Body Desires

Can desire and sexuality escape prescriptions? Read responses of the author of ‘Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India’, as well as a chapter from the book!

Rizio: The modern times seem to be increasingly intolerant towards matters concerning the body and the presence of desire in the public space. Do you think in the ancient times, in Indic spaces, love and desire were seen through deeply philosophical and intellectual lenses that could offer multiple perspectives? How can we historically trace this shift, its reasons and consequences?

Madhavi Menon: Not just in ancient times, but right until the late 18th century, the syncretic Indian civilisation had a far more open and interested attitude to desire than we currently have. In the 18th century, British colonialism was able to tap into our most fascistic civilisational elements – for instance, the caste system as outlined in the Manusmriti – in order to impose notions of purity and impurity on ideas of desire. This consolidation of prudery came at the expense of a great wealth of literature and art on desire that we still have records of. New laws were introduced to traduce these desires. New notions of gender were imported to signify idealised male and female behaviour. And new practices were instituted to homogenise desire. All these were blows to multiple traditions that had quite openly marked the Indian subcontinent. But we also need to acknowledge that the roots of those traditions run deep, and so we continue to have – despite nearly 200 years of colonial rule and 71 years of independence – traces of desires that cannot in fact be assimilated into the containers that colonialism created for them. Men continue to hold hands openly, and women can sleep in the same bed without drawing attention to their activities as being somehow deviant or strange. Even though we have lost a lot of elasticity in this regard, bodily desires continue to be multiform rather than straightforward in India.

R: While the majority of our society creates a taboo around sex in the public space, India has also been recognised as the 3rd most porn-watching country in the world. How do we make sense of this dissonance? What does it say about our sexuality?

MM: Well, what it says about sexuality in general is that we might now be classifying as pornographic what earlier eras might not have recognised as such. Indeed, much of what the Kamasutra discusses, and that the temples at Khajuraho depict, would be labelled pornographic today. So, our tolerance for bodily sex has certainly been straitened. Or rather, it has been sent underground by notions of what is and is not “normal.” And after it goes underground, it surfaces in sites that are labelled pornographic. So the dissonance is not really between sex in public and sex in private. The dissonance is between ways in which we might want to have sex and ways in which we are told we should have sex.

Madhavi Menon's latest book on desire in India

R: Porn is a site of desire and a sensitive field of occupation. It has the potential to be an art form that is aesthetically pleasing, educative and pleasurable. At the same time, it is often found to be an industry of exploitation and propagator of dangerous social norms. What is the governance model that can ensure safety of participants and responsibility of producers?

MM: I am not sure what the governance model might be to ensure safety for all and pleasure for all, because I suspect that such a model might be an impossibility. Once pleasure is out in the open as an active goal to be pursued, then we have to reckon with the fact that one person’s pleasure might well be another person’s pain. This is why forms of desire have always been prescriptive – if enough people can be taught what pleasure is, then you have an easier time containing the negative fallout of the pursuit of pleasure. But desire is a can of worms – the more you allow the can to be opened, the more unexpected things will emerge. The best we can do is be as non-judgmental as possible, and discourage unilateral violence in the pursuit of pleasure.

R: How does our relationship and comfort with our own body influence the representation of our bodies in the public space? Can this also influence the notions of sexuality in our society?

MM: Such a relationship is a two-way street. Any change in our perception of our bodies will also affect what bodies do socially, and vice versa. If we see enough women dressing in a particular way, for instance, we will start considering that way of dressing usual rather than unusual. But, if we insist on policing the body so that its erogenous zones are confined to the genital areas, then those are the areas we will ensure are covered up at all times, and we will see any violation of those areas as being horrific. If we want to change our perceptions of our bodies, then we will need to change our narratives about our bodies. Are bodies private or public? Do we own our bodies? Where does my body end and your body begin? We need to be able to think about the body and its desires rather than taking them for granted.

R: As we talk about connection with ‘others’ – especially in the context of the stories floating around about sexual harassment in spaces where people work closely together, increased moral policing in neighbourhoods, intolerance to forms of clothing, the political undercurrents of incidents where 'truth' is never understood or even pursued – where do you see the future of 'true' intimacies and pursuit of desire?

MM: I am not sure what can be classified as “true” intimacy and what cannot. After all, we have known of long-term marriages that have been dissolved in the twinkling of an eye. And we know of one-night stands that have generated immense satisfaction. So, neither duration nor convention can frame the notion of “truth” in relation to desire. And that is what makes desire so problematic for so many of us. We often do not known our desires – our desires often change from moment to moment – and we cannot always pin them down. If that is the case, then how do we approach notions like “consent” that seem so vital to a healthy sexual relationship? What is the role of marriage in containing desire? At what age is it alright to be sexually active? Again, these are questions that need to be asked and discussed, even, and especially if, we arrive at diverse versions in lieu of certain answers.

R: You emphasise the need to think about the body and its desires, as well as individuals and their consent in a social context, rather than taking them for granted. This is especially significant because the queer movement has churned our taxonomies and memories, and no bipolar understanding of the body, sexuality or desire is helping us any longer. As a teacher and thinker, how do you envisage leading a pluralistic society like ours to relevant thinking? Are there any examples, educational methodologies or life practices that you have come across during your studies and journeys that might aid us in this thinking?

MM: Thinking is a slow practice – it slows down our actions, makes us consider alternative possibilities, allows us to think about other people and other things. Slowing down would make actions like lynching impossible, since it does not conduce to a mob mentality. As the world gets faster and faster, and the imperative to succeed becomes all-consuming, it is nothing short of revolutionary to embrace the ethics of slowing down and thinking. In the classroom and in conversation, this is possible by insisting that people think through for themselves what they are saying rather than being told what to think and say. Such an interrogative pedagogy has been stamped out of higher education in India, where the emphasis is on marks and exams. But if we were to shift the focus instead to conversations and thinking through issues, then we might be able to witness a sea change in attitude. Of course, this would necessitate a shift in all layers of society. We cannot claim that education should not be instrumental, and then insist that people with the highest marks will get the best jobs. Instead, we have to insist – and this is becoming increasingly true – that people with the most curiosity, and with the greatest number of questions, will get the most out of life. This also means that we need to have in place structures and governments that are committed to providing a high quality of essential services – education, health, infrastructure – to all its citizens. If we are busy fighting for scant resources, then we automatically speed things up. In a sped-up world, desire too becomes instrumental, and is marked by all the violence that attends upon such instrumentality. We need to make the time and space for the slowness prescribed for our desires by the Kamasutra and described so beautifully for us in Sufi poetry.

Click here to read 'Bhabhi' – an excerpt from Madhavi Menon's latest book 'Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India'. With critical insight and extensive research, Madhavi Menon breaks the high walls of a common male fantasy!

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Excerpted from Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India by Madhavi Menon
published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2018. Copyright 2018 by Madhavi Menon.

Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be
reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher Speaking
Tiger Books. Excerpts here are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to
this web site.

LILA opened its public activities on 27 Aug 2013 with Madhavi Menon's LILA PRISM Lecture, 'We Have Always Been Lesbians'. Watch it here: