Shabdalamkara 2: Hookahs in Benkimpoor

We continue the śabdālaṃkāra series this week with the following verse taken from the Naiṣadhīyacarita of Śrīharṣa. This verse comes right at the end of the lengthy mahākāvya, in a canto which describes, in over 150 verses, the night as enjoyed by the hero and heroine. As we saw with Gaṅgādevī’s rich evocation of the night in a similar setting, Śrīharṣa puts paid to the notion that sound trickery must come at the expense of aesthetic beauty.

But first the verse:

शुचिरुचिमुडुगणमगणनममुमति

कलयसिकृशतनु नगगनतटमनु

प्रतिनिशशशितलविगलदमृतभृत

रविरथहयचयखुरबिलकुलमिव

22.146 Naiṣadhīyacarita of Śrīharṣa

Listen to this verse

The poet has contrived to make every single syllable in the verse laghu or light, so that the metrical pattern, were we to scan this, would be an unbroken line of 16 ‘U’s. This is achieved chiefly by using short vowels, as well as by ensuring that there are no situations by which a laghu becomes a guru (eg: he never uses two or more consonants in a row here, bar the ‘pr‘ of prati which nevertheless doesn’t convert the prior vowel into a guru or heavy syllable).

As English verse scans based on stress rather than on short and long syllables – as Sanskrit, Latin and Greek verse does – it is not possible to recreate this effect metrically in English. Nor indeed is there such a clearcut distinction in English between short and long vowels – which is ordinarily the chief determinant of whether a syllable is short or long. To most native speakers in England at least, the idea of short and long vowels probably begins and ends with the short ‘a’s of northerners versus those of their posher counterparts down south. In fact, as students of English phonetics will know, there is much more to it than the way in which ‘grass’ is pronounced. Nevertheless, vowel length is not as well defined as it is in the classical languages. Take the following three words:

blood

look

loo

The double ‘o’ in all might make you assume that these are long vowels, but this being English it is not of course that logical. The first is really a short ‘u’ sound. The second a sort of open-ended ‘u’. And the third could be represented by the long ‘ū’ of Sanskrit. [As an interesting but tangential aside, the ‘oo’ of 19th century treatises entitled ‘Being a Study on Hindoos and their Hookahs in Benkipoor‘ and the such represents in most cases the Indian short ‘u’.] Being wholly unqualified to discuss English vowel length in any greater detail, suffice it to say that we decided not to attempt an all-short-vowel translation but instead tried to mimic the effect with a translation that uses only single-syllable words.

My love so slim,

see you not how the tens on tens of stars glow white in the sky,

each as it were a hole –

cut by the sharp hoof of a steed of the sun –

full to the brim

as moon juice drips down

night on night?

The idea of classifying words based on the amount of syllables they have is more native to English than that of short and long vowels or syllable length in metre, but does this do justice to the sound effect of the original? We would welcome your thoughts on how else this all-short-syllable verse could be represented in English, and indeed on any of the other points raised here.

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