South Asian Literature in Translation: Meghaduta

Meghaduta by Kalidasa; translated from Sanskrit into English by Abhay K.

Publication date: Forthcoming shortly
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
ISBN-13: Forthcoming shortly

1) Tell us about this book and its original author.

AK: Meghaduta by Kalidasa is a breathtaking poem about a Yaksha or an attendant spirit of Kubera, the Lord of Wealth, who is banished for a year in central India for neglecting his duties in the mythical city of Alaka, in the high Himalayas near Mount Kailasa. He pleads with the cloud to be his messenger and take his message to his beloved young wife in Alaka. The poem is full of detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna of Central and North India as well as of their hills, rivers, mountains, legends, beliefs, traditions, mythologies, rituals, high erotica among others. Kalidasa is a well-known fifth century CE classical Sanskrit writer, widely regarded as the greatest poet and dramatist in the Sanskrit language. His plays and poetry are primarily based on the Puranas. His surviving works consist of three plays (AbhijñānaśākuntalamMālavikāgnimitram, and Vikramōrvaśīyam), two epic poems (Kumārasambhava and Raghuvaṃśa), and two shorter poems (Meghadūta and Ṛtusaṃhāra.)

2) Why were you drawn to choose the book for translation?

AK: The Guardian published a poem titled ‘Lockdown’ by the British poet laureate, Simon Armitage, on 21st March 2020 about the Coronavirus pandemic. It was influenced by Meghaduta or The Cloud Messenger of Kalidasa. The poem inspired me to read Meghaduta in Sanskrit and its various English translations. I felt that this breathtaking poem of 111 stanzas needed to be presented to our millennial generation in a more contemporary language.   

3) What were the key challenges and surprises for you during the translation process/journey?

AK: Different editions of Meghaduta have varying numbers of stanzas which create confusion. I finally decided to stick with 111 stanzas. It took me a lot of time to find the modern botanical names of plants mentioned in Kalidasa’s Meghaduta, but I did manage to find them. 

4) What’s one thing you wish readers knew or appreciated more about this book?

AK: This love poem would be unimaginable without all the plants and fragrant flowers described in detail by Kalidasa. This is why Meghaduta should be of interest to contemporary readers as we deal with biodiversity loss and climate change today. Can we use the imagery or idea of nature as a sensual being presented by Kalidasa in Meghaduta to transform how we see nature—from mother to beloved, from revering it to loving it and from being separate from it to being part of it? Can it help us in protecting nature if we start to see clouds, rivers, plants, trees, and animals as sensual beings? Meghaduta also highlights the importance of flowers, plants, animals, seasons, rains, rainbows, winds, sun, moon, stars, stones, rivers, mountains among other things—animate and inanimate—in our love-life, without which we would gradually become biorobots obsessed with numbers and statistics, dealing with various kinds of growth rates and living a dismal life on a planet marred by the loss of biodiversity and extreme climatic events.

5) What’s your next translation project that we can look forward to?

AK: I have completed the first draft of my translation of Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara or A Gathering of Seasons or Six Seasons and I’m now in the process of revising it. Hopefully, it should come out sometime next year.

Author Bio: Kalidasa is a 5th century CE classical Sanskrit writer, widely regarded as the greatest poet and dramatist in the Sanskrit language. His plays and poetry are primarily based on the Puranas. His surviving works consist of three plays, two epic poems, and two shorter poems. Scholars have speculated that Kalidasa may have lived near the Himalayas, in the vicinity of Ujjain, and in Kalinga. Several ancient and medieval books state that Kalidasa was a court poet of a king named Vikramaditya. Some scholars believe that all the works attributed to “Kalidasa” are not by a single person and that at least three noted literary figures share the name Kalidasa. [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Translator Bio: Abhay K. is the author of eight poetry collections and editor of The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian PoemsThe Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems, CAPITALS, and New Brazilian Poems. His forthcoming poetry collection is titled The Magic of Madagascar.  His ‘Earth Anthem’ has been translated into over 50 languages. He received the SAARC Literary Award in 2013 and was invited to record his poems at the Library of Congress, Washington DC in 2018. [Image Source: Abhay K.]

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her story collection, Each of Us Killers, and her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, were out in 2020. Her writing has appeared in various venues in the US, UK, and India, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, NPR, BBC Culture, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers, and others. Having worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.

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