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Pluralism and Diversity in Social Traditions

Arshia Sattar

Translated by A.N.D. Haksar
Penguin Books,  New Delhi, 2012, pp. 155, Rs.250.00

By Vatsyayana . Translated by A.N.D. Haksar
Penguin Books,  New Delhi, 2012, pp.209, Rs.450.00


A N.D. Haksar, that prolific and diligent translator, offers us two small but potent little volumes—one, the tried and tested and much translated Kama Sutra and the other, relatively unknown, Kshemendra’s satires from tenth century Kashmir. Both are a pleasure to read and add to our knowledge of the secular aspects of our literary heri-tage and our social traditions, reminding us of a time when pluralism and diversity were commonplace. An interesting aspect of these texts, which is subtly revealed in these translations, is the scepticism with which our ancestors re-garded human nature and behaviour. Kshemendra seems unconvinced of any real good in humans and Vatsyayana, the celibate who wrote the manual on sexual behaviour, is gently mocking of the practices that he himself suggests. In Three Stories from Ancient Kashmir Haksar presents Kshemendra’s satires, Narma Mala, Kalavilasa and Desopadesa, all of which are startling in their resemblance to our con-temporary situation and our attitudes to functionaries of the state. Although his tales are littered with corrupt individuals of all professions and persuasions, Kshemendra saves his special venom for the bureaucrats, a breed singularly without redemption, in his view. As Haksar points out, these stories are written rather baldly, with few rhetorical flourishes or ornamentation. And that serves to highlight the unsavoury characteristics of the people that Kshemendra describes with such relish. Nei-ther the doctor nor the Buddhist nun are spared Kshemendra’s barbs, the doctor being, ‘. . .not a remover of people’s ailments but of their money . . .’ and the nun nothing less than a ‘procuress’. Kshemendra also lavishes details on his character’s appearances, clothes as well as features, and one does get the impression that he is having a lot of fun when he is painting these word pictures. But his own voice breaks through the narrative and the descriptions and it is one of censure and moral condemnation. He judges those that he writes about. For example, women are all over these stories and like everyone else, there’s not a lot to recommend them—wives are promiscuous, courtesans are greedy, widows will do anything for a little sex, even ‘ . . .devotedly (placing) her pelvic region in the guru’s hand.’ Kshemendra’s last words for the lustful widow are thus: ‘May she give pleasure to all lechers.’ A perfect antidote to Kshemendra’s world of deceit, hypocrisy and greed is the wonderfully idealized ...

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