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  • On Makeshift Bedding
  • Translated by Andrew Schelling (bio)

mañce romāñcitāṅgī ratimṛditatanoḥ karkaṭīvāṭikāyāṃkāntasyāṅge pramodād ubhayabhujapariṣvakta kaṇṭhe nilīnāpādena preṅkhayantī mukharayati muhuḥ pāmarī pheravānāṃrātrāvutrāsahetor vṛtiśikharalatālambinīṃ kambumālām

  • mañce. (loc.) on a platform couch or bed

  • romāñcitāṅgī. (bv.cmp.) with hair bristling on (her) limbs

  • ratimṛditatanoḥ. (bv. cmpd.) the youth exhausted with lovemaking

  • karkaṭī. cucumber

  • vāṭikāyāṃ. in the garden

  • kāntasyāṅge. (bv. cmpd.) to (her) lover’s body

  • pramodād. from pleasure

  • ubhaya. both

  • bhuja. desire

  • pariṣvakta. embraced, encircled

  • kaṇṭhe. around his neck

  • nilīnā. clinging to, enwrapping

  • pādena. with a foot

  • preṅkhayantī. rattling, jostling

  • mukharayati. (she) jangles

  • muhuḥ. now and again, repeatedly

  • pāmarī. tribal girl

  • pheravāṇāṃ. of jackals

  • rātrau. in the night

  • trāsa. fear, fright

  • hetoḥ. for the purpose

  • vṛtiśikharalatālambinīṃ. (bv. cmpd. with necklace) fence-post-vine hanging

  • kambu. shell

  • mālām. necklace [End Page 24]

On makeshiftbedding in the cucumbergarden,the hill-tribe girlclings to herexhausted lover.Limbs still chafingwith pleasure, dissolvingagainst him shenow and again withone bare footjostles a shell necklacethat hangs from avine on the fence—rattling itthrough the night,scaring the jackals off.

Vidyā is the earliest known and in many ways the preeminent woman poet of Sanskrit. A Western scholar once called her “the Sappho of India.” Her poem unfolds in a precise succession of images: the bed (a mañca is a raised platform in a field where a watchman is stationed to keep cattle or birds from damaging the crops), then the girl’s bristling skin, her lover, the cucumber garden. Then her foot, night, invisible jackals, and the rattling shell necklace. How strange the jackals seem. I know of no comparable poem in the Sanskrit tradition.

The word here for jackal is not the common sṛgāla (source of our English word jackal) but a mimic word that approximates their sound: phe-rava (howl-crier). The golden jackal (Canis aureus) is widespread in India. It inhabits an ecological niche similar to that of the North American coyote, moving mostly at night, around the edges of villages, through the fields—a creature of inbetween spaces, a marauder, a thief. The lovers are vivid, lit by the poem’s images. Everything is dark—in the fields far from the village—and full of menace. How precious, how fragile, the meeting of lovers. Vidyā seems to say we have only the passion of our relationships—a vulnerable sphere of closeness and comfort. Otherwise, “the darkness surrounds us” with its unseen peril. [End Page 25]

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 the Turning Seasons: India’s Poetry of Spiritual and Erotic Longing (forthcoming from Counterpoint Press). Living on the Front Range of Colorado, he is active on land-use issues and teaches at Naropa University. He also teaches regularly at Deer Park Institute, in India’s Himalayan foothills.



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