Shuka saptati or seventy Tales of the Parrot is a famous cycle of stories in Sanskrit literature. The tales are told by a pet parrot to its young mistress to distract he from going to a lover while her husband has gone abroad. These irreverent, sometimes ribald, always uninhinibited accounts of illicit liaisons, ensuing complications and clever escapes are set amidst the common life of towns and villages in India as it then was. This lively and faithful rendering is the first complete translation of the extant Sanskrit text from twelfth century. So far inaccessible to modern readers, it reveals a now little known, joyous, down to earth face of the ancient language.
The katha literature of Sanskrit is a treasure trove of wonderful stories of all kinds. Many, if not most, still await appropriate translation to bring them out of academic archives before today’s interested readership. Such exposure would also help to make better known the often neglected aspect of Sanskrit as popular literature whose reach went beyond feudal and clerical elites to a more general public. The present work will I hope open doors to others in this direction. My thanks to Rupa & Co for bringing out this new edition. Acknowledgement is also due to Sanjana Roy Choudhury for the initial response and to Pushpanjali Borooah for her cooperation in editing the proofs and arranging a new cover. I have taken the opportunity to make a few corrections and add some more notes, mainly about the sources of verses which embellish the prose text.
The Shuka Saptati is a part of the Kath literature of classical Sanskrit. This comprises a variety of stories, fables and narratives, sometimes in verse, but often in prose interspersed with gnomic stanzas. It is composed in relatively simple and direct language, in contrast to the more cultivated and refined styles which characterise classical kdvya literature. The latter, which includes the poetry and plays of Kalidasa, the prose of Bána, and the works of other celebrated writers, was written essentially for cultured and sophisticated audiences. The kath works catered to a wider cross-section. Best known today through the fables of the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesa, they also include romances, adventures and fantasies whose popularity and currency over the centuries is attested to by numerous recensions and adaptations into other Indian languages.
The Shuka Saptati stands out among kathá works not so much for its unusual themes of adultery and skullduggery, as for the earthiness with which they are treated in its tales. There are few circumlocutions or polite allusions in its references to sexual and other transgressions, and the language is often blunt, sometimes to the point of crude humor. This may have shocked the pioneering historians of Sanskrit literature. Interknits,’ who acknowledged the Shuka Saptati as one of ‘the most famous and popular narrative works of India’, warned that its contents ‘often verge to pornographically stories and some of them are outright obscene . Keith observed that the ‘tales are hardly edifying; about half of them deal with breaches of the marriage bond while the rest exhibit other instances of cunning.’ Indian scholars were more defensive in their comments. ‘However disreputable some of the stories may be,’ noted Dasgupta,3 ‘they are certainly smart and generally amusing.’ Krishnamachariar4 described them as ‘stories of erotic nature, but of ultimate didactic import.’
More recent authorities in India and abroad have categorized the work simply as ‘a collection of satiric mischievous wives’ tales’ , or a ‘lively cycle of attractive stories’ •6 Readers at the turn of the millennium may find all these descriptions excessive, and the tales comparatively commonplace; but the work remains a good example of the picaresque narrative in Sanskrit, a language which is now associated mainly with religious, philosophic or epic literature.
The structure of the Shuka Saptati is the traditional one of tales within tales. The frame story describes the wayward son of a merchant, who is converted to virtuous conduct by the wise talk of a parrot presented to him by his father. He then proceeds on a journey and entrusts the bird to his young wife’s care. She first pines for her husband, but is soon persuaded by friends to console herself with a lover. As she sets out for the rendezvous, the clever parrot endorses her intent provided she is as smart as the woman Lakshmi in extricating herself from any ensuing problems. The lady’s curiosity is aroused, and she stays at home, listening all night to the parrot’s tale about Lakshmi. This pattern is repeated for sixty-nine evenings, during which the bird continues to distract the heroine from going to meet a lover with tales of cunning escapes out of complicated situations. At the end of this period she is reunited with her husband,, her virtue intact, while the parrot, or shuka, edifies both with the last of its seventy or saptati tales, which emphasises the importance of forgiveness in marital concord.
Including the frame and an introductory story, there are altogether seventy-two tales in the Shuka Saptati. Some form a sequence of their own within the overall framework, for example, five tales about the riddle of the laughing fish (5 to 9), three about the tiger slayer (42 to 44), and two about the terrified ghost (46 and 47). Most are short by present- day standards, but some are longer than the others, like the tale of Govinda and the poison maiden (4), Rambhika and her reluctant lover (11), and the queen and the court poet of King Vikramaditya (57). Such stories are generally well rounded and include a number of homilies and aphorisms in
verse. Tale 57 also contains a good example of amassed party , the once popular practice of composing separate stanzas around a given maxim or refrain.
The rhythm of the longer stories is varied by shorter ones, such as those recounting the adventures of the intelligent Jayashri (52), the passionate Tejika (61), and Rukmini (59), who combined both qualities; and by others which are no more than brief anecdotes of ready wit, like those about the mustard thief (18), the ploughman (37), and the brahmin’s sari (34). Some others of this type, for example, tales 49, 63 and 68, are obscure and obviously incomplete in the form in which they have come down. Some otherwise well-formed tales, like 60 and 64, end abruptly, probably for the same reason. The cycle also includes animal fables like the well-known 31 and 67, and some stories containing fine descriptions in the kvya style of the summer (23), the spring (41), and the rains (57).
Winternitz7 considered that several Indian stories gained currency in world literature through works like the Shuka Saptati. He gave the example of tale 15 about the manipulated judgments, which appeared in Europe in Strasburg’s Tristan and Isled, and traced the motif to earlier Buddhist drakes. Such instances point to the existence of numerous floating stories which have periodically found their way into various katha’ compilations in India. Many Shuka Saptati stories can themselves be traced to other sources like the Kathdsarits4qara and the collections of fables already mentioned. A contemporary scholar8 has suggested that some of them are derived from the iterative work Nanda Prabodhana or Updkhyana, which centers gerunds the kings of that name who immediately preceded low Maryann empire in the fourth century BC, a’ which also natures the story of the laughing fish.
Equally interesting are the sources of the over three hundred stanzas in Sanskrit and Prakrit which occur in many china Saptati tales. The researches of Sternbach9 showed that hey include quotations from the epics and various pureness, the I’unchatantra and the Hitopadea, the Chanakya and Bhartrihari I anthologies, and also from well-known kdvya works like the Kunirasambhava of Kalidasa, the Mricchakatika of udraka, and the Mudrára’kshasa ofViákhadatta. Several quotations were later interpolations, for instance those from the Kama Sutra in tale 57 classifying lovers and beds. Two sources, the Mahabharata and the Kirdta’rjuniya of Bháravi, are identified in the text; the origin of some well-known stanzas has been indicated in the and notes. The sourcing and cross referencing of Kath stories and verses remains a fruitful field for further research.
The oldest known manuscript of the Shuka Saptati is from the fifteenth century AD. Academic opinion holds that the work was in existence long before it emerged in the form in which it is now available. One scholar traced it to the. sixth century AD. Another’2 suggested that it is referred to in the eleventh century treatise on poetics, the Shringdraprakdsha of Bhoja. More certain is its mention in Hem Chandra’s commentary on
the Yogashdstra, which was written after AD 1160. The Shuka Saptati is further known to have been adapted into Persian in AD 1329. Current scholarship dates it, as such, to not later than the second part of the twelfth century AD, though many of its stories may be much older.
The work is presently extant in two Sanskrit recessions. Their critical editions were prepared by the German scholar Richard Schmidt just over a hundred years ago, and termed by him as the simplifier and the oration texts. The first is attributed to a Shvetambara Jaina monk, and the second to the brahmin Chintamani Bhatta. Some scholars consider that the simplifier is probably older than the oration. It has a simple, sometimes abrupt style, with brief sentences and occasional condensation of the narrative to the point of obscurity. The oration is more elaborate and ornate. Both recessions contain over fifty common stories, but have differences in wording, names of some characters and verse quotations. Neither is considered the or-text. An eastern Rajasthani version of the Shuka Saptati has been recorded as derived from another Sanskrit recension by Devadatta, son of Purushottama Deva.
Translations of the work have a long history. The fourteenth century adaptation of the Sanskrit text into Persian has already been mentioned. This was the Tuti Namah of Ziya al-din Nakhshabi, which was abridged by Muhammad Qadiri in the seventeenth century under the same name, but confined to only thirty-five stories. The Nakhshabi version was also rendered into Turkish with the omission of some bawdy tales. A translation into German from the Persian in 1822 brought the work to the West. In India, versions exist in Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, eastern Rajasthani,Telugu and Urdu. Others have been recorded in Malay, Mongolian and Newari. There is a later imitation in Sanskrit, entitled Din6i9’panikc Shuka Saptati or The Seventy Tales of the Parrot in Daily Conversation. Translations into European languages exist in French, Greek, Hungarian, Polish and Russian, apart from several in German.
Qadiri’s Tuti Namah was translated from Persian into English by F. Gladwin at the end of the last century. B. Hale Wortham ‘s rendition of a selection of Shuka Saptati tales appeared in 1911 with the title The Enchanted Parrot. An examination of available records suggests that the present is the first translation of the complete work into English from the original Sanskrit.
The present translation is intended to make this ancient cycle of stories available to today’s readership in modern English. It has been prepared from the Sanskrit text published by the Chowkhamba Sanskrit Sense Office of Varanasi in 1966. That text is of the simplifier recession, though this detail has not been mentioned in its published version. It was brought out with commentaries in Sanskrit and Hindi by Pandit Ramakanta Tripathi, which the present translator has consulted with profit but not always followed.
Apart from the invocation, the stanzas interspersing the prose text of the Shuka Saptati are of three kinds: narrative, descriptive and gnomic. The first type have generally been rendered in prose to maintain continuity with the overall narrative of the stories. The others have been presented in verse form for closer correspondence with the original text. The translation of both the prose and the verse portions endeavors to combine fidelity to the text with requirements of the English idiom, and some explanatory language for esoteric words like vishakanya’. It also attempts to convey something of the flavor of the original, which may account for the occasional use of archaisms, especially in the prose renderings. Some repetitious phrases, like those which conclude most stories, have occasionally been recast to provide variety. Each story has also been given a title for ready reference.
In the transliteration of names, those which are still current have been spelt in keeping with modern usage, for example ‘Madan Vinod’, and not ‘Madana Vinoda’. Others have been treated in accordance with academic practice, except that diacritics have been used only to indicate long vowels.
To translate the Shuka Saptati was a fascinating experience. The language is simple and unembellished, but the best stories are notable for their human insight and earthy humor, succinctness of presentation and suddenness of impact. Their cynical depiction of human propensities gives them a universal dimension despite the unacceptability of the attitude towards women projected in some stories. Set in scenes varying from royal courts to market places, and urban centers to village communities, they also provide an absorbing social documentation of ancient Indian conditions.
I am grateful to Renuka Chatterjee, Editor-in-Chief of HarperCollins Publishers India for her ready response which encouraged me to undertake this translation. I would also like to thank Arpita Das for helping to edit the copy for publication and Oroon Das for designing the cover. Special appreciation is due to my son Vikram and his wife Annika for their computer assistance at a crucial juncture. Above all, I thank my wife Priti for her careful review as away of my drafts, and for her unstinting support in this as in all my endeavours.
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