Penguin offers us a new translation, by Padmini Rajappa, of Mrcchakatika, Shudraka’s sprawling, rambunctious play that captures the essence of city life in classical India with its social, political and sexual intrigues. It includes a people’s revolution against a corrupt monarch, a love story between an impoverished Brahmin and a wealthy and desirable courtesan, a gambler who turns into a Buddhist monk, carriages for secret assignations that get mixed up and lead to near fatal consequences and, at its climax, an unjust execution that is stopped in the nick of time. Most of this is held together by a box of jewels that moves from hand to hand, sometimes as stolen goods, sometimes as a gift, sometimes as a bond to free a working girl. And somewhere in there, is a toy cart made of clay which stands, one might surmise, as a symbol of the courtesan’s empty life.
Samsthanaka, the corrupt king’s vile brother-in-law, is besotted with Vasantasena, the city’s most exquisite courtesan. She is in love with Charudatta, a married Brahmin who has fallen on hard times because of his reckless generosity. Vasantasena surreptitiously leaves her jewels in Charudatta’s house, from where they are stolen by a master thief, Sharvilaka, who uses them to buy the freedom of his beloved Madanika, who works as Vasantasena’s maid. In the background, Aryaka, a shepherd revolutionary escapes from jail with the help of Sharvilaka and sets about gathering the marginalised around him as he prepares to overthrow the king. The two stories come together when Aryaka and Vasantasena end up in a pleasure garden outside the city. Here, Samsthanaka throttles Vasantasena in a fit of pique and jealousy and accuses Charudatta (who was waiting in the same garden to meet Vasantasena) of killing her for her money. Charudatta is arrested and sentenced to death. Vasantasena, who was merely unconscious, rushes to save Charudatta. Charudatta walks away a free man, with both his wife and his mistress. It’s likely, as Rajappa reminds us in her introduction, that our playwright, Shudraka, added the Aryaka story onto a play that already existed, perhaps one called ‘Charudatta’, by none other than Bhasa.