Tara Sheemar Malhan. 2017.
Plunging the Ocean: Courts, Castes, and Courtesans in the Kathāsaritsāgara
Delhi: Primus Books
How gender might be a useful analytic category to write history has been a focal point of inquiry for historians at least since Joan Scott’s seminal article ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’ in 1986. Tara Sheemar Malhan confronts this challenge in Plunging the Ocean. This book is her first monograph – a revision of her dissertation submitted to the Center for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2010. Drawing on Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s work on the production of social space, Malhan undertakes an in-depth analysis of the Kathāsaritsāgara (Ocean of Rivers of Stories) – a monumental narrative composed in the Sanskrit language, to argue that the experience of space is gendered. The Kathāsaritsāgara was composed in Kashmir in northern India in the 11th century by Somadeva, a poet at King Ananta’s court. It professes to be a retelling of a seventh part of a grand story about sorcerers’ adventures first narrated by the Hindu deity Śiva to please his wife, Pārvatī. It contains more than twenty thousand verses in which it narrates three hundred and fifty tales. While the grand story is lost, the Kathāsaritsāgara is one of three Sanskrit retellings of the ‘urtext’ surviving today.
In the core chapters of Plunging the Ocean that are framed by the introduction and epilogue, Malhan thematically dissects numerous stories from the Kathāsaritsāgara and investigates gendered dimensions in the representation of social space, economy, polity, religion, and premarital, marital, and extramarital relations. Gender emerges as a ‘fundamental organizing principle of society’ (p. 1). In writing this history, her aim is to make women central in a way that unearths a complex world of gender relations and takes us beyond ‘simplistic notions of normative subordination’ (p. 24). Although she analyzes the world inside the text, she is primarily interested in the world outside the text, that is, in the royal courts of early medieval Kashmir. According to her, this is the context in which the Kathāsaritsāgara stories must be read. To buttress this contention, she frequently compares royals and toponyms mentioned in the Kathāsaritsāgara with data culled from two key Sanskrit texts from Kashmir: the late first millennium Nīlamata Purāṇa and the 12th century chronicle Rājataraṅgiṇī. In adopting this approach to the Kathāsaritsāgara, she situates her work amid scholars who have studied literary texts with attention to their social contexts and historical data that can be mined from them.
Since the Kathāsaritsāgara is a lesser studied Sanskrit classic – neglect is evinced by the fact that only one complete English translation completed in 1880 exists – Malhan is to be commended for undertaking this study. The appendices – especially lists of occupations and proper names of characters analyzed with respect to space, caste, class, and gender – will be useful for scholars interested in etymologies and genealogies. Most recent studies of early medieval Kashmir have focused on aesthetic theory, literary culture, philosophical exegeses, religious revivals, and expressions of sovereignty. Malhan’s attention to gender is an important corrective.
Despite its accomplishments, Malhan’s book has a few shortcomings. First, Malhan repeatedly notes that the tales embedded in the Kathāsaritsāgara were narrated numerous times. In her view, this ‘betray[s] a consciousness about the timelessness of the tales … irrelevance about their origin, place or time’ (p. 9). Paradoxically, such statements undermine her efforts to situate the Kathāsaritsāgara in space and time. Second, Malhan’s privileging of social history and her neglect of the work’s aesthetics and poetics raises an elementary question: why undertake an ambitious investigation of historical constructions and representations of gender through a study of the Kathāsaritsāgara and not, for example, through a large-scale analysis of the epigraphical record? Third, no evidence is provided for the proposition that the immediate courtly context of the Kathāsaritsāgara’s composition ‘influenced the choice of, and the manner of composition of the stories’ (p. 23). In this reviewer’s estimate, an investigation of the intertextual context might illuminate the vast literary terrain that this great ocean of stories is held within. Fourth, Malhan’s ultimate conclusion that the Kathāsaritsāgara embodies not a singular perspective on any one matter but a plurality of viewpoints is insufficiently developed and leads her reader to wonder what strands hold this great ocean of stories together. Finally, while Malhan’s copious references to secondary scholarship are valuable, what is frequently buried is her own perspective and a critical engagement with the scholars she cites. I wonder how she positions herself with respect to Daud Ali, Hermann Kulke, Romila Thapar, Upinder Singh, and others? Where do her arguments lie vis-à-vis the work of Devika Rangachari, Kumkum Roy, and importantly, Wendy Doniger whose considerable corpus of scholarship has been barely acknowledged? Malhan also mentions in passing an important essay by Rangachari, ‘Gender Relations in Early Medieval Kashmir’, but does not discuss its arguments and implications for her own work.
These disagreements aside, Plunging the Ocean is a valuable study. It will be useful to scholars of literature, religion, and history for many decades and will encourage a renewed interest in this masterpiece of Sanskrit literature.