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Mystical Cross-currents


Gillian Wright

WONDER TALES OF SOUTH ASIA
Translated by Simon Digby
Oxford India Paperbacks, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2006, pp. 303, Rs. 295.00

SHAH ABDUL LATIF: SEEKING THE BELOVED
Translated by Anju Makhija & Hari Dilgir
Katha, Delhi, 2006, pp. 283, Rs. 295.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 5 May 2007

Recently I travelled in the Shivganga Express from Varanasi to Delhi. The 1st AC bogey was bursting at the seams with VIPs, and so quite a few of eminent people were slumming it in 2AC with me. Opposite sat a modestly spoken gentleman of the old school, who had been three times a BJP MP. Next to him was a sanyasi, dressed in saffron, a former civil servant who had taken early retirement to don the robe of the Dasnami Akhara. Beside me sat two dazzlingly bright medical students from BHU who politely expressed their lack of regard for politicians and temple worship. The lower side berth was occupied by a Muslim woman who had removed her burqa and was relaxing comfortably. Generally there would not have been much scope for conversation but due to an unexplained foul-up on the main line, we had five extra hours to discuss the world.   Such a remarkable mix of people is commonplace in India, and perhaps not so commonplace anywhere else in the world. The entire subcontinent is connected by cross-currents of ideas, stories, traditions and beliefs born both of commonality and diversity. Both the books I am reviewing are part of the great stream of literature that has run through the subcontinent for centuries. One is a translation of the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif, the Sufi mystic known as the ‘Shakespeare of Sindh’ by Anju Makhija and Hari Dilgir. The other is an anthology of translations of folk literature and stories, Wonder-Tales of South Asia by Simon Digby.   In the eighteenth century, Shah Abdul Latif realized the potential of the folk tales of his region and used them as allegories, expressing through them the human soul’s search and realization of God. To understand his poetry you must first know the plots of the tales he draws on and Makhija and Dilgir recount these. Digby, born the son of a judge and a landscape artist in Jabalpur in 1932, has spent a lifetime collecting people’s literature—popular tales like those used by Shah Abdul Latif. Many of them have morals for the reader—or rather the listener, as they must all have originally been oral tales.   Among wonder tales of princes and the apsaras they fall in love with, Digby also includes Sufi tales as well as two dozen miraculous stories of Guru Gorakhnath, in whose memory stands the great temple ...


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