Shuka Saptati and the Courtesan’s Keeper

A woman pledges a kiss to Ganapati one morning en route to the market.  After a successful day, she returns to the temple in the evening, strips off and kisses his statue.  The god decides to have some fun of his own and won’t let go of her lip.  Her husband gets hold of a donkey and he starts to behave “passionately” with it until Ganapati bursts out laughing thus freeing the woman’s lips from his own.

There is a lot of Chaucer’s baudy humour in the Shuka Saptati and what A.N.D Haksar, the translator of these tales, calls an “earthiness” that is not often associated with Sanskrit.  The Shuka Saptati, or Seventy Tales of the Parrot, is a set of stories told by a parrot over 69 nights to distract a lonely wife, Prabhavati, from venturing out to entertain herself with a lover in her husband’s absence.  The tales all involve some kind of dishonest, and successful, trickery and very often describe how a clever woman lusting after someone she shouldn’t be manages to have her cake, eat it and, when caught sticky-fingered by her husband, convince him she’s been lovingly labouring over ladoos for a special pooja.  Prabhavati’s interest is thus understandable – and the parrot’s credibility as protector of her chastity less so but, as we see towards the end when he tells her that such evil as a certain Duṣṭabuddhi did is not to be spoken of, before proceeding to tell her all about it, this is less about morals and more about a good yarn – but in the event her new-found knowledge isn’t needed because her husband arrives back before the parrot’s stock of stories is exhausted.

The Courtesan’s Keeper – a translation of Samaya Mātrikā, ‘Little Mother by Compact’ – is more sophisticated humour, and better literature, but similarly fun and irreverent.  Billed as a “satirical novel”, the Samaya Mātrikā is in fact a poem of 639 verses by Kṣemendra, a well known scholar and poet of eleventh century Kashmir, which tells the story of a courtesan – the upmarket call girls of the ancient world – and her ‘mother’ or keeper.  It is Kankali, the courtesan’s keeper, who is the masterpiece of this work.  We are treated to her life story, which begins with stealing from a temple as a young girl and proceeds through long lists of besotted men who are summarily relieved of their money (and in the case of the jailer, his nose) to various guises once her beauty succumbs to old age – including a widow, a beggar, an astrologer, a nun, a wet-nurse and a goddess – all of which enable her to secure other people’s wealth.  She lies to Ganesha and is handsomely rewarded by the god’s attendant: her trickery will continue to win her money throughout her life.   By falsifying each of the garbs she dons – as an astrologer, for example, she gains renown for being able to reverse the movements of planets in order to effect the desired marriage between two astrologically unsuited partners – Kankali reveals the potential lie in each.  She also has a good poke, Swift-style, at the gods.  Brahma is clearly of limited intelligence – he makes valuable wool grow on the sheep but not on the much larger elephant.  And as for Shiva, if he’s friends with Kubera, god of wealth, why are his attendants naked and why does his wife have to share his clothes?

The details, particularly in Kṣemendra, are striking.   An old ochre-dyed garment is “the colour of false love”.  The half moon hanging in the sky is the ivory comb of nymphs who have dropped in, preoccupied with squabbles over their lovers. Like a good kavi, he describes the sunrise and the sunset, the arrival of spring and so on, but in a manner that owes more to his invention that to poetic convention.  Indeed, Kṣemendra also has a knack for re-casting images and descriptions that are tired clichés in many Sanskrit poems.  Parasites surround the young, rich son of a merchant whom the courtesan and her keeper ensnare like bees around a lotus.  A lover, once stripped of his wealth, must be humiliated until he disappears like frost in summer.

The Courtesan’s Keeper is written in verse but translated into prose, mainly, and its direct, merciless style is far from that of traditional kavya.  The Shuka Saptati quotes from various verse works but is otherwise narrated in a simple prose.  Both are easy reads by any account, especially in the hands of Mr Haksar who manages to translate the narrative sections in a style so plain you hardly feel he is there and yet tease out the poetry with a flourish that gives it the necessary high brow, literary feel – often rendering it in metrical, rhymed English verse, which is no mean feat.  Both of these editions are the first direct translations into English.

These books are great fun – Sanskrit’s version of pulp fiction – but they do more than just educate us on which type of bed is the best (the one that is sunken in the middle and high at the edges, naturally brining lovers together).  They have an important role to play in painting a much more rounded picture of India’s ancient literature and by implication its culture and traditions.

Perhaps next time there is a campaign against the Valentine-Day haters, copies of these books should be sent in lieu of pink chuddies to remind those with a selective view of Indian history that Sanskrit produced a wide variety of works – and that both Sanskrit and India are all the richer for it.  In the meantime, we can look forward to the publication of three more of Kṣemendra’s satires in translation on which, happily, Mr Haksar is already at work.

Venetia Ansell

For full details of the Shuka Saptati, please click here; for The Courtesan’s Keeper click here.

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