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A Cosmopolitan Lode of Secular Literature

Arshia Sattar

By Kshemendra. Translated by A.N.D. Haksar
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2014, pp.185, Rs. 299.00

Translated by A.N.D. Haksar
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2014, pp. 232, Rs. 399.00


The indefatigable A.N.D. Haksar pulls out another gem from the Sanskrit texts that were composed in Kashmir around the turn of the last millenium. He returns to the irreverent and wickedly transgressive Kshemendra and this time, gives us a translation of Samaya Matrika or ‘The Courtesan’s Keeper’. We owe a debt of gratitude to Haksar for repeatedly reminding us that there is a rich lode of secular literature in Sanskrit and that most of it is funny, cosmpolitan, realistic and centred around the very earthly attractions of wealth and sex.   Almost all of these secular Sanskrit texts were produced in and around the 11th century court of King Ananta and his queen Suryamati. Just a little earlier, the great Sanskrit aestheticians and literary theorists of Kashmir, Anandavardhana and Abhinava-gupta, were at work, creating and developing the exquisite theory of dhvani. Thus, Kshe-mendra and others were writing and compiling their rollicking texts and stories in their shadow as well as in the fading light of Kashmiri Shavism. Somadeva’s Kathasaritsa-gara, from the same period as Kshemendra’s stories, states that it was compiled to ‘entertain the queen’ who was suffering in the aftermath of her husband’s death. Haksar has often remarked that Kshemendra is a satirist and certainly, that skill is on display in his other works that Haksar has translated. And while I have often wondered about a higher purpose for Kshemendra’s texts, it is very clear that they are also out to entertain.   The question that we may well ask of this period and of the story literatures in particular, is how come there was so much open and frank talk of sex and sexuality, of courtesans and cuckolds, of bawds old and young, of merchants’ sons, both foolish and wily. One explanation could be that the popular Shaivism of 11th century Kashmir followed the glorious days of the essentially Tantric philosophy of Shaiva Siddhanta. While the rigorous philosophies had faded or receded into more esoteric realms, it could be that the curiosity about sexual practices that the Tantric schools had unleashed remained in the public consciousness and resulted in a veritable ocean of stories that are uninhibited, unselfconscious and remarkably unrestrained in their critique of human foibles, certainly about their insatiable desire for sex and money.   The Courtesan’s Keeper is about a young courtesan, Kalavati, who has lost her mother and needs ...

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