For the Indian youngster who’s tired of being subjected to headlines like ‘Technology has ruined love’ or ‘Romance in the time of Tinder’ and wishes they could swipe left on such pieces, a major new book, The Parrots Of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica, might come as cool relief.
The anthology, edited by Goa-based author Amrita Narayanan, looks at desire and erotica, from Muddupalani to Manto, from the Rig Veda to Tamil Sangam poets, from out-of-print short stories by Kamala Das to Kiran Nagarkar and Rabindranath Tagore. Containing a wealth of ancient and contemporary Indian erotic writing, it’s dedicated to the modern reader interested in sex and is told through various chapters, with cool titles like ‘Why bother with sex’, ‘The first time’, ‘Anguish, abandonment and break up’, ‘Rapture and longing’.
Although the idea for the book was not her (it came from the publisher), she accepted it because she was very interested in the topic of pleasure — “it’s something that we don’t think about enough.” Narayanan, 42, who previously authored A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories, was especially interested in the fact that there was “a sense of continuity around erotic pleasure and an interest in India from a long time ago. I wanted to represent that continuity by putting some of the ancient and modern texts into conversation with each other,” she says.
As Narayanan pored over various erotic texts and literature, she says she became aware of certain themes that kept recurring. “I divided the book in these different erotic moods like ‘The first time’ is the first time you have sex; it’s something that people have been writing about from the beginning of time. As I read, I found both the good [moods] such as rapture and ecstasy as well as the bad [moods] such as despair and dismay get revisited.”
But in an era of instant connections, limitless porn and Netflix and chill, why should the modern reader be interested in texts from the Rig Veda or Tamil Sangam poets or the Upanishads? What relevance could it have for the Tinder-user trying to find love (and hookups) in a hopeless place?
For one, Narayanan, a clinical psychologist and a writer, says that she realised that [erotic] writers from several thousand years ago experienced similar things as writers of today. She quotes the example of Muddupalani’s poem, The Appeasement of Radhika, which is essentially a scene of make-up sex where Krishna has cheated on Radha, and when he asks for forgiveness, she kicks him. “He then caresses her leg and kisses it, and the poem goes on from there into a very involved lovemaking that involves a lot of violence from the woman towards the man who receives it and continues to engage her,” says Narayanan. She adds that this kind of forgiveness — “from erotic anger to erotic forgiveness” — is something we know. “That’s why I call it make-up sex, so that the modern reader can relate to it. And it’s what the lover wants across time — if you’re angry with your beloved you want your beloved to still be sexually interested in you,” she laughs.
If you still feel an 18th century poem is not for you, Narayanan points to a much recent one, Pritish Nandy’s poem written 200 years later called At Midnight Resurrect Our Love, where a man asks his lover to be sexually interested in him even though they’ve been fighting. “Whether it’s the 18th century or 21st century, they all say the same thing,” adds Narayanan.
The anthology, which reads like an ode to India’s erotic tradition and goes beyond the usual Kamasutra, includes Andal’s poems as well as Mridula Garg’s work, which makes it both timeless and universal, precisely because of the themes it explores such as the apprehensiveness of having sex for the first time or the insatiable pleasure of the subsequent ones, jealousy, suspicion, the pain of being abandoned by one’s lover. Which is why an extract like Why Does Sex Exist from the 3000-year-old Rig Veda is still relevant.
What interested Narayanan about this question, why does sex exist? A question we all may have from time to time? She says, for those who tend to tend to ask, ‘Why am I so interested in it?’, it is “so beautifully answered over and over by writers over time so that we, the modern readers, could find some comfort in that.”
So why do we still bother with sex? To answer it in scientific terms, before sex all reproduction was done asexually, which was far more easier since all asexual species had to do was grow and divide into two. Evolutionary biologist August Weismann in 1866 put forth one advantage of sex — that it was an opportunity for two individuals to pool in their resources, reshuffle their genes and create offsprings that will carry a beneficial mix of their parents, a feature absent in asexual species. Scientists later found that sex also allows species to remember information that has been coded in their genes.
But ask Narayanan why we still have sex and she exclaims, “Because life would be unbearable otherwise! That’s what I say and that’s what also the Rig Veda says. But it’s not only young people who should find it relevant.” She adds that this is best addressed through a poem called The Garden of Kama by an Anglo-Indian writer called Laurence Hope —
“We know not Life’s reason,
The length of its season,
Know not if they know, the great Ones above. We none of us sought it,
And few could support it,
Were it not gilt with the glamour of love…”
“The erotic adds a glamour to our lives, a shininess, without which it would be so mundane if we did just our duties; and this applies to any age, not just youngsters,” Narayanan says.
But this pleasure was not always around. In her anthology, Narayanan writes that the first 1,000 years ago was a bit erotically conservative. There was a great difference of opinion between the traditionalists (who cautioned against the erotic) and the romantics (who felt that life was enriched by the erotic). The traditionalists used religious writing and social contract to express the dangers of the erotic, claiming that it must be kept afar and was only necessary for reproduction (something like our modern censors disturbed by movies that are “too lady oriented” or have the word “intercourse”). Romantics, she writes, believe that “coupling is a central life force”, and it includes all couplings — man-woman, woman-woman, men who identify as women, or (wo)men with God.
One of the most famous stories involving the god of pleasure, Kama, is about his death (he was killed for being a nuisance). This, Narayanan writes, was “our classic Indian traditionalist nod to the dangers of erotic life.” But Kama was then resurrected, to serve as a warning for those who found pleasure in the erotic. This, she says, is an idea that the modern reader might agree with. “They found it [the erotic] destabilising — that you may run away with your love and not look after your ageing parents, ignore your work; you’d neglect your duties” because for them dharma was more important than kama. “It [texts by traditionalists] was written by old men so naturally they’d be more concerned about such things as opposed to young people,” she says.
Which brings us back to our first question — can ancient erotic writings remain relevant to us today? Narayanan says it really depends on your attitude, noting there are many questions about our erotic lives and feelings that porn just cannot answer. “For me, the difference between porn and erotic writing is that porn is sort of a means to an end, which ends in orgasm, but I think that only addresses one aspect. Whereas erotic writing is very intense, a prelude to orgasm. If you’re feeling very down because your lover left you and you turn to porn, it might alleviate you for a few minutes but it’s not going to make you feel better. But if you dip into this anthology when your lover has left you, you might say ‘Amrita Pritam or Rabindranath Tagore also felt like me!'”
Co-published with Firstpost