A review of the Meghadutam translated by Kamalesh Dwivedi
21st September 08
In 2003 Kamalesh Dwivedi, CIO of Network Solutions, moved from Minnesota to Colorado to start a new job. When he visited his family, who remained in Minnesota, for Thanksgiving he was at a loss for how to answer his wife’s question: ‘Do you miss me?’ Recalling verses from the Meghadutam recited and memorised under the tutelage of his father, the late Pandit Ramchandra Dwivedi (a Sanskrit teacher who was captured by the British in 1942 and secured his release by teaching the British jailor’s daughter Sanskrit), Mr Dwivedi decided to translate this poem over long lonely evenings and weekends in Colorado as an answer to his wife’s question.
Mr Dwivedi introduces the book with a traditional story about Kalidasa as a fool who involuntarily sought and was granted vidya (knowledge) by the goddess Kali after his wife, unimpressed by her husband’s stupidity, pushed him off their terrace. Kalidasa, the story goes, left home and became immensely wise. Upon his return his wife, delighted by his excellent Sanskrit, is said to have exclaimed, ‘asti kashchit vag visheshah’ (there is something special about the way he speaks). For Mr Dwiviedi, Kalidasa’s pain and yearning during this period of separation from his wife finds expression in the yaksha’s impassioned plea to the cloud in his poem. And, especially in the Purvamegha, Mr Dwivedi’s notes bring out the sensuous and sexual nature of the poetry. In verses 18 and 19, for instance, Mr Dwivedi highlights the cloud’s discharging of water on the nipple-like peak of the Amrakuta mountain following the ‘amaramithuna’ (divine coupling). His reading of the Meghadutam thus offers a refreshing take on one of the best known Sanskrit poems.
The translation itself aims, as Mr Dwivedi notes, to be more pedestrian than poetic. He writes, self-deprecatingly: “If Kalidas’ poetic brilliance were equal to that of a million suns, mine is equal to less than the brilliance of the light of a single firefly.” In order that the inexpert Sanskrit reader be able to follow the often difficult language the Devanagiri is broken down into its pre-sandhi form. Similarly the notes are aimed at those who are unacquainted with the Sanskrit and Indian mythology, and can at times verge on the over-explanatory. Save for one reference to a translation conundrum in verse 29 the book steers clear of all philological discussion. Mr Dwivedi writes that “It is the duty of each generation to look back and reinterpet the classics in such a way that it can be understood in the context of the time.” And his comments do provide an interesting perspective on the poem in relation to modern day India. He dwells for instance on the importance of the Mahakal temple in Ujjain, one of the 12 jyotirlingams, both in Kalidasa’s time and today.
The work suffers from a few typos and odd punctuation and phrasing in places. The style used for the artwork is a brave attempt to try and capture some of the dense imagery that Kalidasa employs and the pictures his words conjure up – the gardens of the city of Alaka for instance (top image). The most successful visual element are the Google Earth pictures which give the reader a chance to see the actual topography alongside the bird’s eye view description that Kalidasa offers. Compare the beautifully drawn but inevitably limited map of MR Kale’s translation, published in 1969 by Motilal Banarsidas (below). Nevertheless, technology ages in a way that literature doesn’t; this book was published in 2003 when Google Earth was still in its infancy and you can imagine how much more could be done. Mr Dwivedi is good too on the geographical realities of the cloud’s journey, noting a discrepancy in the cloud’s sudden geographical leap (from modern day Madhya Pradesh to Haryana) from verse 49 to 50, into which he invites further study.
Mr Dwivedi hopes that the “marriage” of Google Earth with an ancient text “will spark a new interest in Sanskrit classics”. At the very least he offers a new perspective on how such texts can be reinterpreted and presented for a modern audience. And it is perhaps appropriate that Mr Dwivedi is one of a growing group of NRI success stories – leaving aside his Sanskrit he went from IIT to Harvard to a successful career in the US – who are now returning to interests such as Sanskrit. At any rate, I hope his wife feels that this satisfactorily answers her question.
Readers who would like to get hold of a copy are invited to contact Mr Dwivedi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All references to verse numbers are as per Kamalesh Dwivedi’s Kalidas’ Meghadutam; the top and bottom images are taken from Mr Dwivedi’s book.
An artist’s impression of Mount Kailash