An interview with AND Haksar

Noida, Uttar Pradesh

27th October 2008 – Naraka Chaturdashi (Choti Diwali)

Dressed immaculately in kurta pyjamas and waistcoat, AND Haksar has the quietly distinguished air of the gentleman scholar.  Nevertheless he prefers to call himself a student of Sanskrit, professing that his many and, judging by the reprints, successful translations are merely his way of studying the language and its texts.  And indeed, belying his appearance, he jumps up from his chair every so often to find another book in a manner that can only be described as spritely, and speaks with bright-smiling excitement about Sanskrit.  After serving in the Indian foreign service (IFS), representing India in countries from Kenya to Portugal as High Commissioner or Ambassador, Mr Haksar returned to the Sanskrit of his school days and began to translate for the then nascent Indian publishing houses such as Penguin.  He talks to Venetia Ansell about English as the new Sanskrit and “the treasure trove of Sanskrit katha literature”.

After starting out 20 years ago with the Pancatantra, Mr Haksar now specialises in lesser known texts and particularly those from the katha (story) genre.  Translating texts that have either not been translated before, or haven’t been translated for a very long time is for him is a sort of “public service”.  His catchword is accessibility. The Jatakamala was the first work of this kind that he attempted.  Translated in 1895 for Max Mueller’s Sacred Books of the Buddhists series, it had not been rendered into English since as far as Mr Haksar can tell.  He recollects that it was only when he read the foreword to the book, which, he modestly mentions, “the Dalai Lama kindly wrote”, that he discovered this text was available in Chinese and Tibetan versions, and very popular in Tibet. 

And indeed many of these texts do seem to have an appeal which transcends national, religious and linguistic borders, if the amount of different language versions is anything to go by.  His Shuka Saptati: Seventy Tales of the Parrot has earlier been translated into Persian, Turkish, German, Malay, Mongolian, Newari, French, Greek, Hungarian, Polish and Russian as well as several Indian languages.  Mr Haksar’s version is the first complete English one from the original Sanskrit.  His translation of Madhav and Kama – A  Love Story from Ancient India was also the first English translation of this once popular tale, but the story had been translated into Italian, several Indian languages, including Urdu, and an edition had even been commissioned for Emperor Akbar. 

This provokes the question – why did works like these lapse into obscurity latterly?  It may well be that incidents like the king’s sesamum seed test in Madhav and Kama – where the king tests his seven hundred wives in the presence of the beautiful and talented young Madhav by having sesamum seeds spread underneath them to see whether they are aroused (all, without exception, are) – did not find favour in 19th and 20th century India.   Mr Haksar talks of “a climate of prudery” which seems to have frowned on certain texts, especially the erotic genre which forms a large part of Sanskrit literature.  His introduction to the Shuka Saptati gives further clues as to the disregard paid to this type of literature: the moral outrage of those he calls “the pioneering historians of Sanskrit literature”.  For Winternitz, the Shuka Saptati was at times “outright obscene”; for Keith the fact that the stories dealt mainly with adultery was “hardly edifying”.  As India moves beyond this perspective, she is perhaps now more receptive to such material.

For Mr Haksar, translating these texts into English, as opposed to any other Indian language, is of great importance.  “English now occupies the position Sanskrit did 800 or so years ago.”  As the language of the educated elite, Sanskrit was used to bridge the language barrier.  It boasted legal texts, medical treatises, writings on fine arts and government documentation as well as what we today call ‘literature’ – the plays, poetry and prose.  “In today’s India, English is the language of research, the language of much higher thought, and increasingly the language of literary activity and that with which we communicate across linguistic divides.”  He also notes that by providing English translations of these texts you bring this literature to exactly those Indians who have lost contact with Sanskrit, and are unaware of the very existence of such works.  “Of course you also make it accessible to a wider audience.”  How popular does he think such texts can be in the West?  He argues that the best measure of popularity is a publisher’s willingness to publish it.  When he started off, the Statesman first of all published installments of his Pancatantra before it was picked up for reprinting as a book – an interesting and obviously effective way of assessing and creating interest in a text before it is published.  So far, Penguin have brought out five of his translations, four of which are being or have been reprinted, and two of which are being published by Penguin UK.  Harper Collins and Rupa and Co. have also published his books and they too are bringing out reprints.

Mr Haksar talks of the “steady tradition of English translation of Sanskrit” over the last 200 years, but notes that it has mainly followed a religious or philosophical path, “really since about Max Mueller”.   And indeed, during this same period Sanskrit has become more and more associated with the religious and philosophical, especially Brahminical and Hindu religion and philosophy. 

Oxford’s Boden Chair, one of the West’s most famous Sanskrit professorships, was set up in order to encourage Sanskrit translation of the bible with the ultimate aim of “conversion of the natives of India to the Christian Religion”, as Colonel Boden himself put it, by producing a body of Sanskritic Christian literature to rival the Hindu canon.  Could this too have influenced the direction that Sanskrit study and publishing has largely taken over these two centuries?  “Perhaps.  It is interesting that the first press to publish Sanskrit in Nagari script was set up by missionaries, led by Henry Colebrook, in Calcutta.”  In an article published in the Times of India in June 2000, Mr Haksar draws attention to the fact that the first translation of a Sanskrit text was that of the Bhagavad Gita in 1784 – a text of which today there are of course “umpteen versions”.  He also notes that the Portugese in Goa had a long history of Sanskrit scholarship aimed at translating the bible into Sanskrit prior to this period.

We discuss this because Mr Haksar is very much in favour of promoting secular as well as sacred literature.  He speaks too of the lesser-publicised kavya-katha divide.  Sanskrit suffers not only from a reputation as exclusively religious (and Hindu) but also as an elitist literature.  He writes in his introduction to Madhav and Kama of Sanskrit’s “often neglected role as literature whose reach went beyond sacerdotal and societal elites to more popular audiences”.  He is also interested in another little known aspect of Sanskrit literature, haasya (humour), to which he accordingly gave attention in his Subhashitavali, a collection of subhashita (lit. well-spoken) verse.

The Subhashitavali is also worth reading if only for its fine examples of Mr Haksar’s ability to render in English verse poetry which is notoriously difficult to translate, as many Sanskritists and Indologists have attested.  His aim is to capture the”colour and flavour of the originals” rather than render the Sanskrit literally. Despite saying in his introduction that he has largely omitted vakrokti verses because of the tendency for the effect to get lost in translation, he is able to successfully convey such puns as this:

The letter t is always short

In rustic, servant, unchaste, cheat;

Why it’s doubled in priestly titles-

For this a harlot you must meet.

                                                Verse 376, Subhashitavali

“When I started to translate the Hitopadesha it occurred to me that the use of epigrammatic verse had been done to serve a gnomic and a mnemonic purpose, so I decided to put in a bit more work to produce rhyming English verse.”  The reaction from readers so far, he acknowledges, has been encouraging.

Certainly his translations are very welcome not only to all literature lovers, but also for the more general reader.   As Mr Haksar writes:

One who does not know the pleasure

of good music and of literature

is a veritable beast –

lacking tail and horns at least –

if midst men he goes about

he still lacks feeling, there’s no doubt.

                                                Verse 25, The First Meeting, Madhav and Kama


4 Responses to “An interview with AND Haksar”

  1. 1 Rrishi April 20, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Dear Ms Ansell,

    It’s good to finally read an interview with Mr Haksar. I enjoyed this very much, thank you.

  2. 2 Dr. Ajit Banerjee April 16, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    Great job you are doing. I also studied Sanskrit at middle school. Ofcourse, all our spiritual discourses are based on the Sanskrit language. Your contribution in indeed of historic significance. Congratulations!

  1. 1 On Translation: Exhibit 1 « The Lumber Room Trackback on March 13, 2010 at 10:55 pm
  2. 2 The Kama Sutra’s lessons for modern lovers Trackback on March 5, 2011 at 10:22 am

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