If there was a book that brings ancient India back to life, this must be it.
Kshemendra's Sanskrit classic, "Samaya Matrika" (The Courtesan's Keeper), presents the life and times of a Kashmiri hooker, more than a thousand years ago. For anybody who looks at the mess in Kashmir today this book is revelation of alternative realities that existed long before Islamic invaders, their pillaging and forced conversions transformed the valley into a completely different animal.
Written sometime between 990 - 1070 AD, the book begins - "In Kashmir, there was a famous town called Pravarapura (today's Srinagar). Its name is a byword for worldly pleasures."
The protagonist, Kalavati, is no ordinary hooker. She is a courtesan, a professional well versed in the arts, one who clearly understands the limitations set by an ageing body. When business takes a downturn she decides to seeks help from a friend who introduces her to an old, experienced lady who becomes her adviser, consultant and mentor.
The book brings to life a time when religion was a garment that was worn lightly. You could joke about Gods and their fallibility. It weaves humor and irreverence with homilies that would do AIB proud. Here are a few samples -
"One's youth must be devoted to a special, artful trade -- that of relieving the unintelligent of their money in various ways..."
"One who has money is honored by everyone...And the unlucky one who does not earn money, is always a malefic planet: the heartless Rahu, the slow-moving Shani and the crooked Mangala."
"Do not forget that youth, the friend of lovers, is ever passing. It disappears like the pretty spring creepers and the sun's warmth on the lotus pond; like the autumn moonlight...like a simpleton's money"Along with tricks of the trade, the narrative carries you through cities and towns that existed long ago, and gives you a glimpse into the lives of traders who crisscrossed various kingdoms with ease. A saffron trader brings his son along and the youngster cannot resist the temptation of making a show of his father's wealth. Scenes that have not doubt, been repeating every year for the past 1000 years!
Many of the places mentioned in the book still exist but with truncated names. Pratapapura is now Tapar, Vijayeshvara is now Vijabror and Parihasapura is the Paraspor of today.
The book also opens up a world of possibilities in Sanskrit literature which, for some odd reason, is now co-branded and fettered with religious texts.
It also makes you look at today's Kashmiri's in a completely new light, for it is difficult to imagine that the ancestors of burkha-clad women, the stone-pelting students and gun-totting jihadi's of Kashmir once lived in an altogether different world!
Amazon - http://www.amazon.in/Courtesans-Keeper-Samaya-Matrika/dp/0143421476
Search Kashmir in Bits and Pieces - http://www.searchkashmir.org/2012/09/ruins-of-parihaspura-i-govardanadhara.html