Translating Yusuf’s Fragrance 


By Badr-u-nissa Bhat

THE Postmodern writer Italo Calvino once said to a reporter of New York Times,

“Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.”

“Yusuf’s Fragrance” is a translation of Kashmir’s preeminent nineteenth century poet Mahmud Gami’s poetry. He is essentially considered the pioneer of Kashmiri Sufi poetry. Mahmood Gami was born in 1765 in a village called Advedar in (now known as Mahmoodabad), Shahabad.  His eleven mathnavis, and hundreds of lyrical poems, represent a mystical style of Kashmiri poetry which almost all poets after him followed in terms of the metaphors, similes, allegories, melodies and rhythm, as well as the fundamental leitmotifs of Islamic mysticism. He was well-versed with Islamic thought, Persian poetry and religion, and, as such, Mahmood Gami experimented in a variety of ways to imbue Kashmiri poetry with a variety of expressions, wide range of themes, and intellectual depth , especially in his vatsun (a form of poetry exclusive to Kashmiri which can be understood as a love lyric though mystical in nature) and nazms (longish free verse poems); to the extent that he also introduced Persian genres of naat, gazal, masnavi and nazm in Kashmiri. Kashmiri poetry before him is scant and comprises mainly of lyrics passed down orally from one generation to another. Though the mystical and didactic poetry of Lal Ded and Shiekh ul Alam laid the foundation of Kashmiri poetry. Mahmud Gami is the first truly prolific poet trying his hand in multiple genres.

“Yusuf’s Fragrance: Poems of Mahmud Gami”
Introduced and Translated by: Mufti Mudasir Farooqi.
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Imprint: Black Classics
Year: 2022

The book includes a sixty-three page introduction to the life of the poet, Persian influence on his style of poetry, and various genres of poetry that Gami uses extensively and how he borrows themes and subjects from the great Persian masters like Jami, Nizami, Attar and Rumi and how stunningly he makes them his own by portraying them in his Kashmiri style. A number of poems have been taken from the Kulliyat e Mahmud Gami (vatsuns and nazms) and also six of his narrative poems (mathnavis) have been translated. Around 2750 couplets have been translated. The book is the first ever English translation of Gami’s poetry from his enormous oeuvre. And it has been published by Penguin Publishing House under its most prestigious imprint: the Penguin Black Classics.

The Translator here, Dr. Mufti Mudasir, who being a polyglot and a professor of English Literature, is well versed with the rich cultural and literary history of Kashmir and understands the nuances of both languages; Kashmiri as well as English; is familiar with the tones and shades of poetry is able to do justice to the original Kashmiri by producing it in English and it can be thoroughly relished even by a  reader who has no knowledge of the original text and to some extent we can say that the work stands on its own.

The translator documents; Mahmood Gami was born in the times of upheaval in Kashmir and witnessed the brutality of three reigns of Kashmir history: the Afghan Rule, the Sikh Rule, and the initial ten years of the Dogra Rule, but borrowing from the impressionable past of mystical tradition and Gami himself being engrossed in the macrocosm of his own soul and also the dominant practice of the poet’s time whereby the poets wrote mostly on love and metaphysical themes, there is not even a single reference to the political vicissitudes of his time.

As of today Gami is considered to be a romantic poet but the translator takes pains in explaining how for Gami, similar to many other Kashmiri and Middle Eastern Sufi poets, the metaphor of worldly love (Ishq e Majazi) is just a vehicle to achieve a communion and real love (Ishq e Haqiqi). The translator writes:

“As this introduction has tried to demonstrate, an acute awareness of transcendental dimension of existence pervades Gami’s verses even where he treats romantic and earthly love. He is not unique in possessing this profound spiritual consciousness as all pre-modern Kashmiri poetry bears this mark.

….even such a poetic theme as erotic love was invariably anchored in a religious or at least spiritual paradigm and could never have been conceived in secular terms”

To quote an example from the book, the translator has beautifully captured the essence and yearning of Sheikh San’an in the narrative poem (Mathnavi) ‘Shiekh San’an’ (which Gami borrowed from Faridudeen Attar’s iconic book Mantiq ut Tair (Conference of the Birds)) when he sings a song in the rapture for the Hindu girl:

“The world is a mirage, how many have wasted away!

Heal my pain, be pleased with me, my love is very deep

Don’t put on airs, all lives will end on a shriek of mourning

O Hindu girl, my bewitching love, give ear to my wails”

There is a very famous vatsun of Gami which legendary Sufi singers have sung for over years, Chani bar tal raweym ha raetsi and every Kashmiri is in love with this beautiful lyric and the translator is able to infuse the same trance inducing experience and the realization of the cruelty of human transience with the translation which the original creates.”

“Countless nights passed

As I sat by your door, calling.

Didn’t my call reach you?

Of crimson cups and yellow petals

I am jasmine of Paradise.

Long is the wait till Judgment Day

Didn’t my call reach you?”

The book also includes some of Gami’s most famous nazms including Pompir Namah (the Moth’s Tale) which captures the trepidations and anguish of a lover with the most famous trope there is in Sufi poetry of a moth and a candle. The translator also includes in the book the nazm: Tamsil- e-Adam (Parable of Adam) in which Gami shows that human life is akin to an air bubble on water which again touches the theme of impermanence of humans. The use of the motif of air bubble is also found in some great Sufi poetry, for example in the poem “Paani da Bulbula” by Bu Qalandar. This significantly shows the maturity and ripeness of Gami as a poet and as well as a Sufi.

Along with the narrative poem “Shiekh San’an”, the book features six of Gami’s major Mathnavis including “Yusuf Zuleykha” which is borrowed from Quran and many Sufi poets have exploited the theme earlier as well like Jami etc. The literary merit of Gami’s this mathnavi made German orientalist Karl Burkhard translate it into German in 1875. Gami made the story significant in terms of poetic demands, like figurative expression, human passion, conflicts, and Zuleykha’s role in society and family.

Dr. Mufti Mudasir’s luminous translation brings the Kashmiri poet Mahmud Gami’s timeless poetry to a new audience, giving it a new life in English by conveying the same vibrancy of the original text while also sounding fresh. The introduction of the book also shows how phenomenal Gami was in using the same tropes, themes, metaphors which were used by Nizami, Attar,Rumi etc and making them richer and crisper in Kashmiri. This collection gives the reader an insight into the brilliance of Gami, regardless of whether she has ever read him in the original (source) language. It is an engaging read, encompassing the themes of spirituality, love, death etc. The poems are poignant and more importantly, eloquent in nature. There’s plenty for the reader to gain from this book in terms of artistic value and knowledge. Although it is generally thought that translation cannot convey the richness of the original, this book, nonetheless, leaves the readers enthralled and amazed. It is particularly perfect for those who want to get drunk with the wine of Sufi poetry. It’s a beautiful paperback, the cover being a picture of a painting of roses which adds to its charm.


  • The reviewer is an artist and is pursuing Ph.D. in English Literature from University of Kashmir

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