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My Breasts at First

From: Manoa
Volume 25, Issue 2, 2013
pp. 16-18 | 10.1353/man.2013.0091

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

rohantau prathamaṃ mamorasi tava prāptau vivṛddhiṃ stanau
    saṃllāpās tava vākyabhaṃgimilanānmogdhyaṃ paraṃ tyājitāḥ
ghātrīkaṇṭham apāsya bāhulatike kaṇṭhe tavāsañjite
    nirdākṣiṇya karomi kinnu viśikhāpy eṣā na panthās tava

  • rohantau. budding

  • prathamaṃ. at first

  • mamorasi. on (your) chest

  • tava. your

  • prāptau. against

  • vivṛddhiṃ. growing up

  • stanau. breasts

  • saṃllāpās. conversation

  • tava. with you

  • vākya. speech

  • bhaṃgi. mode, manner

  • milanān. coming together

  • mogdhyaṃ. innocence, simplicity

  • paraṃ. next

  • tyājitāḥ. abandoned

  • ghātrī. nursemaid’s

  • kaṇṭham. neck

  • apāsya. having released

  • bāhulatike. (these) arms (also creepers)

  • kaṇṭhe. on (your) neck

  • tava. your

  • āsañjite. clung

  • nirdākṣiṇya. deceiver, devious one

  • karomi kinnu. I can do what?

  • viśikhā. road, neighborhood

  • api-eṣā. this

  • na. is not

  • panthās tava. your path

My breasts at first
little buds
grew plump under your hands.
My speech
instructed by yours
lost its native simplicity.
What shall I do?
These arms
left my old nursemaid’s neck
to creep around yours,
but you no longer
    set foot in the neighborhood.

For centuries the Amaruśataka (Hundred Poems of Amaru, ca. ninth century) has been attributed to a poet named Amaru. However, seventy of the poems appear in Vidyākara’s Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa (see page 5), most of them credited to other poets. Vidyākara compiled his anthology in the eleventh century, so it seems likely the Amaruśataka is also an early anthology. Western scholars have tended to regard it as a collection, but many people in India know it as a single poem-cycle composed by one author.

The legend that accompanies the poems in the Amaruśataka gives them curious metaphysical weight. The renowned religious reformer Shankara (ca. eighth century)—whose philosophical writings loom as large as anyone’s in India—was engaging an opponent in public debate. He was roundly beating his rival when his opponent’s wife stepped in. She silenced Shankara with a series of clever metaphysical questions couched in the language of sexual love. Shankara, celibate and inexperienced in the art of love, could not answer. He asked for a hundred nights to prepare a response. Leaving the stage, he gathered some close students and entrusted them with his body while, through powers of yoga, he projected his spirit-self into the body of Amaru, a recently deceased king of Kashmir. The corpse, lying on the pyre awaiting cremation, wakened to life.

For a hundred nights, Shankara studied love with Amaru’s harem girls. During this time, he memorialized his experiences in lyrics—one for each night of bittersweet pleasure. After the hundredth night had lapsed—and he’d thrown in a few more for luck—Shankara returned to his own body. I suppose he left Amaru’s corpse to its fate. Reentering the hall of debate, he vanquished his female opponent. He later committed to writing the poems that had sealed his victory, signing them with Amaru’s name.

While the Amaru collection has poems of romantic tenderness, humor, tangy eroticism, and playful lovemaking, more poems treat the other side: separation, anguished longing, jealousy, betrayal, searing heartache, and the like.

Andrew Schelling  

Andrew Schelling, born in 1953 at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington, D.C., has written, edited, or translated twenty books. Early opposition to American involvement in Vietnam, plus an encounter with India’s texts, set him on a lifelong engagement with Asian literature. He studied Sanskrit at the University of California at Berkeley, and began to translate from its classical poetry tradition around 1978. His first book, Dropping the Bow: Poems of Ancient India, received the Academy of American Poets translation award in 1992, the first time the Academy had honored work done from an Asian language. Schelling’s own poetry and essays emerge from the Southern Rocky Mountain bioregion in which he lives. Recent books of poetry wrangle with the Arapaho language as a way of reading landscape and the natural cycles; they include From the Arapaho Songbook and A Possible Bag. He has edited The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature and Love and...

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