Translated by AND Haksar
The ancient Kashmir of the title is a strange land peopled by swindler goldsmiths descended from the rats whose destructive burrowing drove the golden Mount Meru to abandon the world of mortals and ascetics so intent upon gazing at the sky that they keep tripping over. It is nevertheless not unfamiliar to those campaigning with Anna Hazare against a rotten bureaucracy nor to those who grumble about India’s increasing moral bankruptcy.
These three satirical bhanas, or “causeries”, are the work of Kshemendra, a cosmopolitan scholar of the 11th century who studied under the famous Abhinavagupta. Kshemendra’s contribution to Sanskrit literature has only recently been fully appreciated: the first of the 34 works attributed to him was discovered in 1871. Eighteen have been found in total, of which several are technical and devotional works and four satirical. AND Haksar, who translated these three satires, has already done much to establish the poet’s reputation beyond the academic community with his translation of the Samaya Matrika or The Courtesan’s Keeper, a sustained satirical narrative about a shape-shifting pimp. These three satires, also set in Kshemendra’s native Kashmir, paint a similar picture of a society in hot pursuit of money and sex, preferably combined.
Although the first work, Narma Mala or A Garland of Mirth, takes a narrative form, the other two, Kala Vilasa (A Dalliance with Deceptions) and Deshopadesha (Advice from the Countryside), are more a string of well executed vignettes. The story, at any rate, is of secondary consideration. It is in the details that Kshemendra’s pen cuts most deeply, particularly in his fresh and often shocking similes. The guru whose mouth twitches “like the cunt of an old she-buffalo” is not quickly forgotten, and Mr Haksar does justice to the often filthy language of the original; you have to wonder how the Victorian translators would have handled this. But the humour is not all bawdy. The foreign student for whom “even a river is considered insufficient for his purificatory rites” but who happily tucks into the leftover dinner and drink of the harlot he has engaged for the evening, has a glow “like that of an unlit lamp”.
No one, not even a Buddhist nun, not even poets themselves, is spared. At times, Kshemendra can seem a little old-fashioned: working wives and women who enjoy a good party are among those he condemns as “demons of a thousand deceptions in the dark night of this degenerate age”. But his castigation of cheating officials resonates loud and clear:
Plundered by the bureaucrat,
the state’s afflicted prosperity
weeps dark tears, which seem to be
ink drops dripping from his pen.
At times Kshemendra relents and gives us more standard poetic fare but his wit and cynicism are never far from the surface. A beautiful description of Ujjain at dusk mixes the conventional with his own particular style; “the sun…disappeared slowly from the sky like a gambler stripped bare by cheats”. For the most part we are invited to mock as well as condemn the doctor who must kill thousands of patients with experimental concoctions before establishing his reputation, the astrologer who consults “knowledgeable fisherman” about the likelihood of rain and the man about town who gives himself love bites and smears lipstick on his collar before going out. Would that Kshemendra were alive and writing today.
This review first appeared in the New Indian Express here
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