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The Absent Traveller: Prakrit Love Poetry from the Gathasaptasati of Satavahana Hala

The Absent Traveller: Prakrit Love Poetry from the Gathasaptasati of Satavahana Hala
Item Code: IDK288
Author: Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 0143100807
Pages: 97
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 7.8" X 5.2"
Translator's Note

As readers we sometimes feel possessive about certain authors. They are our discoveries, and write only for us. When the whole world comes to know of them, the magic of their pages is destroyed and we feel robbed. With books like the Gathasaptasati the opposite is true. Instead of keeping their charms, their pleasures, to ourselves, we wish to tell others about them, and the more we tell the less exhaustible they seem. To translate such a book, then, is to share the excitement of reading.

If putting a book together is a slow, deliberate process, its beginning is often the effect of fortuity. These translations from the Prakrit might never have been made had Arun Kolatkar not introduced me to the Gathasaptasati one afternoon in Bombay fifteen years ago. Listening to his impromptu englishings of a few poems, I wanted to read them myself, but being ignorant of Sanskrit, German and Marathi, the three languages in which the best editions of the Gathasaptasati are to be found, there was no way I could. If I have done so now, Hindi and English trots, several dictionaries, and a patient tutor have played no inconsiderable part.

The Gathasaptasati, one of the earliest anthologies of Indian poetry to have survived, was compiled by a Satavahana king, perhaps Hala, around the second century CE. It is fair to assume, however, that some of its verses go back to an even earlier period, for the legendary king drew on an oral tradition that belonged to the megalithic culture of the Deccan in the first millennium BC. Unlike later Sanskrit subhasita-samgraha-s, which mostly dropped out of sight for several centuries before turning up again in out of the way places (the manuscript of Vidyakara's) Subhasitaratnakosa was discovered in a Nepalese barn), this one has seldom left the educated public's consciousness.

Metaphors take longer than a few centuries to fade if they fade at all, and Kalidasa and the classical Tamil poets of the Eight Anthologies drew on Prakrit conventions and relocated them in their own literatures. Afterwards, works of aesthetics, poetics and grammar would quote the Gathasaptasati's verses; its situations would be taken over by lesser writers who were, in imitation, composing their own saptasati-s till as recently as the eighteenth century; it translated into the major Indian languages, and into German and Persian. For 2000 years these schoolmen, poets, connoisseurs and scribes kept alive a poetic tradition in which close observation is met with economy of phrase, and bare human experience with depth of understanding.


The Gathasaptasati speaks the minute you open it, and as its translator I felt that at times I did little more than repeat in another language what it said. This indicates something about the communicability of the poems, rather than images is common to the race and as old: cupped hands, a pregnant woman, a man staring. Like international signs that are understood everywhere, they hardly seem to need translators.

The language of poetry, however, is not that of representation, nor does any language have a duplicate. To hear what Prakrit poets said with the images, we have to see them not isolated from, but as a part of, the poem's body. For example, when the traveler opens his cupped hands (161) and the woman reduces the water's trickle, they say nothing yet leave nothing unexpressed. Speech in the face of desire manifests itself in a finger's tremor and the angle of a jug.

Howsoever glancing the movement or painterly the description, there is a specific narrative-not always apparent-to which it belongs. The words are about the behaviour of birds and animals-crows (205), frogs (391), sows (402)-till the Gathasaptasati's intrepid commentators unfreeze the image and put it in a second context: the lover is being signaled to reach the trysting place, or warned against going there; or is being told how or how not to make love. (Some of these commentatorial suggestions are given in the notes at the back of the book). But for the most part though, the poems are straightforward enough. Their virtue is an elegant outspokenness, the naturally figurative speech of young women (43, 93, 229) and old (239,372, 518), go-betweens (198, 199, 220, 221) and elderly confidantes (444), wives (17, 98, 583, 656, 830, 888) and mothers (508, 885, 887), bawds (56, 258) and prostitutes (274), and on rare occasions husbands (23, 52) and travelers (396). With great precision they map out the territory of love, from the coastline of the sidelong look to the fertile valleys of infidelity.

Being essentially a woman's book, a compendium of her gestures, utterances and silences, the Gathasaptasati gives only one side of the story. This is as it should be, since luckless man has none to tell. 'For centuries now,' wrote Rilke in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 'women have undertaken the entire task of love; they have always played the whole dialogue, both parts. For man has only echoed them, and badly.'


This translation, as I said, is a corollary of reading, but the simplest act of reading alters what is read. The eye, as it passes over one passage, re-reads another, and rests on a third, authors a simultaneous text, some form of which will stay in the mind after the page is turned.

Translations likewise edit, highlight and compensate. Great translations go a step further; instead of compensation for losses, they shoot to kill, and having obliterated the original, transmigrate its soul into another language. This is what Edward Fitzgerald (in whom 'the soul of Omar lodged… around 1857' according to a Borgesian conjecture) and Ezra Pound ('the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time') did, and this is what makes The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and 'The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter' Immortal English poems whose Oriental origins have ceased to matter. There is to them another aspect. During its periods of ill health, these 'exotic injections' helped put English poetry back on its feet. The phrase is Pound's; in fact it is used to describe the Rubaiyat.

My own attempt, more modest, less homicidal, is to provide an accurate and readable version of the Gathasaptasati. its verses are all in the same arya metre, and if a few of my English renderings appear somewhat longer than others, that's because they needed a different arrangement of pauses, and not because I added anything to them. Indeed there are occasions when I did the opposite and compressed a verse by dropping a word or phrase.

Any number of things can set a poem off-the cry of a bird, a rhythm in the head, a visitor, or another poem. These mysterious prompters disappear after leaving you inside a maze of notes and revisions, and even you cannot remember who they were or whence they came. Getting out of the maze is what matters now, and you look for the exit. On reaching one you find it blocked by the very lines that, a moment ago, had pointed it out. You again begin to write your way out of the maze, and once wake up in the middle of the night. You put your trust equally in all words, whether archaic or colloquial, obscure or common, giving each one a chance to be your guide. After exhausting your word-hoard, you open a dictionary and take the reading glass out of its case. Meanwhile, the pile of worksheets is thicker than before and you are in the middle of nowhere still.

The maze of translation is in no way different, except that here you can always retrace your steps and start all over again.

Back of the Book

The Gathasaptasati is perhaps the oldest extant anthology of poetry from South Asia, containing the earliest examples of secular verse. Reputed to have been compiled by the Satavahana king Hala in the second century CE, it is a celebrated collection of 700 verses in Maharashtri Prakrit, composed in the compact, distilled gatha form. The anthology has attracted several learned commentaries and now, through Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's acclaimed translation of 207 verses from the anthology, readers of English have access to its poems. The speakers are mostly women and, whether young or old, married or single, they touch on the subject of sexuality with frankness, sensitivity and, every once in a while, humour.

The Absent Traveller includes on elegant and stinulating translator's note and an afterword by Martha Ann Selby that provides an edmirable introduction to Prakrit literature in general and the Gathasaptasati in particular.


Translator's Notexi
The Poems1
Afterword by Martha Ann Selby71
Notes to the Poems87

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