Life and travails of a courtesan
Harbans Singh

The Courtesanís Keeper: A Satire from Ancient Kashmir
Trans. by A.N.D Haksar. Rupa. Pages 85. Rs 150.

The Courtesanís Keeper: A Satire from Ancient KashmirA translation of the 11th-century prolific Kashmiri writer Kshemendraís Sanskrit work Samay Matrika, The Courtesanís Keeper by A.N.D. Haksar is a remarkable book. Sanskrit is considered Deva-basha and therefore appropriate for philosophical and religious works.

Samay Matrika belongs to a genre not associated with Sanskrit and gives an insight into the lives and manners of the times. Brutal in execution and frank in uncovering the underbelly of social life, it contains, like all satires do, wisdom that can stand contemporary scrutiny.

The protagonist Kankali, who has assumed various names, beginning with her childhood name of Gharghara Ghatika and through her adventurous life of a courtesan, has reached a stage where she can no longer earn a living on her own. But having learned that "money comes neither from lineage or conduct nor from learning or beauty" but has to be acquired through the brain, she gets the opportunity to take charge of the professional life of Kalavati and in the process ensures, hopefully, a comfortable life for herself.

The second chapter of the book contains the life story of Kankali, which establishes her credentials as a woman who has been rightly blessed by the attendant of Ganesha with the boon that she "will always earn wealth through trickery and skill". She has spent a lifetime practicing them and in the process brings out a social life where the corrupt judiciary and the executive co-exist with the deceit of the ascetics and the healers. She has serviced the aristocrats and lowly servants and has thus learnt that "men without intelligence are the main support of courtesans. And also the poets and parasites".

Thus, "tricks and illusions" are what harlots like her use for making money in a world where wealth not only begets knowledge but can also "expiate even the grave sin of murdering a Brahmin", as narrated in the story about Shridhara, the Brahmin philanthropist from Varanasi.

Kankali is well equipped to take charge of a young courtesan. Eulogising wealth, she adds that it is only a rich person who is considered auspicious and his company sought. Even poets and scholars, warriors and artists rise only through their patronage for they are like the planets Shukra and Budha which come up in the sky only when the Brihaspati is elevated.

Having learnt that the sum and substance of harlotry is finding suitable men for extracting money, she is now ready to put her knowledge to the advantage of her ward and thus, with the chapter A Catch in the Morning, she identifies in the maze of hypocritical society the object of her profession.

How the wealthy trader and his son are divested of their wealth is but a testimonial to the skills acquired by Kankali. However, in the process conditions prevailing in the Valley are vividly and to some, disturbingly depicted. The social milieu is no different from what prevailed during Umrao Janís time, with the rich being driven by the single-minded passion of the libertines. Such times bode ill for the existing socio-political order. These are times when the society needs a Moses to come down from Mount Sinai with the Commandments or a Shankracharya to infuse vigor and life to arrest decadence. The Valley had none, with the result that within three centuries it was struck by a gale force that continues to affect the lives of people. Within those momentous centuries, with the arrival of the Tibetan fugitive Rinchan and Sikander Butshikan, the civilisation and culture built by Lalitaditya was consigned, like Ozymandias, to the pages of history. Kshemendra, the author of Samay Mratika, could only warn the society as a satirist can do.

The translator needs a vote of thanks for bringing to the English readers this work which not only is a rich addition to literature but also an important document for sociologists and students of human nature. It has been mentioned that a number of other works of Kshemendra still remain unearthed. One hopes they find the light of the day, for surely they will greatly contribute to the appreciation of that period and enriching the Sanskrit literature.