Love and Lust

Love and Lust

Not too inviting, the title, but Love and Lust continues with An Anthology of Erotic Literature from Ancient and Medieval India. The book is handsomely produced by HarperCollins India: a hardback of 344 pages, with an attractive pastel drawing on the cover and the pages laid out on decent paper —  a far cry from the usual Indian production. The editors, Pavan Varma and Sandhya Mulchandani, come with respectable credentials, and have have selected 61 excerpts, supporting them with a good glossary and list of acknowledgments. It’s difficult to match excerpt and source, but the 64 acknowledgements suggest that the editors have researched their field. Excerpts are largely of contemporary work, some by the editors themselves, moreover: no high-minded Victorian effusions, therefore, or Edwardian prose-poetry. The Introduction is admirably sensible, and each excerpt has its own short introduction, placing the work in its proper literary setting.

Many would welcome such a book — as an introduction to Indian literature, a good read, or, as in my case, a guide to authors worth reading or possibly translating further. Perhaps the last makes me an unsuitable reviewer, and certainly, whatever the quality of translation, a country discovering its economic potential should know its great authors, and we in the west go beyond our stock knowledge of the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Kamasutra. No doubt a dozen more things could be said along those lines, but my interest was literary, and from the literary point of view I must admit to being exasperated by the book, which I will try to explain by looking at four fairly representative translations. The first is taken from Janna’s Yashodhara Charite, and is about as dreadful as translation gets these days. Note the risible clichés, and the complete absence of match between form and content.

The queen was all ears, waiting
to catch the slightest footfall.
Her lips trembled and were charred
from anguish. The maid came back
and saw her all keyed up, her
eager face burning to hear the love’s
message. The maid ran her eyes
over her, her tall lithe figure
that shone
like the splendour of the love god’s rapier. {1}

The second, rendered from Bhalan’s Gujarati version of Kadambari, is at least good in parts, if lurching from free verse to nursery rhymes (or, rather, unrhymes), and showing precious little ear for cadence or rhythmic subtlety:

Listen, listen to me,
Pretty, hasty crazy girl,
Look after your slipping scarf;
Who indeed has driven you mad?
Restless for a glimpse of the prince,
Did you drop the flowers for worship.
Restrain yourself, O lustful lady,
Pull up your girdle that has slipped so low;
Listen, listen to me, O pretty girl,
Who indeed has driven you mad? {2}

In the prose, the first example comes from a piece entitled In the Company of Courtesans, and is translated from the Gaudavaho of Vakpatiraja:

The courtesans’ fine muslin dress, made fragrant and pink by her bath in saffron, still clings to her curly locks of hair and made more gorgeous with the auspicious flower garlands (worn by them). The face looks beautiful with particle of perspiration thinly formed on it as a result of the intoxication of moderately drunk wines. The lotus-like eyes roll and become languid and feeble. {3}

And the second is from Dasakumaracharita of Dandin, translated by A N D Haksar, originally published in the Penguin Classics series:

The sage was aroused. ‘You minx!’ he cried, ‘you are right! In those who have seen the absolute, dharma cannot be impeded by sensual indulgence.’ It was either her wiles or his folly, or even fate, on but hearing her words the sage abandoned his penances and fell for her completely. She took the fool in a covered carriage to the city where she installed him in her own house. It was announced that a festival of love would take place on the following day. {4}

While the first reads as scientific prose, precise but flat-footed, in the second we have the idiomatic rightness of You minx!, the rhetorical control of wiles, folly and fate, the contemptuous dismissal of fool — a speaking voice that makes us want to read more.

What is happening in the world of translation, supposing your reviewer is not simply having a bad day? Two things, I suspect.

First is a headlong retreat from the graces of English exposition: leading to a plebeian diction, a cacophony in vowel sequences and crabbed rhythms, if any rhythms at all. In place of the over-cultivated air of Edwardian drawing rooms we are given the sharp speech of the street trader. But while it is one thing to be contemporary, avoiding anything that smacks of elitist society may escape the tiger only to fall in with the crocodile. Kavya was generally written in an elevated court language and, however politically incorrect that may seem today, an equivalent is needed to convey its riches into English. Sanskrit is a particularly euphonious language, moreover, which is only made possible in contemporary translation by extended rhythmic control. Yes, that generally means periodic sentences, but beautiful and elevated expression need not be dated if Indian words are given their proper resonance, as indeed must English words be too.

Second is the contemporary preference for free verse, particularly among academics not over-given to writing gracefully. Free verse is admirable for many purposes, carrying contemporary attitudes over in the vivid tang of everyday speech, but kavya is not everyday speech, and its stylized vocabulary needs expanded rhythms if not to come over as tired bombast. The matrix of deployment matters, and words taken out of their traditional forms and expectations have no more power to move us than tile fragments extracted from some Persian mosaic. No doubt those fragments can be rearranged in many unusual and intriguing ways — and contemporary literary criticism often does just that — but the exercise brings no lasting satisfaction. Critical interests are always changing, while literature, by its very nature, is larger than the methods extracted to study its features. Indian philosophy and literature has always recognized the insubstantial nature of the intellect, and translations perhaps need to follow those precepts more.

Reviewed: Varam, Pavan, K. and Mulchandani, Sandhya (eds) Love and Lust: An Anthology of Erotic Literature from Ancient and Medieval India (HarperCollins Publishers India, 2004).

Relevant Website Pages

Translating Kalidasa.

Translating Bartrihari.

Translating Jayadeva.

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  1. You have to understand that the English spoken in India is not generally to a professional standard, and certainly not a literary one.

    I think the book does a good job in helping to educating the peoples of the subcontinent in their literary heritage.

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