MEET THE WRITER

Interview: ‘Desire is never straightforward. In fact, there is nothing straight about desire at all’

An interview with Madhavi Menon, the writer of ‘Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India’, which traces the courses of desire running through India’s past

Madhavi Menon’s Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India is a catalogue of temples, dargahs, and texts that show an India whose desires are various and boundless. She writes, “All around me in the Delhi of the 1970s and ’80s were Hindi films that celebrated same-sex attachments (Anand), older women desiring younger men (Doosra Aadmi), and cross-couple desire (Angoor)…In the West, these multiple desires are greeted as new-fangled ideas, and in India now they are increasingly treated as foreign conspiracies.” Infinite Variety shows through meticulous research how an open, complex relationship with desire existed in India long before today’s conservatism and neatly defined identities did. After almost two decades of study and work in the US, Menon returned to write the book that showed “the complexity of this landscape of desire.” She spoke to Scroll.in about Indian men holding hands in public, the limitations of labels around sexuality, why Indian versions of Romeo and Juliet don’t enjoy the same popularity, and how desire cannot be straitjacketed. Excerpts from the interview:

Were there moments when you were growing up when it was apparent to you that India was a country of multiple desires and intimacies? As you point out, what’s taboo in the west – heterosexual men sharing a bed – isn’t a taboo here.
I don’t think I was fully aware of how diverse India is until I was immersed in its opposite in the US. In general, the West tends to pride itself on its “tolerance” of multiple sexualities, but we forget that such tolerance had to be imposed on long histories of utter violence towards sexual multiplicity. The histories of desire in India don’t bear that mark of violence – multiplicity has been woven into the fabric of our syncretic culture for over 1000 years. Even now, despite the straitjacketing of identities in the country, we have a vestigial memory of that comfort with multiplicity.

As a historian of desire, what would you say allows men in India the freedom to hold hands in public when they might hold multiple other regressive or prudish views?
Heterosexual men holding hands with each other is one of those historical memories I’m speaking about. There is a comfort among men and among women that includes a comfort with physical intimacy. But equally, this comfort might point also to ignorance about the fact that physical intimacy can be a marker of sexual intimacy. In other words, it might not even occur to these men that what they are doing could be construed as a sexual act. I salute that ignorance because it expands the range of same-sex intimacies. But I wonder – would these men continue to hold hands if they were told that such a gesture might qualify them, in Western discourse, as homosexuals?

The Jamali Kamali Tomb in Delhi isn’t open to the public out of fear that it will be defaced. In your section discussing the possible relationship between Jamali and Kamali, you refer to the monument’s protected status as a “classic case of killing history in the name of preserving it.” Can you talk to us a little about what you mean by that?
One of the pleasures of growing up in Delhi – and indeed in many cities in India – is that you stub your toe against history every few feet; there are monuments and relics of the past everywhere around us. But like everything else in India, this relation to the historical too is Janus-faced. On the one hand, it means we do not sufficiently recognise the gravity of history and do no work to preserve the past in its contextual mode. On the other hand, this means that we have a lived relation to the past in which we are living cheek by jowl with monuments from hundreds of years ago, without cordoning them off from ourselves. The Jamali Kamali complex is an excellent example of this latter phenomenon. There is a row of settlements immediately outside the courtyard of the dargah, and one can see washed clothes fluttering in the breeze as they dry. So, the people in the basti in 2018 share space with a Sufi pir who lived there nearly 500 years ago. That for me is the realm of the historical – when what is past abuts the present and the two can live together without clear demarcations of space between times. To lock up the actual tomb seems to ignore that historical message of shared spaces and practices that our lived reality continues to embody.

You write, “A far cry from the dominant history of sexuality that would assign one identity to one person, dargahs provide us with a window onto a world of desirous possibilities, none of which are spelled out fully.” Do you think reading a history of desire will allow people to think differently about labels and their limitations?
I certainly hope so! I hope it will remind us of what we already know and how we already live. We already know that a label cannot capture desire; we already know that desires can change; we already know that change is a vital component of being alive.

It could be said that the spectrum of desire is already or at least better understood by those outside of normative sexuality. What kind of individual would you say this book is aimed at?
I think we are all aware of the range of (our) desires, but yes, it might be easier for some of us to refuse it and insist on singularity and purity. But even as this book might more easily be attractive to those who have accepted that desire is multiform, it might also prove irresistible to those who have had to supress the range of their desires. For the latter group, this book could be a secret pleasure!

The star-crossed lovers from different social classes, Heer and Ranjha, are described as a subcontinental Romeo and Juliet. Multiple film and literary adaptations exist, but the former is far less known than the latter in urban and/or English-speaking India. Why do you think a sub-continental story of forbidden desire hasn’t endured in contemporary India as well as a Shakespearean example has?
The reason why Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet appeals to us so much is because it is highly melodramatic, which is exactly the cloth from which Heer and Ranjha too is cut. In the Indian subcontinent, we seem to understand well that desire can be dramatic, that it will not always go according to plan, and that it will tread strange paths. Tales of thwarted desire exist plentifully in our narrative traditions because we have examined desire from several angles and in quite some detail. But the story of Heer and Ranjha was never part of a colonial curriculum that actively pushed English Literature on the natives. So, we studied Shakespeare but not Waris Shah. Thus, for the educated Anglophone class, Romeo and Juliet rather than Heer and Ranjha or Sohni and Mahiwal came to be recognised as the spokespeople for a tale of doomed desire. But our histories include all these figures of dramatic desire. And Shakespeare too, after all, is now Indian.

Infinite Variety shows the reader that India lives out desires very differently from how it talks about them. Is it hypocrisy? Is it a lack of self-awareness or a lack of vocabulary?
The different layers to which your question refers are layers that owe to different moments of historical accretion. There were well over a thousand years of Indian literatures, arts, and societies that contributed to a complex understanding of desire. But when the British came, they picked the most conservative of these understandings – for example, from the Manusmriti – and used them as a launching pad for their own morality. And today, that particular version of Victorian morality cum caste purity has become the “official” narrative about Indian desire. However, we continue to live in ways that indicate histories of desire ignored by this narrative of prudery – our comfort with hijras, for example, or our passion for Sufi poetry, or our belief in gender-bending gods. But I see this less as hypocrisy and more as the cultural and political heritage of a colonised nation that embraced the coloniser’s morality as its own. That this embrace has led to the rejection of over a thousand years of syncretic desires is an irony that is tragic.

The stories within Infinite Variety aren’t always straightforward. For example, Ayyapan’s temple is only open to girls who haven’t menstruated yet or women who have been through menopause. Read in isolation, the rule appears purely sexist. But the book provides context, and allows us to see forces other than sexism at work. At a time when people are often accused of knee-jerk reactions and condemnation when faced with a problematic story, what do you see as the historian or scholar’s role in contextualising problematic rules and/or behaviour?
Desire is never straightforward, and it cannot be straitjacketed – in fact, there is nothing straight about desire at all. Any issue dealing with desire, therefore, is wasted if viewed through a monochromatic lens. Take Ayyappan, for example. There is no doubt that not allowing menstruating women into the main temple in Sabarimala is a sexist rule. But it is also not just a sexist rule. Indeed, as I argue, Ayyappan’s celebration of the bonds between men is also a celebration of alternative sexual configurations that do not adhere to the constraints of heterosexuality. Indeed, the Ayyappan temple breaks all kinds of conventions. By being the only major Hindu temple in India that requires the worship of a Muslim saint, the temple also crosses boundaries of caste and religion. If we do not read this phenomenon with the complexity it deserves, then the loss is ours. The scholar, the writer, the public intellectual, can bring these perspectives into view. But it is for us to s l o w down and think about them. We already live multiple rather than singular lives. And to pretend otherwise does not bode well for the future of our desires.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.