The Gathasaptasati is a volume of poetry, mostly written by women, and was supposedly collected and edited by the Satvahana king, Hala.

Like much of pre-modern literature, the dating of the volume remains in dispute. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who translated a selection of the volume titled “The Absent Traveller: Prakrit Love Poetry from the Gathasaptasati of Satvahana Hala” (Penguin, 2008), notes that the text dates from around Second Century C.E. and also borrowed from traditions in the megalithic culture of the Deccan in the First Millennium B.C.E.

The title of the book is telling; the figure of the traveler is recurrent throughout. It isn’t surprising that the traveler here becomes the object of desire.

Roland Barthes notes in the second fragment “Absence” in his book The Lover’s Discourse, “Historically, the discourse of absence is carried on by the Woman; Woman is sedentary, Man hunts, journeys; Woman is faithful (she waits), man is fickle (he sails away, he cruises). It is Woman who gives shape to absence, elaborates its fiction, for she has time to do so; she weaves and she sings; the Spinning Songs express both immobility (by the hum of the Wheel) and absence (far away, rhythms of travel, sea surges, cavalcades). It follows that in any man who utters the other’s absence something feminine is declared: this man who waits and who suffers from his waiting is miraculously feminized. A man is not feminized because he is inverted but because he is in love.: (Myth and utopia: the origins have belonged, the future will belong to the subjects in whom there is something feminine.)”

The sedentary figure and the traveler show up in the collection numerous times:

When she heard the bird’s flutter
As they rose from the rattan grove,
Her young limbs
Languished in the kitchen.

Ask next door
For deerskins, traveller:
Our men don’t stalk
Blameless creatures.

Friend I’m worried.
My bangles expand
When he’s abroad
Is this common?

The ache
Of separation
But in death’s
“My braided hair’s
Not straight yet,
And you again speak
Of leaving.

The motif of the absent traveler is one the prime motif of the lover’s discourse, and it’s primary location in the woman historically is expected. But where this collection truly shines, is when the women speak of their sexual desires.

Lying in bed,
Eyes closed,
Remembering him,
Then with arms
From which bangles
Keep slipping,
Clasps herself.

In her first labour,
She tells her friends,
‘I won’t let him
Touch me again.’ They Laugh.

He groped me
For the underwear
That wasn’t
I saw the boy’s
And embraced him
More tightly.

Friend, you should’ve seen
His hands fumbling inside
The thin skirt glued
To my wet fanny.

One proud, the willful:
Act drunk, stumble, touch his hand.

The volume serves as a worthwhile reminder of a history of the region which was a little more erotic, a little less sanitized by Victorian morality, and a little more folksy. Transcending the Orientalist’s fascination for ancient India and sexuality, these texts also provide us with women’s voices from a time and space where the archive doesn’t help us unearth much. These voices still read as contemporary and attest to the universal quality of sexual desire and the lover’s discourse, across time and space.

More than anything, the work is a testament to the fact that risqué works are not so novel indeed.

debarunDebarun Sarkar is a writer currently based in Calcutta, India.

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