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I had the good fortune to spend this past Thanksgiving week in one of the most beautiful parts (or the most beautiful part, in my opinion) of the United States: Vermont. Although I have visited Vermont several times before, I looked forward to this visit especially as it would be the first time I would see the state in the winter. I spent much of the week enjoying the natural beauty Vermont is famous for: breathing in the crisp, clean mountain air and taking long walks in the countryside enjoying the sights of the snow-blanketed hills, the mist-covered mountains and the small, glistening ponds that seem to be in no short supply. Through these experiences, I was inspired to write about a poem that deals with nature by one of Hindi literature’s greatest writers, Mahadevi Varma (महादेवी वर्मा).
For those who are unacquainted with this accomplished poetess, Mahadevi Varma was born in 1907 in Farrukhabad, Uttar Pradesh (उत्तर प्रदेश) in what was then British India and died in 1987 in the state of Rajasthan (राजस्थान). Although she is known mostly for her poetry, which often features symbols drawn from nature and concerns the theme of a lover enduring the painful and seemingly unending separation from her beloved, she also wrote memoirs and essays on social issues. In terms of her poetry, she is a proponent of the Chhayavad (छायावाद) or “Neo-Romanticism” (1914/22-1938) movement in Hindi poetry, which primarily emphasizes abstract images, complex emotions, the concept of humanism and the importance of the individual.
Mahadevi Varma was unique in many ways, but some of the qualities that most defined her as a person and marked her as a pioneer in literature and the fight for women’s rights were her courage and perseverance as a single woman writer, which was highly unusual at the time. Additionally, Mahadevi’s conviction that women should have access to high-quality education and be able to support themselves independently identified her as a forerunner in the as yet undefined Indian feminist movement of the time. Mahadevi has been likened to “Mirabai,” (मीरा बाई) a female poetess from 16th-century Rajasthan who wrote devotional verses about Krishna, an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu, and eschewed the ways of the world, including the institution of marriage to anyone but her true beloved, Krishna himself. However, Mahadevi is very much her own person and possesses her own voice, which was and remains unparalleled.
Here’s a simple poem by Mahadevi Varma, with words defined below and an English translation underneath each line. Enjoy!
तितली से (To a Butterfly)
मेह (rain, rainfall, masc. noun) बरसने (to rain) वाला है,
मेरी खिड़की में आ जा तितली ।
Meh barasne vaalaa hai,
Meri khirkee me aa jaa titlee.
The rain is about to fall,
Come through my window, butterfly.
बाहर जब पर होंगे गीले (wet),
घुल (to melt, dissolve) जाएँगे रंग सजीले (charming, attractive, etc.),
झड़ (to fall off) जाएगा फूल, न तुझको
बचा सकेगा छोटी तितली,
खिड़की में तू आ जा तितली!
Baahar jab par honge geele,
Ghul jaayenge rang sajeele,
Jhar jaayega phool, na tujhko
Bachaa sakegaa choti titlee,
Khirkee me tu aa jaa titlee!
Outside, when they become wet,
(Those) charming colors will melt away,
The flower will fall to the ground,
It won’t be able to save you, small butterfly,
Come through my window, butterfly!
नन्हे (child, little/young one) तुझे पकड़ पाएगा,
डिब्बी (small box) में रख ले जाएगा,
फिर किताब में चिपकाएगा (to stick, paste)
मर जाएगी तब तू तितली,
खिड़की में तू छिप जा तितली ।
Nanhe tujhe pakar paayegaa,
Dibbi me rakh le jaayegaa,
Phir kitaab me chipkaayegaa
Mar jaayegi tab tu titlee,
Khirkee me tu chhip jaa titlee.
A little one will manage to catch you,
He will place you in a small box and take you away,
After, he’ll paste you into a book
You’ll die, then, butterfly,
Hide inside my window, butterfly.