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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