Small Talk with Wendy Doniger: Vatsyayana’s status update

Published on 30 August, 2015 in Mumbai Mirror

With her new work, author and academician Wendy Doniger hopes that she can change the mistaken belief that the Kamasutra is a ‘dirty book’.

For the past few months, liberal India has tried hard to come to terms with a triggerhappy mode of censorship. By recently attempting to block 857 pornographic websites, the government only helped precipitate a crisis of personal freedom. In an atmosphere that is undeniably charged, the release of a book by the controversial Wendy Doniger will surely be considered provocative by some. Given the fact that the American Indologist is now attempting to interpret the Kamasutra in a new light, the fire, her detractors could argue, is again being carefully stoked.

9789385288067_AuthorThe Mare’s Trap: Nature and Culture in the Kamasutra is Wendy Doniger’s latest addition to her commentary on Indian textual traditions. It contradicts the otherwise coloured perception of the text. Unveiling new and positive aspects of the Kamasutra that was composed in the third century CE, Doniger takes the onus upon herself to remind Indian audiences that “the Kamasutra was an occasion for national pride, not national shame”. Though the book contains detailed discussions on penis sizes, the liberating sexual desires of women, gender inversions and same-sex relationships, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago insists that despite the contentiousness of the subject matter at hand, her work ought not to become another subject of controversy.

“In the present puritanical climate of India, with ‘pornography’ a legal issue once again, I do fear that anything to do with sex, including the Kamasutra, will excite controversy,” she confesses. Doniger believes that it is only etymology that can help place the Kamasutra on a pornography shelf. “The word ‘pornography’ in English means ‘prostitutes’ writings’, and the Kamasutra claims that an early version of its text was commissioned by prostitutes. But in the real sense of ‘pornography’, meaning obscene and titillating writings, the Kamasutra is absolutely not pornographic. It is a very serious and quite unique sociological study of the world of leisure and pleasure in ancient India. And therefore it really should not be controversial at all.”

Doniger’s earlier book, The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), won two prestigious awards in India — the Ramnath Goenka Award in 2012 and the Colonel James Tod Award in 2014 — and then, quite suddenly, became the cynosure of sudden controversy when Dina Nath Batra, a retired headmaster, filed a lawsuit against the book’s publisher Penguin India. After fighting for four years, the publishing house agreed to cease publishing further copies of the book and pulp the remaining editions in February last year.

To hardline audiences like members of Batra’s activist organisation Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, Doniger’s books possibly come across as an attack on age-old beliefs and traditions, but the author, in her defence, claims to only be stating fact. In one of the chapters in The Mare’s Trap, she dissects three passages from the Kamasutra that allude to women’s exclamations of pain in reaction to physical abuse. Rather than being indications of their wish to escape or refuse, these cries are considered tricks to excite their male partners during the act. In the context of present-day violence against women, Vatsyayana’s assertions do seem clearly problematic.

“My book argues that one of the basic agendas of the Kamasutra is to reveal how deeply violence is embedded in everyone’s sexuality, and therefore how necessary it is to have a book like the Kamasutra to show people how to tame that violence, to cultivate a sexuality that is mutual between men and women. This could go a long way toward helping people deal with the unacceptably high incidence of violence against women in India today, and elsewhere in the world,” says the History of Religions professor.

Later in the book, Doniger also questions modern barriers that are ignorant about the fluidity of sex. She adds, “I think it’s a terrible shame. The Kamasutra is more open-minded about same-sex relations between men and women not only than any other ancient Indian text, but than most ancient cultures. Since the time of the Kamasutra, though, much has happened to India and the complex political and religious history of the subcontinent has caused India to lose touch with this and other very liberal aspects of its ancient culture.”

Between the sheets

Published on 22 March 2014 in BLink – The Hindu Business Line

Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay on being an author who could not avoid writing about sex.

“I slipped on the panty. What I did not know was that I actually slipped on a woman. I actually slipped on her womanhood. I slipped on her sexuality, her love,” writes Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay in Panty. Translated into English from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, the book combines two of her previously published novellas, Panty and Hypnosis in a brand new avatar. Her stories, which have offended people in the past are now included in the canon of contemporary Bengali literature.

Bandyopadhyay speaks about her perception of sexual aesthetics and gender politics. Excerpts from the interview:

How difficult was it for you, as an author of erotica, to present fantasies strictly as fantasies?

I believe in the power of fantasy, but there is no such thing as ‘strictly fantasy’ because we are driven by our desires and desires are purely mirrored in our fantasies. Fantasies have tales to tell, which fortunately or unfortunately largely connect to mainstream life. We need the support of reality even for the strangest level of fantasy. When I write about fantasy, I focus on the pain of not experiencing it. Therefore, for a writer, fantasy resembles naive-realism. I don’t even consider myself to be an author of erotica. I am just an author who could not avoid writing about sex.

How did you deal with the criticism that Panty received?

Panty was published in Sharadiya Desh, one of the most prestigious Bengali magazines, in 2006. Even during those days the story was shocking for open-minded Bengali readers who were supposed to have had a lot of exposure to world literature. I faced huge criticism. People said to name a novel Panty was nothing but a gimmick. That graphic description of sex was a cheap way to sell books. But I paid no heed. I was only 31 and was too engrossed in writing about new ideas at the time.

Do you compare your works with contemporary Bengali fiction?

I started getting positive reviews a few years after my initial books — Sankhini and Panty — were published. People began looking at my books as one of the important postmodern novels in Bengali literature. I found out that comparative literature and women studies department of a university uses Panty as a reference of contemporary Bengali literature and young students are reading it and talking about it.

How much does your own sexuality come into play when you write a story?

My sexuality is insignificant in my writings. But I have my own philosophy on sex. I have my own understanding of sexual aesthetics, gender politics, love, and relationships. These ideas influence me when I write.

What do you make of the impact of Fifty Shades of Grey ?

The metaphysical part of Fifty Shades of Grey and Panty might be similar as both belong to the erotica genre, but I think they cannot be compared. To me, the former is more like a modern fairytale, with bits of 21st century western complexity and with BDSM. But our Indian society is far from accepting Fifty Shades of Grey as real. It has only been a few decades since our women have started experiencing freedom from patriarchal ways, so when it comes to sexual freedom, they are still not as tired as women from the western world.

Interview: Amitabha Bagchi

(Published on January 31 2014 in Time Out Delhi)

Amitabha Bagchi’s latest novel, This Place, introduces Jeevan Sharma, an ordinary guy who leads a solitary life as an immigrant in an American city facing an uncertain, unpredictable time. Baltimore is in throes of a crisis – the civic authorities have ordered a demolition of the residential block where Jeevan lives, to become a part of the campus of John Hopkins University; Bagchi’s alma mater. The neighbourhood residents, who until now had largely led an uninterrupted life in the comfortable company of each other, face sudden eviction. In an email interview, Bagchi, the author of Above Average and The Householder (both set in Delhi) and an assistant professor at IIT Delhi, told Time Out, how living in Baltimore left a lasting impress­ion on him.

Cities play an integral part in your novels, almost like characters. How important are they to you?

Cities have always been very important in my writing, but there has been an evolution over the course of the three books I have written. When I began writing, I saw the city as a companion, as a friend for a young man who was inclined to feel friendless and lonely even when surrounded by people. Certain parts of the city worked for me like Proust’s Madeleine, pushing me to write, and sometimes unleashing a number of emotions that would then have to be managed and transmuted into writing. But with the passage of time, and my own passage into a different stage of life, I have now begun to see the city as a condition of life, something almost as powerful as class or gender or caste. Just like these categories, the city makes certain ways of being possible and certain others impossible. Women, for example, know this very well: what you can do in public or even inside your house in Delhi is very different from what you can do in New York. There are many fine-grained constraints that being the resident of a particular city places on you. In my last two books, I was not so much interested in drawing attention to what the city does, or does not allow its inhabitants to be. I was more interested in using the constraints the city imposes as part of the discipline of my writing.

What made you revisit Baltimore as the setting of your novel? Did it conjure up differently when you set out to write about it?

The idea of writing a book in Baltimore had been with me almost since the time I left that city. I moved there when I was about to turn 22 and had just turned 28 when I moved away: six very formative years of my life. I had never lived away from Delhi before that and had certainly not encountered another culture in such an abrupt manner. When I think about it, I feel that it was not that Baltimore itself transformed me; maybe if I had been somewhere else in those years I would still have changed a lot. But there was something about being in a city as derelict and as charming as Baltimore, as working class and unpretentious as Baltimore that turned my thinking down a road that it perhaps would not have gone if I had stayed in Delhi or if I had moved to New York or London.

Your second question is difficult to answer because I hadn’t really fully thought about what Baltimore had meant to me before I sat down to write this book. I had some idea of what it had felt like.

It was in the process of writing that I began to discover what Baltimore has meant to me. Writing a novel is very different from giving an interview. Sometimes, you can write a whole novel without necessarily knowing why you are writing it in a particular way. But then interviewers ask you direct questions and you have to introspect – a process which is not always comfortable or easy.

At the book release in Delhi, you spoke of “a sense of displacement” you felt during the ’90s that transmutes in the novel. Can you elaborate?

The 1990s were a time of upheaval not just for me, having to move from Delhi, my home of twenty-one years, to another country altogether, but also in more difficult ways for many people in India. I am specifically talking about the displacements that took place in the Narmada Valley. Medha Patkar and the Narmada Bachao Andolan with Arundhati Roy’s support brought the plight of the displaced people to the attention of people like me who sat safe in their urban cocoons. It was, as I have said, a formative time for me and I read whatever I could about the Narmada project and the movement that opposed it. That moment passed in our country’s history, but it remained buried within me somewhere and emerged when I began to think of the novel set in Baltimore. When I first thought of using the theme of gentrification and dislocation for a novel set in Baltimore, I was not actually aware of whether any such thing had happened there. I mean, I knew there were small projects here and there that were changing the face of the city, but I didn’t know of any large-scale project. It was after I had this idea that I began searching and found that urban renewal had not spared Baltimore, and that row house demolition on a large-scale in east Baltimore had become a contentious issue in the first years of this century. By displacing, as it were, my study of displacement to Baltimore from India, I felt I would be able to take a more human view and formulate a more reasoned response, without being ambushed by the politics of class and caste that make these discussions so shrill in India. At the same time, I felt I would be writing about something that was deeply relevant to a contemporary American audience.

What are your views on the crop of campus-lit writers that have emerged since the publication of Above Average?

It would be hubristic of me to claim that this crop was seeded by Above Average. It actually sprang from Chetan Bhagat’s work, which was published earlier. I don’t really have a view on this writing. It is proliferating in different registers, taking on different themes, which can only be a good thing. Sometimes I feel that these writers are in a bit of a hurry, that they don’t want to undergo the long apprenticeship that is needed to develop your craft and your art. But that is their choice.

Does teaching help in the way one writes?

I think it does. Writers often don’t understand that half of their conception is still in their head and has not reached the page. Being a teacher teaches you that clarity is a virtue, and that even obfuscation must be done with a purpose, not by accident. It helps the craft of writing in that sense, I feel.

Akash Banerjee’s Tales from Shining and Sinking India

Book title: Tales from Shining and Sinking India
Author: Akash Banerjee
Publisher: Amaryllis
Pages: 328

The extremity of highs and lows that India, as a nation undergoes is inexplicable. While on one hand, India winning the World Cup (2011) brought immense joy, on the other, the underlying murk of recent crimes galore made us cringe in disgust. And while some news stories, with their persistent appearances force us to ponder, others dwell in the archival bundles of old newspapers.

Originally published in The Times of India

Carrying on Hemingway’s literary legacy

Author and photographer Michael Katakis was working with Ernest Hemingway’s second son, Patrick Hemingway, on a collection of essays concerning stewardship when he was made the offer to manage the legendary writer’s literary estate. Quite naturally, he said yes.

It has been fourteen years since then that he has been looking after the Hemingway estate in Cuba.

Originally published in The Times of India

Anupama Chopra’s 100 favourite films!

Book title: 100 Films To See before You Die

Author: Anupama Chopra

Publisher: Times Group Books

Pages: 144

Films educe emotions like nothing else. Thanks to them, we’ve experienced all shades of human emotions – joy, fear, anger, surprise, sadness, trust and anticipation, in a mere span of two-and-a-half-hours. If watching Rajesh Khanna die in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s ‘Anand’ made us cry, Kundan Shah’s ‘Jaane Bhi DoYaaro’ had us in splits. If Om Puri and Shabana Azmi starrer ‘Arth’ raised evocative questions about women’s role in the society, Ramesh Sippy’s ensemble cast in ‘Sholay’ ensured wholesome cinematic entertainment. And when films are the cynosure of all attention, it’s only fair to credit the critic who painstakingly sits through them every Friday to rate a film good, bad or okay.

Originally published in The Times of India