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On “The Emperor of the Sorcerers (volume one)” and “The Emperor of the Sorcerers (volume two)” Sir James Mallinson

When it was first suggested that I translate the Emperor of the Sorcerers (Bṛhatkathāślokasaṃgraha) for the Clay Sanskrit Library, I knew next to nothing about the text. I had read parts of the Kathāsaritsāgara, which, like the Emperor of the Sorcerers, is a reworking of the now lost Great Story (Bṛhatkathā), but that was no preparation for the excitement and surprise that would grip me as I set about translating the Emperor of the Sorcerers. It is indeed a great story, as its Sanskrit title declares. Epic in scope and scale, it has everything that a great story should: adventure, romance, suspense, intrigue, tragedy and comedy.

Its intricacy and pace set it apart from any other Sanskrit epic I know. Even on the umpteenth re-read I'm still noticing how a verse picks up on a seemingly insignificant aside from ten chapters earlier. (One wonders how much more could be read into it if we still had the last three-quarters of the text.) It is also unusually homogeneous and hasn't suffered the intrusion of interpolation: Budha·svamin's laconic style remains consistent throughout. And how brilliantly terse it is! The narrative rattles along with no derailment for description, yet the characters and locations seem all the more alive for it. Occasional allusions show that Budha·svamin had a thorough grounding in the various sciences that made up the traditional brahmin education, but he never wears his learning on his sleeve. What he does display is a wonderfully wide acquaintance with all manner of people and places in the ancient Indian world. The action happens in cities like Ujjain, Varanasi, Champa and Madurai, in royal palaces and their harems and parks, in courtesans’ parlours and boudoirs, in merchants’ mansions, caravans and ships, in paupers’ hovels and slums, in outcastes’ villages, in ascetics’ hermitages, in cremation grounds, on festive pilgrimages, in gambling dens and in jungles, mountains and deserts. The incidental descriptions of these places suggest their authors’ personal acquaintance with them; presumably he is using his imagination when he tells tales of flying sorcerers’ mountain fortresses and the snake-people’s underwater cities.

Here Nara·váhana·datta visits a gambling den:

I took my leave of the chamberlain and went to the gaming-hall. It was packed with high-rollers intent on the dice, like a siege of herons at a lake, greedy to taste flesh. Two skilled players were rolling the dice when a die fell on its corner, leaving it unclear whether it was a four or a five.

“It’s a five, not a four!” ‘‘It’s a four, not a five!” The two of them started to argue, each wanting to beat the other.

One of them said, ‘‘Let’s ask someone impartial”, and the other agreed.

They asked a tall rustic fellow, ‘‘Which do you see showing -- the four or the five?”

Then the other man threw up his hands and cried, ‘‘This man is so tall he’s stupid. Let’s ask someone else”.

So he asked another man, a dwarf, but he too was rejected by the other gambler: ‘‘Men like him shouldn’t be asked -- midgets have all kinds of faults!”

Then they noticed me and asked politely, ‘‘Good sir, if you don’t mind, please remove our doubt. You are neither tall nor short, so you are wise, not malicious. Therefore, with your medium stature, please be our mediator.”

I thought, ‘‘It is difficult to make a decision about a dispute in a game, particularly between gamblers greedy for each other’s wealth. But those with a skill must show it: knowledge kept secret is as useless as money among the miserly. And skill at dice is not to be shown off anywhere other than among gamblers: the wise do not use their knowledge of harlotry anywhere other than in a brothel. Whoever wins the game will be my friend, and they say that winning a rich friend is better than finding a buried treasure.”

After much such deliberation, I explained to them at length the characteristics of eight-faced dice and the playing area. Then I put some fine brick dust on top of the die that had fallen on its corner whose value was in doubt. The brick dust that fell on the four all fell onto the ground; that on the five remained. As a result, I told them, ‘‘The side marked with five has its face uppermost because the dust has remained on it. That is my judgement.”

As I stood there after saying this, a spontaneous cry of ‘‘Bravo!” broke out all around.

The overall structure of the story is simple. Nara·váhana·datta, Kubéra’s son and the future emperor of the sorcerers, tells how he came by his majesty and his twenty-six wives. The story is thus demarcated by the winning of each wife. (The surviving manuscripts of the text break off while he is in pursuit of his sixth wife.) Within this simple structure, however, is a labyrinth of sub-plots and stories within stories. When I started translating, I thought I would embed dialogue within dialogue with sets of quotation marks in the usual manner. I realised when I had five sets lined up and another character starting to speak that this approach was not going to work. While translating verse by verse, I found that sometimes I would lose track of the story, so I have provided a plot synopsis in the introductions to each of the volumes. However, when read through at speed, the plot is easily followed.

The dialogue is not limited to the telling of tales. A constant theme is the banter between Nara·váhana·datta’s retinue of childhood friends, and it is here that the pithy humour of the work reveals itself most clearly:

‘‘There is also another, great, pleasure. It is not within reach of any of you, for you are like wooden men, the opposite of pleasure-seekers. Those who know the science of pleasure have described four types of people: highest, middling, lowest, and the fourth, the nobodies. Of these, I, Gomukha, am of the highest order, and his lordship is middling. I shall come to those of the low category. As for you fellows, you are nobodies.”

At this Maru·bhútika laughed derisively and said, ‘‘What a consummately courteous servant you are! You childish ox! You really are cow-faced [Gomukha means ‘cow-faced’]. Who with the face of a man would say such rubbish? ‘Gomukha is of the highest order and his lordship is middling’! Who would thus declare himself better than his master?”

Gomukha replied, ‘‘You are quite the idiot! You know nothing: one does not become a pleasure-seeker of the highest order simply by being a lord. A man who is both loved and loves is of the highest order, and I am thus. A man like his lordship who does not love but is loved is middle-ranking. A man who loves a woman who does not love him is said to be of the lowliest order. Men who are neither loved nor love are called nobodies. You should recognise as lovers those who have one of the attributes of the first three. Because you have none of those attributes, you are nobodies.”

Maru·bhútika put down his fly-whisk, and, almost bursting with curiosity, asked the boastful Gomukha, ‘‘This bee of a girl that seeks to enjoy the honey of our master’s manhood -- where is she? Describe her!”

He replied, ‘‘I shall tell the prince if he asks, not you, you grounded frog: one doesn’t pour sacrificial offerings into ash!”

Until now, the Emperor of the Sorcerers has only been available in Lacôte’s nearly hundred-year-old French translation and Poddar’s reasonably accurate but not very readable English translation, which was for sale in limited numbers in India. I hope that my translation will introduce the text to a new audience and give Budha·svamin’s masterpiece the recognition it deserves.