South Asia is a literary universe unto itself. It is home to hundreds of languages intersecting in multiple ways with history, ritual, and traditions of the classical Sanskrit as well as vernacular orality. In Sensitive Reading: The Pleasures of South Asian Literature in Translation, editors Yigal Bronner and Charles Hallisey put together a set of texts from multiple languages translated by renowned Indologist David Shulman (along with works of music as well as a work of visual art). The chosen texts all to a greater or lesser extent deal with love—declarations of love, desire, longing, love for the divine, and the pain of separation. Their curation brings together the classics from the ancient and medieval periods in Indian history with a smattering of works closer to the present—19th and 20th centuries.
However, the volume is more than a mere anthology. The editors also present essays by various experts, some of whom read a text as “near” readers (readers familiar with the original text, language, and literary tradition) and the others who read it as “far” readers (readers who approach the text from perspectives other than an attempt at close reading).
Each excerpt identified by Shulman and the editors is uniquely suited to the exercise of reading. For instance, one text is an excerpt from the Malayalam text Naishadha in Our Language, a late 16th or early 17th century poem based on the Sanskrit poem about two people falling in love without ever having met or seen each other. The story finds a brief mention in the Mahabharata but has also been retold in various languages at different points in time. The excerpt selected by Bronner and Hallisay is about the two lovers Nala and Damayanti, unable to sleep:
[Nala, lovesick, tries to divert himself in his garden:]
puffs of wind were scooping up and scattering
dust of pollen, more and more,
blowing them here and there,
but what was amazing was the way
they lit the fire of love
in his heart
like the dry sap of the payin tree
that bursts into flame when you blow on it.
In that garden, the generals of Desire –
the cuckoos and others – taking note of Nala’s
long-standing, bitter enmity with their master
and imagining, in their minds, that this was the last
chance Desire could defeat him, issued a clarion call
to a final, fateful battle.
In her essay on the text, the “near reader” Sivan Goren-Arzony, a scholar of Malayalam literature, provides some context to explain the unusual bit about people falling in love without having had any contact before:
Speech in South Asia’s many literary cultures is a uniquely powerful entity, even a divinity. It is capable not only of making two people who have never met fall desperately in love but also of conveying their story in such a compelling and powerful way that listeners and readers experience a singular sense of happiness, even if, like us, they are removed from it by hundreds of years.
She points out that the excerpt as captured in Shulman’s translation accomplishes the feat of making it all credulous by laying bare the lovers’ inner world. Dreaming and daydreaming about the beloved is captured in such intimacy and detail that the reader can set aside the formal requirement of the lovers’ encounter prior to drowning in such passion.
On the other hand, the “far reader” Meir Shahar reads the Malayalam text in comparison with the Chinese classic The Peony Pavilion. He finds both the Malayalam poet (Malamangala Kavi) and the Chinese poet (Tang Xianzu) to be similar in the way they invest in “the role of mental construction in the experience of love” showing their protagonists languishing “from desire to creatures of their own imaginings”. Both the poets roughly lived at the same time and both have a blooming garden as a setting of love. Shahar cites one example from the Chinese poem:
[I am the] Commissioner of the Flowers’ Blooming,
come with new [Spring] season
from Heaven of Blossom Guard
to fulfill springtime’s labors.
Drenched in red petal rain
the beholder, heart-sore,
anchors his yearnings
amid the clouds of blossom.
To summarize Shahar’s comparison:
The resonance of the Naishadha in Our Language and The Peony Pavilion extends from the imagery of the garden to the centrality of mental construction in the experience of love. Nala and Du Liniang both fall in love long before they ever meet the objects of their desire. In this respect, the Malayalam and the Chinese poets similarly explore the origins of love in the depths of one’s self. Malamangala Kavi and Tang Xianzu shy not emphasizing that their protagonists are enamored of the creatures of their own imagination. Nala is brought to the brink of death by love sickness to a woman he never met face to face, and Du Liniang perishes from unrequited cravings for a man that appeared in her dreams alone. That they are figments of the imagination does not diminish the pain of longing for them. Psychologically, the imagined beloved is as real as the flesh and blood one.
All the texts and the essays in Sensitive Reading demonstrate to the reader that an encounter with a work in translation is not “a kiss through the veil” but a form of reading in the sense of “one’s own mind dancing with another’s”. The editors of the volume capture this dance:
The near essays often seem to aim at a certainty about their resulting interpretation and to provide reassurance that it is correct. Indeed, they do give us good reasons to feel confident about what they say about the meanings of the text. By contrast, the far essays, in all their variety, relish the new possibilities of understanding and insight that become present once the initial obstacles on the way into the texts are overcome. In the near essays, definite interpretations hold our attention; in the far ones, the new possibilities of meaning invite us to go further.
Those accessing South Asian literature in English translation will find in the collection plenty of scope for reflection on how to read this diverse body of work without worrying about what is lost in the process of translation and without bothering being familiar with the contexts of time, space and literary conventions. Both near and far readings of texts constitute a sort of compass of reading—bringing one closer to the text and its twists while also helping one zoom out and comparing the text with a piece from a different tradition and time. The book might even be a way to challenge the readers to come up with their own readings zooming in and out of texts and exploring South Asian expressions of love and other values with those from elsewhere.