It is late at night in Delhi, and hot. In New York, my class is about to start. We will begin reading a new poem today, a fifth-century court epic by the greatest of all Sanskrit poets, Kalidasa. I'm drinking black coffees, eating peanuts and fighting to keep awake.
An alert informs me that my professor is online. I press the green button next to his name, and within moments I'm transported to my classroom at Columbia. The professor, who is in his 30s and has short brown hair and clear blue eyes, greets me with a "Namo namah, Aatish Mahodaya!" and introduces the poem.
He had lived on the West Coast, and something of the easy style of those states has merged in him with something older, some model of self-restraint from classical India — like a modern Siddhartha.
From him I first hear the opening lines of the Birth of Kumara: "There is in the north the king of mountains, divine in nature, Himalaya by name, the abode of snow."
One minute — what? Is this not the height of absurdity? What greater comment could be made on the state of Indian education than a man sitting in India learning a dead Indian language through Skype?
The answer is none. In the India I grew up in, colonized and linguistically denuded, the Sanskrit teacher was a figure of fun and ridicule, and the language confined to liturgy. Which, given that there had been over a thousand years of literary production in Sanskrit, would be like regarding Latin as nothing more than the language of the Catholic Church.
Aatish Taseer is also the author of Noon.
Courtesy of Theo Wenner
Courtesy of Theo Wenner
Once my class in Columbia adjourned for the summer, I sat down, with the help of commentaries and dictionaries, to read eight cantos of the Birth in their entireties. It was the most intoxicating and beguiling poem I had ever read.
The title might lead you to believe that someone is to be born — and, indeed, someone is — but this birth is incidental, a MacGuffin almost, and when it happens, it happens offstage. What the poem is really about is the love, the marriage and — phwoaar! — the lovemaking of Shiva and Parvati. Parvati was the goddess reborn, whose waist curved like a ladder "for Love to climb." It is Parvati who, like an embodiment of the female principle,must be united with Shiva the destroyer.
Why? Because the gods are oppressed by Taraka, a terrible demon. Only a son of Shiva can defeat Taraka. Thus Kumara must be born. But there is a problem. Shiva is deep in meditation, absolutely still, "like a cloud without the vehemence of rain, like an expanse of water without a ripple, like a lamp in a windless place." Who would dare disturb such a man?
None but Love, whose weapons are flowers and who, with his friend, Spring, is charged with stealing into the wood to disturb Shiva's austerities, so that Kumara may be born and the gods released from their torment. This is the narrative heart of the Birth of Kumara.
I don't want to give too much away: how Love dies and becomes bodiless, Shiva's rage and Parvati's austerities, their spectacular union at the end of the poem and the sensuality of those last scenes. The Birth is one of those miracles of literature in which the divine and the temporal; the symbolic and the real; and the big impulses and the exquisite detail run together seamlessly.
For me, with the cultural impoverishments of my colonial education, it meant something more: my first foray into a literary past that I thought was closed to me.
To read the Birth alongside old Sanskrit commentaries was to have a medieval guide to an ancient text. It was to be able to knit the past together. And what better testament to the enduring appeal of the Birth than for it to come to me on that hot summer night in Delhi via Oregon, Columbia University and Skype?
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Annalisa Quinn.