Book Review: The Courtesan’s Keeper by Kshemendra


“This feast of smiles was put together giving the secret strategies and all the tricks of courtesans.”

I remember buying this book from the airport three years ago, wanting to read this on my flight back home. I couldn’t read it then. I don’t know if it was the slight poetic language or the story that didn’t catch my interest. 

My thoughts are still the same after finally finishing reading it today.

The Courtesan’s Keeper is translated by A.N.D. Haksar to English from the original Kshemendra’s Sanskrit work ‘Samaya mātrikā (समय मातृका)’ based around 2nd-century C.E.

The story revolves around a courtesan named Kalavati in Pravaraputra, modern day Srinagar who is in distress as her guardian (also her grandmother) is dead. As a result, her business is suffering. She confides this to her friend Kanka, who is a local barber. Kanka advises her to get a replacement, someone who can act as her guardian and teaches her about life and its ways. He recommends an old lady whose present name is Kankali. Her name was different at her birth and has changed her name many times. During her life, she moved from place to place and had many life experiences. With a new place came a new name and a new personality. This way, she also had accumulated a lot of wealth – both in terms of coins and knowledge. Kanka is convinced that she could be the perfect choice to help Kalavati and requests Kankali to accept her as her daughter. She agrees.

It’s interesting to see how Kshemendra chose to write a story about a life of a courtesan and their lives in a time when I believed people were more orthodox. There is an entire chapter dedicated to what Kankali refers to as ‘eighty types of passion’ that a courtesan needs to learn to identify in dealing with men, which I found fascinating. The story also gives a glimpse of what it was like during the 2nd century C.E Kashmir. It mentions influences from China and Turkey and also prosperous cities of those times such as Varanasi and Pataliputra.

I would recommend this book to Sanskrit students or to someone who wants to read the works written around 980-1130 C.E Kashmir. For the rest, this seems like an average breezy short poetic book to read if you want to catch a flight (or not).

Also read: More book reviews and How I Turned Into A Reader

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