleam that you now hold!

Hari’s the greater, Hara’s the greater
Are just lines that’ve been written down;
Must life be wasted arguing them?
What is dual is not dual,
The dual is always undual:
No dance of numbers need tell us this.

O unknowable, unseeable, unknowandseeable
That opens with a new magnificence at every sight!
O limitless, peaceful light-of-life seeking immortality!
O unthinkable, ineffable, unapprehendable!
Let everything be well.

English Recitation:

Note: Hari and Hara are the different names for Vishṇu and Shiva respectively – two of the three gods that make up the ತ್ರಿಮೂರ್ತಿ (~trinity) of the classical, Sanskritized Hindu tradition. From the early centuries AD, devotees of each god (in his myriad forms) have argued, debated, quarrelled, and written poetry describing their god as the greater and the other as the lesser.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the episodic narrative-poem, “ಮೂರ್ತಿ”, first published in 1934.

Hothot Sky (ನಿಗಿ ನಿಗಿ ಮುಗಿಲು)

Original Kannada Poem:

Hothot Sky (ನಿಗಿ ನಿಗಿ ಮುಗಿಲು)

Hothot sky
Hothot day
Pours forth an emberous heat;
Strips all cover
Steals all power
The life-breath’s fully beat;

Dries the throat
Drops the fruit
The hot breath of the air –
Full-flaming
Sky-swimming
Is arriving in fine flair.

Showers the rain
Uplooks the grain
The dark clouds break and burst;
Cheep-cheep the birds,
Their laughter-words;
Here’s mercy for the cursed!

Transcreated English Poem:

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ನಾದಲೀಲೆ”, first published in 1938.

Afterword:

ಹಾಡೆ ಹಾದಿಯ ತೋರಿತು (haaḍē haadiya tōritu: ~ the song itself showed the way) said Bendre of (his) poetry. The variousness of his poetry’s metre, rhythm, rhyme, prosody, and syllablism testify to the truth of this statement: the song really did show him the way. All too often, all he did was follow its lead.

In this particular poem, it may be argued that the short (staccato-ish) syllabic lines lend the poem an urgency – alluding, at first, to the withering heat and, later, to the wet relief of the rain. In any case, the poem is a wonderful example of the famous ನಾದ (nāda: ~ euphony) inherent to Bendre’s poetry. Just listen to that assonance, that rhythm, that rhyme, that onomatopoeia!

In this transcreation, a particular concern was to mirror the (short) syllablism of the original poem’s lines. Trying to work the English language to achieve such effects is an especially satisfying aspect of translating Bendre’s poetry.