The English translation of Ved Rahi’s magnum opus Lal Ded is a milestone for a novel originally written in the Dogri language spoken mainly in the Jammu and Himachal Pradesh hills. With this, it becomes the first Dogri novel to be published in ten languages — Kashmiri, Pahari, Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi, Sindhi and Gujarati besides Dogri and now English.

Ever since it was written in 2007, Lal Ded has several firsts to its credit: the first full-fledged Dogri novel on a fabled Kashmiri personality whose poetry and spirituality had a great impact on Kashmir’s patron saint Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali alias Nund Rishi whom she breastfed and the first Dogri novel whose three translations so far have won the much-acclaimed Sahitya Akademi award for translations — Urdu by the author himself, Sindhi by Sarita Sharma and Kashmiri by Rattan Lal Shant. The Hindi version is currently running in the fourth edition and the original in Rahi’s native Dogri language in the second.

It is said that the languages are often zealous of each other. They don’t easily reveal their secrets. Yet, it is a tribute to human ingenuity that it spares no effort to delve deep into the gems of wisdom and spirituality and spread them for wider audience regardless of their original source. Suman K Sharma, a columnist for Jammu and Kashmir’s leading newspaper Daily Excelsior, has done a good job of the English translation published by the highly prestigious Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan founded by freedom-fighter, writer and educationist K M Munshi eight decades ago with the avowed objective of promoting ethical and spiritual values.

According to renowned Hindi critic Namwar, “Lal Ded is the best novel among all novels which have been written on the lives of saints. It is very relevant even today.” Lal Ded (also addressed as Lalded, Laleshwari, Lalla Yogishwari, Lalla Aarifa, Lalla Ded, Lalla Maji, Mother Lalla) was Kashmir’s first poetess, a hermit and a staunch worshipper of Shiva who gave the place its liberal emancipated ethos. The novel is based on her “vaakhs” (sayings) and folk tales keeping in view the mystic’s total personality.  Nur-ud-Din Noorani himself has stated: “That Lalla of Padmanpora (Pampore) — she drank her fill of the divine nectar; she was indeed an avatar of ours (dearly loved) O God, grant me the same boon!”

The strength of Rahi’s work is that he makes Lal Ded simple to understand.. He travels with Lal Ded through her spiritual trip and takes the readers along. Suman Sharma in the English translation has kept pace with the original rendering. It is the dream of every writer in Jammu and Kashmir, in particular, to touch Lal Ded in some way. Jayalal Koul and Nandlal Laib have done it. Vedpal Deep has translated her sayings into Dogri. Rehman Rahi, Mohammad Yusuf Taing, Shafi Shauq, Baljinath Pandit, B.D. Shastri, Motilal Saqi, Brij Premi, Ratanlal Shant, Rasul Pampore, Arjun Dev Majboor, Kashinath Dar and Vimla Raina are among those who have striven to grasp the meaning of her sayings. Many foreign writers too have made handsome contribution.

Rahi is a researcher par excellence with proven literary skills of a high calibre. His numerous short stories in Hindi and Dogri, scripts for films and novels bear testimony to this. Though settled in Mumbai for decades he retains close association with his home State of Jammu and Kashmir. In recent years he has analysed two conflicting personalities — Savarkar and Lal Ded — with equal facility. Both of them belong to different periods and represent dramatically varied ideologies. Rahi has used different media to achieve his target — the silver screen in the first instance and writing this time.

It was on September 16, 2001 at New Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium that “Veer Savarkar” directed by him was first screened. It was a special show attended by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, his Cabinet colleagues and other top functionaries. Mr Narendra Modi was also present there. The late Pramod Mahajan was drawn to the edge of his seat as he watched the movie. As was his wont he could not restrain himself for long and shook Rahi, sitting next to him: “Has the Censor Board (of Film Certification) cleared the film?” Rahi simply replied: “Yes”.

Mahajan did not react further. As the Minister of Information and Broadcasting at one time he could not have been unaware that the Censor Board’s clearance was a must for the exhibition of a feature film. He could not, however, be blamed for what was an instant thought. So frank was the portrayal of one of India’s legendary freedom-fighters that everyone in the audience was spellbound. Before his arrival Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the Prime Minister had said that he would be able to sit only till interval because of his prior engagements. He did not get up till the end. For him and his colleagues it seemed as if Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was reborn.

The happiest persons were music composer and singer Sudhir Phadke (one of his popular compositions is the Hindi film song Jyoti Kalash Chalke sung by Lata Mangeshkar) who had spent almost a decade raising funds for the making of the movie and Ved Rahi who had studied Savakar as few had done to ensure a flawless depiction as a writer and director of a real-life hero of the millions. It is an exceptional task to do full justice to two contrasting personalities in equal measure.

Being a journalist I can’t help but wonder about the fate the likes of Lal Ded would eventually meet in the polarisation that has taken place between the Muslim and Kashmiri Pandit communities in the Valley after 1988. That they should have drifted apart is tragic. It is ironical as well because both of them have the same origin bound together later by the towering figures of Lal Ded and Sheikh Nur-ud-Din. One notices a war of words on religious lines has already begun over the origin and contribution of Lal Ded which may well distort her wholesome contribution. If allowed to persist it will be an onerous task for any student of history in future to sift the wheat from the chaff about one of the loftiest characters of the 14th century.

Why can’t the believers in the Valley’s tolerant culture take the lead in setting the record straight? Why should they yield to the extremist thoughts?How can they forget too soon that in 1995 the radical forces from across the Line of Control have managed to come all the way and set on fire the shrine of Sheikh Nur-ud-Din, of all holy places? The 600-year old Persian and Kashmir carpets, ancient objects and scrolls, some antique copies of the Quran, extremely precious cut glass chandeliers, among other things, were reduced to ashes. It has since been rebuilt and is being rightly protected by the security forces.

Ved Rahi does not go into this aspect at all. He does not have to. He is just swayed by Lal Ded’s devotion recounting every moment of her life. In the process we are also carried away by Lalvaakh (Lal Ded’s sayings): “Whatever work I did became worship of the Lord; whatever word I uttered became a mantra; whatever this body of mine experienced became the sadhana-s of Saiva Tantra illuminating my path to Paramasiva.”

Pushp Saraf is a senior journalist and political commentator.