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Parroting Tales

Arshia Sattar

Edited by A.N.D. Haksar
Rupa and Co., New Delhi, 2009, pp. 218, Rs. 295.00


What a delightful collection of stories—all about women who take lovers, cuckold their husbands, have a great time and mostly, live to tell the tale. Or rather, in this case, have their tale told. We might think that this is surely a male fantasy, this world full of libidinous, licentious women. But that couldn’t possibly be as it is the men that are regularly humiliated in these stories. What fun it would be to imagine this text as a woman’s utopia, where we get to do what we want and do it when we want to. But that cannot be, either. For the frame that holds these stories within itself is a frame about the importance of conjugal fidelity, of staying within the bounds of marriage. It is precisely about not doing what we want even when we are sorely tempted and have the chance. A young woman’s merchant husband is away on business and in his absence, she is encouraged by her girl friends to take a lover, for youth and beauty are but fleeting. She is inclined to do so, but a clever parrot detains her every night with a story about faithless wives. Like Scheherazade’s, the parrot’s tales are told through the dangerous and seductive night. They not only hold the listener’s interest, but end up ‘reforming’ the listener—the murderous Shahryar gives up his nasty habit of bedding and then beheading a virgin every night after being spellbound by Scheherazade for a thousand and one nights and our heroine, Prabhavati, stays home for a mere seventy nights and waits for her husband’s return, her virtue intact, her character improved and now unimpeachable. Compiled in the 12th century, Shuka Saptati belongs to the vast body of Sanskrit Katha literature, a literature that stands in firm and proud opposition to the more valorized philosophical, religious and courtly texts of poetry and drama that exist in the same language. A.N.D. Haksar, who translates the present volume, has straddled the various genres of Sanskrit literature in his translations. He does a reasonable job of bringing these turbulent tales of betrayal and occasional retribution to the contemporary reader. Haksar catches the sanctimonious tone of the parrot as well as careless freedom of the wanton wives in his English rendering, though every now and then, his idiom is a little archaic. However, ...

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