I am Bhartrihari, the court poet of Avanti. My father, who served Raja Utito, a tributary of Emperor Harsha, as his chief scribe, named me after the famed grammarian whose theory of sphota-of how the mind orders units of language into coherent speech and meaning-he hugely admired. Which is ironic since, like most poets, I have a deep dislike for grammarians. They are but weeds in the garden of literature in which we poets are fugacious blossoms. I have never let the praise of these bloodless professors-who cannot experience and must thus constantly explain, deformed beings whose itch in the brain has long erased the yearnings of the heart-go to my head. Even when they called me a second Kalidasa, I knew that I could never have written a kavya like the Meghadutam. I am a miniaturist, a master of fragmentary verse, not an epicist who can sustain poetic fervour through a long narrative poem.I do not intend to dwell on my childhood.
Memories that lie so far back in the past are lies garbed in the robes of truth. For the curious, I will give only the bare facts: I am an only child. My mother died of black fever when I was five.
My father later told me that I changed after her death. Whereas I was earlier a boisterous child who enjoyed the company of other children, I began to play by myself at home. No matter how long it took me to perform these tasks, I refused to let a maidservant feed, bathe or clothe me. My father had to get a small copper mug which I could hold with both my hands to dip into the bucket and pour water over myself while bathing.
My father was a busy man, distant but kind. After a perfunctory show of disapproval, he would fulfil even my most outrageous demands. When I was nine and it was time for my schooling to begin, Not for circulation I refused to go to one of the hermitages outside the town and insisted on attending an establishment run within Jalandhar by a renowned teacher. When I was fourteen, instead of the simple hoops of silver wire that other boys of my age wore threaded through their ear lobes, I demanded and received ear studs of gold adorned with small rubies. When I turned sixteen, I told my father that I would no longer wear a coarse cotton dhoti during the six months of school vacations and instead wear one made of the finest muslin from Varanasi. In winter, my dhoti had to be of silk, and instead of throwing a rough woollen shawl around my shoulders, I insisted on a full-sleeved jacket of the softest pashmwool from Kashmir that I fancied, its collar and sleeves embroidered with silk and gold thread.
The other students thought I was arrogant, which at the time I attributed not only to the clothes I wore but also the ease with which I learnt Sanskrit phonetics, etymology, grammar, prosody and literature. They also confused my shyness with aloofness. I thus grew up as a solitary youth who was left to his own devices and who found a haven in his imagination where he discovered the magic and music of words, and decided without being aware of it at the time that he would be a poet.
Now, when it is too late, I wonder if it would have been better if I had fulfilled my father’s wish and, like the original Bhartrihari my father so revered, become one of these grammarians who have never heard the call of Kama, never been bewitched by the murmurs of the line of bees stringing his bow, intoxicated by the scent of his arrows of flowers. I would have run a small school that gave me a decent living, savoured the quiet joys of family life and rested content with a modicum of respect without hankering after the headiness of fame. I blame my father who did not seriously oppose my wish to become a poet when I entered youth. All I remember is one short conversation, when my father finished his evening bath after his return from the king’s court and while we waited for dinner to be served.
He had tried to bring the combined weight of authorities on poetics, from Bharata to Dandin, to bear upon my decision. ‘I remember from my student days that all texts agree that for a poet the chief purpose of poetry is to achieve fame. Fame, though, is an uncommon prey pursued by many but trapped by very few. And without fame, the secondary purposes of writing poetry, wealth and social success, also slip away. If you are interested in poetry, then it is better to be its connoisseur while pursuing a safer profession. The rewards of poetry for the listener-delight, solace, knowledge of the arts and the ways of the world-are greater than for the average poet.’
Intoxicated by the self-adulation of youth that does not admit doubt, or if it does, then the doubt may only knock at the door in the deep slumber of night in a quick-to-be-forgotten dream, I bragged, ‘Revered father, my pratibha is so powerful that it will bend the god of good fortune to its will. Fame, wealth and success in the highest society of the land await me. Goddess Saraswati will never forgive me if I reject her gift of creative imagination. Who knows how many births it took for the pratibha to find a home in my body!’Instead of trying to dissuade me further, my father gave me his reluctant blessing. ‘They say that, unlike the scriptures and the sciences, kavya is like the teaching of a loving and older mistress, instruction wrapped in enjoyment. At least, poetry will give you pleasure if no profit.’
Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House
About The Book In the most powerful city of the ancient world, the temple for Kama, the god of desire, towers over that of his destroyer Shiva, the lord of time.A wave of pleasure is sweeping through the land. Under the shadow of imminent death, a great poet reflects on the journey of his life, and the ceaseless conflict between morality and desire.A young man from a provincial town,
Jalandhar, arrives in the magnificent city of Ujjayini. His astonishing brilliance as a poet is recognized immediately. The formidable young king of Avanti becomes the poet’s chief patron. This is the story of Bhartrihari, the greatest Sanskrit poet of love. The poet’s fame grows at fabulous speed; his success is effortless. But the journey of his self is not as smooth: he fluctuates between sexual passion and erotic disenchantment, the appeal of the senses at war with the call of the spirit. The book inhabits the true depths of a poet’s mind and superbly evokes his distinctive voice: precise, sardonic, pensive, impassioned.
About the Author
Sudhir Kakar is a distmin guished psychoanalyst and writer. His critically acclaimed novels, The Ascetic of Desire, Ecstasy, Mira and the Mahatma and The Crimson Throne, published by Penguin in India, have been translated into several languages around the world. He is the recipient of numerous honours and awards, the most recent being the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2012. In 2005, the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur profiled Sudhir Kakar as one of the 25 most important thinkers of the world.