For a long time, it was just a few cringeworthy tropes that made up the idea of India in the West. And prime among these – who can forget this? – was the Kama Sutra! Snake-charmers and sadhus, maharajahs and elephants, they all represented the exotic and impossible aspects of India in the eyes of the coloniser and their descendant, but none of them could top the Kama Sutra.

The exotic Indian “sex manual”

The earliest Orientalists of Victorian Britain and their colonising counterparts were repelled, but also, perhaps, secretly fascinated, by the discovery of India’s ancient “sex manual”. Indeed, it was an English explorer and scholar, Sir Richard Francis Burton, who first translated it into English and privately published it in 1883. It legally reached the US as late as 1962, but remained one of the most widely pirated, reprinted and circulated books in the interim, having captured the imagination of Europe and America.

From being seriously censored in the 19th century to becoming one of the symbols of the sexual revolution of the 20th, the Kama Sutra has evolved in its literary and social status. Other exciting ideas, like Osho’s “Rajneesh Movement” and “tantric sex”, have since tjen been added to the white man’s exotic Indian sex kit, but the Kama Sutra continues to top the chart of collective consciousness. That its contents are only half read, largely misunderstood, and often misrepresented is another matter altogether.

As with teenagers of yore opening the pages of a Mills and Boon paperback, much of people’s interest in the Kama Sutra has been limited to the sexual positions. Little attempt has been made to uncover the truths about its mysterious writer – the sage Vatsyayana. We only know that he lived in the 3rd century CE in the city of Varanasi and that he was a celibate. Debutant novelist, Jaya Misra, accepts the first two facts and bases her story in the year 273 CE in the ancient city, but she completely rejects the idea that the man, who understood women’s pleasure so well, could be a “brahmachari”. She uses the lack of confirmed information about the person and period to her advantage to write her first novel, Kama: The Story of the Kama Sutra.

Not so historical

Unlike Sudhir Kakar’s The Ascetic of Desire (1998), which similarly attempts a fictional sketch of Vatsyayana’s life and decidedly belongs to the genre of historical fiction, Misra’s book defies definition. The confusion or eclectism – depending on which side of the fence one is on – starts with the title. When it claims to be “the story of the Kama Sutra”, the reader;s assumption is that the book might have to offer some historical insights into the famed text, even if interspersed liberally with fiction.

However, just a few pages into the novel, one realises that this is only a work of the writer’s imagination. But for the protagonist and the historical setting, everything else is a heady mix of mythology, fantasy and folklore. Anachronistic references to terms and concepts such as milky tea (no tea in India until much later), choli (no stitched clothing in India until much later), chacha (Urdu word!), a gurukula system only for Kshatriyas (all dvijas, ie, Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas went to gurukulas) or mythological inversions such as referring to the moon as a goddess (the moon is a man in Indic mythology) may jar the sensibilities of a history and mythology enthusiast, but they are hardly the book’s intended target audience.

Perhaps Misra’s career as a commercial television writer explains her compulsion for constant drama. It has all the trappings of an Ekta Kapoor show, but one cannot imagine a Chandraprakash Dwivedi or even a Girish Karnad working on this. It is hard not to see the influence of soap opera scriptwriting in this book, which tries hard to keep its reader interested. And, to Misra’s credit, it does.

Racy, pacy, unapologetic

Misra imagines an India of the 2nd century CE that’s replete with political intrigue and a cultural churn, which is fair enough, for not much is known of the period. This is usually referred to as the dark period in history immediately preceding the Golden Age of the Guptas. It is a world full of gods and curses, kings and courtesans, gypsies and magic, assassinations and orgies.

Over a robust 300 plus pages and 43 terse chapters, Misra never once slacks in pace or her bold imagination. She places her protagonist bang in the middle of a brothel, throwing adoption and a eunuch parent in the mix. Vatsyayana is imagined as a creative, handsome and sexually prolific young man whose life is set on the fringes of the royal household of the Guptas. His world is peopled by characters such as Ramanna, his adoptive eunuch “mother” and chief of the royal harem; Nayantara, a “snake goddess”, seductress and principal concubine; Kali, a bandit king; Ratnavati, the “moon queen” and Vatsyayana’s secret lover; Narasimhagupta, the ruthless king; Mann, the king’s homosexual brother; and Ajyut, Mann’s gay lover.

The story traces Vatsyayana’s journey from being an aloof child in the royal harem to the great sage who compiled and composed one of the most famous treatises on pleasure. The journey is peppered with many emotional adventures condicted against the backdrop of palace intrigue.

Misra’s Vatsyayana learns about the art of pleasure from all a variety of women – from sex-workers on the street, through the king’s mysterious and dangerous concubine, to the goddess-like queen of the land. Along the way, he falls in love with some and some fall in love with him, and the reader is faced with the age old question: can the realms of pleasure and emotion truly be kept separate?

Misra herself thinks of this book as more of an ode to love than sex, inspired as most of her characters are by that rogue emotion. A self-confessed Anais Nin fan, she injects a definitive dreaminess into her writing when the subject is love. Sample: one of her characters says, “My quest has always been for love – that singular emotion of the greatest joy and the deepest pain.” Elsewhere, the writer claims that “love’s timing is awry, its presence is tiring, its reasoning is utterly ambiguous. But when it’s there, we have to make peace with it. Do not reason and do not fret. Accept its arrival. Offer reverence to its presence. Pay homage to its goodness. Walk in its glow. Then wait quietly for it to leave, for it is but momentary.”

In your face

But that’s not to say Misra shies away from writing about sex. Whether in her descriptions of oral pleasure, homosexual anal sex, marital rape, royal orgies, ritualistic tantric sex, adulterous sex, or heterosexual coupling, the author is unflinching. She writes with an easy confidence that could well make her the EL James of India.

Everything about the novel is bold and unapologetic in every way, starting with its cover. The stunning cover art by Harshvardhan Kadam definitely plays a part in making this books a pick-me-up. Kama: The Story of the Kama Sutra may not be the best specimen of historical fiction, but it breaks new ground in erotica in India and reclaims the woman’s stake in pleasure.

Kama: The Story of the Kama Sutra, Jaya Misra, Om Books International.

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a psychologist by training, a writer/editor/researcher by profession, and a forever student of all things Indic. She dabbles in the domains of Indian history and culture through her consultancy, Culture Express.