Murty Classical Library of India, Harvard University Press / Eliot Weinberger on "The Life of Harishchandra" by Raghavanka

April 16th, 2017

Eliot Weinberger is a contemporary American writer, essayist, editor, and translator. His work regularly appears in translation and has been published in more than thirty languages.

The Life of Harishchandra by Raghavanka, translated by Vanamala Viswanatha                               

The Murty Classical Library of India is an awe-inspiring project and, compared to most publishing, as vast as Indian cosmic time. The plan is to publish five books a year for the next hundred years: bilingual editions of sacred and secular texts from many of India’s classical languages, with the texts in their original scripts facing reliable and readable translations. Harvard University Press is producing beautifully designed hardcover editions here in the US and equally beautiful, inexpensive paperbacks in India to foster interest in these languages and texts– for it has become the unfortunate case that Indian scholars often have to go to the West to study them.

                I was asked two years ago to join the editorial board as the “literary editor.” The one non-expert in the group, my role is to act as the English-only, Ordinary Joe reader. After the extensive vetting of the translation and notes by the scholar members, I weigh in on what may be incomprehensible to a civilian and what strikes me as infelicitous in the translation. I’m line-editing some manuscripts and reviewing submissions from this point of view. (Frequently it is the case, as with many academic translations, that the translator knows everything about where the translation is coming from–the original language–and little about where it is going– contemporary Anglo-American speech. Rejected manuscripts tend to sound like bad Swinburne.)

                The MCLI is now in its third year– 97 to go !– but, as these things move slowly, I’m reading the 2017 titles for the first time in published form. (I worked on some of the 2018 titles.) So I can recommend them strictly as a reader.

                One of the best is Raghavanka’s The Life of Harishchandra, a 13th-century epic poem, written in the Kannada language of Karnataka, and now in an extremely lively translation, combining prose and poetry, by Vanamala Viswanatha. A decisive influence on the young Gandhi, it tells the story of King Harishchandra who, Job-like, loses everything (but is ultimately redeemed) for his unyielding commitment to the truth.

                The fourth chapter is particularly astonishing. Perhaps the predominant trope of modernist writing is the fast-moving collage or montage of urban vignettes and voices, rich and poor, which begins with Joaquim de Sousandrade’s Wall Street Inferno in 1870 and continues through so many works: USA, The Waste Land, Petersburg. . . Yet here it is in 13th century Karnataka, as the King slips out of his palace one night to wander through the city.

                Here are a few excerpts from that section:

The King watched: with the night growing older,

couples pursued pleasure wherever they could –

in servants’ quarters, in backyards, in cowsheds,

among dark clumps of trees, and behind walls;

not sparing hill or dale, pit or incline or hedge of thorns –

love talk, tender kisses, bated breath,

whispered endearments, nail marks, love bites,

making passionate love

even with their clothes on.

He could see courtesans, with jasmine in their hair strewn behind them, doing up their disheveled hair, drawing in their slightly swollen lips, catching their breath, bending down to wipe the nail marks and bites on their arms and thighs, fanning their breasts to dry the tiny drops of sweat, spitting out betel quid, trying to walk briskly while adjusting their veils, and listening to every little sound and pausing, as they headed home through the back alleys.

*    *    *

In imposing moonlit mansions, the king could see women lost to the world in their lovers’ company, engrossed in love games, and playing their part to perfection. Accompanied by the chimes of their jewels, they led their men to the upper stories, consummated their love, and now came out to the courtyard for fresh air, to recover from their exertions.

A woman sat there resting her face in her hands, as she melted in the grief of separation after her lover’s departure and tears rolled down her cheeks forming a shining pearl necklace on her chest. Tell me, did those fingers resting on her cheek appear as if a five-headed cobra were lifting up the moon-face of the woman? No, that is not so. Her hand on her cheeks looked as lovely as the delicate petals of the lily that opens out as the moon, the lotus’s foe, rises in the sky.

*    *    *

Magnificent women of high standing, their lips turned red with chewing betel, their garland of flowers and luxurious hair, their finery carefully chosen and fans delicate, busied themselves singing and playing, speaking and laughing, teaching parrots to speak, haṃsa birds to walk, and peacocks to dance. The king moved on, enjoying the frolic.

*   *   *

Utterly drunk, slave women from the palace had cast off their saris, tucking them under their arms, and were staggering along, stalking the streets like greedy hawks, cursing, swaying wildly from side to side, singing hoarsely, lounging, dawdling, tipping over, getting up and belching noisily, mumbling the blessing, “Long live our lord Harishchandra.”

They were babbling: “A used and cast-out flower, aren’t you? That’s your mouth, silly goddess…smell yourself…if you give it to her in your anger…who gave this…where did her brother get this from…on the awning…today or tomorrow…it’s not water, nor is it a leaf…come and pour this puppy…you can’t mix up my ears…are you a Brahman woman…” Their drunken gibberish amused the people around no end.

“Hey, why don’t you wash the cat with cow dung and water…take this lake home…take an armful of the sari…wrap your head round…put this pendant on your hands…come on, take this ring and wear it on your hair…smear yourself with rice…take the oil out…wrap yourself with this plate…deck your face with this footwear…” prattled a young girl deliriously, grief-stricken by separation from her lover.

Yet another foolish, lovelorn girl ranted: “Spread this bracelet; help me with this dress…break this saffron mark…put this areca nut on my forehead…fix this nose ring in my armpit…put the black dot on my nose…Oh my dear, won’t you help me wear this golden bangle on my head…come on, tie up these buzzing bees on my ankles…”

*    *   *

A guru was instructing his student: “One who despairs without singing the praise of the Guru is as good as dead; one who does not worship Shiva is good for nothing; one who has wealth and yet takes refuge in money has abjured God’s grace; one who goes after another man’s wife has given up on his honor; if a highborn were to fall, he would commit a sin, and it is sure to drag him to hell.”