In the book, ten youths, led by the son of an exiled king, set out on an expedition, but are dispersed by circumstances. Wandering off in different directions - the story is spread out over a vast geographical canvas, from Kashi and Mithila in north India to Kanchi in the south - they go through numerous hardships and tests of their strength, intelligence, and presence of mind. Later, when they are reunited, they recount their stories to each other.
The Dasakumaracharita is thus a kind of seventh-century adventure story; one conjectures that its spirit, if not its exact details, probably derives from the life experiences of Dandin, who as a youth wandered from kingdom to kingdom for twelve years after being driven into exile from his native Kanchi. What is notable is that not only do Rajavahana, the leader of the young men, and his friends get into scrapes that lead them to scheming and trickery, the impersonation of people, the assassination of enemies, and seductions and love affairs, but that all this happens without any kind of authorial censure. The Dasakumaracharita is thus considerably liberal in its approach to human conduct.
This stress on how people are, rather than how they should be, makes the Dasakumaracharita an intensely worldly book; there is nothing to which it shuts its doors. Kings, men of noble birth, sages and wise men have their say in the book, but women feature almost as prominently, and there are extended speeches by prostitutes and tricksters. Dandin's worldliness is reinforced by his attention to detail, to the shapes, colours and textures of the physical world. At one point there is a two-page, point by point description of how a woman cooks rice; at another there are details of the materials that go into a sacrificial fire: "milk, ghee, curds, sesame and white mustard seeds, animal fat, meat and blood." Such details, I imagine, are not just of literary but also of historical interest, such as the references to Chinese silk in the Mahabharata or Kalidasa's Shakuntala that tell us of the trade links between ancient India and China. (I cite these references from Amartya Sen's essay "China and India" in his book The Argumentative Indian.)
At one point in the Dasakumaracharita there is a description of two lovers who, meeting one evening in the company of friends, sit down "touching shoulder to shoulder in love's sweet way." A feature of Dandin's work is the attention he gives to the working among human beings of 'love's sweet way', which he understands as physical desire as much as tender and soulful feelings. Dandin's narration is full of rapturous descriptions of the experience of falling in love and the consummation of love, of the beauty of the human form (especially the female form; we are, after all, looking at the work of a male writer) and of the yearnings and torments of separated lovers. Even as he indulges his characters' desires, Dandin tinkers and experiments with traditional literary tropes and allusions. For instance, in one description he cleverly inverts the conventional practice of likening some aspect of a woman to something beautiful in nature: "Her lips were not the subject of pale reflected comparison: they could not be likened to the red bimba fruit, but were that to which it is compared, the redder of the two…"
One very good reason for reading works from another time and another world is that they often hold very different notions of the place of man in the universe, of human agency, of the workings of fate and chance, then modern literature does, and it is worth thinking about these ideas in relation to one's own. A long essay could be written on the Dasakumaracharita's worldview, which is broadly that man may do what he likes but he is finally controlled by his destiny, and that the wise learn to accept this and learn to cultivate a kind of detachment. Early in the book, Rajavahana's father Rajahamsa, the kind of Magadha, is defeated in battle by a rival king and loses all his wealth, power and prestige, which had seemed to him so secure, and has to take refuge in the forest. His wife counsels him:
"My Lord, you were the most charismatic and most important of the entire class of kings, protectors of the earth, yet today you live in the middle of the Vindhyan forest. Thus it is that success glitters like a bubble of water; like a flash of lightning it is born and then destroyed all in an instant. Therefore, we must accept that every venture is entirely in the conrol of destiny….And on another occasion the youth Apahara-varman asserts that "there is no man so fantastically cunning that he can step outside the lines drawn up by inevitable destiny". This fatalism is often thought to be a quintessential feature of the Indian, and especially the Hindu, temperament (as Parth Shah remarks in this essay), but such a view of life is found in the thought of a great many ancient civilisations - for example, in Greek tragedy. And indeed this question of how much of our lives in controlled by our wills, by the play of visible causes and effects, and how much by chance or what sometimes seems like fate is something that every human being mulls over, especially at points of stress or crisis.
Reconcile yourself to your destiny. Do not worry, but simply bide your time a while."
The new translation of the Dasakumaracharita is by Isabelle Onians, and of the hallmarks of the book is the outstanding set of interpretive notes that Onians provides. For instance, it is now known that Sanskrit and many classical European languages have common roots (both originating, as I understand it, from the Aryans; this observation, first given a coherent formulation by the scholar William Jones in 1786, forms the starting-point of modern comparative philology). Onians at several points provides fascinating illustrations of this by noting how this or that Sanskrit word is remarkably similar phonetically to, and appears to share a common etymology with, its English equivalent: the Sanskrit amruta and English ambrosia; krura and cruel; vijaya and victory. There are dozens of other stimulating observations in her notes. At one stage a character is described (translating faithfully from the original Sanskrit) as being thirsty for battle, when the usual way of expressing this in English would be to say that he was hungry for battle. Onians remarks that perhaps this difference in the phrasing of the metaphor reflects "the desires of a hot and dry climate versus a cold and damp one".
One final thought: the Dasakumaracharita is a work of extended prose fiction, so should it be called a novel? In my view, no, because the features of the novel form as we understand it today include not just the realism, the attention to the details of quotidian life, that we no doubt find in the Dasakumaracharita, but also a willingness to explore the idea of character and individual personality, the subtleties of human behaviour and motivation. This is absent in the Dasakumaracharita, which does not lay a great deal of stress on character development, or even on character differentiation. Although the Dasakumaracharita has ten heroes, we do not like or dislike any one of them more than the others. They exist as separate entities in our minds not because of who they are, but because of what happens to them.