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Rahi’s Quest: Reading The Vyeth isn’t Asleep: Poems of Rahman Rahi

In great poets like Rahi we find our lost address and glimpses of great beauty and wisdom that ennoble, sanctify and refurbish our life of spirit
01:00 AM Jan 12, 2024 IST | Mohammad Maroof Shah
rahi’s quest   reading the vyeth isn’t asleep  poems of rahman rahi

There are very few books that constitute required reading by everyone in cultured communities and nations. One can shortlist, for people living in Kashmir, selections from Sufi poets, Ghani and Rahi as constituting requisite reading for everyone including students of science. In great poets like Rahi we find our lost address and  glimpses of great beauty and wisdom that ennoble, sanctify and refurbish our life of spirit. We are living in a strange land where the greatest poets such as Ghani had been left untranslated for centuries. No wonder Rahi too was largely untranslated during his life. So far failure to bring  quality translations of Sufi poetry and Rahi has been a singular negligence of academic institutions in Kashmir.


Now thanks to Nusrat Bazaz and Mufti Mudasir (who have edited the whole volume and translated some poems) and the talented team of translators including Dr Abid Ahmed, Dr Huzaifa Pandit, Ms Heena Khan, Prof. Iffat Maqbool, Dr Tasleem Ahmed War, Dr Shabir Hussain and Dr Ashaq Hussain Parray, under the able guidance of our greatest though largely unsung contemporary scholar of Kashmiri language and literature Prof. Shafi Shauq, we, as a community, stand partly redeemed. Although the quality translation of much or whole of Rahi is still awaited, it is a great news that an anthology of a few important earlier poems has been published. Congratulations translators and the University of Kashmir. It is a singular honour of Prof. Mufti Mudasir and Nusrat Bazaz that they have helped make accessible to English readership Kashmir’s greatest Persian poet Ghani (Mufti Mudasir has done this for Urdu readership as well) and our greatest modern Kashmiri poet, Rahi.


Rahi deserved – and got – our talented team of translators to carry forward pioneering work in Rahi translations undertaken by his students/ colleagues such as Majrooh Rashid and Shafi Shouq.

The Vyeth isn’t Asleep is arguably the first of its kind work in Kashmir in which services of a team of professionals and accredited translators have been co-opted to create a volume that can be presented for international readership. Who other than Shafi Shouq could have led the project and selection of poems? However, one misses presence of Prof Majrooh Rashid who has pioneered Rahi translations and produced excellent work in this regard.  One also feels more poems could have been included as it seems many important poems have been left untranslated. It appears some shades of Rahi stand unrepresented. I hope editors can come up with supplementary volume and extend the present work to many other poems and ideally the whole of Rahi.


Rahi’s ghazal is badly missing – the best of Kashmiri and part of Rahi’s  poetry is constituted by ghazal. Rahi’s latest collection of poetry Kadle Thethis Paeth  is also left uncovered. Despite these points, the work is truly a great step forward in Rahi translation. Given there were already excellent translations of poems included in the volume, they could have been incorporated, with little editing by the original translators/editors, and other poems not so far translated by anyone chosen for translation. The editors have given us masterly introduction to Rahi’s poetic oeuvre. One may quote from introduction and verses from some poems that speak about the quality of translation. First from Introduction:


“Rahi is considered the indisputable voice of modern Kashmiri poetry—a towering figure who created a poetry of new possibilities and directions and perhaps comes nearest to being a representative voice of modern Kashmir” “Existentially despairing, highly allusive and densely symbolic, his poetry is an interplay of these intersecting strands. One can see clear affinities with T S Eliot— a poet he knew and admired. The perspective is that of a skeptical, ironic persona looking at life as an irresolvable yet sublime enigma.” “This anthology is a tribute to the late poet, who is comparable to any major world poet of the twentieth century.” “Ambiguity, however remains the hallmark of Rahi; this is his way of asserting that life is essentially inscrutable, and language falls short of capturing meaning fully.”


About such oft raised issues as Rahi’s political commitment, editors clarify:


For many, Rahi deliberately steered away from any kind of an open political commitment, though his last published poetry collection Kadle Thethis Paeth (not covered in this volume) contains a few poems with unmistakable allusions to the political turmoil of the valley. Having said this, one should not forget that the relationship between art and politics has always been a matter of debate, with many arguing that art cannot be disengaged from political and social reality while voices have also been raised in defence of art as having to do with timeless truths and universal concerns. Rahi too seems more preoccupied with deeper questions of the inscrutability of life and profounder questions of truth.

Commenting on “At Sona Lānk”, our editors note that although the last stanza “poignantly describes the never-to-be-fulfilled wish of fathoming the mystery of death and our utter helplessness before its destructive power,” it doesn’t follow that Rahi “espouses a kind of nihilism like some Western existentialist and absurdist writers. For him, the existence of a permanent, timeless reality is a given and yet the human predicament arises from our inability to relate to this timeless reality.” They further note while commenting on “He Alone will Remain” (Huwal Ba̅qi) that Rahi “comes quite near to the mystical idea of everything being illusory except ‘He’: ‘None’ and ‘Except’ at every place ‘No’ died searching the world ‘Yes’ was born from extinction A blend of ‘without beginning’ and ‘without end.’”

To read Rahi is to read a selection from the best of East and West in contemporary Kashmiri idiom as we find him building upon the greatest Masters from Persian, German, English, Urdu and Kashmiri languages. It is, however, important to note that Rahi is a (post)modern post-Niezschean poet who seeks meaning in a world where the Transcendent is said to be no longer easily accessible and one has to find meaning on a human plane. We find him struggling with the issues of skepticism, futility and helplessness while seeking to witness the timeless revealed especially in art and mysticism across cultures. He leaves us with more questions than answers and, with artists, approaches Life as a Question/Quest. While appreciating, with Joyce, extraordinary quality and beauty of ordinary things and experiences and keeping a keen eye on certain treasured moments and epiphanies, Rahi invites us to his poetic universe of meaning that constitutes a veritable heaven for art lovers. Using exquisite evocative language with extraordinary power of imagination one finds oneself transported and transfigured by his magic.

Reading Rahi is a challenge as he hits hard at familiar modes of using language and perceiving the world and this requires daring experiments with language and style. Dipping deep into the unconscious reservoirs and archetypes (that explains his dark, dense, mythic allusions and symbolism), Rahi’s project is rebirth of a soul/hero as Campbell would phrase it (“mokhti phoula haengni mer mer zamut” “painful birth of an oyster from a pearl” as Rahi has put it in “Intimations from the Dark”). Many poems including “Clue”. “Intimations from the Dark”. “This Bridge”, “A Call”,  “A Feeling”, “Diving into the Memory’s Ocean”, “The Sea’s Bottom is Salsabeel”, “Creation”, “In the Garden”, and choice of title of award winning collection Siyah Rod Jaren Menz  and resort to stock expressions such as “Songs of nymphs”, “pigeon’s red blood”, “dark woods”, “dark cave” are best illumined if we take stock of mythology and lore that constitute collective heritage of mankind. Rahi’s suspension of judgment echoes Shakespeare and Keats and his attempt at resolution of contraries in a certain unity (evident in such poems as “The Flood and the Shore”, “ The Suffering Clown”,  “Life”, and “He Alone will Remain”)  echoes great mystics and modernist poets and his deployment of myths and symbols across traditions and his elaborate invoking of language as a key to our identity and consciousness in “The Spectacle and the Psalm” ally him with great modern poets –Yeats, Eliot, Auden – who have shaped their generations.

Although for Rahi “At times life resembles a sightless head-shaven hag!” he recounts several routine phenomena such as toddlers going to school to appreciate  that “Life, at such times, looks pretty and inebriated!” Rahi’s work is, like life, a quest, an open question, a mystery that can be interpreted in various ways. His “But the Vyeth isn’t Asleep?” succinctly puts forth his philosophy of life if a poet like Rahi can be said to have espoused a philosophy:

Tell me whether life finds rest at any station

Ask streams and rivulets if they have ever reached their destination?

But the Vyeth is not asleep, time runs speedily with us

The lips of cliffs are smiling and darkness is losing hope

 I will sing songs in praise of beauty every day,

you have to keep an eye on love

Why do you heave sighs on beholding the setting sun?

About the translation it may be remarked that it is remarkably lucid though small introductory/explanatory notes in the beginning of poems would have made it more helpful to readers, especially non-Kashmiri readers. Rahi defies comprehension at times in original and in translation the problem could have been addressed to an extent if Rahi’s colleagues and brilliant team of translators would have joined hands for the sake of less gifted readers. At times one feels easier or more literal translation (just one may note about three titles Mazloom Maskher, Ilham, Ekh Ehsaas of poems that are translated as “The Suffering Clown,”  “Epiphany” and “An Impression”  respectively but could have been better rendered as “The Oppressed Clown,” “Unveiling/Intuition/Inspiration/Revelation”  and “A Feeling.” Kashmiri titles Pey Chu Zulmat-i Wuzan” isn’t best or loyally translated as “Intimations from the Dark” as the idea/act of finding/discovery isn’t thus communicated.   The word memory in translation of “Soudr-i Phur” (translated as “Diving into the Memory’s Ocean”) could have been avoided. “Huwal Baqi” is not best/loyally translated as “He Alone Will Remain” to communicate the Islamic-Sufi idea of God the Immutable/the Everlasting/God who alone remains is elaborated in the poem. Me’ir, me’ir  translated as painfully fails to capture the intensity of poetic expression. We need, however, to note that it is translators who have the courage to dive and give us new works of art and we, as readers, can always point that translations can be improved or done anew. We may now see some selections from the translations to appreciate both the quality of translation and some glimpses from the treasure called Rahi.

On the accident of birth

Although for traditions  there is no accident called birth – we choose to come here for a mission – and we should celebrate the gift of life and our title to human state, Rahi gives voice to another way of looking at it that resonates with both mystical and modern secular/cynical secular protest on birth:

Again that fatal day has come near

It was this day when this treacherous world

Groping its way like a blind man

Grabbed me from the obscure cave of eternity

Merging something with something

Using the casting rod of birth and being

Pulled me like a pale narcissus under a clod of earth

And brought me, without asking, into this world 


On death     

Loyalty to earth or this life that modernity has been demanding encounters the hard problem of mortality. Here again traditions embrace and welcome death as union with the Real and don’t seem to bother about losing any temporal things or relationships. Rahi, the modern poet, registers our inability to believe that life consuming beauty of lake called Dal

Think, how many longing hearts must have been smitten by this

enchanting ambience of the Dal!

Smitten, tested, forgotten, cast into oblivion

Am I to be deprived forever of an evening on this Sona Lānk?

Is the door of death’s cage never left ajar?

How I wish this stony wall starts cracking soon!


Will death ever be trapped, like a silkworm, by its own doing?

Will life ever attain fulfillment?

Will man ever become immortal?

Love and immortality

No great poet who ever sung of love and beauty could consent to be truly mortal. The beauty he/she somehow construes as everlasting and his/her love refuses to age or accept death. However, modernity has veiled our access to immortality. Rahi in “After Ten Years” embodies this (dis?)belief in the death of the beloved:

Ten years it has been and that moment arrives every day on drunken steps

Ten years it has been and this chinar still sweetens dreams

I would shout by her grave but she won’t hear

No acacia-scented breeze wafts in the grave

Only the gravestone grows old and new irises bloom here

In “Everlasting Beauty” Rahi says that “Your beauty’s reign knows no limits” and “You are the full moon that will never wane!” and seems to assert old Platonic thesis about beauty and its connection to transcendence/timeless.

Life’s Dark Mystery 

Although it is mystery that is vivifying and grateful acceptance of mystery constitutes faith in traditional paradigm, moderns like Rahi complain about inability to get at conceptual level key to the secret of existence.

In the day I thought I had grasped the secret of existence

Bt when night came I could remember nothing

Wherefrom have I come, whereto I am headed?


On poet and poetry’s magic

A valiant one who lost his life and drank the wine of immortality.

A hunter with a slingshot whose mere shadow scared the hawks.

A warm gaze of love and beauty blossomed like the lotus.

 (“The Poet”)

On Beauty

I search for you in the starry heavens

The moon has carved itself in your image

The mountain peaks take their colour from your joy

 And the horizon decorates beds for lovely clouds

Your youth gives Youth its name

Your beauty’s reign knows no limits

 Seeing you decked up makes my desire come to life

Your tender-heartedness is the guarantee of my art

In vain was I asking this question

 You are the full moon that will never wane!

(“Everlasting Beauty”)


We need to note one forgotten message of all great poets – to live truly is to love and this is expressed in our compassion for the oppressed and attention to the other. Early Rahi was especially sensitive to this call. We find him lamenting the plight of the labourers in his “Spring and the Artisan”:

Would that I were a bulbul and could take flight!

If only I too had some leisure!

 If only I was not caught in debt!

Sitting in this workplace, who would have desire put in chains?

Those who teach literature or enjoy poetry are not expected to indulge in luxuries or invest in land and houses and banks but, with Iqbal, in fellow feeling for the poor and keep themselves available to all and sundry – love is attention to the other – and give away, with Tolstoy and Wittgenstein, part or whole of their wealth for other poor writers/friends. They should be, like Rahi, comfortable with travelling in public transport  or second/third class. Poets, to be true to their word, should organize regular parties for kith and ken. Poets and students of poetry preach cooperation and the question is do they themselves or their students/families  cooperate with their fellows in getting membership of credit cooperatives that lift the burden of debt from the indebted? How many poets you know are generous with their time and other resources for fellow humans? The poets have, like Ghani, no possessions to boast about. Let us honour poets about whom Rahi was very consciously using the word gonmat – those with gunnas/qualities. A poet is someone who is self avowedly all ears or fully open to the other/universe. You can approach him for qard-i-hasan and he can’t, ordinarily, refuse.