book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

Grace and mercy in her wild hair: selected poems to the mother goddess

rAmaprasAda Sen and Leonard Nathan (tr.) and Clinton B. Seely (tr)

Sen, rAmaprasAda; Leonard Nathan (tr.); Clinton B. Seely (tr);

Grace and mercy in her wild hair: selected poems to the mother goddess

Hohm Press, 1999, 73 pages

ISBN 0934252947, 9780934252942

topics: |  poetry | bengali | translation


among the finest translations of rAmprasAd till date, in terms of poetic quality. Compare with Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kali (Rachel McDermott 2001) and the religious legend-driven failed poetry of Ramprasad, the melodious mystic by Swami Budhananda.

Bengali sources (first lines) missing

one aspect i would have liked would be a parallel inclusion of the original texts of these poems. while nathan and seely cite the original poem reference, but doesn't even bother giving the title line of the original. thus, without these bengali texts, one has no clue at all about the originals, many of which someone reading the text may actually have encountered.

colonial ghosts in the scholarship?

i noted another - possibly more serious - omission in the introductory analysis. both the first but especially the second edition, refers only to the meager corpus of western scholarship on rAmprasAd. thus, malcolm mclean and rachel mcdermott are the only two works cited in dealing with the scholarship on rAmprasAd. mclean's views on rAmprasAd's tantrik roots are quoted extensively, but are there not bAnglA scholars who may have voiced similar opinions earlier? no such scholarship is mentioned.

is this because nathan and seely feel that the scholarship on rAmprasAd in
bAnglA is not thorough or respectable?  or is it simply that they are not
too familiar with the material and were not able to consult these sources?
this seems unlikely given that Seely is part of the team, and given the
scholarly approach.  The only bAnglA source cited (in footnote 1 to the
introduction, not in the main text) is isvar chandra gupta from the 19th c.,
whose testimony is considered "shaky".  

it is of course possible that the book was meant for the western reader, and
the authors felt that this readership would not be interested in the opinion
of some remote texts...  indeed, it was hard to get this copy in india!

whatever be the cause, the reader is left wondering - particularly since such
an attitude bespokes the ghosts of a colonial orientalism, which, i must say,
is otherwise absent in much of seely's other bAnglA-phile work, and i am sure
that he would find this charge rather bothersome.

i wonder if one would attempt a translation of baudelaire without citing any
french scholarship (or, for that matter, without providing the text in the
original).  one may argue that many readers of such a text may also speak
french - but this is surely true of this text as well?  of course, such is 
the fate of bAnglA translation in general (and also perhaps, most third
world languages).

as of now therefore, one is not able to identify the bAnglA originals for
most of the songs.  i hope this lacuna may be fixed in a later edition if

having said all that, however, the work is clearly a superior job of
translation - the poems read smoothly and easily in English.


though rAmprasAd is not shy about letting his personal feelings into his
songs... we know almost nothing about his life except that he flourished in
the Bengal of the 18th c.  Legend has it that, as a young clerk bored with his
work and suffused with devotion, he was caught filling his ledger with songs
to the Mother Goddess, and was sent off, adequately subsidized by his kindly

Even in his death he exemplified a perfect form of worship.  [When at the
climax of the festival] the Goddess is immersed in the waters, the poet is said
to have followed her under, singing lyrics he composed to elicit her grace.
						- Introduction, p. xxiii

1: time's up now (gela din michhe ranga rase)

I spent my days in fun,
Now, Time's up and I'm out of a job.
I used to go here and there making money,
Had brothers, friends, wife, and children
Who listened when I spoke.  Now they scream at me
Just because I'm poor.  Death's
Field man is going to sit by my pillow
Waiting to grab my hair, and my friends
And relations will stack up the bier,
Fill the pitcher, ready my shroud and say
So long to the old boy
In his holy man's get-up.
They'll shout Hari a few times,
Dump me on the pile and walk off.
That's it for old rAmprasAd.
They'll wipe off the tears
And dig into their supper.

3: after death

Tell me, brother, what happens after death?
The whole world is arguing about it --
Some say you become a ghost,
Others that you go to heaven,
And some that you get close to God,
And the Vedas insist you're a bit of sky
Reflected in a jar fated to shatter.

When you look for sin and virtue in nothing,
you end up with nothing.
The elements live in the body together
But go their own ways at death.

PrasAd says: you end, brother,
Where you began, a reflection
Rising in water, mixing with water,
Finally one with water.

34 : kAli flying a kite

The dark Mother 
Is flying a kite 
In the world's fairground. 

O, mind, see - you are up there 
In the gusts of hope, 
Payed out on the string of illusion, 
Your frame strung together 
Skeleton and pulse stuck on. 

But the maker overdid it, 
Giving the kite too much ego 
In the building, 
Toughening the string with glue 
And powdered glass. 

So Mother, if out of a thousand kites 
You lose one or two, 
Laugh and clap. 

Prasad says: that kite is going to take off 
In the southern breeze, 
And on the other shore 
Of this ocean of lives 
It will dive fast to its freedom. 

[original bAnglA:]

শ্যামা মা উড়াচ্ছ ঘুড়ি (ভবসংসার বাজার মাঝে) ৷
(ওই যে) আশা-বায়ু ভরে উড়ে, বাঁধা তাহে মায়া দড়ি ৷৷
কাক গণ্ডি মণ্ডি গাঁথা, পঞ্জরাদি নানা নাড়ী ৷
ঘুড়ি স্বগুণে নির্মাণ করা, কারিগরি বাড়াবাড়ি ৷৷
বিষয়ে মেজেছ মাঞ্জা, কর্কশা হয়েছে দড়ি ৷
ঘুড়ি লক্ষের দুটা-একটা কাটে, হেসে দাও মা হাত-চাপড়ি ৷৷
প্রসাদ বলে, দক্ষিণা বাতাসে ঘুড়ি যাবে উড়ি ৷
ভবসংসার সমুদ্রপারে পড়বে গিয়ে তাড়াতাড়ি ৷৷

38: All right, get off Siva's chest!

All right, You crazy woman,
Get down off the Great Lord's chest!

Shiva's not dead; He's simply
The Master Yogi meditating.

But poison has weakened Him,
He can't bear the force of Your feet, Mother.

Now, get down before His ribs cave in--
O Shiva's Woman. You're pitiless, pitiless.

He drank poison and survived,
Why should He die now?

Ramprasad thinks He's playing dead
Just to have Your feet touching Him.
for this and several other poems from this book. 

46: cry kAli and dive in! (Dub de re man kAlI bale)

Now cry kAli and take the plunge!
O my Mind, dive into this sea,
This heart which has yet to be sounded.
There are gems down there that two or three dives
Aren't going to get.  Now, hold your breath
And jump!  Kick down to where She sits
Deep in the wise waters, a great pearl.
You can do it, all it takes
Is overwhelming love and the memory
of Shiva's good words.

Down there the Six Passion's cruise
Like crocodiles snapping at anything
That moves, so cover yourself with knowledge
Like turmeric smeared on the skin--
The odor will keep them off.
I tell you there's a world of wealth
In that water.

    rAmprasAd says: Dive in
    And you're going to come up with a fortune.

[original in bAnglA:]

	ডুব দে মন কালী বলে। হৃদি-রত্নাকরের অগাধ জলে।
	রত্নাকর নয় শূন্য কখন, দু-চার ডুবে ধন না পেলে,
	তুমি দম-সামর্থ্যে একডুবে যাও, কুলকুণ্ডলিনীর কূলে।
	জ্ঞান-সমুদ্রের মাঝে রে মন, শান্তিরূপা মুক্তা ফলে,
	তুমি ভক্তি করে কুড়ায়ে পাবে, শিবযুক্তি মতো চাইলে। 

	কামাদি ছয় কুম্ভীর আছে, আহার-লোভে সদাই চলে,
	তুমি বিবেক-হলদি গায়ে মেখে যাও, ছোঁবে না তার গন্ধ পেলে।
	রতন-মাণিক্য কতপড়ে আছে সেই জলে,
	রামপ্রসাদ বলে ঝম্প দিলে, মিলবে রতন ফলে ফলে।

52 You'll find mother in any house

You'll find mother
in any house.

Do I dare say it in public?

She is Bhairavi with Shiva
DurgA with Her children
Sita with LakshmaNa.

She's mother, daughter, wife, sister --
Every woman close to you.

What more can rAmprasAd say?
You work the rest out from these hints.

52: Mother is in every house

You'll find Mother 
in any house.

Do I dare say it in public?

She is Bhairavi with Shiva,
Durga with Her children,
Sita with Lakshmana.

She's mother, daughter, wife, sister -
Every woman close to you.

What more can Ramprasad say?
You work the rest out from these hints.

54: Why should I go to Kashi?

Why should I go to Kashi? 
At Her feet you'll find it all - 
Gaya, the Ganges, Kashi. 
Meditating in my lotus heart 
I float on blissful waters. 
Her feet are red lotuses 
Crammed with shrines 
And Her name spoken 
Consumes evil like a fire 
In a pile of dry cotton. 
If there is no head to worry, 
You can't have a headache. 

Every time I hear about Gaya, 
The offerings there, the good deeds 
Recited, I laugh. I know Shiva 
Has said that dying at Kashi saves. 
But I know too that salvation 
Always follows worship around 
Like a slave, and what's this salvation 
If it swallows the saved like water 
In water? Sugar I love 
But haven't the slightest desire 
To merge with sugar. 

Ramprasad says with amazement: 
Grace and mercy in Her wild hair - 
Think of that 
And all good things are yours. 

---original bAnglA (Ar kAjki AmAr kAshI): 

আর কাজ কি আমার কাশী |
মায়ের পদতলে পড়ে আছে গয়া গঙ্গা বারানসী ||     
 হৃত্কমলে ধ্যান-কালে আনন্দ-সাগরে ভাসি |
  ওরে কালীর পদ-কোকনদ, তীর্থ রাশি রাশি ||
কালীনামে পাপ কোথা, মাথা নাই তার মাথা ব্যাথা |   
ওরে অনলে দাহুন যথা হয় রে তুলারাশি ||
      গয়ায় গিয়ে পিণ্ডদান, বলে পিতৃঋণে পাবে ত্রাণ |
ওরে যে করে কালীর ধ্যান তার গয়া শুনে হাসি ||       
 কাশিতে ম'লেই মুক্তি এ বটে শিবের উক্তি |
ওরে সকলের মূল ভক্তি, মুক্তি হয় মন তারই দাসী ||   
   নির্বাণে কি আছে ফল, জলেতে মিশায়ে জল |
ওরে চিনি হাওয়া ভাল নয় মন চিনি খেতে ভালবাসি ||
কৌতুকে প্রসাদ বলে করুণানিধির বলে---
ওরে চতুর্বর্গ করতলে ভাবিলে রে এলোকেশী ||        

50: Here I am, Death!

All right, Death,
Here I am.

I've drawn a circle around me 
With Kali's name.

The Great Death, Kali on His chest,
Has taken Her feet to His heart.

Remembering that Her feet
Cancel all fear,
Who needs to fear Death?

59: Sing Kali's glory

Sing Kali's glory,
Make a happy racket,
Paddle this old boat of a body
As fast as you can.

What's the trouble
Of this world anyhow?

Hoist your mind
To catch the wind.
Death can just stand on the shore
And gape as you go spanking by,
Sail full of the southern breeze.

Shiva's no liar --
He'll make all these powers
Over which He has power

PrasAd says: anyone
Who doesn't agree
Can just get out.
		p. 62

61 : Shout her name: kAlI, kAlI

Shout her name: kAlI, kAlI
If they say, "He's an old crackpot,"
Let them.  If they say bad things
About you, what's it to you?
Good is one thing, evil another.
It's good to be doing good.
With Her name you can hack your way
Through all this junk, the trash of a lifetime.

But O ramprasAd,  admit it--
You still walk through this sweet sham
Of a world heartsick, dazed.

62: This play is done

That's it, Mother!
The play is done.
It's over, my Happy One.
I came into this world
To play, took the dust
Of this world and played,
And now, Daughter of High Places,
Suddenly I'm scared.  Death is so near,
So serious.  I think of those games
I played as a boy, and all that breath
Wasted in the pleasure of marriage
When it should have gone for prayer.

Ramprasad begs: Mother,
Old age has broken me -- what do I do now?
Mother, teach this worshipper
Worship, plunge me
Into the saving waters.
			p. 65

* deinayurveda: extensive writeup on ramprasad, with many 
	embedded verses by several translators. 

* poetseers
	the most comprehensive collection of ramprasAd lyrics, by many translators... !

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] gmail) 2013 Aug 21