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
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
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.
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