The many parrots in the title of Amrita Narayanan’s collection of erotica points to the shaping fantasy at play in the book. In mythological narratives, Kama, the god of desire, has a parrot as his vehicle. But this book multiplies that parrot until it covers the multiple facets of our erotic lives – “all that might bring us to the erotic life and all that the erotic life brings to us.” The Parrots of Desire is about multiplicity, excess, and things that overflow.

Distilling 3000 years of such erotic multiplicity into a single book is a difficult task, but Narayanan pulls it off fabulously. There are some recognisable materials here – most notably from the Kamasutra. But there are also utterly new extracts that shock the reader by their wit and directness. Take, for instance, these two related poems that I had never read before, but which I have now read several times. They are from the medieval Maharashtrian Prakrit text, the Gatha Saptasati:

Two on Marriage

The bride’s mother
Was pleased at the sight
of tooth mark seen
on the thigh revealed
when her daughter’s skirts
were lifted by the wind,

as if she’d seen the mouth
of a jar full of treasure.

When her friends asked the young wife
Who was pregnant for the first time
What she craved most
She simply looked at her husband.

These are breathtakingly and deceptively simple erotic poems with unlikely subjects – the bride’s mother delighted by the fact that her daughter has had sex; the pregnant woman still erotically invested in her husband. This witty erotic poetry finds its prosaic companion in Kamala Das’s short story, “Sanatan Choudhuri’s Wife”, which is devastating in its direct simplicity, its heartbreaking duplicity, its bewildering desire.

Our relation to desire

Indeed, what works really well in this book is the fact that texts are categorised not chronologically, but conceptually. There are sections on “Anguish, Abandonment and Break-Up” mirrored nicely by “Anger, Punishment and Make-Up.” There are sections on “The First Time,” and “Rapture and Longing.” It is not an easy task to be able to slot so many diverse texts into conceptual categories. This is perhaps why some of the assignations work less well than others. For instance, the two poems quoted above are in a section on “Ennui in Marriage” even though they suggest the opposite of boredom.

The idea that frames the introduction is a tension between two schools of thought that Narayanan labels romantics and traditionalists. Despite pockets of deep traditionalism in India over the course of the last 3,000 years, the editor chooses to come down on the side of the romantics. As she says quite powerfully: “Since caution and anxiety about the erotic have already been given adequate social and political voice, I have used my role as editor to limit the anxious portions in order to present the erotic wisdom that lives amidst the anxieties and that might be of use to the modern reader.”

Quite so. This book is important because Indians are increasingly being encouraged to forget our relation to desire. Eroticism is now being viewed in the land of the Khajuraho temples as a “western” product corrupting “Indian” values. It is interesting to note in this regard that several of Narayanan’s selections have been rendered into English from multiple Indian languages by non-Indians. And the second and third selections in the very first category – Why Bother with Sex? – have been written by non-Indians. Surely this proves that Indian eroticism is a “western” plot?!

Is the erotic only about sex?

The political importance of this book’s showcasing of deep Indian traditions in eroticism is timely. But it would have helped, perhaps, to have some sense of what the realm of the erotic is for The Parrots of Desire. Even as the book deftly draws attention to the relation between the erotic and the natural, and the erotic and the psychological, it tends to ignore questions about the non-sexual.

Can we have eroticism without sex? By suggesting that “those who cannot make love are those who are perhaps most hopeless”, the book suggests that Indians have historically not been very kind to non-lovers. But surely even those who do not make love have a relation to the erotic? Are music, literature, dance, erotic even though they might never lead to the act of genital copulation? If so, then might not non-lovers too be in the grip of eros from time to time?

And can we have sex without eroticism? Narayanan’s use of the term “romantics” as being synonymous with “erotic” gives rise to more questions than it addresses. After all, “romance” indicates something refined – roses and moonlight – that does not exhaust the scope of the erotic. What about people who are interested in sex without any frills whatsoever? Is the erotic also always the artistic? Even a story like “The Bad Character” by Deepti Kapoor, unfettered as it is in its abandonment to eros, sets itself in the midst of qawaalis at the Nizamuddin dargah. But can eros not be devoid of intense emotions and artistry? Is it not more raw and untamed than the term “romantic” allows it to be?

Reflecting a bias

Several of these erotic tracts are also deeply sexist. The excerpt from Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India recounts the sage Atri singing the praise of eros in the following manner:

It is well that our wives trouble us, it is well that kings put their daughters in our beds, it is well that the Apsaras come and make fools of us, play those tricks of theirs, at once so infantile and so effective…Every time we give in to them, we help the world to refresh its gloss.

The sage’s delight at having king’s daughters put in his bed stems from his position as the man in power. Many of these tracts – especially the ancient ones written by men – are marked by such a bias. This if, of course, a historical fact that cannot be wished away. But it might have been useful for the modern reader to whom the book is dedicated to have that pointed out to her. The realm of the erotic is marked very often by intense and unequal power relations of gender and class. And perhaps the most difficult thing of all is that these inequalities of power have been imprinted upon us as being erotic.

Such are the vagaries and complexities of desire. By giving us rich material to absorb, The Parrots of Desire has provided an indispensable service. It is a strong statement about the importance of the erotic. It is unapologetic about its multiple sexual encounters. And it is also a racy read.

The Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica, edited by Amrita Narayanan, Aleph Book Company.