A courtesan and a writer

I confess, if this reprint of The Courtesan’s Keeper (TCK) didn’t have as striking a cover as it does, I probably wouldn’t have started reading it. For the longest time, if there was even the hint of history in an Indian book (particularly one published by Penguin), then the cover had to have a bland detail from a miniature painting. (Here’s the old over of TCK. I rest my case.) However, it seems the times they are a-changing. Here’s the new edition of TCK.


What a clever, clever idea to put the hibiscus on the cover. In Hinduism, the red hibiscus is Kali’s flower, representing her uninhibited sexuality, which is a fitting reference to a novel about women who are anything but coy about both having sex and being sexy. Incidentally, the red hibiscus is also supposed to be Ganesha’s favourite flower. This is a touch odd considering how strenuously most traditions within Hinduism stress upon Ganesha’s asexuality. (In Bengal, his wife is a banana tree. I’m not sure if that’s much more emotionally satisfying than being married to three concepts — Buddhi/ Intellect, Siddhi/ Enlightenment and Riddhi/ Prosperity — but I digress.) Ganesha makes an appearance in TCK when he grants a wily courtesan a boon because he’s impressed by her adherence to, of all things, dishonesty.

“How wonderful!” he said. “You persist in lying even during worship in a dream! Madam, I am very pleased with your unwavering adherence to untruth. You will always earn wealth through trickery and skill.”

And so she does, even when she’s lost her physical charms. In fact, TCK tells us how the courtesan Ganesha blessed sets herself up post-retirement.

TCK is a slim, little novel that you can finish reading in a few hours. I wasn’t expecting much more than a few moments of amusement from it. But this 11th century Sanskrit pulp fiction is not only exquisitely stylish in parts, it’s also thought provoking and unexpectedly relevant to today’s consumerism-struck society. Just consider this meditation on wealth and its influence:

“Poets and scholars, warriors and artists rise only through the patronage of the rich. They are like the planets Shukra and Budha, which come up in the sky only when Brihaspati is elevated. But a learned person who is poor, even though he sells his skills like his own flesh, goes unacclaimed. … With money, men can surround themselves with scholars and be deemed learned; with warriors and be considered valiant; with aristocrats to become famous for their lineage. Merit depends on wealth, not the other way round. That is why we sing its praises so single-mindedly. … There is no question that wealth makes people blossom, like the sun makes lotus flowers bloom. It wipes out faults and gathers friends in bright and happy celebrations. With it man becomes well-born, virtuous, helpful, respected and an exemplar to all.”

Some things, it seems, really don’t change.

Written by the 11th century Kashmiri writer Kshemendra, TCK is about two courtesans, Kalavati and Kankali. Kalavati is beautiful and in the prime of her youth. Kankali is old, ugly and Machiavellian. When Kalavati needs what we’d term a ‘manager’ today, a helpful barber tells her to get in touch with Kankali because she’s legendary for her wiliness.

The Sanskrit title of TCK is Samaya Matrika, which literally translates to “Mother of the Times” (I think). The English title is a direct reference to the character who occupies most of the novel’s pages, Kankali. It also establishes Kshemendra’s poetic work (which is in prose in its English avatar) as an unpretentious story. “Mother of the Times”, on the hand, carries with it pretentions: it’s not just a story, but a comment upon Kshemendra’s society. What does it say about his world and his times that its mother is a fallen woman who relentlessly cons others, doesn’t seem to possess a conscience and who is a creature of facades? 

I haven’t read much of Kshemendra’s work, but from the fragments I have seen, I’m going to go ahead and say that while he may have been many things, the writer wasn’t a feminist. His descriptions of the courtesans in general and Kankali in particular aren’t sympathetic or flattering. They’re greedy, deceitful and crafty. Kankali looks ghoulish, with a body that is “a bag of skin with holes” and feral features. “It was as if each limb had been drawn from creatures that are always at each others’ throats,” Kshemendra writes of her.

And yet, as vile as Kankali might be, her only counterpoint is Kalavati, the maiden to Kankali’s crone. None of the men in TCK have anything commendable about them. They may be the pillars of polite and respectable society, but they’re slavish idiots who are outwitted by the fringe elements that are the courtesans. Kshemendra doesn’t even give any of them any good lines. The only one who gets some love from the writer is the barber who is a part-time pimp and the courtesan’s confidant. He is ridiculed by all the other men, we’re told, which means he’s as much of an outcast as the courtesans. While the gentlemen only make fools of themselves in TCK, getting drunk and conned, Kshemendra gives Kankali two whole chapters in which she speaks without interruption. In one, she displays her sharp sense of logic and debate. Later, when she describes the eighty varieties of passion, her language is rich with exquisite imagery and stylistic flair.

Reading Kankali’s chapters, I couldn’t help wondering whether Kshemendra didn’t have a bit of a soft spot for the old crone. Not only does he give her some of the best lines, he uses her to both attack society as well raise questions about faith and attitudes in his society. Kankali is irreverent and bold, which means she doesn’t shy away from saying the gods — all men — are as foolish as mortals. If the courtesan lives by deceit and her wits, it’s because she’s surrounded by idiots who are witless. “What can simple women do when people are so stupid? We live only by the grace of these fools,” she says, justifying her endless cons.

If all Kshemendra wanted to do was establish Kankali is reprehensible, he could have had her saying outlandish things in addition to attributing to her immoral deeds. But while Kankali is a Machiavellian thief, she’s also a poet when she talks about the eighty characteristics of passion. And when she argues that the world of men and gods is marked by foolishness, she debates persuasively and puts forward arguments that no one in TCK refutes. Perhaps this is why Kshemendra begins TCK with homages to two gods who are known for their disruptions:

Homage to Kama,
whose power is wondrous:
with a bough wrought of flowers
and a breeze as the arrow
he conquers the world.

Reverence to Kali,
awesome, majestic,
enchantress of all.
Her age is unknown,
at the end of time
the world will be seen
swirling around
in her fearsome mouth
like a little fish
in an angry sea.

It’s in their tradition that Kshemendra places Kankali.

Like I wrote before, Kshemendra was no feminist and neither was he a revolutionary ahead of his time. It’s because he was a writer and man of his times that TCK is so interesting. For all the disgust he professes as a writer at Kankali and her behaviour, he also lavishes the best of his writerly skills upon her character. Who knows? Perhaps there’s more to the relationship between the writer and this courtesan than initially meets the eye.


2 thoughts on “A courtesan and a writer

  1. When I saw the cover of the book in your post, the words “Samay matrika”, made me think of “Matra” or the vowels and I was wondering if “matrika” could be a small vowel, like the way a vowel moulds a word, a smay matrika would mould the time?

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