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Review: The Seduction of Shiva

The Seduction of Shiva: Tales of Life and Love

Translated from the Sanskrit by A.N.D. Haksar

Penguin India, 2014

Rs 399

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AND Haksar’s latest Sanskrit translation is, in his own words, an “eclectic assemblage” of stories taken from right across the spectrum of Sanskrit literature. What binds these diverse episodes together – in addition to their being ‘tales of life and love’ – is their tendency to reveal an unusual, or at least little known, aspect of sex or marriage in the India of yore.

Most of these stories involve love in its most elemental form. The bawdy pub-joke type of tale – like the one about a barber being cuckolded by the king, in which teeth around the king’s anus create the climax – is typical of the earthy kathā literature for which Sanskrit is not famous (although recent translations by Haksar, among others, have attempted to make this literature more widely known). The anthropologist though will probably find the carefully selected episodes from the Mahābhārata the richest. There is a famous illustration of the niyoga rite – in which a brother may be called upon to father children by his sister-in-law; the tale of a bark-clad sage’s wife demanding a honey-moon suite with all the trimmings before she acquiesces to be impregnated by her husband; and the story of how earth’s greatest warrior spurned the advances of heaven’s most desirable apsaras, and became a eunuch as a result. There is even a discussion on whether it is men or women who enjoy themselves most in bed, and, incidentally, whether mothers or fathers love their children more.

Haksar’s easy-flowing English prose – and his skilful verse, though there is sadly little verse in this particular collection – helps the reader sail through each episode; this is not a book that will take days to read. He has not though been well served by Penguin’s editing process. Diacritical marks are used in places, but not as per the recognised standard nor with consistency. Some Sanskrit words are italicised, some not; and at times the same word is italicised in one instance and not in another. In one case, the name of a prince is spelt differently in two consecutive paragraphs. The notes too seem not to have been fully thought through. It is always difficult to get the notes in such a book right: too much and you irritate the reader for whom this material is familiar, too little and you lose everyone else in a maze of names and foreign words. Even so, it is sometimes difficult to see the logic behind decisions such as, in the first story, explaining who Śiva is but not Kāma.

Haksar has always striven to reveal Sanskrit literature in all of its glorious technicolour, rescuing it from the whitewash some try to apply, and lifting off the veil of greyness through which the majority view it. And this kaleidoscopic collection, in over-representing the colourful and entertaining, will certainly help to further this aim. For Penguin to publish The Seduction of Shiva under the Penguin Classics imprint, though, is perhaps misleading. This is not so much a canonical work but a collection of fun, easy stories that will not only entertain the reader but give him a ready stock of interesting tidbits about the sex lives of ancient Indians.

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For more details and to buy this book, please see the Penguin India page

Siddhartha: From German to Sanskrit, via English

It seems only natural to be reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in Sanskrit. The classic novel, written originally in the author’s native German, is set in India during the Buddha’s lifetime and follows a young Brahmin’s quest to discover his true nature. As he tries to find ātman, Siddhartha rejects the priesthood of his forefathers and joins a band of ascetics in the forest. After mastering asceticism and the supernatural powers associated with it, he renounces that too and – following a brief meeting with Gautama Buddha during which he realises he can never learn from another the truth he seeks – he next practises the arts of love and business as a wealthy town-dweller. Disgusted with that life, indeed with life itself, he finds peace finally as a boatman listening to and learning from the river across which he carries passengers.

Muni Kalyanakirtivijaya’s translation has as its base the original English translation by Hilda Rosner, which uses simple, unfussy language to allow the gentle beauty of the story to shine out. The translator’s Sanskrit version is written in a similarly simple style, with few of the long samāsas, rare verbal forms or complex syntax that can plague Sanskrit literature. So unassuming is the language that it allows the reader to focus instead on the meaning the words convey. The author’s decision to retain sandhi – in contrast to many writers of simple Sanskrit who prefer to omit it – makes for a sonorous read; and reminds us that sandhi need not impede the less practised reader, or indeed listener, of Sanskrit.

There are one or two things with which a reader might quibble. In particular, in the poem that Siddhartha composes for his mistress, Kamala, the richness of the Sanskrit kāvya tradition is conspicuous by its absence, despite Kamala’s delight upon hearing these verses.

Nevertheless, for those of us who naturally read Sanskrit more slowly than we read our mother tongue, this translation is the perfect way to really enjoy this beautiful novel. By slowing us down just enough to ensure we really drink in each word and each description, but at the same time ensuring we need not break the flow by having to puzzle out difficult sentences, this translation allows us to listen to Hesse’s story as Siddhartha learns to listen to the river. And perhaps, if we listen as he does, we too will finally hear the mystical syllable ‘Om’.

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For more details and to get a copy of the book, please write tosheelchandrasuriji@yahoo.com.

Muni Kalyanakirtivijaya’s Sanskrit translation is not the first – there is at least one other Sanskrit version of the novel, by Dr L Sulocana Devi.

 

Kshemendra: Three Satires from Ancient Kashmir

 

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

To buy this book or for more details, click here


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