When I admit to reading almost nothing in translation, people are unimpressed, and I admit it: they have a good point. It’s just that I feel uncomfortable about the presence of a shadowy intermediary between me and the text’s first writer. The words on the page matter: the writer wouldn’t have put them there if they didn’t, and how can the translator communicate cultural values and idiom? So, most of the time, I’m happy to stumble through parallel translations in languages I can handle, but my reading is tragically, shamefully Anglocentric. I recognise how this impoverishes me as a reader and, more importantly, as a world citizen, but I just don’t like jumping into the bath-water, once the translator’s had the bubbles.
So, Shazea Quraishi’s The Courtesans Reply was quite a gift. Her inspiration is drawn from Sanskrit dramatic monologues, bhana, and the Kāma-Sūtra, and the title of her opening poem, The Sixty-Four Arts, transports us from a culture in which prostitution and criminality make easy bedfellows, to a place where the courtesan might be skilled, cultured and powerful. Quraishi’s list of accomplishments unfolds carefully, and the initial ‘music, dancing, acting, singing,’ invite us to view the courtesan as a sexed-up character from Austen or Eliot. However, her list continues: ‘conjuring, / sleight of hand, / logic, cooking, sorcery, fencing / with sword and staff, / archery, gymnastics, carpentry, / chemistry, architecture.’ On any terms, this is a surprising, remarkable list, and we’re left wondering how to view these skills: are they on a par, or ranked? Conjuring and sleight of hand feel like related disciples, so perhaps cooking should also be seen as a precise alchemical art, worthy of consideration as a science (as Heston Blumenthal would have it). The opening poem’s pseudo-status as a page from a courtesy book makes Quaraishi’s collection feel like a deliciously puzzling historical artefact, or a Borges short story.
However, Quraishi’s next poem, Tambulasena, invites associations with the Sanskrit drama, Padmaprabhrotakam, in which the courtesan’s body is security tagged with a bindi, breasts coated in tamper proof sandal paste to alert her master to the attentions of her lover: ‘In the beginning / my whole body was covered with skin / hard as a rock. Then he came // and his mouth / running over me was a river, cool and quick, / with small silver fish.’ Quraishi’s opening line and phrase occupies an almost Biblical space, suggesting that there was nothing before this beginning so, knowing the story from the Padmaprabhrotakam suggests that the young Tambulasena knew nothing before life as a courtesan. She calls her sandalwood carapace ‘skin’, and the line break invites us to fall into the trap of viewing it this way too, but no skin is ‘hard as a rock.’ For me, anyway, a chilling contemporary note is injected into the poem here: just how young was this girl when she became a courtesan? Trading records show that girls were bought in Greece to work in India. Quraishi presents the lover as ‘a river, cool and quick,’ subverting the usual gender shorthand of adamantine maleness and slippery, engulfing femininity, making us wonder about the balance of power here. In fact, in the poem’s second part, the active verbs belong to Tambulasena: ‘I bathe’, ‘I bend’, ‘I let him,’ and are reminiscent of the heartbreaker in John Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
In Vanarajika, Quraishi continues to explore the issue of ownership, as the young courtesan says: ‘Using the nail on my middle finger / I mark his neck / with a half moon, on the place / I like best / to kiss.’ The speaker’s language is precise, and the passion is in the physical gesture, not in the language. This endows the poem with an erotic immediacy that purple prose just can’t manage. The syntax of the sentence, following the physical act and ending on a kiss, puts bodies, and not minds, in control. The first three stanzas invite us to suppose that the courtesan calls the shots, but the balance of power shifts, and his marks hint at underlying violence and control: ‘Lightly, he touches my cheek / giving me gooseflesh, / then marks me with his thumb, / deepening the scratch with the other fingers. / A knife stroke.’ The final line, a jabbing little fragment, smarts on the page, and what are we to make of the ‘stroke,’ with its twin connotations of pleasure and pain?
In the final poem, Anangadatta, Quraishi revoices a character from the Ubhayabhisarika, who, unlike the majority of her profession, falls for a penniless young man instead of holding out for wealth and influence. Quraishi creates these simple dreams through the list-like structure of her first stanza: ‘The peaceful routine of household chores: / sweeping the floors of the house, / sprinkling water on the yellow earth outside the door.’ Looking back at The Sixty-Four Arts, it is telling that Anangadatta’s desires, the simple, fundamental human rites of passage, are not on the list.
In The Courtesans Reply, the voices of Quraishi’s young courtesans create a restless, political, erotic presentation of relationships and, while the collection chooses to keep us guessing about who’s on top, it also delights us with its restrained presentation of excess.