Lalon Shah, a.k.a. Lalon Fakir or Lalon Shain (c. 1772–1890), was the greatest of the Bauls, the mystic minstrels of Bengal who preached – and practised – a homegrown humanism and egalitarianism infused with a mix of the Sufi and Bhakti traditions. Legend has it that he was born a Hindu, and on the way back from a pilgrimage to the Jagannath Temple in Puri came down with smallpox and was abandoned by his companions. A Muslim weaver and his wife found him and nursed him back to health, but he lost one eye to the dreaded disease. He could not return home since he had lost caste through intimacy with Muslims. The weaver gave him land to build a house where he embarked on his new life as a mystic singer-composer. A Baul guru called Siraj Shain, who lived in the same village, initiated him into the cult. Lalon has had far-reaching influence on poetry and South Asian culture as a whole. Kazi Nazrul Islam and Allen Ginsberg owe a debt to him; as does Rabindranath Tagore whose Oxford lectures, published as The Religion of Man, are infused with Baul philosophy. Lalon’s shrine in Kushtia, Bangladesh, draws large numbers of pilgrims and Baul aficionados. The sole likeness of Lalon is a drawing by Jyotirindranath Tagore, the poet’s elder brother.


The Mysterious Neighbour

In a mirror city
Close by
Lives a neighbour
I’ve never seen

Though I long to see him
How can I reach him
Being like an islander
Amidst endless water –
No boat in sight

Of my curious neighbour
What can I say, for
He has neither limbs nor
Head and shoulders

One moment he’s soaring in space
And floating in water the next

If only he’d touch me once
All fear of death would disappear

He lives where Lalon lives
And yet is a million miles away


Strange Bird of Passage

A strange bird of passage
Flits in and out of the cage –
God knows how

If only I could catch it
I’d put on its feet
The fetters of consciousness

Eight rooms and nine doors
And little windows piercing the walls
The assembly room right on top’s
a hall of mirrors

What is it but my hard luck
That the bird’s so contrary
It has flown its cage
And hides in the woods

O Heart, beguiled by your cage
You don’t see it’s built of green bamboo

Lalon says ‘Beware! It will fall apart any day.’

— Translated from the Bengali by Kaiser Haq

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: