Thus, I met Haksar on the lawns of the apartment block where we both live, uneasily maintaining the COVID distance. What should I ask someone whose use of language is precise? Every word in this work had seemed a customized piece of sculpture. As I held forth on the book Haksar nodded and reflected for a few moments. His persona was filling the spaces around.
Haksar soon transformed into the inspirer, modest and accomplished. How this diplomat became a translator of 22 Sanskrit classics is another story. The sacred Hindu texts are so overwhelming that we forget the other gems of Sanskrit literature. Haksar has worked relentlessly to release this canon from its religious underpinnings. Even the birds above could have been singing.
How does Haksar work?
Working on the mysterious Amaru in the grim year of 2020, what was Haksar thinking about? The “feelings have a constancy, a timelessness.” Amaru is “able in a single stanza to express the sentiments of the whole poem.” Journeying through the “historic continuity” of the work, was Haksar decoding dense matter?
Twisting a simple tale into something profound comes down to basics. Haksar says he avoids ornate Sanskrit works, because of “what I have learnt from my long work in this genre.” For comparison consider his translations of Kalidasa’s Ritusamharam (simple) and Raghuvansam (ornate). His latest work, Kalidasa’s play Vikramorvashiyam: Quest for Urvashi, is “middling.”
This book has every aspect to love there is. Technology can’t yet manipulate human emotion, or fake inexperience as experience: “a glance towards her smiling friend/ shows a new bride’s shyness/ on this first attempt at love.”
Who was Amaru?
We know little about Amaru. This work was written in the 9th century if not earlier, Haksar tells me. The earliest commentary he has read is from the 10th century; thus “the work must be from an earlier era.” There are translations by Greg Bailey and Martha Ann Selby in anthologies. Works by Andrew Schelling and C.R. Devadhar are not easily accessible, Haksar says. When a wonderful but forgotten poet re- appears, thank Haksar.
What is Amaru saying?
Here are three voices speaking- the male and female lovers, and the observer. I pick the female voice as the most powerful. Should a woman’s experience of love remain a mystery? Must she forever tie herself to emotional abstinence? A woman in love has been taboo across cultures and ages. But Amaru’s women sweetly toss around: “But my shameless heart still yearns/ for that callous spoiler of our love.” I am reminded of the great Indian poet Ramakanta Rath’s Sri Radha.
This book has every aspect to love there is. Technology can’t yet manipulate human emotion, or fake inexperience as experience: “a glance towards her smiling friend/ shows a new bride’s shyness/ on this first attempt at love.” Considering our sexual repression, Amaru also provides a lesson in emotional and sexual intelligence. Haksar makes Amaru so accessible (“That young girl is full of love,/but delightful also in her pride”) that we are within touching distance. The ordinary becomes epic.
Chasing emotion is hard, and the translator, no less than the poet, needs the divine hand to guide him. Haksar’s disciplined translation appears sparse but is actually joyous. Understated brilliance is its lawful beauty
These women have agency
Phrases like “the signal of her favour,” or “that every maiden has the right/to the form of her own body,” or “my worries of honour disappear” show the agency Amaru’s women have. But they are not feminists in pursuit of an elusive dignity; they are on a higher plane. Here is also a charming random verse: “The day is preferable to the night,/ the night is better than the day,/ but, in the absence of my darling,/ both indeed just pass away.” The birds must be singing again up there.
Amaru’s women are liberated
This poetry is emblematic of the liberated, but not evangelically so. It is uncluttered emotion. Even a daughter can bare her feelings to her mother: “But passion’s fire burns in my heart,/ mother, to whom can I go?” A housekeeper, too, holds forth: “Thus advised by friends, the maid,/ with a timorous look replies,/ ‘Hush! Softly! My life’s lord may hear you,/ he is here, within my heart." Subaltern love is considered secret and guilty, but all love is democratic. Don’t blame the Lord for our cultural silos.
Amaru then shifts from lover to observer: “that slender woman stopped her lover/ with what seemed like a river of tears.” Then: “But suddenly she burst in tears/ that would neither stop nor flow.” Here is a lesson for marriage counsellors: “though conciliation with each other/ was in the heart of both,/ they preserved their dignity./ Then, gradually, the couple turned/ their eyes on one another:/ their quarrel gone, and with a laugh,/ they embraced once more.”
Amaru must have observed men and women in love and then imagined them as lovers. In the streets of Ujjain, or Thaneshwar, or Kanyakubja, the women of the 9th century CE might have roamed the streets unburdened by the later codes imposed on them. This makes poetry a source for history, providing social insights that archaeology and numismatics alone can’t.
Contrary to colonial historiography, which made South Asians look like bystanders, these poems demonstrate how women in medieval India had power over their minds and bodies. Amaru’s women are not powdery fair- and- lovely beings. Each one experiences love and longing, as if in a relay race. More important, Amaru can read her, and Haksar can faithfully reproduce Amaru. Chasing emotion is hard, and the translator, no less than the poet, needs the divine hand to guide him. Haksar’s disciplined translation appears sparse but is actually joyous. Understated brilliance is its lawful beauty.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a former Indian ambassador. He has taught, most recently, in Jamia Millia Islamia University, and advised the government of Odisha on sports.