Rediscovering Rumi in Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Rediscovering Rumi in Sri Lanka

12 September, 2021

Even though I have been reading on and off the poetry of the Sufi mystic and poet Rūmī for a long time, it never occurred to me that his poetry was almost completely unexplored in Sri Lanka – at least in the Sinhala language.

Part of the reason for my own ignorance about this was because I had no need to read Rūmī in Sinhala since excellent English translations by recognised scholars of both Persian and Rūmī have been available for years, and most are now readily accessible online.

I thought of writing a few lines on the life and work of this influential Sufi poet at a time I am involved in an effort to make some of his selected works available in Sinhala. I will come to this translation project later. But first, a bit more about Rūmī.

Despite his life spent in the distant 13th century, there is considerable information on Rumi whose full name was Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī. He was born on September 30, 1207 in a place called Balkh which is in present day Afghanistan and died on December 17, 1273 in Konya which is in contemporary Turkey.

Rūmī’s father was a well-known theologian and author as well as a teacher. He and his family travelled from Balkh, their native town in about 1218 for reasons that are not too clear, and came to Anatolia where they lived for a time and then, left for Konya in 1228.

It was in Konya that much of his works later emerged.

Wandering holy man

Poetically speaking, the most crucial moment in Rūmī’s life was his meeting of Shams al-Din, a wandering holy man in about 1244. This mystic had much to do with what Rumi became in terms of a poet. Affectively, it was Shams al-Din who “revealed’ to Rumi the secrets of divine power and beauty, which feature prominently in his poems as major thematic preoccupations.

Their close association, despite its influence in what Rūmī wrote and became was also a source of scandal since it is known that he ‘neglected’ his family in preference to his association with Shams al-Din. In 1247, Shams al-Din simply disappeared. But experts on Rūmī agree these experiences of love, desire, and loss clearly turned Rūmī into the poet that we now know about.

His poems, which number about 30,000 verses as well as the large collection of quatrains that he has penned, reflect different moments of love where Shams al-Din also appear prominently, sometimes metaphorically and in indirect references, but at times also directly, by name. For instance, the collection known as Dīvān-e Shams is a direct rendition of his experiences into a series of poems.

Even a limited sample of Rūmī’s poetry would indicate some sense of his preoccupations from loss to love, often in philosophical terms. The somewhat long poem, ‘When I Die’ reads as follows:

“When I die

when my coffin

is being taken out

you must never think

i am missing this world

don’t shed any tears

don’t lament or

feel sorry

i’m not falling

into a monster’s abyss …

It is clearly an appeal to the living not to despair over his death and by extension death of loved ones in general. The poem, ‘Remember Me’ is also about loss and death:

“I will be with you in the grave

on the night you leave behind

your shop and your family.

When you hear my soft voice

echoing in your tomb,

you will realise

that you were never hidden from my eyes…”

Obviously, this deals with notions of memory in the context of death and parting. Rumi is equally at ease as he is with death and loss with love, desire, and celebration of beauty. For instance, take the lines he has penned in the poem, ‘Like This:’

“If anyone ask you

how the perfect satisfaction

of all our sexual wanting

will look, lift your face

and say, Like this.

When someone mentions the gracefulness

of the night sky,

climb up on the roof

and dance and say,

Like this…”

His following lines are an open and free celebration of passion:

“Passion makes the old medicine new:

Passion lops off the bough

of weariness.

Passion is the elixir that renews:

how can there be weariness

when passion is present?

Oh, don’t sigh heavily from fatigue:

seek passion, seek passion, seek passion!...”

These few poems would hardly give a serious sense of Rūmī’s poetic canvas. But it will give some sense of the thematic variations he is capable of. Though he mostly wrote in Persian, he also used Arabic and Turksih at times, and less often Greek. As a result, he has been ‘claimed’ by very different cultural interest groups ranging from Turkish literature and Persian literature and is a major cultural influence in Turkey and Iran. But also, one cannot forget his literary influence in the Indian subcontinent.

By the last century, because of excellent translations by scholars such as Coleman Barks and others, his work had become popular in important literary circles in the United States and Western Europe.

Absence of translated collections

It is in this global context that I find it very sad that someone this influential globally in the field of poetry has hardly been spoken about in our country. I certainly could not find any translated collections of his works in Sinhala. It is in this context that I had translated the poem, ‘When I Die’ and posted it on Face Book in late July this year as a quarantine period exercise. For me, it was a means to find something different from routine work and something that I thought would allow me to maintain my sanity.

It did attract some attention and more importantly, an invitation from a local publisher to consider undertaking translated collection of Rūmī’s work in Sinhala.

Since this spontaneous and enthusiastic reaction was a source of inspiration in these difficult times, I agreed to try, but made it clear that I will need some help. It is in this context that Indu Gamage who teaches English at the University of Ruhuna came into the effort as a co-translator.

We were already in touch over another project which had a considerable translation component.

For me, this kind of effort depended on a number of things ranging from having some familiarity with Rūmī’s work and a willingness to learn more, a liking for his work and more importantly, a sound command of the language in which we will have to read Rūmī, which happened to be English, and the language to which we wanted to translate his works, which was Sinhala.

Hopefully, when the Sinhala translation is available, it will generate some interest in the work of this great Sufi poet from the 13th century. Such a literary dream can be a life-saving elixir in these difficult times.