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Two songs of Lalon

  • Published at 01:00 pm August 5th, 2017
Two songs of Lalon
Lalon Shah, aka Lalon Fakir or Lalon Shain (c. 1772–1890), was the greatest of the Bauls, the mystic minstrels of Bengal who preached – and practised – a homegrown humanism and egalitarianism infused with a mix of the Sufi and Bhakti traditions. Legend has it that he was born a Hindu, and on the way back from a pilgrimage to the Jagannath Temple in Puri came down with smallpox and was abandoned by his companions. A Muslim weaver and his wife found him and nursed him back to health, but he lost one eye to the dreaded disease. He could not return home since he had lost caste through intimacy with Muslims. The weaver gave him land to build a house where he embarked on his new life as a mystic singer-composer. A Baul guru called Siraj Shain, who lived in the same village, initiated him into the cult. Lalon has had far-reaching influence on poetry and South Asian culture as a whole. Kazi Nazrul Islam and Allen Ginsberg owe a debt to him; as does Rabindranath Tagore whose Oxford lectures, published as The Religion of Man, are infused with Baul philosophy. Lalon’s shrine in Kushtia, Bangladesh, draws large numbers of pilgrims and Baul aficionados. The sole likeness of Lalon is a drawing by Jyotirindranath Tagore, the poet’s elder brother. The mysterious neighbour In a mirror city Close by Lives a neighbour I’ve never seen Though I long to see him How can I reach him Being like an islander Amidst endless water – No boat in sight Of my curious neighbour What can I say, for He has neither limbs nor Head and shoulders One moment he’s soaring in space And floating in water the next If only he’d touch me once All fear of death would disappear He lives where Lalon lives And yet is a million miles away Strange bird of passage A strange bird of passage Flits in and out of the cage – God knows how If only I could catch it I’d put on its feet The fetters of consciousness Eight rooms and nine doors And little windows piercing the walls The assembly room right on top’s a hall of mirrors What is it but my hard luck That the bird’s so contrary It has flown its cage And hides in the woods O Heart, beguiled by your cage You don’t see it’s built of green bamboo Lalon says ‘Beware! It will fall apart any day.’ (These translations first appeared in the current issue of Critical Muslim, a magazine devoted to examining issues within Islam and Muslim communities)
Kaiser Haq is Bangladesh’s biggest English language poet. His poetry collections include Pariah and Other Poems (Bengal Lights Books 2013), Starting Lines (Dhaka 1978), A Little Ado (Dhaka 1978) and A Happy Farewell (Dhaka: UPL 1994). He has edited an anthology, Contemporary Indian Poetry (Ohio State University Press 1990) and his translations include a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, Quartet (Heinemann Asian Writers Series, 1993); a novel by Nasreen Jahan, The Woman Who Flew (Penguin India); the poetry collections: Published in the Streets of Dhaka: collected poems (UPL, Dhaka); Combien de Bouddhas, a bilingual poetry selection with French translators by Olivier Litvine (Editions Caracteres, Paris) and the retold Bengali epic: The Triumph of the Snake Goddess (Harvard University Press).