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This translation of Sufi saint Shah Hussein’s work speaks in his voice but not in all its fullness

Verses of a Lowly Fakir | Madho Lal Hussein | Translated by Naveed Alam | Penguin Classic | Pages 174 | Rs 399

 EVERY CHILD IN Punjab reads in school one or two verses of Shah Hussein, the Sufi saint-poet who prayed to Rama for nothing but a barnful of marijuana—and a mortar, a pestle and a piece of cloth to strain the heady bhang drink evocatively called sukkha in Punjabi, meaning ‘the giver of comfort’. He adds opium, a bowl and sugar to his list. Of course, the children read only the ‘clean’ verses. They don’t get to know that Shah Hussein fell in love with a Hindu boy Madho Lal and began calling himself Madho Lal Hussein. But when they finally do learn all that in college, they are not scandalised. Hussein’s love for Madho Lal remains a passing reference and is not considered central to his poetry or spirituality even though he speaks as a woman in his poetry. 


From Sufi saint Baba Farid to Guru Nanak to Bulleh Shah, Punjabi divines employed the voice of a lovelorn woman in their search for God as well as to depict the bond between guru and shishya, murshid and mureed. They wrung the metaphor of carnal love dry of all connotation in their religious poetry. But if a Westerner unaware of the philosophical and cultural context reads it in English translation, he won’t need any biographical detail of the saint to find a homosexual subtext. Ditto for Westernised, deracinated desis

In the introduction to his translation, Lahore-based English poet Naveed Alam writes, ‘The fact that Hussein literally fused his name with Madho’s and came to be known as Madho Lal Hussein is not only testament to the enduring legacy of love, but also illustrates an essential tenet of Sufism, the merger of the lover and the beloved. This work of translation uses Hussein’s self-given name in the title as homage to the poet’s queer passion.’ 

First, ‘the merger of the lover and the beloved’ is not ‘an essential tenet of Sufism’—it is carnal desire. The essential tenet of Sufism is a merger of the soul with God for which the carnal merger is a metaphor. Second, there is nothing that tells us definitely that the love between Hussein and Madho Lal was a homosexual bond. The supposedly homosexual love of Hussein for Madho Lal finds no mention in his poetry. Alam speculates that such verse must have been censored. 

The gay discourse in the Subcontinent often flirts with Sufi mystics. Two decades ago, filmmaker Deepa Mehta showed a lesbian couple finding refuge at the Nizamuddin dargah in the film Fire. Her unmistakable insinuation was a shocking sexualisation of the spiritual message of the revered Aulia. The Sufi and Bhakti poets who write passionately about the bond between the master and the disciple are liable to be misinterpreted when they are translated into English by those who have been estranged from native tradition and culture. Alam’s foregrounding of Hussein’s supposed homosexuality illustrates the challenge every translation faces when it has to reach out across cultures and ages. In Western civilisation where religion was based on the idea of sex as sin, sexuality became a rebellious, liberating idea. A Sufi who is also gay would seem all the more subversive in the West. But in the Subcontinent, sexuality is posited and expressed in a range of diverse ways and has a far more complex politics. 

No English translation of Sufi poetry can convey even half of its beauty. Sufi mystics embedded their spiritual philosophy deeply in the folk because they wanted to reach the common people. Shah Hussein or Bulleh Shah will make no sense to an English reader who is ignorant of the Punjabi ballad of Heer Ranjha, which is steeped in Muslim and Hindu philosophy and Punjabi folk wisdom. The problem compounds if the translator is not sensitive to subtle cultural suggestions. Alam attributes references to weaving in Hussein’s poetry to his being a weaver. But there is more to it. A spinning wheel is the companion of the woman in Punjabi folklore who waits for her lover. This makes spinning itself a metaphor of separation. In his short poems, Hussein condenses a cultural ethos not always possible to convey in poetic translation. The word ‘maaye’, the vocative form of ‘maa’, occurs in many of his poems. The English word ‘mother’ hardly convey its variety of meaning. ‘Maaye’ can convey despair, exasperation, guilt or confession just by the way it is pronounced. Similarly, the woman in Hussein’s poetry always speaks in a cultural context inaudible to the English reader. She is Heer, even when there is no specific reference to the legend. She is being forced to marry someone other than her lover, Ranjha. Whatever she says has to be reflected through the legend for it to make full sense. 

Alam’s translation leaves Hussein’s poetry diminished, as would any English translation of any Punjabi Sufi poet. But it can be commended for recovering a tradition much needed in the discordant times we live in today.