The decision to publish a Hindi translation of Roberto Calasso’s Ka is an intriguing one. Rajkamal Prakashan have just completed work on the translation and while their representatives don’t think there will be a controversy, I don’t see how one can be avoided. To begin with, this is a less-than-conformist interpretation of ancient Indian texts by a non-Indian, now to be made available to a Hindi-reading audience: that combination alone should incense many of our renowned culture-guardians. Add to this Calasso’s taking a few liberties with the text of the Vedas – reshuffling the chronology of selected myths and using a novelistic framework to emphasise the "eternal cyclical tangle" that is Indian mythology.
And then of course there’s the sexual explicitness.
I’ve always been very interested in what our Gods really get up to in their antechambers when they aren’t being sanitised by the Hindutva brigade or turned into cardboard-cutout soap actors with Colgate smiles by Ramanand Sagar and others. So I was gladdened by, for instance, a passage in Ka where a marathon copulation session between Shiva and Parvati is interrupted by the other Gods nervously knocking on the bedroom door. Shiva strides to the door, opens it and is so bemused by the expression on the faces of the other celestial beings that he fails to notice that "his phallus was squirting out its seed". Lord Agni now lunges forward and takes said seed in his mouth, thereby saving the world from certain destruction.
Now I’m reasonably sure Calasso isn’t making any of this up, though he may have added a few creative flourishes of his own (Shiva smiles at the writhing Agni and says, "Isn’t that what you came here for?"). It’s been easy enough to read between the lines in the mythological texts I’ve encountered before this (even in the translations done by relatively conservative Indian scholars; cleaning up the language is one thing but you can’t bowdlerize all the raunchy bits without losing the essence of some of these stories).
Anyway, Ka has a few thrilling little moments like that one, along with has some long, dreary passages that read like they were written by a more erudite, more sophisticated Paulo Coelho. All told, however, if you have a lot of patience, you might want to check it out. I appreciated the retellings of some of the stories (especially the Garuda one), as I did Calasso’s view of the Mahabharata as "an overwhelming demonstration of the futility of conflict" (as opposed to a straightforward morality tale). And his central conceit – that of naming the book after the Rig Veda refrain "Who (Ka) is the god to whom we should offer our sacrifice?" – is also noteworthy.
I met Calasso yesterday, if you can call it a meeting. It was part of a generally bad day for me, one interview after another being delayed or scrapped – which meant several hours of running around with almost nothing to show for it. In Calasso’s case I had to wait nearly an hour because his appointment schedule, much like Shiva’s seed, had spilled over, and when my turn finally came he dusted me off after 10 minutes because a friend was waiting for him. In those 10 minutes we did talk a little about the sanitising of ancient texts and the doublethink in modern-day religious worship. Since we were both obviously on a Shiva trip, the subject also turned to how many devout people in contemporary Indian families don’t even know what the linga represents.
Sexual conservatism has been a part of India’s societal framework for a very long time, the reasons for it are many and complex and they go back a long way – and it’s difficult to outright condemn attitudes that have been ingrained in millions of families over centuries. But an even bigger problem in my view is the blind faith people have in traditions as they have been handed down to them. This affects their ability to be open-minded about religion, to see the often-dubious roots of the customs they take for granted. It also, crucially, builds up too many sacred cows and stilts their sense of humour. (Of course, much of this is my personal perspective as an atheist, but there are many believers who succeed in staying away from religious dogmatism even while continuing to maintain their own private faith in a higher power.)
All the best to Rajkamal for their new project, though I won’t be too surprised if it raises a few eyebrows, or even a minor storm, in the coming days.