Shazea Quraishi’s “The Courtesans Reply”

Wall paintings from the Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra (Image: Rob Packer)

Wall paintings from the Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra (Image: Rob Packer)

I first came across Shazea Quraishi at the Poetry Parnassus festival in London in 2012, where she read poems from the perspective of courtesans in ancient India. They were engaging and lyrical, but it was a review of the pamphlet, The Courtesans Reply on John Field’s Poor Rude Lines blog that jogged my mind to get in touch with Shazea and order the pamphlet (yes, those blog contact forms do work).

The sequence is Quraishi’s response to the ancient Indian texts from the first millennium BC, especially the Caturbhānī, four Sanskrit monologue plays from the 3rd century BC (she explains a little more about these monologues here), as well as the more famous Kāma Sūtra. The bulk of the pamphlet is given over to persona poems, where Quraishi gives her courtesans names, personalities and voices with which to respond—it’s perhaps worth remembering that the “reply” of the title is an active verb.

The sequence opens with a poem called “The Sixty-Four Arts”, which sets the stage for learned, trained courtesans, who must be “Of pleasant disposition / beautiful and otherwise attractive”, but may not always be what they seem:

music, dancing, acting, singing,
the composition of poetry,
flower-arrangement and garland-making,
the preparation of perfumes,
cosmetics, dress-making, embroidery, conjuring,
sleight of hand,
logic, cooking, sorcery, fencing
with sword and staff

The list starts as one would expect, but the position of words like “conjuring”, “sleight of hand” or “fencing / with sword and staff”, at the end of lines or on lines of their own, soon draw attention to themselves. On rereading the poem, they begin to call things like “logic” into question—just what are the courtesans using their skills in logic for? And the poem performs its own sleight of hand: instead of sixty-four arts, the poem only lists around thirty-five (it depends on how you count them). The implication is that the remaining thirty or so are secret or perhaps for initiates alone.

While the poems are personal and unmediated, there is often a touch of guile and evasion. Such ulterior motives return in a poem that describes the day of Chandragupta Maurya, the first emperor of an (almost) united India: “In the eighth [hour], he met his council again, / heard the reports of his spies and courtesans.” Courtesans seem no different from spies in purpose, but more in when and where they do their spying and in their gender.

The poems from the courtesans’ perspective are the highlight of the pamphlet and one of the most striking is “Tambulasena” (read the poem in full on the Modern Poetry in Translation website):

In the beginning
my whole body was covered with skin
as hard as a rock. Then he came

and his mouth
running over me was a river, cool and quick,
with small silver fish.

According to John Field’s review, her body is “as hard as a rock”, as she is covered in sandalwood and it also made me think of the Indian rock carvings of women coming to life. She is rock; he is river; he is shaper (sculptor?); she is velvet; her hair is water. Sex has shaped her and the water that part of her becomes is the same substance that he, the river, is made of when he first appears.

And sex (or the study of eroticism) causes such metamorphoses and physical changes throughout the pamphlet: whether in the ephemeral nail marks that Vanarajika and her lover use to mark their territory on each others’ bodies; or Priyangusena who shape-shifts into different animals in her zookeeper lover’s eyes; or Sondasi who has the sequence’s most evocative line, when she says “I smile slow as honey”—sweet and viscous, the product of a flower’s sex organs, deceptively simple to make. But the transformation is both fleeting and indelible: Sukumarika, the forgotten courtesan, recites the technical, Sanskrit names for different types of kiss; Devadatta becomes a pawn in her own fall from favour and her lover’s seduction of a new favourite.

Looking back over more than twenty centuries and rewriting the lives of mostly forgotten women, The Courtesans Reply is an ambitious and ultimately successful first pamphlet. Quraishi should become an interesting voice in UK contemporary poetry.

Shazea Quraishi, The Courtesans Reply, flipped eye (UK, 2013). Available through Shazea on her blog, http://shazea.wordpress.com, or via Amazon

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