The Devil Take Love by Sudhir Kakar
If you have ever wondered about the lives of Sanskrit poets in ancient India and how they lived in the towns and cities. Cities that they keep alive in their poetry. Wonder how eras have gone by and the poets are gone and the cities cannot be distinguished from any other place in the country. The Devil Take Love is an account you need to read. Poet Bhartrihari in the 7th CE Ujjaiyani – when it was at the peak of its wealth and fame. When Ujjaiyani was known for its grand palaces, festivals and of course the temples of Mahakaal and Kamadeva. Mahakaal continues to be the center of Ujjain even today, but I am not sure if the temple of Kamadeva still exists.
The language of this book is its best part. Sudhir Kakar has managed to bring the quality of Sanskrit in English. It is lyrical, interspersed with various poems of Bhartrihari and captures the nuances of Sanskrit so well in English. Moreover, you can hear the sounds of Uajjaiyani. You almost feel you are a part of the city witnessing the life and times of Bhartrihari. If you have read Meghdootam of Kalidasa, the visuals of Ujjain from that poem get expanded and detailed in this narration. It’s as if the messenger cloud of Kalidasa decides to spend some time in Ujjain to collect some stories. Or to drink the Rasa that was the unique characteristic of this city. The same rasa pours through the pen of Kakar for us.
As portraiture of the ancient city of Ujjaiyani – The Devil Take Love is brilliant. Furthermore, It will also invoke love for Sanskrit poetry for those who are yet to taste it or have not tasted it for a while. I did go back to my Meghdootam to refer to what Bhartrihari was mentioning about Kalidasa’s work. And that added the whole new dimension to the experience of reading this book.
As someone who has lived in multiple cities, this excerpt from the book touched a chord –
The first impressions of a city are the face it presents to the world. A city’s character reveals itself gradually, not to the visitor but to someone who will stay for a while without regarding himself as its citizen. For the citizen, it is more difficult to view the city of his birth with detachment since its soul has permeated his own.
As a story, The Devil Take Love is the story of a poet who gets success pretty early in life. He indulges in all that life has to offer him and at some point, he realizes the futility of material world and starts retreating inward and starts detaching from the world. He marries, he cheats, he gets cheated. Basically, he goes through all the emotions that a man potentially can. What he feels comes across in his poetry. Whether it is the lust for a female body in his youth, or the need to be in the inner circle of the king during his working life. Or a need to be with a woman whom he feels close to. Or to go to a cave and live a solitary life.
Hence to me, it is a journey of human life. Maybe the author presents Bhartrihari’s life as an exaggerated version of the average human life. More or less all of us go through this cycle of running after Maya and eventually running away to get rid of it. But can you give up Maya as a human? Do you really get over all your emotions? Does solitary living provide the answers you are looking for? Most importantly, can these tales help us in making our lives better? There are no answers, but a lot of these questions that the story leaves you with. Questions that you may be trying to escape.
Highly recommended read for anyone interested in ancient India and history, Sanskrit, Poetry and good writing…