Books

‘There Was Only Kavya’

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Sudhir Kakar on his new novel about Bhartrihari, the great Sanskrit poet of love
Where do new challenges lie for someone who is devoted to exploring the life of the mind, in every way? Renowned psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar is the author of 16 great works of non-fiction, ranging from his natural territory in classics like The Inner World: A Psychoanalytic Study of Childhood and Society in India, 1978, on its 16th print run; to his wonderful psychobiography of Tagore (Young Tagore: The Makings of a Genius, 2013); to his new translation of the Kama Sutra (2002, with Wendy Doniger). A leading figure in cultural psychology who serves on the Board of Sigmund Freud Archives in the Library of Congress, Washington, and the Académie Universelle des Culture in France, he has been awarded Nehru and ICSSR National Fellowships, the Goethe Medal, a Rockefeller Residency and a McArthur Fellowship, among other accolades. Now, what he wants to do most is write fiction.

The Ascetic of Desire (1998), Kakar’s first novel, is a tribute to the Kama Sutra, and Ecstasy (2001) continues on his principal theme: ‘the author’s greatest strength lies in his ability to portray the emotional conflicts resulting from physical experiences’, declared Publishers Weekly, of the book. His sixth novel, The Devil Take Love (Hamish Hamilton, 256 pages), now details the life of seventh-century Sanskrit poet Bhartrihari, a ‘historical ghost’ who arrived in the great city of Ujjayini and rose to fame in the court of Avanti with his sensuous love poetry, while struggling with his own romantic life.

Kakar came to the poet’s work in Hindi as a young man, through his father, a retired civil servant who saw Bhartrihari as the most modern and different of Sanskrit poets. Using basic primary sources, Kakar drew the rest from the poet’s work to describe Bhartrihari’s personal journey into the land of sexual passion: ‘She who I am always thinking of has no interest in me;/ She desires another man whose devotion is for one other/ than her. And for me, some poor girl pines. Damn it all then!/ The Devil take her & him. The Devil take Love and also her & me.’ (Bhartrihari, in the book’s epigraph). The language is decorous, ornate, of the time. It is cloying at times, particularly in the love scenes, full of descriptions like ‘the rippled dunes of her cunt’s soft flesh’, even as it nuances the sexual act. But Kakar has given a legendary poet a new, authentic life, and this is a feat in itself. Why, Bharatrihari himself asks, ‘To tell the story myself before my enemies begin to slaver around its entrails?’ The story of his fall is beguiling, like all great demises.

In his Delhi office (he lives in Goa), Kakar speaks to Open about the reclamation of the past, erotic love and why writers make such great analysts. Excerpts:

Are we closer to an idea of Bhartrihari?
Nobody really knows what happened to him. I still don’t know him. I imagined him through his poetry. That he was conflicted, is very much in the poetry. There was no way to write about him in non-fiction; you have something coherent and consistent in seeing him in fiction. I cannot imagine him now in any other way than what he is in this book.

Why him?
Other masters appeal too, but at a remove; Kalidasa brings you close to the universe, but not to himself. I felt a feeling of kinship with Bhartrihari. He is very human.

The poet’s pursuit of fame is not new. What was different, then?
Things were not that different; poets enjoyed fame through poetry then too. The difference is, I don’t know if the poets complained as much as they do now. But there was not so much difference made between genres. Even in the plays of that time, the poetry is mixed with the prose. There was only kavya (poetry).

What about the idea that you have to suffer to be a poet?
I think it was Auden who said there is no such thing as happy poetry.

When young Bhartrihari writes his first verse, he realises he is being false. How do we deal with received notions of beauty?
What made a poet was not the conventions. The challenge of Sanskrit poetry is how to be original within boundaries, which I think Bhartrihari does very well. Being unconventional outside boundaries is silly, I think; if you are outside boundaries you are in any case unconventional. Now, one doesn’t think about these things; boundaries are looked upon as shackles.

The women in the book play on the poet’s sensual self. Ambika, who takes his virginity; Ananga, the intoxicating courtesan he marries. Was it difficult to bring women of that time to life? There was a complete division between the kulastri and the curtain. Bhartrihari is in that sense very much of that time. Women at that time wrote in Prakrit, not Sanskrit. There were a few poets, but they were poets in private, rather than in public spaces. In his wife, I combine both the courtesan and the wife—he can have more sentiments with his wife.

Seventh-century Jalandhar is a compelling setting. What do you think of the current attempts at reclamation, this longing for the past?
I think we will see more and more of this. People of my generation were completely cut off from the past, I know British history much more because I studied it in school. For your generation, it has gotten much better. What kind of a past we are going to reclaim is going to be contested. It already is.

It is political...
Yes. The liberal way of rejecting the past is doing them a disservice. I want the liberal also to reclaim the past, not to say that we should only be looking at the globalised world. That would be a mistake.

‘Do you like any particular poems?’ Bhartrihari asks the 13-year-old Vipula. ‘The best. Especially your verses,’ she replies. The role of the teacher is erotically charged in this novel. Can you talk about the passing on of knowledge as another form of erotic pleasure?
Many teachers do have that feeling when they are idealised, both men and women. The reception of the teaching opens her up, the admiration is erotic. It is his feeling that this is the last—54 at that time was old—of women who completely idealise him. Idealisations are also erotic.

Was it difficult to create empathy with someone who is not always morally acceptable?
No. That probably comes from the analyst part of me. People do things that are wrong all the time; you’ve done yourself so many things which are not right.

Does it help to be an analyst as a writer?
No (laughs). But writers, on the other hand, are analysts. I’ve always thought of Shakespeare as a great psychologist, a greater psychologist than Freud. A good writer has to be, intuitively, a psychologist. But I completely cut off that role when I write. [Kakar has not been practising as an analyst for a long time, though he does keep one or two patients on hand, “to keep reminding myself of my other life”].

What are you reading currently?
I’ve just finished two interesting books. One is by Knausgaard. It is very interesting and strange, the level of detail. I was just thinking he must be completely lonely. There can’t be any relationships with someone writing like him because you don’t know how you will end up in his book (laughs). It’s fascinating. And I am reading Elena Ferrante’s fictional autobiography, which I really enjoyed.

What are your goals as a writer at the moment?
This is my favourite novel. But the moment I think that this is pretty good, the doubt comes—am I going to be able to match what is pretty good in the short time left to me? I have only so many years left, and I want to devote this time to fiction.

Is fiction more difficult than non-fiction?
Non-fiction is easy; you have a floor and a ceiling. With fiction, my floor and ceiling can completely fall down.

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