Taking stock of the History of Desire in India with Madhavi Menon

 Taking stock of the History of Desire in India with Madhavi Menon

Shreya Garg

What is history? Is it relevant? Does it help to understand how far we have progressed? Well, maybe the answer is yes to all. But can it also help understand how lamentably we have regressed? To this too, the answer could be yes.

Prof Madhavi Menon’s latest book, Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India, presents a multifaceted history of desires in India. It is an unconventional subject and the content of the book will entice many readers for its esoteric and informative content. It is a must read for all of us in order to juxtapose the current state of desire in India today with desires in India’s past.

What prompted Prof Menon to write on the subject of desire? “I have worked on this subject for my entire career, and hence it is not a new subject for me. It has always interested me because it exceeds identities. When you are growing up as a woman in India, though I guess it is true for everyone growing up in any part of the world, you realise you are constantly made aware of the limitations of identity. What you also start to notice is that everything that is supposed to be a part of your identity are not the things that you necessarily identify with,” she says.

Purity vs impurity: What would you choose?
We Indians are obsessed with positive words and their seemingly positive connotations. Never once do we really bother to look further than the deeply entrenched meanings ingrained in our heads to discover not only the prejudice with which some words are used but also the grotesque narrative built with ab overemphasis on such words. This startling realisation occurred when Prof Menon talks about her perception as to how she views the binary of pure and impure. One would prima facie think of purity as a word with a positive connotation and impurity alluding to a negative connotation, which is why her extolling the impurity of desire could be confusing.

She vehemently explains how we must contest the value-based differentiation between the two words, “I don’t like purity.We live in a time where purity is being used as a stick to beat up people and that gives you a sense of the politics of purity, which is always a politics that says I am more pure than you. It is a very caste related purity which talks about the purity of an upper caste and impurity of a lower caste; gender inflected purity which talks about men as pure and women as impure. In fact, throughout history impurity has always been used as a weapon with which to beat up people.”

A caveat to those who may now think of impurity as more pure than purity – Prof Menon’s way of looking at it is, “I want to resist purity and discourses of purity because I can’t think of any example in which the idea of purity has been used for the larger benefit of society. It is always been used to divide and rule, to put people down, to beat up people. It is a sinister word.”

Impurity is the condition of people’s lives
So if purity has been and is still being used as a weapon to patronise and oppress people, then could love be a weapon for good? “What do you say about love? It does benefit people, for you could be valuing someone more than your life maybe.”

“Why is love considered pure? What is pure about it?,” she asks. Mahatma Gandhi had love for the country that might be termed pure. Argues Prof Menon, “I am not writing about love; I am writing about desire. Anyway, keeping in view of the purity and impurity debate, Gandhi would be the first one to say he is interested in impurity.”

Purity connotes to a singular word, and we live in a plural world. Desires are very personal and subjective, but also very organic. Anything that is organic isn’t questioned by the law of nature. Come to think of it, the labels of pure and impure actually go for a toss. If one takes “pure/ purity” as a noun, then Prof Menon’s take holds good but if “pure” was to be taken as an adjective to qualify certain feelings like love, then the argument looks less convincing.

Analogy of becoming of a purity-obsessed nation found in Swachh Bharat
“Pause for a minute and think about Swachh Bharat. What is it about? Is it about cleaning up the streets? Are our streets any cleaner than they were? No! As I keep saying, Swachh Bharat is about cleaning up our narratives about India. It is about pretending that India has one narrative, one religion, one language, one people. It’s being used to beat up communities, desires and religion that don’t fit people. Purity is always in fact in pursuit of cutting out multiplicity. You can only think of something as pure if you think of it as a single entity. I am not interested in singularity and oneness. I am interested in diversity and multiplicity.”

Prudery a weapon to colonise by British
Does the degree of freedom or suppression of desire change with new rulers? Is the intensity to desire regulated more often by mental stimulation than physical stimulation? While on the subject of rulers, Prof Menon talks about how we were a fairly open-minded society with respect to multiple desires until we were colonised by the British who then patronised us by extolling their prudish sexual sensibilities in India. “More or less until the British came, our desires were fairly multiple, diverse, accepting, no matter who the ruler was. And then the British come along and make desires pure and impure; moral and immoral; right and wrong and start beating up people with sticks.”

But why would someone think of establishing their prudery in a place rich with diverse sexual identities? “The only way you can rule when you are a minority is by convincing the people you are going to conquer that they are inferior to you. This was explicitly the policy under Lord Macaulay. I have written about this policy in my book which explicitly states that we’ve to make Indians aware that they’re inferior,” she says.

To corroborate this, she explains, “We have document after document where the British are expressing shock and horror about the sexuality they encounter in this country. They bring in law after law to try and control all of this. They are horrified by what they call ‘Hinduism’ although that kind of unified title did not exist until the British invented it for their own benefit. They are horrified by Hinduisms, Awadhi culture, Sufism – they are horrified by all of it and they make laws against it which we still have in place. This is their way of dividing us. They speak the language of purity. Saying we are pure and you are impure. We still live in households today in India where we don’t let the servants drink from the same glasses that we use or use our own plates because we want to convince them that they are dirty and we are clean. This is a long- tested policy in this country because that is how caste oppression has worked for centuries. And this is how and why prudery comes in.”

What made India so prone to exploitation, more so than USA which too was captured by the British? “USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were settler colonies which is a different cup of tea. So we can’t put them in the same category,” she says.

Alternative desires
A History of Desire in India talks about celibacy as an alternate form of desire. Even though some of our religions and scriptures suggest that celibacy is the sacrifice of desire. “Why is sacrifice the opposite of desire?,” asks the author, adding, “For instance, people in the army do sacrifice their lives, but could you say that sacrifice is not a matter of desire?”

In the book, she talks about an interesting facet of people taking refuge under celibacy to avoid heterosexual sex and family life. “I have made very clear that celibacy is an alternate route to genital sexuality. So it is not about being homosexual or bisexual; it is about saying that my desire is going to be channeled in a different direction and we need to expand our understanding of desire in order to understand it,” she puts in.

Same act viewed differently
It is a daunting thing for many members of the LGBTQ community to come out in the open in India. But in India, men and women historically have been able to express physical intimacy while in the West, being humanly tactile with the same sex person is mocked at. “We live in a world in which hand-holding or sleeping together in the same bed is viewed as a sign of romantic or sexual influence. Despite this, what’s fascinating about the sub-continent is that men holding hands is not immediately seen as a reason to be upset,” shares Prof Menon.

She further explains the two possible reasons for this phenomenon. “People don’t get upset about it because they don’t imagine it can be romantic or sexual. And that’s a very genuine possibility. Another way of reading it and which is something I have been emphasising is that we have such an historical memory of being comfortable with the kind of relationship we don’t get upset about.”

Slotting and stereotyping of behavior of gods in calendar art
Is being polyamorous and a fun-loving personality type slotted as more desirous and a serious and sober way of going about one’s desires not so appealing? This kind of depiction of the two gods – Krishna and Rama – in calendar art is what intrigues Prof Menon. “Representation of gods on Indian calendars are all over the place. If you look at calendars depicting Rama and Krishna, they are depicted very differently and that is what I am interested in. It is not identifying one as joyous and the other as not. Both are identified in a particular way.”

She goes back to corroborating how British benefitted from the representation of gods in calendar art in a particular way. “If you see all the British documents of outrage around Indian sexualities, their outrage is repeatedly targetted at Krishna and not Rama. Because they keep saying that this one man is sexually involved with thousands of gopis. Whereas Rama for them was arguably a man who didn’t trust his wife and that’s a narrative they understood.”

Twist in the tale: More liberated now or back then?
With Section 377 now illegal, is there a possibility of a change in attitude at all in the minds and hearts of people? Will now the so-called non-normative desires find their way back into the public with no backlash? “It is a complicated question because my way of arguing is to say that we are more conservative today than we 250 years ago. There was no Section 377 then, no law against any kind of sexuality. In fact, if you visit temples and dargahs, there are sexual desires sculpted and sung about in every part of this country which you don’t find today. All these sculptures are illegal in today’s India. So, in many ways we have become more conservative than we were.” The twist in the tale as Prof Menon explains is that while we are more liberated now than we were perhaps 10 years ago, we are less liberated now than we were 250 years ago.”

Hidden meaning behind erotic sculptures and paintings outside temples

The general and prominent perception about erotic sculptures and paintings outside Khajuraho and Konark temples is that it signifies and tells the worshippers to leave all their desires outside the temple, and then come inside to worship the god. This belief seems to be also manifested by the sculptures and paintings on the inside of the temple which are serene and not erotic. “One way of reading the sculptural divide is to say that all the eroticism is left out and then one enters the serene. Another way of reading it which is much more in keeping with the all the Hindu mythologies and legends we are aware of is that the difference between the sacred and the spiritual, on the one hand, and the sexual, on the other, was not that clear-cut as we would like to think of it today. We have multiple stories of gods and various sexual escapades and adventures – gods changing shapes, gods having sex with multiple people. Rather than saying there is a difference between inside and outside, I would like to think of these places as saying that these two go hand-in-hand. That they are part of the same slate.”

On recent socio-political developments
On the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala, she says, “I am completely in support of it. The reason why women of menstruating age are kept out is because they are considered impure. In fact, when the first two women entered the temple after the judgment, the priest performed a ‘purity ritual’. So that is where purity and one’s investment in purity gets you.”

On the comment of Army chief General Bipin Rawat on Section 377 and adultery, Prof Menon says, “I am shocked by his comments on women in combat and women in general. It is upsetting because the Indian Army, as we know, historically in this country has been secular, syncretic and extremely accepting. To now suddenly make it narrow and sectarian is, I think, a disaster.”

One of the reasons for this book is that we have alternative narratives in the Indian subcontinent and we need to be able to speak those multiple languages as well. If we only speak from an Anglophone, anglophile English narrative of heterosexual vs homosexual and forget all the other desires and languages that this country has, then that is our loss.


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1 Comment

  • A very interesting read .

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