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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



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To purchase Vāsavadattā

Title: Vāsavadattā
Author: Subandhu
Genre: Novel
Written: ca. 6th cent. (Eng. 1913)
Length: 195 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: Vāsavadattā - US
Vāsavadattā - UK
Vāsavadattā - Canada
  • Sanskrit title: वासवदत्ता
  • A Sanskrit Romance
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Louis H. Gray
  • Includes the (transliterated) Sanskrit text
  • Also translated (or rather: "abridged and retold") by Vishwanath S. Naravane, in Three Novels from Ancient India (1982), and Harinath De (posthumously published, 1994)
  • Published as volume 8 in the Columbia University Indo-Iranian Series

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Our Assessment:

B : solid attempt to re-present the fascinating original

See our review for fuller assessment.

  • "The work has been compared not inaptly to one of India's temples, where the outline is lost under the amazing delicacy of traceries. The equivoke is possible, only because the author is a perfect model of the Gauda style, whose distinguishing features are the love for long compounds, the heaping up of epithets, forcible and resonant sounds rather than smoothness and delicacy, alliteration, etymologising, and hyperbole. He displays a baffling acquaintance with all the lore of his day, which enables him to confound even his commentators by the subtlety of his mythological allusions and his references to facts of nature or human life, and he employs a varied and rechercé vocabulary, and the most varied figures of sound and sense, but above all alliteration. The punning is incessant" - A. Berriedale Keith, Classical Sanskrit Literature (1923)

  • "(O)ne of the most extraordinary works in Sanskrit literature. (...) A rather slight love story, the novella is almost a Sanskrit Finnegans Wake in the density of its language: nearly every word is a pun -- even a double or triple pun -- extended metaphors reach Himalayan heights, and many sentences carry double meanings (.....) (E)nough of Subandhu's story emerges from his complex raga of language to allow an appreciation of his achievement." - Steven Moore, The Novel: An Alternative History - Beginnings to 1600 (2010)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Subandhu's Vāsavadattā, which probably dates to the sixth century, is, as translator Louis H. Gray notes in his lengthy Introduction: "the oldest romantic novel in India". There are a number of Sanskrit works of prose fiction (often with interspersed poetry) -- notably also Daṇḍin's What Ten Young Men Did -- but the literature is mainly known for its plays and poetry, with even narrative works often in (epic) verse; as was also the case elsewhere until fairly recently, the prose-novel was the exception.
       Vāsavadattā is unusual in that it is so much a language-focused work of prose: it does tell a (slight) story but, as Gray suggests, was: "apparently being written to display its author's skill in rhetoric, rather than his inventive powers in fiction". Considering how it might be appraised, literarily, Gray (writing in 1913 ...) suggests:

Here the 'personal equation' must inevitably play a part, and here the fundamental difference between Oriental and Occidental concepts must be duly recognised. In the West the subject-matter comes first in nearly every form of literary composition; and the more tense and nervous the people, the more simple and direct is the style. In the East, on the contrary, the form is often more important than the matter, especially in periods of hyper-civilisation, such as was that during which Subandhu wrote. We must, therefore, consider the Vāsavadattā from the luxuriant atmosphere of the land of its author, not from the 'practical' point of view of the West.
       Gray suggests the story was quite secondary, merely a frame on which Subandhu could let loose -- to overflowing -- his fanciful language-play (unlike, for example, What Ten Young Men Did, which is certainly more story-focused -- much less even the few Greek and Latin novels from before this time). Leaving aside the debate about just how much story there is to it, Vāsavadattā is nevertheless in this respect stunningly modern, and far ahead of its times: limited earlier examples aside, only in the twentieth century do we find a true shift towards prose-fiction in which language and style are similarly at the fore, and where plot is seen as only part of what is to be valued.
       As to the style of the writing, Gray explains:
     The slender thread of narrative in the Vāsavadattā is embellished with many forms of literary adornment, which, indeed, constitute by far the major portion of the work. First and foremost among these embellishments stands the śleṣa [श्लेष] or 'paronomasia'
       This is a kind of punning, allowing for double- and even multiple meanings to a word or phrase, which Sanskrit lends itself to particularly well -- and Vāsavadattā is certainly meant to display Subandhu's remarkable skillfulness in employing it. Of course, this is not something that translates easily; Gray's solution is to indicate instances of paronomasia in the text by marking the words with the characters: "〈 〉" -- doubling or trebling them in the (many) instances where the pun works on more than one level.
       This leads to passages in the translation that read (leaving aside the footnote-notations ...):
possessed a 〈sweet koel-voice〉 pleasing the ear, expanded 〈love〉, gave a 〈charming colour to women〉, 〈delighted in learned sages〉, possessed 〈good fortune〉 easy for all to gather, spread abroad an abundance of 〈gold〉, and surpassed his 〈foes〉, while the damsels were filled with a thousand 〈〈anxieties〉〉, were sought by 〈〈lovers〉〉, were charming because of their 〈〈coral necklaces〉〉, and were at the 〈〈wanton age〉〉.
       Much of the text is like this -- suggestive of the additional layers to the language, but only able to hint at it, with the vast majority of the footnotes providing variant-information (of other source-editions) rather than elucidation. Regrettably, too, the Sanskrit original is here printed not facing the English translation but rather appended to the text, an entirely separate section, making comparison less easy than one might wish. (With breaks numbered in the text, it is at least easy to find the corresponding place.) Even more regrettably: the Sanskrit text is transliterated, rather than printed in the original devanagari script; Fitzedward Hall's edition can be consulted online, but comparison with that gets really arduous .....
       The actual story is, indeed, fairly basic: a prince, Kandarpakētu, sees a beautiful woman in a dream:
a damsel about eighteen years of age with her hips girt round with the bond of a girdle which was the gate of the city of delight of her thighs; which was the golden rampart of the great treasure-house of the city of joy; which was a trench for the line of the tendril of down
       He is completely taken with the beauty -- but, of course, wakes: "sleep, which he had long served, became jealous and deserted him". The vision is lost, and a desperate Kandarpakētu leaves his home in search of the dream-woman. Eventually he overhears two parrots, who tell of a princess Vāsavadattā -- who has: "reached maturity" but "has remained averse to marriage in her youth". Her father grows more insistent, presenting her with suitable suitors from all over -- none of which can win her over. Instead, she too has a dream -- learning of the perfect mate: "he is named Kandarpakētu, the son of a king named Cintāmaṇi. And even in sleep she heard his name and the like".
       She knows he is her chosen one:
thinking of Kandarpakētu as if he were carven on her heart, which was emptied of all its faculties, as if he were engraved there, inlaid, riveted, swallowed up, joined by strongest cement, entered into the frame of her bones, within her vitals, flecked with her marrow's pith, enveloped in her breath, placed in her inmost soul, liquefied in her sheltering blood, distributed through her flesh; as if mad, as if deaf, as if dumb, as if listless, as if abandoning all her faculties, as if swooning, as if blasted by a planet, as if surrounded by a series of the billows of the sea of youth, as if enveloped by the bonds of love, as if pierced by Kama's flowery arrows, as if reeling from the venom of the thought of love, as if shaken by the arrows of the contemplation of beauty, as if bereft of life by the winds of Malaya
       (Such long run-on descriptions are another hallmark of Subandhu's text and style, different from the punning but also to good effect.)
       Vāsavadattā of course wants to be united with Kandarpakētu, and endeavors to seek him out; her father meanwhile has enough and wants to marry her off. The couple come together -- only to, of course, be separated, a despairing Kandarpakētu then coming close to the final solution: "abandoning my body here, I shall quench the fire of separation from my love"; only a heavenly voice, promising: "again, at no long time, shall there be union of thee with thy beloved". It takes months, but, yes, the inevitable happy ending comes to pass.
       Somewhat oddly paced, the story can also seem forced in parts, some of the devices (like the parrots) rather more far-fetched than perhaps necessary. A more practiced story-teller might have spun out other parts of the tale, such as the attempts to marry off Vāsavadattā, at greater length, and also to link the pieces better -- some of the leaps are abrupt -- but on the other hand, Subandhu's descriptive power impresses even in the often awkward English rendering.
       Like Vāsavadattā herself -- "Thus speaking in phrases manifold, she swooned" -- the short novel is rich, arguably overripe. Subandhu's delight in language does come across sufficiently, even as much is obviously lost to the English reader; much of the lush description (and even some of Gray's somewhat tortured renderings) is quite enchanting. Gray warns that some of the descriptions are: "cloying in their abundance", and while this probably isn't a style most readers could bear at greater length, or in more of their books, it is so different from most of what we read that, as a one-off, is readily appreciated and even thoroughly enjoyed.
       Gray also notes that it is often rather ... explicit, and while his rendering holds back on that some, it's impossible to keep this aspect of the narrative in check, which is also for the best: certainly for modern readers, this is part of the pleasure of the text. It is, however, amusing to see Gray try to frame it to make it more acceptable for the audience of his time in defending/explaining the work:
It is not pornographic ; it is, at worst, unmoral, though its rigid adherence to all conventions, both in letter and, I think, in spirit, renders even unmorality almost too harsh an accusation. From an Indian point of view, unlightened by the radiance of Christianity and the morality which it inculcates, I should not hesitate to term the Vāsavadattā a moral work, especially in view of the conditions of life in mediaeval India. Its atmosphere, luxuriant though it be, has never seemed to me to be debasing.
       Even in this rendering, the Vāsavadattā is well worth reading, but I have rarely come across a(n important) text more urgently in need of a modern translation. Other renderings exist, but Vishwanath S. Naravane's, in Three Novels from Ancient India, is: "abridged and retold", which would seem to miss the point, while Harinath De's, while only more recently published, dates to roughly the same times as Gray's and likely takes a similar approach (I have not seen either of these versions). From a much freer, more creative rendering to a thoroughly annotated one, the potential for a translator here is great; here's hoping that one -- or several -- take up the (daunting) challenge.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 May 2020

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Vāsavadattā: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Subandhu (वासवदत्ता) probably lived around the sixth century.

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